There’s something rather special about being afloat in Venice, especially when there are just half a dozen friends on a powerful launch pottering out to visit a paradise island in perfect conditions.
Definitely a day for high-factor sunscreen as we eased along the flat calm of the Intracoastal waterway, because this particular Venice is on the Gulf Coast of Florida, a few miles south of bustling, beautiful Sarasota.
Before exploring by boat, we had already enjoyed the delightful Downtown area and headed south of town to Casperson Beach, where the Intracoastal, which loops round to make Venice an island, rejoins the Gulf of Mexico.
Looking back inland from here, there’s easy access to the Venetian Waterways Park, a linear trail for walkers, cyclists, joggers and skaters that runs for miles along both sides of the Intracoastal.
There’s another favourite access point to the trail and the water at Legacy Park, adjoining the Historic Venice Train Station and Caboose, which also marks the southern end of the Legacy Trail to Sarasota, following the route of the disused railroad track.
This is also a popular launching spot for boats, and it’s where we met up with friends Steve and Lauren, along with their pals James and Jennifer, for a fishing and sightseeing trip which took us further south along the Gulf Coast.
Once away from Venice, we cruised in glorious sunshine alongside Manasota Key and took in some great views as we headed through Lemon Bay, and then edged up a quiet inlet with only inches of clearance under the keel, so that we could climb over the side to wade around and cast our lines close to the fringe of mangroves.
No fish, sadly, but we made up for that with lunch at Stump Pass Marina, with its distinctive yellow lighthouse, where we refuelled ourselves as well as the boat before sailing for Gasparilla Sound, taking a look at the exclusive community of Boca Grande and then steering for an even more exclusive retreat.
This turned out to be a special surprise, for skipper James’ partner, Jennifer, shared with us her favourite secret spot, an uninhabited island where we ran the boat ashore and clambered out onto an untouched, snow-white beach, where the only sound came from seabirds and the gentle breakers.
Until, that is, a hidden bottle of bubbly was produced from the skipper’s icebox as if by magic, and the cork was popped to toast our wedding anniversary, which was celebrated by walking along in the surf while pledging not to reveal the SatNav co-ordinates to anyone else!
When it was time to make our way back, we took to the Gulf rather than retracing the more sedate Intracoastal route and hammered up the ‘outside’ of the Keys with the wind and spray in our faces. We slowed down to cruise past Venice itself, then turned into Venice Inlet, between the North and South Jetty fishing spots, and took a left at Snake Island to tie up at Pop’s Sunset Grill.
There’s something a bit Hollywood about arriving at a restaurant by boat, but any temptation to do some showing off is tempered by the fact that you’re being watched by an audience of diners, cocktail fans and sunset watchers who are just willing you to make a fool of yourself and fall in the water.
Mercifully, no red faces, except from the day’s sun and spray, and we enjoyed a leisurely seafood meal before tootling back to Legacy Park to disembark as the sun dipped into the sea.
A memorable day, indeed, but then holidays in this part of the world are measured in memorable days, and it’s hard to bring to mind any significant times when you don’t have a smile on your face.
There’s often a look of astonishment as well, especially when faced with the size of helpings in most restaurants, never mind the ones with all-you-can-eat options.
One such was the Gold Rush BBQ off the main South Tamiami Trail, billed as ‘an American legend’ and certainly trying to live up to it, with what looked at first glance like platters full of half an animal per serving as they dished up racks of ribs!
All-you-can-eat in my case wasn’t very much at all when compared with most of those around me, after I pleaded for an ‘English senior’ helping of a ‘season-rubbed and hickory-smoked’ quarter of a chicken, which even then came complete with two sides and a delicious ‘gold nugget’ cornbread. Throw in an all-American root beer (and another sneaky cornbread!) and the bill for me was still less than $12, while some nearby heaped platters being polished off by my companions didn’t come to much more.
Quantity isn’t the be-all and end-all, either, for the quality of the food, like in most other eating places around here, is top notch. It might not be fine dining in a posh sense, but most of the dining around here is still mighty fine!
It starts off with a traditional American breakfast, which certainly sets you up for the day, and the inclusive spread at the Best Western Plus Ambassador Suites was no exception. Not far out of Venice, this comfortable and useful base with a heated (!) pool and most other facilities you could want, is just off Interstate 75 and is really handy for both town and country. Loaded up with a help-yourself breakfast from a spread including DIY hot waffles and all manner of other goodies like cereals, muffins and fresh fruit, we were well placed to get to all the attractions of Venice and its surrounding area, including my chum Steve’s ranch out in the wilds bordering Myakka River State Park.
Steve is partner in a popular veterinary practice and his spread complements one of Florida’s oldest and largest parks in being a haven for animals, including horses, deer and rare breed cattle as well as countless birds and other exotic varieties of local wildlife.
One in particular triggered a warning from Steve, who told us to watch out for nocturnal visitors trundling across the rural roads when we made our way back to our hotel, something a bit larger than the hedgehogs we find squished back in Britain. The four-legged hazards at large on the lanes were prehistoric-looking armadillos, endlessly fascinating and cute, but hit one when you’re driving anything other than a huge back-country 4×4 and your car could be flipped over in a moment. Well worth keeping an eye open, though, if only to say you’ve seen one!
Not quite as welcome are some rather larger visitors to his garden pond which itself is the size of many, a municipal boating lake in the UK, because, as the adjoining park’s brochure warns laconically, alligators are abundant in the area, which helps to explain the 6-inch-high electric fence on the lawns between Steve’s pond and his kitchen.
Some do end up in the kitchen, or at least the massive porch BBQ, and they also figure on the menu at the park’s Pink Gator Cafe (it’s built on stilts to be alligator and flood-proof!) in a home-made stew.
No threat to the reptile population, as we saw goodness knows how many on an airboat ride on Upper Myakka Lake, where our guide told us there were about 1,000 lurking around the place. There are seemingly superfluous warnings not to approach, tease, frighten or feed them, but their presence didn’t seem to deter several kayakers and anglers, with some guys in shorts even standing in the shallows to cast their bait. There was no inclination to follow them, especially after a park ranger shook his head and drawled that the foolhardy fishermen were quite likely to prove tempting bait themselves. Not surprisingly, swimming is banned in the reserve’s two shallow lakes, but there’s an awful lot more on offer in the 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, oak-pine hammocks and pinelands, including a seven-mile scenic drive through the trees and along the lakeside on a paved road, many miles of dirt roads to explore and nearly 40 miles of hiking and biking trails to the remote interior.
You can take your own horse in there too, or get off the ground altogether and head for the treetops on a canopy walkway, and climb a 70ft tower for a great overview. There’s also a decking birdwalk over the water at the north end of the lake to help you get nearer the alligators and local feathered inhabitants; and if you really want to hear the call of the wild at close quarters, you can head for any of the six self-styled primitive campsites or rent a log cabin dating back to when the park was founded in the 1930s.
What with trips on the world’s two largest airboats and ground safaris by a tram made up of open carriages towed by a 4×4, the marvellous park is very accessible.
And like every other attraction in this part of the world, it’s great for Silver Travellers, because other than alligators, it also boasts something else in abundance, accessible restrooms!
David Graham travelled to Venice on an extended trip to Florida, flying from Manchester to Tampa, via Atlanta, with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta, spending time in the Tampa Bay area, including Clearwater and St Petersburg, before heading south via Bradenton and Sarasota; staying in various hotels, notably Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway and the Best Western Plus Ambassador Suites, Venice