Isolated tropical islands are the stuff that vacations, movies and dreams are made of. But one of the best things about living in southern Florida is that you don’t have to board a plane, hit the pillow, or turn to the magic of Tinseltown to have warm white sand beaches all to yourself. You merely need a boat, or in my case a kayak, a paddle, and little will power.
(Looking out from isolated Jewel Key. Photo (c) Robert Silk.)
Over the dozen or so years of adventures that eventually led me to write my first book, “An Ecotourist’s Guide to the Everglades and the Florida Keys,” which the University Press of Florida published last April, one of my favorite excursions was a kayaking trip that took to me to just such an island – Jewel Key, within the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida and Everglades National Park.
Small enough to walk around in just a few minutes, Jewel Key sits where the Ten Thousand Islands meet the open water. It consists only of a glimmering sand beach framed on two sides by mangroves. It’s open to campers and even has a portable bathroom facility. But at 6.5 miles each way from the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center, Jewel Key is also doable as a day trip.
(The Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades. Photo by Denise Wauters Johnson/Flickr.)
I paddled to the island quite by accident in the summer of 2014 while researching my book. But that’s a story for a different day. Just be warned that it’s not a good idea to head into the Ten Thousand Islands without GPS, a compass or a detailed map.
The paddle begins with a modest 1.5-mile trek across Chokoloskee Bay to a stopping point at Sandfly Island. Look for dolphins during the crossing. I saw some on my excursion. Sandfly Island is approachable via a small dock and is home to a mile-long hiking trail through a hardwood hammock.
(Approaching Sandfly Island in the kayak. Photo (c) Robert Silk.)
Since it was summer, and the biting insects were out in full force, I journeyed only as far as the edge of the hiking trail during my visit there. But I’d like to go back for the full walk, and to see the remains of an old pioneer homestead that sits along the trail. Sandfly Island breaks up a Jewel Key paddle and adds diversity to the experience. But it’s definitely just a warm-up for the main attraction.
(On the trail at Sandfly Island. Photo (c) Robert Silk.)
From Sandfly, the route to Jewel Key weaves through a web of mangrove islands before they give way to somewhat more open surroundings. When the white sand of Jewel Key emerges in the distance, it looks at first like a mirage. Closer on, it looks like an oasis.
To live in southern Florida is often to experience a world that feels all too crowded. But Jewel Key, even in the heat of a summer day, reminded me why I’ve chosen to live in this region. Lounging in the shallow water that summer day, I could gaze inland toward the mysterious netherworld of the Ten Thousand Islands or outward toward the sun-drenched Gulf of Mexico.
(A peaceful oasis on Jewel Key. Photo (c) Robert Silk.)
Sitting on the beach, I watched passing birds overhead. I started to imagine a world without roads. But then I stopped. There was no need to imagine such a thing – not while I was on Jewel Key, where such a world still exists.
Our thanks to journalist and author Robert Silk for sharing his experience kayaking to Jewel Key in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands. Hear Robert discuss his new book, An Eco-tourist's Guide to the Everglades and the Florida Keys, at the Miami Book Fair at 2pm on November 20th in downtown Miami.