Picture this if you will, driving down Interstate 192 in your convertible, sun on your face wind blowing in your hair (for those lucky enough to still have hair). To the left there is a sign for Disney, to the right another for Universal. But wait! What’s this? We have passed both exits! Why? Surely there can’t be anything other than the theme parks in Florida? How wrong you are…
When I first started my obsession with Florida (yes, I do have a very healthy obsession with the place), It was back in 1997. I did the usual theme parks, day in day out and loved every minute of it BUT, I have to be honest and say there were times when all I wanted to do was kickback on a beach somewhere , sun on my back, cocktail in hand, enjoying some of the freshest seafood on the planet.
With over 300 days of sunshine and 700 miles of white sandy beaches, I soon realised I was in the beach capitol of the world and didn’t even know it! I soon got to thinking about how many other people have enjoyed the delights of rollercoaster’s and adults dressed up as cartoon characters, without even attempting to see beyond the realms of manufactured entertainment.
Well, wonder no more and come with me on a journey of discovery (apologies at my Disney like attempt to grab your attention but it did sound a lot better in my head).
The first place of any significance you will come to are the beach resorts of St Pete’s, Clearwater and Treasure island. Here you will find an array of great value family accommodation with spectacular views across the ocean, offering easy access to the theme parks (about 1 hour drive) and less than 30 minutes to Busch Gardens (should you need an extra theme park fix).
Want your own space but stay close to the beach? To get the best of both worlds, I suggest you stay around Sarasota / Bradenton / Siesta Key area. Here you can choose from a villa within a gated community, complete with golf course or the beach fronted option with spectacular vista’s, no matter which way you look. Of course there are an abundance of hotels too – options to suit all requirements.
Siesta Key – This is the type of beach that we all think of when we’re sat at work watching the rain trickle down the window, wishing we were somewhere else. It has mile upon mile of white sand that stretches further than the eye can see (trying to avoid clichés’ but when you see this beach you will understand). Siesta key has some of the coolest bars and eateries lining the beach front, giving you access to spectacular views of the sunset, whilst sipping your Mojito and trying to explain to the American couple on the next table that “I don’t know your uncles friends cousin who lives in a lil’ ol’ town called Birmingham”.
Bradenton Beach – This has a much more local feel about the place, as it literally is at the end of Downtown Bradenton. Here you will find the world famous Skinny’s Burger joint, which is little more than a wooden shack perched on the edge of the beach – a 60 year old family run business. You don’t get table service or a choice of 20 different burgers, but what you do get is a taste of real Florida, and one of the juiciest burgers you will ever have the pleasure of eating.
Anna Maria Island – This is the place to see dolphins that have an uncanny knack of turning up just as the glowing vibrant sun is setting for the evening, giving a signal for huge pelicans to mine sweep the beach for any scraps that may have been left behind. You can also guarantee that at one of the 3 beachside restaurants, there will be a Floridian in a tasteful shirt strumming his guitar to a Jimmy Buffet classic. All of this just adds to the beauty of nature unfolding before your eyes.
Naples – Just a few hours’ drive down the coast will bring you to the palatial town of Naples, which has just about something for everyone. Whether you favor flip flops and T-Shirts or Gucci loafers and Armani suits, Naples welcomes you to a place residents and visitors alike call “Paradise Found”. Why not jump on the tourist bus which takes you all around the town, pointing out which Hollywood A lister lives where and is a great way to get your bearings. You can also jump on a world famous Everglades air boat tour which takes you deep in to swamp territory, allowing you to get up close and personal with many of the local residents or alligators to you and me! There’s a great Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, where you can take a cruise on an old paddle steamer discovering forgotten lands and mystical creatures. Not forgetting, Naples has the largest percentage of millionaires per square foot than anywhere else in the World! Commence dream sequence…
Boca Grande – Famous for 2 things. 1. It’s the chosen holiday destination for Former President George Bush (don’t let that put you off) and 2. The only mode of transport acceptable for the locals is the tried and tested golf buggy. After a 45 minute boat ride across the dolphin infested Gulf of Mexico you will stumble upon old colonial Florida. There is a wonderful mix of old and new cultures blending together to give you a nostalgic experience, from 5 n Dime stores to local diners. They even have an old rail track running down Main Street; it really is like being on a movie set.
Miami- If you are feeling a little more adventurous, then why not jump on a local catamaran that will take you over to Miami. Here you can marvel at the art deco buildings, whilst holding your stomach in so not to look out of shape next to the plethora of well toned residents! Stop for lunch at one of the many great beach fronted eateries where you can sample the catch of the day, sip on a refreshing rum based cocktail and have an opinion on everyone who walks buy.
Downtown Sarasota – If you’re looking for some lively / fun entertainment then look no further. Why not start off in Smoking Joes Sports Bar? With its classic American feel, sports on the box, pool tables and probably the best jukebox in whole state of Florida. After sinking a few cold ones at Joes, move on to The Gator Club a few doors down. The Gator Club is famous for its live music and party atmosphere. They play all sorts of live music from Bob Marley, Green day , The Stones and some good old fashioned Brit pop. If you’re still standing after all that and feeling a tad peckish, then head off to the I-hop a few blocks away which is open 24 hrs. Have you ever eaten steak and chips at 02.30 in the morning? I have.
For the old romantics (or those who appreciate beauty), try a sunset cruise from Sarasota! There are a few to pick from but all include drinks, entertainment (usually James Tailor styli) and some of the best views you will see in your life. Not to be missed!
Siesta Key – If you’ve always wanted to wear that Hawaiian shirt that your parents brought you back from their weekend in Cleethorpes, then look no further. Siesta key has a real Caribbean feel about the place, which is reflected in its sights, sounds and smells. Hang out at the Siesta Key Oyster Bar – an open fronted shack type bar, which serves some great bar snacks and where you can enjoy an iced bucket of beer or cocktail of your choice. The theme here and in fact everywhere along the strip is laid back casual. Move from bar to bar, enjoying the sounds of Jimmy Buffet and steel bands adding to that Caribbean feel.
Beach bistro – If want to experience fine dining Floridian style, then you have to attempt to get a table at the Beach Bistro. Reservations only but well worth it. Set right on the beach with spectacular views (a must for sunset) and very attentive specialised staff who are extremely knowledgeable about the food they serve and the wine they pour. The food here is exceptional, ranging from Grey goosed infused tomato soup, to one of the finest steaks you will ever have the pleasure of eating, and it really is melt in your mouth quality.
Outback – This is an Australian themed steak house, with a hint of American sports bar about the place. Reasonably priced, good quality food and plenty of it, they’re a popular chain of restaurants that seem to be popping up of all over Florida and cater for all types. Here you will get a frosted beer mug and a pitcher of Bud to help wash down the surf and turf you just ordered. However, do remember to leave room for the enormous desserts they have on offer!
Beef O Brady’s – A family fun restaurant that has loads of activities to keep the kids occupied, whilst you snack on their world famous buffalo wings with a choice of about 20 different sauces. I always go for the hottest wings, cooked in what they call “Nuclear” sauce, (not for the faint hearted). They do all the classics here from burgers, pizza’s to fish n chips and all very reasonably priced. There is a real home from home atmosphere and they even do a quiz night on a Tuesday (which can get a tad competitive but still loads of fun).
So in closing (I could go on for hours)… Florida is one of those truly magical places. Of course it has some of the best theme parks and water parks in the world, that will keep everyone entertained / drained from dawn to dusk but aside from that it’s a place where you can relax on the softest white sandy beaches and discover a place that feels like you have stepped back to the colonial days of yesteryear. Florida really has something for everyone, so why not pack your case, jump on a plane and discover your very own Florida
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