Wild 'n' arty Florida: Beyond the theme parks in the Sunshine State
Skip the theme parks in favour of galleries and wildlife in the Sunshine State. You'll be pleasantly surprised...
"When I was a boy, this was all grass," says our airboat captain, Robbie. "Now, the mangrove trees have taken over… more and more every year."
We're sitting in an airboat in the middle of the Everglades swamp in south Florida, many miles away from theme parks. It's the other end of the Sunshine State, in fact, and my wife and I are here to sample Florida's wildlife and art... beyond that provided by Disney and Universal. We're in the middle of it all on a hot October day, surrounded by alligators and crocodiles.
"Couldn't you cut the mangrove back?" I ask.
"No, you can't," Robbie replies with a shrug of the shoulders. "I don't know why. Nobody wants 'em. You can't shoot the alligators either."
I nod as helpfully as I can, not wishing to involve myself in such a debate. From first glance, it certainly seems as if the mangroves could do with some trimming - and not just because I really wanted to burst through the swamp grass like Roger Moore in Live and Let Die.
After gingerly taking some pictures of immobile alligators, I hear the airboat start up again. We put on our earmuffs to block out the noise, and head off at high speed through a sparkling swamp spotted with abundant wildlife.
A 45-minute drive later, and we're back at our base on Marco Island - a sedate and instantly appealing place just south of the city of Naples. It's pristine and pretty, with rows of nice houses and neat lawns, and mailboxes standing proudly to attention. Rivers and canals criss-cross with the streets, and almost every house has a boat tied up around the back. Big beaches facing the Gulf of Mexico have sand so white that it glows in the moonlight.
The next morning, we rendezvous for a guided WaveRider tour of the Thousand Islands. The WaveRider is a wonderful invention - essentially a jet ski where you sit on a stable, motorbike thing that rips through the surf at exhilarating speed.
The Thousand Islands lying just south of Marco Island are actually mangrove islands which have shifting sand that makes beaches appear and disappear according to the vagaries of the weather. As we cruise through the waterways, hundreds of large birds circle above our heads. The water is teeming with fish that flop out every now and again, and dolphins are easily found - adults and babies that play in the wake of our WaveRiders. I've never been in the middle of such a spectacular wildlife show. Combined with the adrenaline rush, it makes for a couple of the most wonderful hours of my life.
Farther north along the Gulf Coast, Sarasota has an altogether different feel. This is an American city with all the discrepancies between rich and poor that you would expect. Coming from Marco Island, it felt like stark reality. Once you settle in, though, you find that it's a spread-out city with a lot of great parts to explore: the stunning beaches on the 'sea' side of town, for example, or the buzzing Main Street with its bars and shops. I found it a fascinating pastime just sipping a beer and watching the amazing cars go by.
Sarasota has plenty of culture too, catering for its sophisticated residents.
This is a city whose cultural programme kicks off at the end of October, when the 'snowbirds' begin to arrive en masse from the Hamptons. Going to Don Pasquale at the opera house, we meet a dapper-looking pair from New Hampshire - Alden and Ginny Keyser - chatting away as we sip red wine during the interval.
The most prolific snowbird of them all, and the one who truly put Sarasota on the map, was John Ringling. Patriarch of the famous Ringling Brothers Circus, he was a millionaire with a boundless passion for art.
His circus wintered at Sarasota back when it was little more than a sleepy outpost, and he and his wife, Mable, set about establishing a great art museum, within the coastal parkland where he built his Venetian-style palace of a home in 1927. No expense was spared within or without, and the collection includes originals by European masters like Rubens, Velázquez and Bernini. Also within the grounds is the fascinating Circus Museum (ringling.org).
In Tampa, we got our taste of what a real downtown-feel American city looks like. The city's vibrant art scene is firmly focused on the contemporary, with the superb Tampa Museum of Art (tampamuseum.org) located on the edge of a public park overlooking the Hillsborough River. On the outskirts of the city lies Busch Gardens - a full- blooded Floridian theme park with all the hair-raising elements you want plus an enormous wildlife park.
A couple of hours north, the warm springs at Crystal River attract pods of manatees that migrate from the Gulf of Mexico. You can snorkel alongside these gentle 'sea cows' - we were early in the season, so the water was still murky, but it was a magical feeling, holding my hands to my chest like an excited child in case I inadvertently touched it.
Fun rides can be fantastic, but for some deeper thrills, it's hard to beat the wild and arty side of Florida's Gulf Coast.
Conor travelled with American Holidays (americanholidays.com), with car hire from Hertz (hertz.ie). Expect to pay roughly €1,599pp for the seven-night trip; flights and car rental included.
See visitflorida.com and paradisecoast.com for more.
What to pack
Bring good walking shoes, a water bottle, lip balm, small dollar denominations for road tollbooths that only take cash, a splash-proof camera, compact binoculars (for both the wildlife and the opera), a nice outfit for the opera, mosquito repellent and sunblock for the Sunshine State.
3 super stays
We stayed at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort (marriott.com) on South Collier Boulevard. It’s a five-star base with the beach at its back door, offering huge rooms with great views, excellent service and facilities and choice of activities with good range of restaurants. Worth a splurge.
Try the Aloft Tampa Downtown Hotel (alofttampadowntown.com) on 100 West Kennedy Boulevard. Situated in the heart of it all with gorgeous views across Hillsborough Bridge to the Russian-style Tampa University, it’s also a lively spot by night. More at visittampabay.com.
Plantation on Crystal River (plantationoncrystalriver.com; 9301 W Fort Island Trail) is a colonial-style hotel tucked away from it all by the water. The place is orientated towards golfing, kayaking and trips to swim with manatees. Consider it as a base on the Florida Gulf Coast section of your trip.
Read more:Tampa: 24 hours in Florida's most surprising city