Three cheers for a three-generation trip to Florida – with not one single theme park on the agenda.
By the end of a fortnight’s holiday with Gran and Grandad, the smiles all round were a good indicator that we had three times the fun, as well.
We were on familiar territory, having been across to the lovely Sunshine State a good few times over the years, but it was a first time for daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter.
Back in the mists of time, my daughter had been to Vermont and New York State on a ski trip; and as a business travel pro she had been on an ‘educational’ trip to Hollywood and Beverly Hills in California, but this was quite a difference.
We had late family connections in so-chic Sarasota, on the Gulf Coast, and a circle of friends now taking in Venice to the south and Bradenton, Tampa and St Petersburg further north, so there was a lot to share with our ‘newbies’.
It was decided from the word go that the triple delights of Disney World, Universal Studios or Busch Gardens could wait for another time, with plenty of the real Florida to see first. The temptation was to say ‘ordinary’ Florida, but there’s nothing ordinary about this really special part of the world, which is consistently winning recognition in the States as one of the very best areas to live and work and to retire to.
The latter option is fairly obvious in many subtle ways, not at all like the unkind jibe of being God’s Waiting Room, because apart from numerous, very attractive retirement communities, no effort is spared across the area – and across the State – at making all manner of shops, restaurants, attractions and even country parks accessible. And there are always plenty of vital free restrooms, even miles from anywhere!
Our arrival was the first big surprise all round, because instead of our more usual flight into huge, bustling Tampa from Manchester, via Atlanta, with Virgin/Delta, we wanted to make the most of our limited time and instead flew into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, a grand title for about the most friendly, and user-friendly, small airport I have had the pleasure of using for a long, long time.
Collecting bags on a not-very-busy evening took a matter of minutes and it didn’t take much longer to pile into a hire car (with a free upgrade!) before we had a ten-minute drive to our overnight stay at the nearby Hilton Garden Inn, a spacious, modern and fairly basic hotel popular with airline crews and just across the road from the runways.
The following morning, we headed through downtown Sarasota, just a few minutes down the US 41 Tamiami Trail, pointing out landmarks on the way to our initial base in Venice, at the Best Western Plus Ambassador Suites, chosen because it’s about halfway between the centre of the lovely coastal town and my friend’s ranch out in the wilds near Myakka River State Park.
Daughter was duly impressed with her huge, spotless en-suite room and the hotel facilities; and after barely pausing for breath, granddaughter was changed and heading for the pool where she would have been happy to stay for the rest of the day. But the snow-white quartz-sand beaches beckoned and we drove over to Nokomis Beach on Casey Key, where Saturday night is Drum Circle night and families and hangers-out of all ages join all manner of drummers and percussionists, along with dancers, hoolah-hoopers, posers and a sprinkling of old-fashioned hippies, to celebrate the almost-always amazing sunset.
Great, family-friendly fun, followed by a detour up Casey Key to have a quick look at the $5million-plus mansions (Hi there, Stephen King!) before a slap-up dinner just round the corner from the hotel at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, where you can sit in a rocking chair on the porch and pretend to be very Deep South and even buy the rocker, plus all sorts of other rustic goods and souvenir foods if you want. The menu is simply vast, with enough permutations to make you dizzy, but I love to have a go at the Breakfast Y’all Day variants, with pancakes, bacon and syrup to be going on with, washed down with ice-cold ‘soft’ cloudy cider, seeing as there’s a no-alcohol policy.
My hearty-eating offspring were taken aback by their first visit to this Southern institution, but duly polished off their homestyle helpings, with a warning that this was just a foretaste of what to expect in the Man vs Food environment you find in almost every American restaurant.
There was almost a rerun of this the following morning thanks to the all-you-can eat breakfast included at the hotel, where granddaughter soon mastered the DIY waffle machine as well as tucking into a comprehensive spread, which also had a few healthier options like fresh fruit, including lovely local oranges.
Once off the breakfast launchpad, it was sightseeing time, and over the next few days we explored an eclectic mix of attractions to suit us all, underpinned by a fascination with American food and a quest to find youngster-friendly eateries. Not that it proved difficult, and almost inevitably, the first ‘tick’ on a the list was McDonald’s, but the choice widened to include The Old Salty Dog, with its whiff of Britishness, plus Carrabbas, Longhorn, Daiquiri Deck, Applebees and Red Lobster, plus the occasional huge, made-to-order sandwich from Publix and super-fresh Italian food at Trattaria Da Mino in downtown Venice.
Mino himself helped cook up some alligator for lunch at my pal’s house one day, and very much alive and kicking alligators were a huge hit with my granddaughter when we got up close and personal with a few as they stole fish from an angler’s line only feet below us on a bridge at Myakka River State Park. The park offers airboat trips on the massive, shallow Myakka Upper Lake, which is home to around 1,000 ’gators; and safari tram tours through the near-wilderness wetlands to vantage points where you can see an enormous variety of wildlife, birds, plants and mosquitoes.
The mozzies can be a problem in some areas at certain times of year and Avon’s Skin So Soft body spray is a fragrant favourite to keep the bugs at bay. I use it when I go fishing and if it’s good enough for the Royal Marines, it’s good enough for me!
Smelling sweetly, and with smiles to match after exploring some great coastal scenery as far south as Punta Gorda (where it’s worth a stop at TT’s Tiki Bar on Charlotte Bay), we all headed back to Sarasota for the rest of our stay and to make the smiles even wider.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.