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Florida’s gulf islands and the best beach in the US
4:26pm Friday 4th May 2012 in Freetime
Ruth Brindle continues her Sunshine State vacation. After all the action of Orlando, she finds the perfect place to relax
After five days of full-on activity in Orlando my husband and I set off for the gulf coast and, while many Brits head for Clearwater and St Petersburg, we were keen to go further south to the islands of Anna Maria and Siesta Key.
Just two and a half hours from Orlando, these barrier islands are the perfect retreats. Anna Maria Island is seven miles long and in places you can even see from one side to the other. The sea is an inviting light green and the laid-back lifestyle feels like going back in time. No high-rise buildings – three stories is the highest allowed, with white sand, clear waters, relaxed dining, superb seafood and the chance to do, well, absolutely nothing.
Our spotless and spacious, tropical-themed apartment at the Tortuga Inn Beach Resort (http://www.annamariaislandresorts.net/) overlooked the bay area and was just across the road from its own private beach. With a large sitting room, lanai, large kitchen, utility room and even, my favourite, a spa bath, we felt pampered. You can also choose motel rooms here and studios.
The resort has just opened its own French-style café and you can order room service from there, if you don’t want to cook. The property, along with sister resorts on Anna Maria, are being upgraded to offer Activision, an interactive service linked to 40 inch-screens, also with 3D through which you can watch TV, find out about the area, play games or even order takeaway!
Exciting as this is, the real thrills here are of the natural kind. Watching the sunset is not only enjoyable, but a virtual commandment here.
At this very popular time of year, it’s advisable to book at any of the beachside eateries to get a good table to take in the sunset – such as the excellent Beach House, The Sandbar or Bridge Street Bistro. Then immerse yourself in the full panorama of pink and orange hues while sipping your wine and tucking into the freshest of seafood such as grouper, snapper, swordfish or coconut shrimp, steak or any number of filling delights.
For a breakfast on the beach we had only a short walk to the Gulf Drive Café and Tiki, where I had fresh fish for breakfast too and we shared a plate of hot pancakes, the size of which threatened to defeat us both.
A free trolley service runs the length of the island, every 20 minutes, or as near as ‘island time’ allows. There are three separate areas, Bradenton Beach in the south, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria itself with its 100-year-old city pier. We enjoyed the small, individual shops in the area’s quaint Pine Avenue, where I found an excellent vintage emporium called Relish. Couldn’t resist the faded Minnie Mouse t-shirt. The area also has a particular English connection with Mike and Lizzie Thrasher, founders of Organix baby food in the UK, who fell in love with the island and are now property owners and benefactors of a renowned green energy-powered shopping district on Anna Maria.
At one of these delightful shops, Beach Bums, I was introduced to Captain Scott, who was my guide on a gentle and relaxing kayak paddle along the island’s man-made canal and out into the bay, watched by some bored-looking, but ever-present pelicans. We spotted a white ibis, plenty of jumping fish and heron along the way. But ex-schoolteacher Scott told me he has also often spotted dolphins on his longer outings.
Just a couple of miles further south is Longboat Key, a more upmarket area, with gorgeous homes and discreet accommodation fronting onto the gulf. It was here I enjoyed a gourmet cookery lesson at the Euphemia Haye restaurant, with famed chef Ray Arpke, or just Chef Ray, as he likes to be known.
A small group of us keen home cooks watched, learned and picked up useful cooking tips as he prepared a three-course lunch, which we then all happily sampled, thanks to his kitchen staff, accompanied by excellent wines. It was a fun couple of hours and the restaurant, very cosy and romantic, a firm local favourite for more than 30 years, due, no doubt, to Ray and his charming and lovely wife D’Arcy’s commitment to quality and creating a great atmosphere.
Reluctantly leaving this area, we headed a half-hour’s journey south towards Sarasota on the mainland and one of its six barrier islands, Siesta Key. This is officially the USA’s best beach of 2011, as rated by the US expert known as Dr Beach, Professor Stephen Leatherman (http://www.drbeach.org/ tested by 50 criteria). Because the sand is made up of 99 per cent quartz it is also the silkiest sand in the world, and when you set foot on the vast powdery white expanse you can see why.
It has everything – lots of room to relax or play, nearby amenities, toilets, showers, food outlets and eating areas, lifeguards and all kept in pristine and beautiful order.
When we arrived, it was the busy Presidents’ Day holiday weekend, but this gave the area extra buzz. It’s more built up and sophisticated than the laid-back Anna Maria, and both on the island and in nearby Sarasota, there is an amazing array of activities for all tastes. Whether you are a culture vulture who likes ballet, opera and art galleries or a circus lover – the area has a strong connection with the Ringling family – you have no excuse to be bored. The nearby Myakka River State Park is the place for those looking for Florida wildlife experiences.
With just a short time to get acquainted with Siesta Key, however, we were quite content to savour the super relaxing ambience of our charming Pineapple cottage at the small, traditional Florida-style Siesta Key Bungalows’ accommodation (http://www.siestakeybungalows.com/) set beside tranquil Heron Lagoon, minutes from both Siesta Key beach and the quieter Turtle Beach, named for the barrier islands’ popularity with loggerhead turtles who lay their eggs here between May and October.
We found the bungalows an oasis of calm and loved nothing more than sitting by the lagoon at night enjoying the peace and quiet. For those with more energy, there were bicycles available free and kayaks ready to launch from the jetty.
So you can see why it was so hard to leave these gorgeous barrier islands. But we’ll be back. There is so much more to see and do and we can’t wait to experience it.
Seven nights at the Tortuga Inn in the Bradenton Area and seven nights at Siesta Key Bungalows in Sarasota, based on travel in May, for two people, including flights and fully inclusive economy car hire, costs £1,940.
For more information, or to book, visit http://www.americaasyoulikeit.com/ or call 020 8742 8299.
For further information on the Bradenton Area, visit http://www.annamariaisland-longboatkey.com/ and Sarasota http://www.sarasotafl.org/
Visit the website http://www.visitflorida.com/ for information on the Sunshine State.