Florida coast gave me Keys

The Gulf Coast is perfect winter and summer.

By Andy Mossack, April 22, 2010
Anna Maria Island: a place to wander. It epitomises a sense of the island lifestyle

Anna Maria Island: a place to wander. It epitomises a sense of the island lifestyle

I have to confess I fell hopelessly and completely in love with the pelicans. It became my morning ritual to go out the back door of my beach condo and watch them forage around the ocean looking for fish for an hour or so. It was just the birds, me and a glorious stretch of powder-white beach. This was Florida's western Gulf coast, a world away from what many of you would think of Florida.

This coast of Florida and in particular Sarasota and her neighbouring islands Siesta Key, Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, offer temptingly tropical retreats that are simply too hard to resist.

Connected to each other via a network of bridges, each one has a distinct identity; from elegant Sarasota with her culture, arts and lively downtown to the laidback island life of Anna Maria. Just a hundred or so miles west from Orlando, you'll feel you've entered another world. A world of soft white sandy beaches, brilliantly turquoise warm gulf waters, year-round sun, glorious sunsets and a way of life that's positively Caribbean-like.

There's a circle in Sarasota. Not just a circle in the conventional sense, but a chic and trendy circle with upmarket restaurants, boutiques and Italian marble. This is St Armand's Circle, and if you're one of the beautiful people, it's where you go to see and be seen. A sort of Floridian Beverly Hills without the traffic.

It's come a long way since John Ringling, a man so fundamental to Sarasota's development, bought a mangrove swamp in 1917 to develop it into a shopping and residential area. Much of his planning is still evident there today, together with a few marble statues from his vast estate just a few blocks away.

But these days, it's all about swish gourmet restaurants and up-market European boutiques. Actually, behind Sarasota's laid-back beach visage lies a cosmopolitan city full of culture, arts and heritage with more than 10 theatres, 30 art galleries, a lively downtown area and more than a few tasty attractions.

Getting there

British Airways (www.britishairways.com; 0844 493 0 787) offers direct flights to Orlando, from around £580 return in May and June. Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com; 0844 209 7777) has return direct flights from £455. Alternatively, fly to Tampa or Sarasota with US airlines, including Delta (www.delta.com). Beach Palms Cottages (www.beachpalms.com; 001 941 349-9900) has Beach View suite from $225 (£145) per night or $975 (£631) per week, for double occupancy

Topping this list is the 66-acre Ringling Campus. The Ringling Brothers were circus magnates back in the 20's, bringing The Greatest Show on Earth to American families right across the country.

The brothers made Sarasota their home and bought huge chunks of land. Today there are still examples of circus life with The Flying Trapeze Academy for example. John Ringling, in his heyday, was worth over $200 million and built a huge estate to show off his wealth. Strolling around the gardens you'll soon arrive at Ringling's opulent venetian-style winter home.

Everything in there; the antique furniture, the murals, the carpets, the chandeliers, have been fully restored, so just gawp at all the over-the-top grandeur and imagine what happened at those fabulous dinner parties. Also on the campus is the Circus Museum with its authentic posters, costumes, and my personal favourite, the original clown props, complete with exploding car and cannon.

Also here, spread over 3,000 square feet is an amazing replica of a complete circus built over 50 years by Howard Tibbals. It really illustrates just what huge businesses circuses were back in the day. And to top it all, for art lovers, Ringling's jaw-dropping priceless art collection. A few blocks on is G.Wiz on the Boulevard of the Arts, right next to the tourist centre. It's a science museum that really makes learning about technology and scientific facts fun.

There's three floors of activities where you can try out all different kinds of experiments and scientific gadgets . I loved it.

For foodies, there are literally hundreds of choices from beach snacks to fine dining al fresco. You can pick up an excellent restaurant guide at the Sarasota Visitor and Convention Bureau but try Bijou Café, a Sarasota institution where you dine bistro-style in the historic area of Sarasota close to the opera house.

Café L'Europe is your opportunity to mix with the in-crowd in St Armand's Circle. The onion soup is a must have. Both restaurants offer a wide range of vegetarian and fish dishes too.

There's also a big Jewish community in Sarasota, with two large synagogues, Beth Sholom and Emanu-El. There are no strictly kosher restaurants but plenty of kosher-style ones, all listed in the Jewish yellow pages on the federation website.

Just eight miles long, Siesta Key contains probably the finest public beach in Florida. The soft, white sands stretch for miles and the eclectic lifestyle is a haven for artists, musicians and writers. The island is made up of mostly beach hotels and apartments.

Alternatively, Beach Palms is a collection of romantic luxury cottages just steps from the beach and a five-minute walk from the Village. Each cottage is well appointed with luxury linen, a fully fitted kitchen, air conditioning, TV, private patio area, hammock and sleeps up to six people. Rates are around $1,600 for a week and kids under 14 can stay free.

Lying at the very heart of the island community is the lovely Siesta Key Village. This has a real bohemian feel to it, with local shops, restaurants and businesses providing all you'll ever need during your stay. It's a great place for people-watching, and at night, transforms into a busy bar and club scene with live music and plenty of atmosphere.

The SKOB is the liveliest place in the village with a live band every night and good, wholesome food including plenty of salads, pizzas, vegetarian and fish options.

The Broken Egg offers the best breakfast in town with just about every variety of egg dish ever invented. It's been part of the village life since the 80's and there's even a small art gallery inside.

Longboat Key is mile after mile of towering luxury apartments and hotels, dominated by the Longboat Key Club and Resort which owns and operates a 5 star hotel, two and a half golf courses, a marina, a world class tennis centre and a luxurious spa and gym.

It is also home to the oddly named Euphemia Haye, tucked away in a glorious colonial style house and one of the finest restaurants I've eaten in. Try the smoked salmon on buckwheat crepes and zucchini tagliatelle. Around £100 per person. La Playa is a really charming set of privately owned luxury self catering condos managed by a couple who really care about providing personal service, whether it's a greeting basket of essential items, or information about the local turtle nests.

There's also over 200 feet of private beach and plenty of wildlife as neighbours. I loved it.

Anna Maria Island epitomises the sense of an island lifestyle community, where doors remain unlocked, the locals are friendly, the sunsets are picture perfect and time just passes by slowly and gently.

Catch the free trolley car to get yourself around the island, fish on the old wooden Rod and Reel pier, or get a taste of old Florida on the historic Bridge Street Pier.

Anna Maria is really a place to wander around either on foot or hire a bike and discover its lovely nooks and crannies, but remember you're never far from a wide soft white beach here. If you're looking to rent a bike, canoe or a kayak tour in then Beach Bums is the place for you.

Just about everything that moves is available here, even a Surrey bike where the whole family can get on board and pedal. Very friendly people and the tours are headed up by experienced guides.

The SandBar Seafood Restaurant may not offer the best gourmet dining, but it does have a sunset front row seat.

Every night this beach restaurant is the place to watch the sun go down. There's also live music too. The sea food menu is quite acceptable and the service very attentive, but it's the view you'll be going there for www.sandbar-restaurant.com

So that's my Gulf tour, and wherever you decide to base yourself you'll either get an extra few days break from Orlando park fever or just a glorious standalone holiday.

Last updated: 3:13pm, July 19 2010