Four Hidden Florida Vaction Spots

If you're already thinking ahead to fall and winter vacations, there's a good chance you're thinking Florida. But for all the popularity of such cold-weather destinations as Miami Beach and Key West, there are plenty of others that offer similar fun-in-the-sun diversions, but are slightly off the beaten tourist track.

Plus, there are those that offer an altogether different experience that defies the Jimmy Buffett-inspired, margarita-sipping Florida norm.

Here are four less-heralded Florida destinations to put on your radar for the months ahead.

Cudjoe Key

Located between the Bacchanalian burg that is Key West and the more humdrum locale of Marathon, Cudjoe Key is a slice of the Florida Keys as they were intended to be. That is, a nature-lovers paradise that feels like an American version of a desolate Caribbean isle.

Wherever you go, you're surrounded by water: the Atlantic Ocean to one side, the Gulf of Mexico to the other. But you're not surrounded by crowds: Cudjoe has no real shopping center whatsoever. In fact, there's barely much beyond houses and the occasional convenience store or run-down restaurant.

The focus here is on aquatic activity of all sorts: fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, you name it. But the best part is that if you're still in search of a "scene," be it bar-hopping or fine dining, Key West is still just an hour away.

Where to stay: You won't find many formal accommodations (hotels, B&Bs) in Cudjoe. But you will find lots of vacation rentals. One good source: the Century 21 Prestige Realty Group (305-745-3340), which handles dozens of rental units within Venture Out, an oceanfront community with a huge pool and other amenities. It's not particularly upscale, but the location can't be beat.

Info: Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce (305-872-3411)

Delray Beach

Sure, the more glittering Palm Beach is just 20 miles to the north. But Delray has something the island of the rich and famous can never offer -- a true small-town feel.

The main attraction here is a bustling downtown that retains some of its old-school charm (think a frozen-custard stand straight out of the "Happy Days" era), but that also has more than its share of chic restaurants and stores.

Then again, there is a beach in Delray Beach -- a wide, inviting stretch of the Atlantic -- and that's more than enough an attraction for the sun-worshipping set.

The town has a cultural side as well: Within the downtown, you'll find Old School Square, which presents a full slate of theatrical events, plus a lecture series. To the west, you'll find the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens (www.morikami.org), a celebration of Japanese culture in as serene setting as you'll find throughout Florida.

Where to stay: If you're looking to stay on the beach but also within walking distance of the heart of downtown, you can't do much better than the Delray Beach Marriott ( MAR) (561-274-3200, 877-389-0169).

Info: Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce (561-278-0424)

Anna Maria Island

Florida's West Coast already has the reputation of being more laid-back than the East. But Anna Maria, a slice of paradise near Bradenton, takes it to a whole other level.

Unlike other beach towns along the Gulf of Mexico, the island, which is actually composed of three separate but small municipalities (Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria proper), doesn't have any towering condos and fast-food restaurants. Instead, it's mainly homes, cottages or low-rise developments that are never more than a few blocks from the water.

Factor in more than a fair share of quality independent restaurants (wherever you go, fried grouper is bound to be on the menu), a pair of historic piers, a great public beach (Manatee County Beach) and a trolley system that allows you to go car-free within the island.

The result? Old Florida living at its finest. Plus, you're still within easy reach of Sarasota, which offers cultural opportunities galore and the famed St. Armand's Circle -- a local equivalent of Rodeo Drive.

Where to stay: One of the island's most popular B&Bs is the Harrington House (941-778-5444, 888-828-5566), situated right on the Gulf.

Info: Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce (941-778-1541)

Lake Wales

Who says Florida has no mountains? Those who know the state mainly for its flat terrain are in for a surprise when they get to this small Central Florida town.

Bok Tower Gardens

Here, the orange groves are set on hills. But it's not just farmland that has visitors turning their gaze upward. It's also the Bok Tower Gardens (863-676-1408), one of Florida's oft-overlooked tourist gems -- a National Historic Landmark that was a gift from magazine editor Edward W. Bok (Ladies Home Journal) to the area after spending many a winter in Lake Wales. The 79-year-old attraction includes lush gardens (Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed them) and a carillon (or bell tower) that provides a soundtrack of sorts to the bucolic setting.

It's also situated on Iron Mountain, which, at nearly 300 feet above sea level, is one of the highest points in the state. Beyond Bok Tower, Lake Wales has a historic downtown as well.

Where to stay: Lake Wales may have few hotels and motels, but it does have a noteworthy chalet -- as in Chalet Suzanne (863-676-6011, 800-433-6011, a historic lodging and restaurant (it's known for its line of canned gourmet soups). Want to fly in for the weekend? The chalet even has its own airstrip!

Info: Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce (863-676-3445)
Charles Passy is a Florida-based writer who covers food, travel, entertainment and consumer culture and products.