There’s more to Florida than Disney. Look a little further and you'll discover an abundance of natural beauty in this geographically diverse state
It’s only 10 am and the humidity is intense. I’ve been paddling down Hillsborough River barely 20minutes and I’m already sweating like a man at a disco wearing a duffel coat. After a shaky start, I begin to find my rhythm and am enjoying the park's peaceful solitude. Suddenly, from behind, a faint calling resonates through the mangroves, snapping me from my mellowed state.
‘Do you mind swapping with one of the girls from that canoe over there?’ asks sturdy group leader Brian Faulk, in his strong southern drawl. He is pointing at a canoe in the distance zigzagging from bank to bank like a ball in a pinball machine. Brian’s a man I took a liking to quickly, short and stocky with the brawn of Crocodile Dundee and the brains of Bill Oddie. ‘Er, yes, I’ll swap’ I reply trying to sound brave - and failing dismally. Let's face it: disembarking a canoe mid-water comes with its own set of logistical difficulties. Add some six-foot alligators and it becomes a task befitting only a hero or a madman.
I have visited America many times in the past, yet most of my memories are of being holed up in a tour bus, staring out at endless miles of tarmac and only stopping to eat fatty burger at roadside diners. Wanting to discover a more picturesque, eco-friendly side to the country I decided to head to the geographically diverse state of Florida. Not being a fan of tacky theme parks or commercial tourism, it may seem like an unusual choice - but hidden behind the shadow of Mickey Mouse lies an abundance of natural beauty relatively untapped by British tourists.
Where better to start my four-day trip than with an intrepid canoe excursion at Hillsborough River State Park? The park may be only 80 miles from the metropolis of Disneyland but it is quite the antithesis. Its diverse ecosystem is tightly compacted into 16,000 acres of pretty forests, mangroves and waterways, all begging to be explored. It’s jammed with thousands of species of indigenous wildlife including vultures, opossums, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, red-bellied turtles and, of course, those alligators that right now are totally freaking me out.
‘This is not a Tarzan movie. They won’t come after you,’ Brian mocks, as the girls I’m actually trying to help begin to giggle at me! As I stand wobbling with one foot in each canoe I can’t help thinking of how effortlessly Bond brushes his crocs off in Live and Let Die and what a wet blanket Brian must think I am. The joke is, these ‘friendly gators’, as Brian calls them, are no real threat, preferring to avoid human contact unless provoked (this is reflected in only three attacks in as many decades). The morning finishes with everyone safely completing the excursion: no one was eaten and in a (very) small way I’d been a bit of a hero. Brian’s company, Canoe Escape, provides superbly-run river excursions, well worth the 25 bucks.
After lunch I set off south along Highway 301 towards Tampa Bay, stopping at the 40-acre Big Cat Rescue (BCR). The centre is a non-profit charity dedicated to the welfare of Florida’s wildcats, not only educating visitors about the plight these animals suffer but allowing us to get dramatically close to them. BCR is currently home to the largest collection of exotic cats in the world, such as white tigers, snow leopards, bobcats and lions, to mention a few. The basic entrance charge is £11, or £25 if you want to join the keepers during feeding time.
Arriving at the park I meet Nottingham-born keeper Chris Pool, a softly-spoken redhead with hands like concrete slabs. Walking around the pretty grounds, Chris shares his vast knowledge of the cats and the huge task they face to ensure their future survival. ‘Twenty bobcat skins are needed to make one coat,’ Chris sadly explains. Bobcats are still reared for fur by unscrupulous breeders and keeping huge cats such as tigers is, surprisingly, still legal in Florida. As I peer into a tiger’s cage, the mere thought of someone unqualified handling such a hulk of an animal is terrifying. I thoroughly enjoyed BCR - never have I been so close to a wild animal and it's clear they’re well looked after. If, like me, you’re an animal-lover, it’s a must.
After an exhausting day, I head to the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay overlooking the bay. It’s my base for the first two nights and the five-star luxuries are just what I need. I chuck my bag in my room, head to the outdoor pool, order a margarita and start to wind down after my dramatic encounter with Florida’s wildlife. Later, feeling rested, I venture out to find some evening entertainment in Tampa’s nearby Latin Quarter: Ybor City.
Spanish-American industrialist Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor founded Ybor City in the late 19th century when he turned a patch of Tampa’s scrubland into a housing area for the thousands of Cuban immigrants working at his cigar factories. Today Ybor’s culturally diverse neighborhood is arguably one of Florida’s number one nightspots offering a plethora of busy bars, clubs and eateries.
When I arrive a carnival-like buzz is already brewing. The place naturally exudes friendly charm and has a vibrant flair, making it instantly infectious. Exotic aromas of roasted coffee, cigar tobacco and barbecued food fill my nostrils; hypnotic Latin rhythms boom from bar to bar. It‘s quite hectic. The feel-good holiday atmosphere makes you want to get drunk, take off your top and dance like a madman on the tables but it is now only 7 o’clock - pace is in order; it is going to be a long night! The sun, now rapidly descending, is still kicking out temperatures into the high eighties – a beer is needed.
I head down one of the narrow brick streets lined with magnificent colonial Spanish buildings; there’s more of an old-world charm here (a rarity in a country where mall culture rules). I finally end up on 7th Avenue, where it’s primarily geared towards tourism, with bars offering two-for-one drink deals, live music and discos. I stop at a nice looking place called Casa Havana, a wonderfully grandiose ‘cigar house’ complete with attractive 1950s-style Cuban interior design that epitomizes Ybor City’s Latin influence. Flopping myself against the large dark oak bar, I order a Corona and one of Ybor’s famous hand-rolled cigars and savour every moment.
A little further east along 7th Avenue is the oldest restaurant in Florida: The Columbia, founded in 1905. It seats up to 1,600 diners at a time and is hugely popular with both tourists and locals. The restaurant's stunning edifice is a fusion of Latin architecture, intricate tiling and wrought iron features and in my opinion is by far the most attractive building in Ybor City.
I take my seat in the restaurant's bustling main atrium near a splendid mosaic fountain. Busy waitresses whizz food orders overhead and noisy diners knock back seemingly endless jugs of the house sangria. The food is great, with old classics like the Spanish bean soup and spicy meatballs making it well worth the visit. For an extra $6 you can book a table in the the Siboney Dining Room and take in the first-class flamenco show between 8 and 10pm. The other rooms are split between various courtyards, halls and patios so it never feels too crowded and has tons of personality. The Columbia is not just a restaurant - it’s a night out!
The next day I check out of the Grand Hyatt and make my way over the five-mile long Skyway Bridge towards Sarasota where I will spend the remaining two nights at the swish Ritz-Carlton hotel. Sarasota is an ideal base from which to explore the sugar barrier islands that run the length of the Gulf of Florida. The city itself is cosmopolitan with a nice laidback vibe attracting different tourists from young affluent sun-seekers to more mature golfers and shoppers. I waste no time and head to the Ritz-Carlton’s private beach club, where I intend to while the rest of the afternoon away catching some rays.
I wake bright and early and travel northwest from the hotel along Gulf of Mexico Drive over the Longboat pass towards Manatee County’s pretty Anna Maria Island. The best way to fully appreciate Anna Maria’s natural beauty is to hire bicycles; I rent mine from Neumann’s Island Beach Store for around £7 and make my first stop at the restaurant at the end of the rickety Rod and Reel Pier. As I’m eating breakfast, I start chatting to a charismatic ex-pat named Deborah, who must be in her 50s and looks good on it. ‘Don’t tell too many folk about my island,’ she whispered. ‘We love it the way it is.’ And it’s not hard to see why: Anna Maria, for now, is pleasantly untouched – a sandy playground I fell in love with on first sight.
It’s one of Florida’s hidden gems, described by locals as ‘a slice of paradise’ and unlike many of the other islands on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria is yet to be spoilt by towering condos or over-inflated tourism. Yeah, there are some large, impressive houses owned by the ‘barefoot millionaire’ residents but the architecture is low-rise and respectful.
I cycle to the northernmost beach on the island, Bean Point, where I meet Karen Fraley, owner of tour company Around the Bend Nature Tours. Karen’s spent much of the past 20 years promoting the conservation of Florida’s wild lands and I hoped she would share with me some of her exceptional knowledge of the island's eco-heritage.
Standing on the sugary white sand, looking out over the crystal-clear waters, I feel I’m in paradise. Karen points out a group of herons resting on a small sand dune about 50 yards out to sea. Further in the distance a few fishing boats bob on the horizon. The only noise is the gentle lapping of waves and a few hungry seagulls. I’m in a serene beach heaven. Karen and I walk and talk till we reach a turtle nest concealed behind some attractive pink and orange beach flowers. The nest is labeled with the date and time it was found - it had only been a few hours previously but Karen had already cordoned it off with bright tape to protect it.
Florida may be better known for its overcrowded theme parks and drive-through burger restaurants, but what I discovered was something very different. The Sunshine State may just be the surprise jewel in America’s crown, a place to revel in nature’s finery, a place for red-hot nightlife and a place with some of the best beaches in the world.
Where to eat
Beach Bistro: boasts the highest Zagat rating for food and service in Florida, and is perfectly situated on one of Anna Maria’s white sandy beaches. This highly acclaimed restaurant serves the finest surf n’ turf imaginable. For starters I ate butter poached lobster (£11.50), and for my main bistro braised short ribs (£32) - delicious. (6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; 941-778-6444; www.beachbistro.com)
Sulas Deli & Coffee Shop: for something more laidback, try one of Ybor City’s famous Cuban sandwiches (£2.50) - sweet Cuban bread filled with ham, salami, pork and Swiss cheese. It’s a mouthful, all right. (1605 East 7th Avenue, Ybor City; 813-241-9526)
Where to drink
Ceviche: this ultra hip rooftop bar serves the best White Russian cocktails (£6) in the world, the DJ plays an eclectic mix of Latin and European dance and the crowd is smart and stylish. The tapas downstairs are excellent too. (1502 South Howard Avenue, Tampa; 813-251-1827; www.ceviche.com).
The Siesta Key Oyster Bar: enjoy a cold beer (£2) and slurp some iced oysters (6 for £3) on the deck of this flip-flop-style beach bar. One of the best bars on Siesta Key’s party street, with swimsuit-wearing crowds spilling into the road during half-price happy hour. (5238 Ocean Blvd, Siesta Key; 941-346-5443; www.skob.com)
Where to stay
The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota: an elegant, sophisticated hotel, offering a mix of casual Gulf lifestyle and cosmopolitan chic. It has an equally impressive beach club three miles away, with shuttle buses that run every 15 minutes to and from the hotel.
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay: this resort-style hotel is perfect for holidaymakers with families. Set on 35 acres of ground, with a wildlife preserve on the upper shores of the bay, two swimming pools, a small private (man-made) beach and plenty of restaurants to chose from. Ideally located for access to Tampa’s attractions.
Tampa: 020 7253 0254; www.visittampabay.com.
Sarasota: 0870 033 1501; visit www.sarasotafl.org.
Florida’s Gulf Islands: 0870 033 1502; www.floridasgulfislands.com.