Quiet, sand dune-sheltered shorelines, busy spring break towns, offbeat fishing villages and sunsets like you won't see anywhere else in the state: Florida's Gulf Coast has them all. It also has plenty of soulless, high-rise, time-share condos and bland chain hotels.
So we hit the road to dig up better options -- homey, intimate hotels and B&Bs that reflect the particular character of their towns (and their owners). The result? This greatest-hits list of 10 unforgettable Florida-coast stays -- all with rooms for $155 or less, even in high season.
Cape San Blas Inn
Set on a remote spit of land between St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the seven-room Cape San Blas Inn feels like a true getaway. Maybe more away than some people would like; with 15 miles between the hotel and the nearest town, Port St. Joe, there's very little shopping or dining nearby, nor much entertainment beyond nature's offerings.
But those are grand: Bobcats, bears, bald eagles and manatees can all be spotted in the area -- perhaps even from the inn's hot tub, perched at the end of the private dock that juts into the bay.
A broad, white-sand beach is all of 500 feet in the opposite direction, and an even more spectacular one is just three miles up the road in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, a 2,516-acre preserve whose large dunes (up to 40 feet) and crystal-clear water make it a fixture on nationwide top-ten beach lists.
Guests are well equipped for exploring the area, with free access to three canoes, a kayak, beach chairs and bicycles -- perfect for cruising along the cape's smooth bike paths and working off the inn's hearty breakfasts (homemade apple fritters, stuffed French toast, eggs benedict, and fresh-squeezed orange juice are all menu regulars).
Most of the guest rooms have private porches or patios, and all have mini-fridges and Sleep Number beds -- best enjoyed in one of the upstairs rooms, which are notably quieter than the ground floor options.
4950 Cape San Blas Rd, Port St. Joe, capesanblasinn.com, free Wi-Fi, from $150, breakfast included.
Coombs House Inn
There's a postcard-perfect quality to the Coombs House Inn, which is spread across three pristinely restored Victorian buildings in the heart of Apalachicola.
It's appeal isn't all that surprising when you consider that its owner, interior designer Lynn Wilson, has worked on big-name hotels all over the world (Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, Taj), counting both Donald Trump and the King of Morocco among her clients.
With its sunny yellow paint, dark-green shutters, and crisp white trim, the inn has come a long way from the tumbledown relic Wilson first spotted on a visit to Apalachicola with her husband in the late 1970s.
"When I saw it, I said, 'I'm going to fix it up; I'm going to show people that this little town is wonderful and spectacular and just needs some TLC,'" Wilson recalls.
Fortunately, all the TLC that Wilson poured into renovating the historic property (it was built by an area lumber baron in 1905) and furnishing it with four-poster beds and antique oil paintings is more than matched by the efforts paid to pampering guests.
There's a daily tea-and-cookies service from 3pm-5pm, wine tastings on Fridays and Saturdays in the parlor, and each of the 23 rooms is stocked with robes, complimentary bottled water, and Starbucks coffee -- and about a third of them even have whirlpool tubs. As for the town itself?
It's finally having its moment in the sun, after years of being known only for its excellent local oysters: This year, Sports Illustrated magazine featured Apalachicola and the nearby St.
George Island in its swimsuit issue, and the models and crew made their temporary home -- where else? -- at Coombs House Inn. 80 Sixth St., Apalachicola, coombshouseinn.com, free Wi-Fi, from $129 in high season, breakfast included.
Frenchy's Oasis Motel
Where the Jetsons might vacation, only without the robots. This Clearwater Beach motel opened in late 2010, but it feels straight out of the '60s with its wash of citrus colors and Mad Men-inspired design.
The Mad Man behind it? Owner Michael "Frenchy" Preston, a native of Quebec and a longtime Clearwater restaurateur who, for years, owned property next door to the formerly run-down motel. Attracted by the period design -- it's a classic motor lodge with a courtyard pool -- he decided to fix it up and make his first foray into lodging.
Now, the façade glows in shades of lemon and orange, while the 15 guest rooms sport sunburst clocks, wave-shaped mirrors, and old-school tourist postcards enlarged into canvas prints. Most of the units have kitchens and dinettes, and 12 come with private balconies or patio areas.
All guests have access to the poolside barbecue grill, the DVD lending library in the lounge, and the no-coins-required on-site laundry room, plus one more priceless perk: discounts at any of Frenchy's four local restaurants. 423 East Shore Dr., Clearwater Beach, frenchysoasismotel.com, free Wi-Fi, from $129 in high season, breakfast not included.
Low-key Hideaway Motel and RV Resort
The sign posted above the pathway to Pat and Cindy Bonish's Hideaway Tiki Bar (part of their Low-Key Hideaway Motel and RV resort) says it all: "Welcome to the Institute of Low-Key Living."
It's no joke -- after nearly four years spent crisscrossing the U.S. in their RV, collecting ideas about how they'd run a place if they ever stopped traveling, the Bonishes have the art of unwinding down to a science. The first element? Make it an adults-only escape.
Number two: Keep it casual. When the couple took over operations of the property -- one of their old haunts -- a little over two years ago, they raised the comfort level (600-thread-count sheets) without going haute.
The five shabby-chic rooms are decorated with hunks of driftwood and furniture from thrift shops and antique stores, and some beds have headboards fashioned from old doors; each room also has a kitchenette and private bath.
The couple also kept the four RV spots (with full hookups) on-site -- a nod to their own epic road trips. Rule number three: Make the most of what you have. There's no beach on the property, but a half-mile kayak ride will get you to a private island; restaurants are a short ride away on the motel's free bikes; and the sunsets at the waterfront tiki bar are spectacular.
So what if they don't serve food? You can order delivery from the local pizza joint right to your barstool. Low-key? Yes, but also delightfully unpretentious and decidedly Old-Florida. 12050 SR 24, Cedar Key, lowkeyhideaway.com, free Wi-Fi, from $65, breakfast not included.
Mango Street Inn
With years of experience running restaurants in both Virginia and Belize, Tree and Dan Andre were more than qualified to handle the "breakfast" part of the B&B they dreamed of opening one day in an old-fashioned Florida-coast town like Fort Myers Beach.
They were less prepared to deal with the state of the property they bought on that town's tropical-sounding Mango Street in 2008. "We didn't realize it was a crack house," Tree says.
She can laugh about it now; after months of gutting and renovation, the couple's welcoming inn is the type of place where guests gather around a fire pit in the courtyard and drink wine at night or sit together under the pergola for Dan's Cajun-inflected breakfasts (say, shrimp jambalaya cakes with fried egg and chipotle tomato sauce on top; less-spicy options are also available).
The six suites -- four one-bedrooms, two with two bedrooms -- all have private bathrooms, full kitchens, and homey furniture the couple has amassed (or made) over the years: patchwork quilts, ceramic-tile-topped coffee tables, wooden animal carvings.
Well-behaved pets are allowed, and may find friends in Cookie the dog and Thomas and Hector the cats. Said guest Jim Palmer of Minnesota: "Where else can you show up for breakfast barefoot, with your dog, and be served a gourmet meal?"
The beach is a mere 199 steps away, and the inn provides a wagon for guests to haul beach chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. 126 Mango St., Fort Myers Beach, mangostreetinn.com, free Wi-Fi, from $145 in high season, breakfast included.
Naples Courtyard Inn
Staying on Naples' busy Tamiami Trail has its advantages: easy access to restaurants, shops (the chi-chi waterfront Village on Venetian Bay shopping center), art galleries, and even the Naples Zoo. The trade-off?
Mostly cookie-cutter chain lodging that might as well be anywhere. Except, that is, for the Naples Courtyard Inn, a 76-room family-run spot with a distinct sense of community.
Nora LaPorta's in-laws bought the place six years ago and revamped just about everything, giving the rooms a crisp new look and adding botanical-themed artwork, granite vanities, mini-fridges, and microwaves.
LaPorta acts as hotel manager and de facto social coordinator; don't be surprised if she swings by to let you know about an impromptu mixer in the thatched-roof chickee hut by the pool.
Or just show up there in the afternoons, when guests gather for fresh iced tea and conversation after a day at the city's 10 miles of sandy beaches, just a 5-minute drive away. 2630 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, naplescourtyardinn.com, free Wi-Fi, from $99 in high season, breakfast included.
The Peninsula Inn & Spa
Leave it to a (former) professional jazz musician to cobble together a distinctive inn with just the right balance of polish and improvisation. Its refined, romantic features -- the on-site spa, two restaurants, and spacious veranda -- make The Peninsula a favorite site for small weddings and family reunions.
But there's also a funkier side to this landmark building, which Alexandra Kingzett and her husband Jim bought in 1999 when it was a boarded-up shell.
To start, it has a colorful history, having served as a hospital, a nursing home, and another hotel at different points in the past. (The original extra-large elevator was designed to fit gurneys.) Some say there's even a resident ghost, Isabelle, a former inhabitant after whom one of the inn's restaurants is named.
The five suites and six guest rooms are themed around British colonial outposts -- Bombay, Katmandu, Casablanca -- and decorated with furniture hand-carved in Indonesia.
And, of course, there's music: A blues bands plays in the courtyard Tuesday nights, Wednesdays bring a jazz-piano ensemble, and Alexandra herself has been known to put on occasional performances at the piano in the bar.
You can even get in on the action yourself, at the open mic night held every other Thursday. 2937 Beach Blvd., Gulfport, innspa.net, free Wi-Fi, weekend rates from $119 in high season, breakfast included.
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.