You really need the Benjamin Moore Color Chart to classify the hues and shades created in and around Florida's waters. When the sun sets over the bonefish-laden flats of Islamorada, you get Mardi Gras gold. The shallows off the sea-oat-sprouting dunes of Cape San Blas near Port St. Joe are best described as mint julep, perhaps honeydew. For the murky depths of the Butler Chain of Lakes in Windermere, where large- mouth bass congregate in great number, the matching swatch would be iron mountain or night horizon.
Florida's popularity is and always has been dir- ectly connected to the briny blue (see: Vice, Miami; break, spring). And the variety of color on display is only matched by the diversity of maritime offerings at each destination. As an example, let's point the zoom lens at Port St. Joe in North Florida. Observe the line of anglers casting 20-pound-test leaders from Port St. Joe Marina, hoping to hook the redfish and flounder that seek refuge among the docks and rock outcroppings. Check out the beach fishermen and their 9-foot spinning rods on nearby Mexico Beach. They were digging for sand fleas long before the sun broke like an egg yolk across the horizon. Watch the snorkelers follow a three-inch-long sea horse into a seagrass bed off Cape San Blas, its body resembling a spindly semicolon. Spot the divers peering into the Empire Mica, the 500-foot petroleum tanker sunk in 1942 by torpedoes from a German submarine. Stop into Indian Pass Raw Bar. The Apalachicola oysters served for dinner were still in the bay when the restaurant opened at noon.
In an effort to point that zoom lens on different parts of the Sunshine State, FT+L spotlights five locales that are blessed with a bevy of liquid assets: snorkeling and scalloping, diving and kayaking, fishing and fossiling.
A sextet of islands halfway between South Miami and Key West, Islamorada has almost every water sport and activity covered as well as a few luxury resorts to tuck yourself into when your sun-baked day of fighting billfish is over.
- Fish: The cerulean waters of Islamorada have more than earn the nickname "Sport Fishing Capital of the World." Bonefish are arguably the most sought-after target in the mangrove -laden, backcountry flats, although tarpon and permit make for supreme summer sport as well (tiny blue crab & live shrimp are the bait of choice). For offshore adventures, contact Capt. Ron Moore at Miller Time Sport Fishing. And Capt. Moore's fully air-conditioned vessel leaves regularly from Whale Harbor Marina at mile marker 83.5 in search of grouper, sword- fish, marlin and even sailfish. At day's end, they'll fillet your catch and send you off to a local restaurant to have it cooked just the way you like it.
- Snorkel: "The big misconception is that you have to go far off-shore to see coral," says Brad Bertelli, author of Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites. "There are some really great opportunities close by." Bertelli recommends Indian Key, an 11-acre island a quarter-mile offshore. Rent a kayak from Florida Keys Kayak & Ski (305.664.4878) at Robbie's Marina at mile marker 77.5. It will take you about 25 minutes to reach Indian Key. Once there, you will find parrotfish, yellow and blue tang, sea turtles and lime-sherbet-colored brain coral.
- Dive: There are a bevy of wrecks in Islamorada, each with its own personality and back story. Take, for example, Alligator Reef, marked by a skeletal, 136-foot lighthouse. The USS Alligator was sunk in 1822 after a battle with pirates. While only a twin pile of ballast stones remains, it's a fun wreck to explore. Keep an eye out for nurse sharks and bright- green moray eels.
- Sleep: The lushly landscaped Casa Morada has its very own private island with a swimming pool, thatched-roof bar and even a dock where manatees like to visit. That same dock also accommodates boats, and the resort has kayaks and other water-sports gear available to guests for free.
- Eat: Try the Key-lime seafood pasta or swordfish Rangoon (sautéed and even topped with tropical fruits and currant gelée) at Marker 88.
- Sip: When you spot the mermaid at mile marker 82, you've arrived at Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar, where you'll find cold beer, live music, thatched-hut umbrellas and post- card-worthy sunsets.
2. PORT ST. JOE
Port St. Joe last made national headlines in 1995 with the help of Opal, a Category 4 hurricane. But this North Florida nook has since rebounded and deserves the spotlight for its myriad mari- time offerings.
- Fish: The southern end of St. Joseph Bay is great for speckled trout, redfish and even flounder. Surf fishers will have success hooking Spanish mackerel and pompano, but find your spot before sunrise, as Mexico Beach is crowded by midmorning.
- Snorkel: Visit Seahorse Water Safaris in Port St. Joe Marina and take a trip to Cape San Blas on the Island Queen. A three-hour excursion with snorkeling equipment is only $35. During scalloping season (July 1-Sept. 10), Seahorse provides snorkel gear and nets to gather scallops from the bay floor. Remember: The limit is two gallons of scallops per person (which nets a quarter-pound of meat).
- Dive: Lying in 110 feet of water, the largely intact Empire Mica is home to manta, eagle rays, barracuda, jack as well as tuna. So don't be surprised when a peek into one of the boilers scares off an octopus.
- Kayak: With water this clear, glass-bottom kayaks are ideal. Rent one at the Jolly Roger Beach Shop in nearby St. George Island.
- Sleep: Doing its best impression of a Savannah mansion, the Port Inn is a boutique hotel across the street from the St. Joseph public boat ramp.
- Eat: For a formal evening, the Sunset Coastal Grill is a Gulf-front eatery that earns culinary kudos for its sesame-coated seared tuna and Oscar tenderloin.
- Sip: At Indian Pass Raw Bar, a century-old establishment on scenic 30A, grab your own beer from the cooler and pair it with oysters that come three ways (raw, steamed and baked).
3. CHARLOTTE HARBOR
A mix of watersheds, Charlotte Harbor's "marinescape" includes deepwater fisheries, salt marshes, sea-grass meadows, mud flats, mangrove forests and tidal creeks, making it appealing for all kinds of activity.
- Fish: Anglers come to Boca Grande Pass for one thing: the silver king. "Boca Grande Pass is stocked with tarpon," says Tommy Thompson, licensed charter-boat captain and author of The Saltwater Angler's Guide to Florida's Big Bend and Emerald Coast. "The only real problem is you'll be among 130 fishing boats."
- Snorkel: "The best place is Cayo Costa State Park," says Bertelli. While visibility is limited (10 to 15 feet), you'll have the opportunity to see conch, sea horses, rays and dolphins.
- Fossil: Everyone from paleontologists to the Boy Scout troops come to the Peace River searching for the jaws and teeth of megalodons, saber-tooth cats and even tapirs. Third-generation Floridian Mark Renz, founder of Fossil Expeditions, leads fossiling tours of the Peace River, either on foot or by kayak.
- Sleep: Palm Island Resort, accessible only by ferry or boat, has 160 luxurious, spacious and fully-equipped villas for rent.
- Eat: Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda, a charming dockfront stretch of Easter-egg-hued buildings overlooking Charlotte Harbor, has 7 restaurants, including the Captain's Table and Bella Luna.
You can't go anywhere in Pensacola without hearing gumbo-thick drawls and good manners ("sir" and "ma'am" are staples of every conversation). Why the substantial Dixie influence? Pensacola is an easy day trip from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and the beaches and bays attract every- one from sunbathers to blue-water anglers.
- Fish: The southern shore of East Bay is a well-known spot, as the docks and dock ruins make attractive structure for trout and red-fish. Thompson adds that offshore fishing in Pensacola doesn't require long trips out to sea. "Deep water comes very close to shore," he notes. "You'll be in 5,000 feet of water pretty fast." Grouper, snapper and even king mackerel will be lurking; try circle hooks decked with cigar minnows and pogies. Pier fish- ing is also popular. Casting from the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier yields mahi, cobia, pompano and Spanish mackerel. And a brand-new 2,500-foot pier over Pensacola Bay is scheduled for completion in early 2010.
- Snorkel: Horse conchs, manta rays and turtles populate the rock jetties at Fort Pickens State Park, but snorkeling guru Bertelli says, "the trick is to go at slack tide," as the water isn't mucked up from the tides churning sediment.
- Dive: The 586-foot USS Massachusetts, one mile off Fort Pickens, sits in 20 feet of water (some parts of the wreckage still breaks the surface). The ship's myriad parts—the fight- ing tops, smokestacks and pilothouse—are home to jellyfish, great barracuda and butter- flyfish.
- Sleep: Portofino Island is a resort set along the pin-drop peaceful beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore. As a result, it offers plenty of aquatic activities, including snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding.
- Sip: Don't miss the Flora-Bama Lounge & Package, the roadhouse on the Florida-Alabama border. And mark your calendar: Every spring it hosts the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss (April 24-26). The rules are simple: The individual who throws a dead fish farthest across the state line into Alabama is victorious.
In a state where beaches rule, land-locked Orlando earns little attention for sun and fun. But the Butler Chain of Lakes, 11 interconnected lakes that cover some 4,720 acres, makes for an awfully big playground.
- Boat: While there are anglers aplenty here, you're definitely more likely to see Nautiques pulling tubes and wakeboarders or even a party of 12 on a pontoon sipping bloody marys. If you're towing your own boat, the R.D. Keene Boat Ramp and Park on Lake Isleworth offers easy access to the Butler Chain. If you need a vessel, the Boat Club has a bevy of skeeters and pontoons for rent.
- Fish: The only freshwater fishing destination in this story, the Butler Chain draws anglers with largemouth bass that they can also keep as trophies. Unfortunately, with some boats hauling in 50 fish per day, the word is out. As a result, the lakes are packed on weekends with boats dropping jigging spoons and Carolina rigs into the dark waters.
- Eat: In a lovingly restored house amid an orange grove, Yellow Dog Eats is Windermere's most idiosyncratic eatery. With a chef named Fish Morgan, one would expect a seafood- laden menu. Instead, Yellow Dog offers a variety of barbecue, salads and signature sand- wiches (the Johnny Rocket, made with honey-mesquite-roasted turkey, wild-cherry ring peppers, raspberry melba and smoked Gouda, is our top pick). This artsy outpost also has a charming outdoor patio and wine market.
- Sleep: Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge is a 70-guest-room golf getaway only minutes from Lake Tibet. Featured amenities include full-service salon & spa, fitness center, dining facilities and much more.