Susan Glaser |

Undiscovered Florida: Does such a place exist anymore? I didn’t think so.

But on a recent trip to the Sunshine State, I stumbled on a place that was so under-the-radar, I didn’t even know where I was, exactly.

Palm Island? Don Pedro Island? Little Gasparilla Island?

Whatever its official name, I’m hooked.

Palm Island Resort
Getting here: Catch the ferry to Palm Island Resort from 2000 Panama Blvd. in Englewood, about 45 miles south of Sarasota and 60 miles north of Fort Myers. The Palm Island Transit is complimentary for resort guests; otherwise, it’s $8 for pedestrians, $55 if you bring a car.

Choosing a condo: Palm Island Resort has about 80 condos in its rental inventory, with one-, two- and three-bedroom units available. Individually owned and decorated, the condos are ranked (and priced) according to the quality of interior decor: Superior (nicest), Deluxe and Standard.
Prices: Overnight rates vary greatly, depending on the season. A two-bedroom condo in March, the high season, ranges from about $400 to $500 a night, depending on the interior.
More information:, 1-800-824-5412
The island is located off the west coast of Florida, about midway between Sarasota and Fort Myers. Different sections of the island, 7 miles long, have had different names over the years, according to a spokesman for Charlotte County, including Knight, Don Pedro, Little Gasparilla and, most recently, Palm.

There is no bridge connecting the mainland to the island, so residents and visitors have to boat in themselves or take a five-minute ferry ride.
Once you’ve arrived, there’s not much here: One resort, one restaurant and one small gift shop, about 200 private homes and a state park.
And, the best part: miles and miles of nearly empty, gorgeous sandy beach. My daughter and I spent the first morning of a recent visit strolling the length of the Palm Island Resort’s 1.5-mile sandy shore and saw just two other people.

“Even when we’re sold out, you never feel like it’s crowded,” said Suzanne McCarthy, the resort’s manager of guest services.

The resort, which covers about 160 acres on the northern third of the island, is made up of about 300 condominiums, clustered in four-unit buildings, two-stories high. A majority face the ocean, a short walk through the sand to the water.

About 80 condo owners make their units available to the public, for two-night minimum rentals. It’s the only way people who aren’t owners (or guests of owners) can access the resort, including the beach, a dozen tennis courts, a half-dozen pools and other amenities.

The limited public access to the property makes it feel exclusive, like I’m crashing someone’s private beach hideaway.

Palm Island Resort was developed starting in the early 1980s, by brothers Dean and Gar Beckstead, who also turned nearby Useppa Island into a private, members-only club (it’s also worth a visit, accessible for day trips via Captiva Cruises on Captiva Island).

Palm Island (aka Knight and Don Pedro) lies to the north of Sanibel, Captiva and Gasparilla islands, to the south of Siesta and Manasota keys – all of which are much more densely developed. Why? No doubt because those islands all have bridges that allow for easier access.

Chad Lach, the manager at nearby Don Pedro Island State Park, just south of Palm Island Resort, said the island used to have a bridge, decades ago, before the Intracoastal Waterway was completed. Today, he figures most residents probably like it the way it is, fearing a bridge would open the island up to further development.

So it’s a bit of a throwback to an earlier era in Florida, before four-lane causeways started carrying hordes of tourists to the shore. Here, a tug and barge makes the five-minute trip back and forth across the Intracoastal.

Bridge or no bridge, plenty of Ohioans have found their way here. The family of the late George Voinovich, the former Ohio governor and U.S. senator, vacationed here for years. An Ohio University Bobcat magnet on the refrigerator in our condo indicated the owner’s allegiances.

After a day in Sarasota, my daughter and I arrived at Palm Island just in time for sunset. We took our rental car across on the ferry, but left it in a parking lot at the resort’s entrance – no cars allowed inside the gate (except service vehicles). Residents mostly use golf carts to meander around the grounds, from condo to fitness center to restaurant.

The lack of cars within the resort magnifies the quiet, laidback atmosphere. How can you be in a hurry in a vehicle that can’t exceed 15 mph?

My daughter and I, thrilled to be away from Cleveland’s dreary January, declined the cart and powered our legs to get us everywhere.

Among the highlights: A half-dozen or so leisurely strolls on the beach, on the hunt for fossilized shark teeth.

This section of the Gulf Coast is famous for its abundant sharks’ teeth, millions of years old, unearthed from the ocean bottom and washed ashore. The stretch of sand in front of the resort has earned the nickname Shark’s Tooth Beach, likely due to its proximity to Stump Pass, an inlet that is regularly dredged, stirring up sand and souvenirs of a prehistoric era. I found about two dozen teeth in 45 minutes, without really trying.

Another high point: Renting a double kayak and paddling the bay behind the resort, on the east side of the island, through a dense tunnel of mangrove trees and into a clearing known as Hidden Lake, where we saw flying fish, herons and other creatures.

With another day or two here, we might have enjoyed yoga on the beach, a nature walk, tennis lessons or a performance by Red Beard, Palm Island’s resident pirate, a singer/storyteller who has been entertaining generations for decades.

We dined twice at Rum Bay Restaurant, on the resort grounds, a popular spot for islanders and boaters. Among the menu items: ribs, burgers, fish tacos, shrimp and a killer Shark’s Tooth cocktail.

A second resort-owned dining option is Leverocks, across the Intracoastal on the mainland. It’s accessible to resort guests via a complimentary water taxi ride ($6 for non-guests, which is how members of the public access Rum Bay if they don’t have their own boat). The menu here is more upscale, with seafood, steaks and pasta.

Coconuts, in the same building as Rum Bay, serves ice cream, coffee drinks and pastries, and has a few grocery items for sale ($5 for a quart of milk – ouch!) If you’re staying for more than a day or two, stop at Publix, just south of the ferry dock on the mainland, and stock up on food before heading to the island.

“Most people don’t leave the island once they’re here,” said Rick Brunette, resort vice president and general manager.

The resort is not perfect for everyone, to be sure. Wireless internet access is erratic, a problem Brunette said he is working on; and nightlife is nonexistent.

Well, I suppose that depends on how you define nightlife. Rum Bay is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The resort also offers guests a complimentary lending library of current DVDs.

Even better: The show in the sky on a clear night is not to be missed. Minimal development on the island means there’s not much light pollution to compete with the stars.

My daughter and I spent a full 30 minutes on the first night staring skyward, trying to pick out constellations, unable to find the Big Dipper. I learned later that it was likely below the horizon.

No matter, we found something else instead: a part of Florida I didn’t know existed two months ago. Undiscovered no longer, at least to me.