Florida isn’t all Mickey Mouse ears and theme parks – it’s also a slice of paradise offering island-hopping adventures and beautifully vibrant beachfront hotels, well away from the crowds of Disney World.
To find the hidden beauty of America’s Sunshine State, you need to do as we did and head for the tranquil isles scattered off the West Coast in the southern stretches of the Gulf of Mexico.
The city of Fort Myers, nestled between Tampa and the Everglades National Park, is the gateway to a string of tiny islands including Pine, Sanibel, Cabbage Key and Captiva, where crystal clear waters lap on the golden sands. Further up the coast, at the southern mouth of Tampa Bay, you’ll find the seven-mile long Anna Maria Island.
It is home to the luxury golf coast resort of Longboat Key and the white sand beaches of Bradenton, where brightly coloured homes nestle alongside friendly beachfront restaurants. Here, we browsed the stores along the charming Pine Avenue, which spans the width of Anna Maria Island, and sipped fresh coconut juice in the sun, soaking up the sunny vibes.
'Old Florida' charm
Our first hotel stop was the laidback Pine Island, where we experienced the comfort of "Old Florida" at the traditional Tarpon Lodge. Accommodation includes the 1926 Historic Lodge, the Cottage, the Boathouse or the white stilted Island House. We stayed at the latter, where six of the 12 rooms boast views of the water from a private porch.
By night, this is the place to enjoy four-star fine dining while admiring the sunset over the marina. By day head out on the Calusa Heritage Trail, to learn about the indigenous Calusa Indians, or perhaps take a boat trip from Pineland Marina.
We were joined by a pair of wild dolphins who put on a playful show alongside us, which was a dream come true to see. At the secluded 100-acre island of Cabbage Key – home to free-roaming turtles – we loved the buzz of the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant where locals and tourists alike can enjoy live country music.
Life’s a beach
Our next stop was Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island. We stayed at the newly opened Mello On The Beach.
It has vibrant and eclectic self-contained suites each with a kitchenette, living area, bathroom and spacious bedrooms. After taking a dip in the outdoor pool, we rented bikes to explore the island before coming back to relax by the firepit at sundown.
Heading for the nearby beach? We recommend contacting BeachSuites for chairs, parasols and cabana rentals at $250 (£200) for a complete set-up. To cool off, order a refreshing cocolemon or cocojito from Am I Coconuts? delivered directly to your sunlounger.
If retail therapy is more your bag, head to Pine Avenue in downtown Bradenton. Pink & Navy Boutique is the place to pick up a new holiday outfit, while at Shiny Fish Emporium, for $15, we had a go at painting a sand dollar, which is a burrowing sea urchin.
History in the making
Fort Myers, aka the City of Palms, is located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, and popular for deep sea fishing. It’s also where famous inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford spent the winter – as we discovered on a guided tour of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates History Museum.
We gazed into their country style homes full of untouched details and admired the work in the laboratory where original equipment and machinery remains exactly as they left it. We also headed out to the nearby islands.
Sanibel Island is known as the "seashell capital of the world", with 400 types of seashells washing ashore every day. From there, you cross the small bridge at Blind Pass to reach Captiva where, during a water-based tour with Adventure Sea Kayak & SUP, we glided past a group of gentle manatees (or "sea cows").
Later, escaping the heat at The Bishop Museum of Science & Nature, we met staff who rehabilitate injured and abandoned calves.
We certainly made the most of the West Coast food scene. On the approach to Pine Island, we had a delicious Crabby Big Daddy omelette with a side of grits at the Perfect Cup Roastery & Cafe and a succulent prime cut filet mignon followed by mouthwatering homemade Key lime pie at Tarpon Lodge.
On Anna Maria Island, highlights included the chef’s tasting experience at Beach Bistro, which was divine – fresh seafood at Beach House Waterfront Restaurant and a pepperoni pizza drizzled in warm honey with a "pour your own pint" at Oak & Stone rooftop bar and restaurant in Bradenton.
But the quirkiest setting had to be at Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant, only accessible by boat from Pineland, where previous visitors have famously taped one dollar bills to every surface. Its legendary burgers are said to have inspired the song Cheeseburger In Paradise by the late US musician Jimmy Buffett. How to end your holiday on a high note indeed!
How to book
See Visit Fort Myers and Bradenton Gulf Islands for accommodation. British Airways offers direct return flights from London Gatwick to Tampa from £620.
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