Florida means fun on all sorts of levels to all sorts of people and that of course includes youngsters. But it doesn’t just mean theme parks, as we found on a three-generation trip to the Sunshine State, when the only parks we went to were neighbourhood meeting places or wilderness nature reserves.
Grandad and Gran took daughter and granddaughter on this trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida, spending a few days around genteel, laid-back Venice with friends, before heading towards Sarasota and even-more laid-back Siesta Key.
Our base for this part of our stay was the Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway, a comfortable, friendly and familiar spot for us seniors, but new for the offspring, whose first thought was to make a beeline for the large pool which our access balcony overlooked. Suited me, because Dot and I made a beeline for the Sand Dollar Pool Bar to get a frozen margarita and a big smile from the lovely Katrina. Sorted.
Once settled in nicely in adjoining, en-suite rooms, dinner was an easy choice, with a two-minute walk across the car park to a dependable Carrabba’s Italian Grill, before an early nightcap by the pool under the stars.
We started the following day with a lavish help-yourself breakfast, with a bottomless coffee choice for me and a press-button pancake machine replacing a waffle maker as granddaughter’s favoured operation before we headed out.
The weather wasn’t all that kind to us, with overcast skies, an occasional monsoon-like downpour and a sea that was often a bit choppy out in the Gulf itself, beyond the sanctuary of the Intra-Coastal Waterway, but that doesn’t mean the fun had to stop.
Dodging the rain, we strolled around the weekly farmers’ market in Sarasota’s Main Street and Lemon Avenue, where an average of more than 70 vendors set up shop and sell an astonishing range of fresh produce and wholesome food. You can even get a coffee in a converted, open-top London bus, but we can get caught out in enough rain back home in England, thanks!
Time for a quick look at a different kind of shopping, a short drive inland along Bahia Vista Street to Yoder’s Restaurant and Amish Village, with a deli and produce market to make your mouth water and luxurious, hand-made pies to make you wish you had a freezer the size of a house to take back home. No room for a monster of an Amish breakfast or for a lunch that would feed a family off one plate, so it was a tour of the souvenir shop and a deli trawl with tongues hanging out before we turned back to the bay.
It was still warm out and about, so there was no hesitation in shrugging off the showers and then wading through ankle-deep puddles to reach the splendid Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, just a few minutes from downtown Sarasota, to learn about the wonders of even deeper water.
The Mote is a world-class facility, staffed by ‘scientists, explorers and stewards of the ocean’ and is seriously a must-see destination if you are anywhere near this area, allowing visitors to get a very ‘up-close experience’ with marine animals and fish, with granddaughter a bit wary at first at touch pools where elegant rays swim close to be stroked. Star residents to marvel at are long-time resident manatees Hugh and Buffett, along with five rather special sea turtles and a family of lively river otters, and they are just a few of more 100 species you can meet in a huge range of see-through tanks and open pools. The shark zone and alligators are great draws and it’s interesting to see some of the ongoing research in viewable laboratories, but most mesmerising of all the inside displays has to be the balletic show by frilly, lacy and almost other-worldly jellyfish.
Fish of a different sort for lunch between visits to the Mote’s two main buildings, with an Old Salty Dog restaurant nice and handy just a short walk away, with tables by the water and passing boat traffic to look at while you tuck in.
And dinner? A branch of Applebee’s again, with a massive menu allowing all sorts of permutations, which might be confusing at first glance, but makes sure that there’s something to suit any youngster!
Another day, another great time at The Ringling, a magnificent bayfront estate which is the State Art Museum of Florida – and a whole lot more, besides.
The estate and its amazing over-the-top mansion was the home and brainchild of circus boss John Ringling and his wife Mabel, who were fabulously wealthy by the 1920s, with a fortune of around $200million. They indulged their love of the arts and built a 21-gallery museum to hold a treasure trove of paintings and artworks, including originals by Valazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens, and this superb building, along with the palatial Ca’ D’ Zan mansion – ‘House of John’ in Venetian dialect – and the lush gardens, are great for the grown-ups.
But star attraction for all ages, and what daughter and granddaughter decided was their top holiday highlight, was the estate’s Circus Museum, echoing the days when the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus was indeed the Greatest Show on Earth and toured America in miles-long railway convoys. The museum is full of posters, costumes, wagons and memorabilia such as a giant human cannonball gun, and you can cram into a clown car if you want, or walk the wire, but the real jaw-dropper has to be the 44,000-piece Howard Bros Circus model, a miniature marvel showing the vast and very precise logistics operation required when the Big Top and its hundreds of workers and animals came to towns and cities across the country.
Stunning for a maybe less-sophisticated audience back in the day before films, TV and the internet, the circus and its colourful history still has the power to reward and entertain; and the Ringling has those very same qualities, too.
Another big hit with all ages was an expedition afloat when the weather finally eased off. Sadly, the weather meant we had to abandon earlier plans to join a dolphin watch out of Hubbard’s Marina when we had a day trip north to St John’s Pass, near St Pete beach, but all was not lost.
The long-ish drive was worth it just to drive over the Sunshine Skyway bridge and after our return to Sarasota, we did book a nature and sightseeing afternoon sail with Le Barge Tropical Cruises, which lived up to all expectations. We sat back and relaxed on the only boat I know which has mosaic mermaids pointing the way and real palm trees on the upper deck, sipping cool drinks from the bar while Tina and Captain Bob took us on a tour to see posh waterside homes and local wildlife as the sun finally shone.
And we did see dolphins, which was a special treat and a fitting farewell for daughter and granddaughter who both agreed that nature was the best sort of Florida theme park.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.