Gulf Coast

Sunday Express, December 6, 2009

The utopian delights of old Florida

DUNCAN CRAIG heads to the ‘sunset coast’ of the Sunshine State for an invigorating break taking in the back-to-nature Gulf islands of Anna Maria and Longboat Key and the cultured city of Sarasota

I THOUGHT America didn’t do irony. So how is it that in the midst of the country’s brashest state lies one of the most serene, ecologically attuned enclaves you could hope to encounter?

The only trait this cultured west coast idyll seems to share with the rest of Florida is a top-heavy demographic; the enticing climate and favourable tax laws see US retirees migrate to the Sunshine State in huge numbers. If Florida is “Heaven’s waiting room”, then this pocket is very definitely the executive lounge.

The 30-mile drive south from Tampa airport took us across the delightfully named Sunshine Skyway Bridge, through downtown Bradenton and on to Anna Maria Island, our base for the first three nights.

Ninety minutes after touching down, my wife Eleen and I were stretching out on the balcony of our ample shore-front condo listening to the Gulf of Mexico waters stroke the wild beach below.

Eight-mile-long Anna Maria is the northernmost of the “barrier islands”, white-sanded, untamed slivers of land running parallel to the mainland.

Among the exotic, ubiquitous wildlife, we quickly developed favourites. For me, it was the pelicans, as deft in flight as they are ungainly on land. A great spot to watch their dramatic dive-bomb fishing raids is horizon-brushing Anna Maria Pier, to the north of the island where it thickens like a bone end.

We all leave our doors unlocked; it’s that sort of place

We took the turquoise trolley, part school bus, part vintage firetruck, through cutesy neighbourhoods of extrovertly painted weatherboard houses. The trolley is free, just like parking here; profit, indeed any type of bureaucracy or regulation, is anathema to laid-back Anna Marians. “We all leave our doors unlocked; it’s that sort of place, ” said Bill Burnley, 63, who left Merseyside a decade ago to set up Anna Maria Gulf Coast Rentals.

Meanwhile, Eleen was busy falling for the manatees. We watched a pod of these corpulent, slothful herbivores rolling around in a murky inland waterway of Bradenton’s Palma Sola neighbourhood like fatigued mud-wrestlers. Karen Fraley, a petite colossus of naturalist knowledge who runs Around The Bend Nature Tours, then took us kayaking.

We explored eerily still mangrove tunnels, the waterborne trees’ distinctive meshes of elevated roots alive with tiny black crabs.

As we emerged into a brackish river section, a dazzling snowy egret took flight, its golden slippers acting as an airborne rudder.

It was joined by a woodstork, then a banditmasked osprey. This rich habitat was almost paved over, like much of Florida’s wetlands (two-thirds have been lost in the past century). Thankfully, residents here are more enlightened, not to mention mischievous: the Robinson Preserve bears the name of the thwarted developer.

At nearby Cortez, one of the last commercial fishing villages in the Gulf, we devoured succulent calamari on the terrace-cum-jetty of the ramshackle Star Fish Company, watched by an insouciant great blue heron. It was a taste of old Florida, working trawlers and pontoon boats moored all around.

The village was the setting for the 1998 film Great Expectations, which starred Robert De Niro. One weathered home here trades on the association (it features as the Pip character’s boyhood home) but another, far grander property a few miles down the coast is a bigger draw.

Cà d’Zan, on the outskirts of Sarasota, was built in 1925 by circus tycoon, philanthropist and Italiophile John Ringling. The mock-Renaissance mansion is one of the jewels of a 66-acre estate that serves as the city’s cultural hub.

A short walk across banyan tree-staked grounds is one of America’s finest art museums, bequeathed by Ringling and his wife Mable. Hundreds of priceless paintings and sculptures hang in its hushed grandeur, including works by Van Dyck, Titian and Rubens. It’s certainly the only place I’ve been nose-to-canvas with a masterpiece while in shorts and flip-flops.

The museum’s courtyard, overlooked by a 25ft bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David (Sarasota’s emblem), hosts concerts and gala events, including this year’s inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival.

The museum is built around the oxymoronic ‘world’s largest miniature circus’

The site also includes an 18th-century theatre relocated from Italy and an excellent Circus Museum, built around the astonishing, oxymoronic “world’s largest miniature circus”. The estate, like much of the region, operates under the supervision of an army of silver-haired, mahogany-hued volunteers. “Stick to the walkways,” one of these sprightly senior citizens cheekily admonished as he whizzed past in a buggy, “most of us are pretty old.”

We took the causeway from Sarasota’s pretty marina to St Armands Circle, an upmarket shopping district described as “our Rodeo Drive” by one excitable local. Instead of haughty haute couture we found only quirky independents, such as the Spice & Tea Exchange, with its almond cookie tea and lime-flavoured sugar, and Crazy Shirts, for T-shirts dyed with everything from coffee and beer to recycled bank notes.

For the second half of our stay, we relocated to the exclusive Longboat Key Club & Resort, occupying twin, golf course-encircled sites on the island of the same name. Everyone from Charlize Theron to Brad Pitt has stayed here; we missed Bill Clinton by a few weeks. The effects of his notorious charm still lingered.

The resort boasts eight restaurants, the largest marina on Florida’s west coast and the newly opened, 20-court Tennis Gardens. Its pre-eminent asset, however, is its private beach, overlooked by our stylishly functional suite. We’d wander its creamy sands at dawn, deserted save for squads of sandpipers scuttling up and down with the advancing and retreating waves like indecisive power-walkers.

Twin-lounger cabañas here offer the perfect spot for a postprandial doze. Often, we’d still be there as sunset lit up the serene Gulf waters in a blaze of vermilion. Siesta Key, a couple of miles away, is among the world’s top five beaches. We didn’t even visit it.

There are two stand-out restaurants nearby. Beach Bistro on Anna Maria’s west coast is cosy, classy and serves a wondrous seafood bouillabaisse. De Niro made this his second home during his Great Expectations secondment. Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key has a more homely feel.

Sample the house specialty, prime peppered steak, before heading upstairs to the Haye Loft for gigantic, irresistible desserts.

We finished our trip ogling alligators in Myakka River State Park, a short drive inland. Deaf as a post, with a reptilian aversion to non-essential movement, “Cap’n” Jack took us out on the lake in his airboat for a narrated tour.

Visible only by the twin mounds of their eyes, the gators skulked menacingly around us before vanishing into the tannin-darkened water.

I braved a bowl of spicy alligator stew back in the lake-edge café, the chunks of curious meat lurking in the broth in a disconcertingly familiar fashion.

Another park character is “birder” Owen Comora. In between picking out warblers, American avocets and bald eagles for us to observe with his scope, Owen demonstrated iBird Explorer Pro on his iPhone and his mastery of bird-related puns (“one good tern deserves another” etc).

Like many we met on our visit, Owen was both migrant and volunteer. “I spent 47 years commuting between New Jersey and New York. This, ” he said, gesturing to the hauntingly beautiful estuary that surrounded us, “is payback.”

Heaven’s waiting room? In this utopian corner of Florida they’re already there.

* GETTING THERE: BA (0844 493 0758/www.ba.com/florida) offers seven nights room only at the Longboat Key Club & Resort from £939pp (two sharing), including return flights from Gatwick to Tampa; BA operates five services a week on this route, with flight-only prices from £399 return.
Anna Maria Gulf Coast Rentals (0871 711 5417/www.amgcrentals. com) offers one week in a Gulf-front property from £567 (four sharing). Alamo (0871 384 1086/www.alamo.co.uk) offers car hire from £125 per week. Around The Bend (www.aroundbend.com) offers three-hour nature tours from £72 (up to 10 people).
Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau: 0870 033 1501/www.sarasotafl.org; Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key CVB: 0870 033 1502/www.annamariaisland-longboatkey.com”