The Big Trip: Florida, USA

Shell-strewn beaches, theme park thrills and swimming with manatees - Suzy Palmer takes a 500 mile road trip round the Sunshine State

Shell-strewn beaches, theme park thrills and swimming with manatees – Suzy Palmer takes a 500 mile road trip round the Sunshine State

Conchologist. No, it’s a word I’d never heard of either – until I find myself becoming one in Sanibel, a beautiful island off Florida’s Gulf Coast that’s famous for its shell-covered beaches. I’m exaggerating, of course: conchologists are serious students of all things shell and mollusc related. But it’s hard not to get obsessed with combing the island’s pristine beaches to find a ‘lettered olive’, ‘common jingle’, ‘shark’s eye’ or one of the 400-odd types to be found here.

The other side of Florida: there’s plenty of space on the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

This is my first visit to Florida, and the main draw for my husband Andy and I lies in the southwest of the state. Here we’ve been promised glorious nature, historic towns and undisturbed beaches. And all under a glorious sun and clear blue sky, naturally.

Of course, we couldn’t come here without working Disneyworld and Miami into our two-week odyssey, both high on my bucket list. Frankly, it’s hard to think of a more fun and thrilling way to start a holiday than the home of Mickey Mouse, juts 20 minutes drive from Orlando airport. As we dive into its eternally happy world, there are so many things I simply don’t expect…

Firstly, the theme parks as much fun for adults as kids (the numerous hen parties say it all). Secondly, they’re massive but nevertheless spotless, and remarkably efficient. The rides are excellent (buy fast passes to beat the queue), the staff super-friendly, and the fireworks and evening entertainment are, well, magical. We follow a friend’s advice and plan our three-day stay in advance, so spend our mornings in one of the Disney parks (Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are our favourites) and afternoons at one of two superb, unlike-any-other water parks called Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Staying on site in the 1920s-themed Boardwalk Hotel (the most stylish option) does bump up the cost, but it certainly makes us buy into every bit of the American Dream.

Now we’re relaxing on the flip-side of Florida. Sanibel and Captiva are two of the many barrier islands and ‘keys’ off the Gulf Coast. You can drive to these via a causeway from Fort Myers, or arrive in style, as we do, in our very own motorboat. We’ve rented a villa in Cape Coral, a suburb developed in the 1960s on a peninsula in the Caloosahatchee River. Suburban is indeed the word that springs to mind when we pull into the driveway of Baypoint – but there’s a major wow-factor when we walk through the impressive, open-plan villa to the swimming pool and 22ft motorboat moored on the wraparound deck beyond.

Our place in the sun: Baypoint villa in Cape Coral

The houses here are built on a series of man-made canals that feed into the river and then the Gulf of Mexico and islands beyond, so boats are definitely the way to travel. Tom, the captain, arrives to give us lessons on navigating, sailing and docking our Hurricane 220, then we’re on our own. Our first stop is Lighthouse Beach on Sanibel, a bumpy but exhilarating 40-minute cruise away. The sun is beating down as we drop anchor and wade through shallow, crystal-clear water to the shore, where a commotion beside the small wooden pier grabs our attention. A young fisherman is landing nothing less than a hammerhead shark, with gasps and whoops from the crowd gathered round. Pictures taken and pats on the back delivered, he releases the three-foot snarler, reassuring us we shouldn’t have Jaws flashbacks, as these small sharks don’t swim near the shore and he had to kayak far out into the channel to haul it in. I think I believe him…

Heading home before sunset, we dock beside Rumrunners, one of many restaurants and yacht clubs hidden away on inlets back on the mainland coast. Ice-cold Yuengling beers hit the spot, then we navigate our way back to Baypoint to fire up the gigantic gas barbecue that is essential kit for every Florida home. We’ve picked up steaks and fabulous shrimp at a nearby supermarket that are so reasonably priced we can’t believe they taste as good as they do.
  
Food is fantastic value in Florida, whether you’re eating out or cooking yourself. Yes, there are a lot of burgers, fries and coleslaw, but it’s easy to get fresh salads and seafood too. In Siesta Key – an island off of Sarasota, a historic coastal town 90-minutes drive north of Fort Myers – we do a double-take looking at a menu. A dozen oysters for $14 (£9)? Yes please! We’re in the Siesta Key Oyster Bar and it’s Friday night, so the place is buzzing with a cool-looking holiday crowd in T-shirts and cut-off shorts. A live band is playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and the beer and margaritas are flowing. Later, when we take a romantic moonlit walk by the sea, I can’t believe how soft and powder-like the sand feels.

Follow that pelican: boats are the way to get around in Cape Coral

Sarasota is renowned for its cultural scene and architecture as much as its resorts and beaches. Like everywhere in Florida it is vast and spread out – no wonder the car is king. One must-do is a visit to the Ringling Museum, the former home of John and Mabel Ringling, world-famous circus owners from the 1920s, whose stunning Venetian Gothic waterside mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay. We spend nearly two hours riveted by its posters, props, showreels and – most impressive of all – a scale model detailing the massive operation it took to bring ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ to towns across the US in the pre-TV era. 

Also on our itinerary is Myakka River State Park, a 20-minute drive inland. Shady, tree-lined roads wind through miles of wetlands until we reach Upper Myakka Lake and board an airboat to ride out onto the lily-filled water. Ken, our captain and guide, is charming and knowledgable and easily holds our attention for the hour-long expedition, pointing out grey heron, sea osprey, vultures – and yes, alligators – all in their natural habitat.

Another – much more friendly – native of Florida is the manatee, a sea mammal that looks like a cross between a sea-lion and a hippo. Also known as sea cows, they are beloved by everyone you talk to in Florida, so we decide to check them out while staying at the Plantation Inn at Crystal River. Situated in a beautiful spot on Kings Bay, this eco-friendly hotel is an ideal place to stop before our early-morning rendezvous. By 7am we’re kitted out in wetsuits on a small boat venturing out onto the river, and just as the sun starts to rise we spot the manatees. Easing ourselves into the alarmingly cold, shallow water, Andy and I are instructed to stay very still and calm as we observe the huge, slow-moving creatures, which glide just inches beneath us, oblivious to our excitement.

Miami nice: a vintage car on Ocean Drive

Nature is undoubtedly a prime attraction in Florida, but the state has much to offer city-lovers too. There are great premium shopping outlets (with extra discounts for international visitors) and cool neighbourhoods to hang out in such as Winter Park, an Orlando suburb that developed in the 1880s as a winter retreat for the well-to-do from the chilly north. Now it has a village feel with grand homes, smart restaurants, chic boutiques and swish hotels like the Alfond Inn with its contemporary art collection and inviting roof-top pool.

If we started our Florida adventure with a bang, ending it in Miami is more like an explosion. The sun, the surf, the bars, the party scene, the art deco buildings, the galleries, Little Havana… This remarkable city is unlike anywhere else on the planet, let alone Florida. Our final days are spent topping up our tans on the beach, shopping at Lincoln Road Mall, and hanging out in the cool bars and restaurants on Ocean Drive. We’ve packed a lot into our fortnight, but I fancy we’ve only scratched the surface of what this fun-loving state has to offer.

Book now Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) offers flights travelling from London Gatwick to Orlando then back from Miami, from £482 return in November. Rent a car at hertz.co.uk.

Recommended places to stay are Disney’s Boardwalk Inn (disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/boardwalk-inn), The Alfond Inn (thealfondinn.com),The Plantation on Crystal River (plantationoncrystalriver.com), Hyatt Regency Sarasota (sarasota.hyatt.com) and Mondrian South Beach (morganshotelgroup.com). Osprey Villas (ospreyvillas.com) has luxury villas to rent in Cape Coral.

Info Fodor’s Florida 2015 (£16.47; Fodor) is a comprehensive guide, for more information see visitflorida.com. Useful websites include visitorlando.com, visitcitrus.com, visitsarasota.org, fortmyers-sanibel.com and miamiandbeaches.com.

Photos courtesy of Greater Miami CVB and Lee County CVB

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