Far from the theme parks and glitzy nightlife elsewhere in the state, you can find the real Florida in its art, beaches and circuses
When your toes first curl around the warm, icing-sugar-fine grains of sand that edge Florida’s Gulf coast and ring its surrounding barrier islands, you know that you are in for a relaxing holiday. Look up and you might see pelicans circling above your head. Look around to spot little kids seeking out crabs in the rock pools and bigger kids dotted around the jetties trying their hands at fishing. This is the Florida of yesteryear, the place for a traditional family seaside vacation.
Resting between the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to its West and Tampa Bay to its North, on the west coast of Florida, the Gulf Island area includes the barrier islands of Anna Maria and Longboat Key; and the mainland areas of Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch. Both the islands are accessible via bridge from the mainland and each other.
The peak season, as dictated by the number of American visitors, runs from February until Easter. The Gulf coast area, however, boasts a year-long tropical climate – temperatures rarely fall below 24°C, so it’s a year-round holiday destination. To avoid the crowds consider the quieter, hotter summer months of June and July, when prices tend to come down too. The rainy season generally runs from June and runs through to October, but this generally means only an hour of rain each afternoon. If you’re prepared for this, it’s not such an inconvenience.
This is very much an outdoors location and no matter how long you plan to spend here, you will never run out of things to do in the sunshine. Along the 27 miles of sandy coastline you’ll discover secluded coves, nature trails, fishing piers, barbecue pits, beachcombing hubs, bustling family focused beaches and places to perfect your waterskiing and surfing. On firmer land, when it comes to shopping, culture and sporting activities, there is just as much diversity.
Anna Maria Island
Just seven and a half miles long and less than a mile wide, the quaint Anna Maria island is dotted with pretty pastel coloured boutique inns, intimate resorts and holiday cottages and is the place where you can really get up close with nature. Boasting the largest open estuary in Florida, here you can watch the huge aquatic mammals manatees, see dolphins, roseate spoonbills and egrets. Go kayak fishing in the backwaters for redfish, snook and speckled trout or dive in the off-shore reefs for a chance to see Goliath Grouper. Visitors in July get the extra bonus of being able to join a morning turtle nesting beach tour on the island.
This is where you will find luxury hotels, family-style resorts, boutique inns and fantastic restaurants amongst the manicured lawns and cute southern-style architecture. Put aside an evening to watch the sunset from here – it’s just beautiful.
Over on the mainland the Bradenton area is home to the vibrant Village of the Arts. Pick up the Art Walk guide for a self-guided tour of this artists’ community with its art galleries, jewellery boutiques and craft shops. Art lovers will also enjoy the nearby John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on a 66-acre estate on Sarasota Bay. As well as housing the official art museum of Florida, featuring American, European and Asian masterpieces, the estate also features a stunning waterfront mansion and the Tibbals Learning Center, home of the miniature circus.
In fact, the whole Gulf Island region has strong connections to the circus. If you’re feeling agile you can attempt the flying trapeze at The Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Academy. And if Circus Sarasota with its spectacular big top show is in town, be sure to book a ringside seat.
Over half the land in this neighbourhood is given over to open and recreational space, which includes an adventure park, nature trails, boating and fishing lakes, football, baseball and softball fields, picnic and barbecue spots. No need for four wheels here. You’re encouraged to get around by foot, bike or rollerblade.
Tampa is the closest international airport to the Gulf Island area, just 45 minutes drive away, with a flight time of around nine hours from the UK. Orlando is a one hour 45 minute drive away.
It’s often said that you really need a car to see America, but this is one place you can get away without one. Bikes, which can be hired locally, are seen as the best way to get about and on Anna Maria Island you can hitch a free ride on the Manatee Trolley bus, which runs the length of Anna Maria Island every twenty minutes.
Where to stay
There is accommodation to suit every budget and taste, with hotels in every class, a large number of lovely privately-owned condominiums and cottages, camping grounds and aparthotels for those who want to combine the services of a hotel with the flexibility of self-catering.
Restaurants to try
Le Ceviche Restaurant in Sarasota is a four-floor tapas restaurant located in the historic Times building with an incredible roof bar overlooking the water. For seafood in a relaxed atmosphere go by The Anna Maria Oyster Bar and for fine dining check out the Beach Bistro.