BEST BEACH HOTELS
Secret Hotels of Florida's Gulf Coast
We searched 800 miles of coastline to bring you the best hotel deals on Florida's Gulf Coast. Soak up the sun—and the savings—at one of these 10 charming hideaways.
THE SUN AND MOON INN
Time was, the most colorful thing you saw on a visit to Matlacha (pronounced matt-la-SHAY), a tiny island fishing community in the Pine Island Sound, was a particularly vibrant redfish. But over the last two decades, the island has quietly been remaking itself as a tucked-away arts enclave, with a string of galleries set in converted fishermen's cottages and a dozen or so brightly-painted waterfront restaurants—many of which accommodate arrival by kayak. (Tip for the sweet-toothed: Try a scoop of homemade coconut at Great Licks Ice Cream.) Fishing is still Matlacha's primary draw, though, and there's no better home base than the Sun and Moon Inn, a five-room lodge on the Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve, where kayakers, boaters and jumping mullet keep up a steady flow of traffic. Curt Peer, who owns the inn with his sister, is happy to dole out fishing tips or lead guests on moonlit kayak trips, and rents out kayaks for $50 per day. Three of the rooms have balconies with views of the pool and hot tub (both open 24 hours), and all have private baths, mini-fridges, and generous floor plans. In Peer's typical laid-back style, the continental breakfast is available throughout the day, and there's an Italian restaurant right next door and a barbecue grill for guests to cook up their catch. 3962 NW Pine Island Rd., Matlacha, sunandmoon.net, free Wi-fi, rates from $125 in high season, breakfast included.
WATERGARDEN INN AT THE BAY
With a slew of just-opened arts attractions—the glass-sheathed Dali Museum, the Morean Arts Center's Chihuly Collection—and a snazzy new pier on the way (projected completion date: 2015), The Sunshine City of St. Petersburg is experiencing something of a renaissance. Appropriately enough, the century-old building that houses Watergarden Inn at the Bay emerged from a rebirth of its own this month (March 2012), thanks to the efforts of new owner Bill Witt, an architect from Seattle with a penchant for collecting interesting pieces and an eye for clean, welcoming spaces. The 14-room inn near the city's downtown waterfront mixes old-fashioned charm, modern design and a real Florida feel: An antique radio anchors the lobby, while the sunny sitting room pairs wicker armchairs and a cozy leather sofa with brightly colored end tables and a house guitar for the musically inclined. Witt also installed a brand new swimming pool on the half-acre property, to go with the existing deck, garden, and second-floor patio, and renovated the house next door to contain two 2-room suites and the owners' quarters. All guest rooms have private baths, flat-screen TVs, and in-room Keurig coffee makers; many also have king-size featherbeds and double-size whirlpool baths. 126 4th Avenue Northeast, St. Petersburg, innatthebay.com, free Wi-Fi, rates from $155 in high season, breakfast included.
Miles away (in spirit) from the Margaritaville madness of Panama City Beach—but still close enough to drop in for dinner if you'd like—Wisteria Inn offers a mellow, grown-up alternative to the spring break atmosphere you'll find further down the beach. (Kids under 12 aren't allowed; pets are.) Owner Bronwen DuKate took over the motel in 2001, giving each of the 14 rooms its own color palette or theme: The South Beach room is all lime green and turquoise, with paintings of tropical fish, while the Serenghetti room incorporates animal-print bedding and carved wooden masks. The rooms aren't huge—especially the cheapest ones in the back—but all have private baths, coffee makers, mini-fridges and tile floors. And there's more to see outside, anyway. Within the inn's walled tropical garden, you'll find a decked-out pool area, a palm-shaded koi pond, and a hot tub; a quiet, clean stretch of beach is just across the street. Breakfast isn't part of the deal here, but complimentary mimosas (at noon) and wine (in the early evening) are. And since DuKate doubles as captain of a 45-foot yacht, C'est Si Bon, it couldn't be easier to arrange an excursion on the water; she routinely takes groups of guests (minimum of 4) out on the boat for $65 a person. 20404 Front Beach Rd., Panama City Beach, wisteria-inn.com, free Wi-Fi, rates from $109 in high season, breakfast not included.
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