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Blown away by the real Orlando



Clear water Kayaking

Clear water Kayaking

Philip tries his hand at iFlying

Philip tries his hand at iFlying

The StarFlyer is most definitely the scariest chairoplane on earth

The StarFlyer is most definitely the scariest chairoplane on earth


Clear water Kayaking

In hurricane terms it was a pretty big deal - the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in nearly 170 years bringing 150mph winds and over 10 inches of rainfall in just 12 hours.

Thankfully we were nearly 300km from the epicentre in Panhandle, Florida, but the omens are good and every weather channel assured us that Hurricane Michael would pass without episode.

Huge relief all round as the jam-packed itinerary is promising to show us the real Orlando - which means circumventing the other Michael (Mouse), Seaworld and of course, Universal studios.

Blessed by its subtropical climate (Florida is not called the Sunshine State for nothing) Orlando is surrounded by freshwater lakes, natural springs, lush swamps, nature trails, parks and vast wetlands that are home to its unique and wonderful wildlife, including its legendary alligators.


Philip tries his hand at iFlying

Philip tries his hand at iFlying

Philip tries his hand at iFlying

So what better way to get acquainted than on a bicycle along the West Orange Trail - Orlando's longest paved rail-trail. At 24 miles long there is a variety of touring options - from two-hour jaunts to see the antique shops in downtown Winter Garden, to fast-paced road rides along the length of the trail.

We opted for a leisurely spin along the brick-paved streets through Orlando's most historic tree-lined neighbourhood to the quaint Plant Street Market where you can sample the finest organic food and craft beers in the state.

The pizza was simply delectable and the black stout (from the Crooked Can Brewery) worthy of several taste sessions - just to be sure!

A torrential downpour failed to dampen our spirits as we headed to Lake Osceola for a scenic boat tour of Winter Park - a playground for the rich and famous spanning back to the early 1800s. Look on in wonderment as the small craft meanders through the narrow canals on the tranquil chain of three lakes where you'll spot not only palatial mansions, but large cranes swooping to snag a tasty snack, or something a little more ferocious lurking in the shadows.

That taste of nature left us craving more so the following day we embarked on a real adventure - kayaking in clear-bottom boats with Get Up and Go Kayaking.

Rock Springs Run is a spectacular route through what can only be described as enchanted forests of palm trees bedecked in eerie Spanish moss which leads to wide open savannahs. The water is crystal clear and a vast array of life awaits with raccoons, white-tailed deer, otters, turtles and if you're lucky, even a Florida black bear might make an appearance.

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The humidity was stifling and a dip in the crisp depths of a secluded lagoon - known only to our Texan guide - proved a most refreshing treat and a memory that will stay with me forever.

All that paddling and swimming really builds up an appetite and boy were we in for a culinary treat?

Billed as Orlando's most romantic eatery, Maxine's on Shine is indeed a unique dining experience and one which is sweeping across the US.

Located in a typical suburban neighbourhood, (ordinary timber-famed homes either side) the 1940s-themed restaurant offers an eclectic menu in funky and somewhat erotic surroundings. The Passionate Shrimp was to die for, the Drunken Mussels divine and the Black Angus Sirloin Steak was as delicious as our host herself, the infectous Maxine, a real force of nature. She joined us for a glass of wine (or two, or three) and regaled us with tales of how she single-handedly changed the laws surrounding liquor licences and small diners.

If you are looking for something more mainstream then look no further than Mangos Tropical Cafe in the middle of I-Drive (International Drive). Pack your dancing shoes as the Latino beat sweeps you away in between several lavish courses.

If that's too lively, then a visit to the Bulla Gastrobar is highly recommended as it is renowned for its wonderful hand-crafted cocktails and mouth-watering tapas-style cuisine. Drinks later at Mather's Social Gathering - an 1800s-style speakeasy bar on the third floor of a furniture store - sipping gin and tonic from a bath-shaped glass topped a wonderful evening.

Shopping with a hangover is never good but there's nothing like a bargain to bring you round and there's nowhere better than the International Premium Outlets (on International Dr and Vineland Ave). It's home to 180 high-end shops, including Levi's where you can get not one, but three pairs of jeans for just $120 (€105).

A must-see for those seeking a little bit of culture is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art where you can lose yourself in a kaleidoscope of colour and light. It's home to the world's most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany's works (most famous for his stunning lamps). Located in scenic Winter Park, exhibits include Tiffany jewellery, pottery, paintings, art-glass, windows, lamps and an elaborate chapel interior created for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The museum also houses a major collection of American art pottery and representative collections of late 19th and early 20th Century American art.

But visiting Orlando wouldn't be the same without a massive adrenalin rush and what better tonic to lift the spirits when our hang gliding event was grounded by high winds than a spot of indoor skydiving.

The iFLY experience involves a super powerful vertical wind tunnel which will literally defy gravity to give you the closest feeling of free-falling without actually jumping out of a plane. A massive dollop of trust is needed and a few simple hand gestures and you are airborne. One small tip to the inexperienced - don't get too cocky - I almost ended upside down on my second attempt.

If that's not enough to scare the living daylights out of you then head straight to the all-new StarFlyer - the world's tallest swing ride which rises 450ft above the city. Try to time your booking for sunset for what promises the most spectacular panoramic view of Florida.

Those less adventurous can walk across to the ICON, a 400ft tall big wheel (like the London Eye) with 30 enclosed glass capsules where one can see as far as the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral.

It, like the real Orlando, is truly out of this world - and unlike the crazy weather event, it managed to really blow me away.

Getting there


The StarFlyer is most definitely the scariest chairoplane on earth

The StarFlyer is most definitely the scariest chairoplane on earth

The StarFlyer is most definitely the scariest chairoplane on earth


* Direct flights from London Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic

* Seven nights in the 4-star Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort

* 1 bedroom villa (room only)

* Includes flights & rooms

* Based on 2 adults & 2 children (under 12) sharing. Starting at £479pp.

Orlando International Premium Outlets: Orlando International Premium Outlets is Florida’s biggest outlet shopping destination and is located less than five minutes from Universal Studios and only 10 miles from Walt Disney World Resort. It offers more than 180 designer and name-brand outlet stores — including Saks OFF Fifth, Neiman Marcus Last Call, Victoria’s Secret, kate spade new york, Nike, Adidas, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Steve Madden and Salvatore Ferragamo – with savings of up to 65pc.

Websites: uk.simon.travel/

Visit Orlando: www.VisitOrlando.com

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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