Forget dear old Mickey. Florida's Gulf Coast offers wildlife of a different kind. Gentle sea giant manatees and wild dolphins skitting through sparkling surf. Scorching pink flamingoes and American Bald Eagles.
Mile after mile of soft white sand bordered by mangroves and painted lifeguard huts. Just pull up and go for a swim, no organisation required.
And have we talked about the places to eat? Beyond burgers and fries at a beach shack, Florida's Gulf Coast can swirl remoulade onto seared fish with the best of them.
And turn breakfast and brunch into an art. Speaking of which, that's a big deal here too...
Recommended reading: Swimming with Manatees in Florida: At Crystal River Plantation
Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, The Kiss. Not to mention the small communities of artists that flourish in and around Bradenton.
I set off with husband and young toddler in tow for a two week Fly Drive through Florida's Gulf Coast as part of the #thinktheusa project.
With no offence meant to the big theme parks that Florida is famous for, I was looking for something different.
For something calmer, more authentic.
Something that still had the element of discovery, the thrill of a surprise.
And I found it on Florida's Gulf Coast, soaked with great big skies and impossible blue.
From food to art, to marine life rescue to the curious morning spent tucking into an Amish breakfast, I found what I was looking for.
And I hope you will too.
This is the nuts and bolts guide to arranging your Fly Drive Florida trip. Hopefully, it will serve as a complete guide and itinerary for Florida's Gulf Coast so that you can put together a trip yourself.
And if you're still in the armchair travel phase of Fly Drive planning (whether that lasts for 20 minutes or 20 years,) no need to scurry off.
There'll still be plenty of photos, video and tales of derring-do (or don't) and I'll be back later with luscious travel stories without the interference of all the practical side of things.
Until then. Here it is.
Your complete guide to arranging a Fly Drive holiday in Florida.
Florida is a big old state and there's room for probably 4 - 5 separate two week fly-drives before you run out of ideas.
But pace yourself. Part of Florida's charm involves moving slowly through her landscape, across her water. When trying to see wildlife in the, well, wild, you need time. It's not like being in a zoo.
And while not quite as laid back as our two week fly drive to Louisiana, the pace of life in Florida still focuses on the good things in life, not the crazy schedules of the rat race.
That said, if you're travelling without children, you could pick up the pace here, probably spending one less night in each of the places if you're determined to cram things in.
But this itinerary leaves time for you to slow down and enjoy life. With a toddler, it means there's time for naps and early bedtimes and not too much time spent in the car. There's the chance for a run-around or swim (or both) every single day.
Restaurants are close enough to the hotels to mean that little ones won't be too late to bed. But none of them are plastic fantastic fare
I wouldn't recommend anything or anywhere I wouldn't be happy to visit without children, as a pleasurable or interesting thing to do in its own right.
And there's plenty of time to explore and think. That's rather the point of travel after all, don't you think?
Florida's Gulf Coast is peppered with airports but the one with the greatest choice is Orlando International inland. That made getting to the coast the longest stretch of the drive but it was still no more than three hours (and the airport is well signposted on the return.)
For car rental, we booked through Hertz again and couldn't have been happier with the pick up and drop off service at Orlando International. They also have a handy American Road Trip Planner, which is not only useful for plotting out a Florida Fly Drive but also leads you into temptation by making you imagine other great road trip itineraries..
Top Fly Drive Travel Tip
Register with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards BEFORE you make your reservation. Not only do you get access to better deals but you skip the queues at Orlando Airport and get to sail through to the Gold Plus Rewards counter. It's free to register and takes about a minute.
14 days car hire from Orlando with Hertz.co.uk costs from £400, based on room for two adults, baby, pushchair and luggage.
It's a straightforward but fairly unspectacular drive for the first hour or so from Orlando.
And then you get close to Crystal River, Manatee Capital of the World.
The streets seem to drip with green, as branches from deep trees fall to the floor to meet a rug of tangled tropical greenness. It's the northernmost point of this trip and the place that reminds me the most of Louisiana's Great River Road, all lush vegetation, grand white houses and plenty of alligators.
The small, spread out area of Crystal River has risen to fame as the Manatee Capital of the World, a naming convention that seems "110% American" and which we will see again.
But let's not be churlish. This IS a great spot for manatees and that, of course, is largely why we've come.
We made the most of our jet lag by scheduling an early morning swim in the waters of Crystal River in search of manatees (more about them on a separate article.)
And then, manatee fix satisfied, we could relax and explore the rest of the land around Crystal River.
The Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park, with its flamingoes, manatees and American Bald Eagles.
The Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Museum that traces back thousands of years of human activity through steep pyramids of shells that overlook the water.
And the beaches. Sadly under storm watch for our time there but impressive in their sandy tempestuousness nonetheless. If the weather is better for you, then try Hunter Springs Beach or Fort Island Gulf Beach.
Notes - if you've not had a long haul flight with jet lag, you may want to condense this section of the Fly-Drive itinerary. But if you only manage to reach Crystal River before you fall to sleep on day one then take your time. The grounds of The Plantation on Crystal River are beautiful for walking around. Plus, there's a golf course and spa ;-)
Sprawling complex with a grand avenue of live oaks as an entrance to its 232 acres.
On the edge of King's Bay and perfectly placed to arrange trips to swim with manatees.
If there's one place you MUST stop at on this section of the journey, it's Tarpon Springs.
Laced with more than a little kitsch, this tiny fishing village is, wait for it, the sponge capital of the world.
It's also home to a proud Greek community and the two are intertwined. Around 100 years ago, when the sponge beds were discovered here, young Greek immigrants had the skills to get them out and sell them. And if you're really lucky, you can hop on a boat for a demonstration of how this used to be done.
It's far more daring than it sounds, as you can see in the video below, arranged through St Nicholas Boat Lines.
Travel Tip: A Big Fat Greek Lunch in Tarpon Springs
Do it for me! Have lunch at Mykonos for the best Greek food I've tasted outside of Greece itself. And it may be even better than that.
From Tarpon Springs, it's just a quick 20 minute drive to Clearwater, so named because (I can't help myself) the water is clear.
The sand isn't too bad, either, and it's Clearwater more than anywhere else on this itinerary that seems set up for beach life. It's fairly built up but it's worth the stop off for more than just the sand and grouper sandwiches at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (although, they are sinfully good.)
I was under the impression that there wasn't a Morgan Freeman film in the world that I had not seen.
I was wrong.
Somewhat awkwardly, I'd missed Dolphin Tale, the true story of a dolphin who lost her tail in an accident and the aquarium who built a prosthetic tail to allow her to survive.
And saccharine as the story sounds, I found the visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium astoundingly moving. The main bulk of the work that takes place there involves marine rescue and research rather than entertaining visitors, but the visitors who do come are predominantly children. And overwhelmingly ones to whom life has struck a hard deal.
It seems that dolphin Winter's story of overcoming adversity, of having people who believed in her and fought for her, resonates with children with serious illnesses.
And seeing them there is humbling.
Short walk to the beach, local restaurants & Pier 60.
Situated between the Intercoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico.
Spacious swimming pool & bar. Great service. 287 rooms.
Stylish suite with kitchenette - perfect for family travel.
Next up is St Pete, short for St Petersburg, and awash with classy charm.
It's only a 45 minute drive from Clearwater, making this an easy day on the road, but the characters of Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St Pete are so different that it pays to spend enough time in each one.
We spent only one night in St Pete but I loved it there and hungered for more. So now, in this cyber world, I'm gifting the extra night to you ;-)
The razzle-dazzle feature of St Pete is the Salvador Dali Museum. And if the thought of travelling so far to see something so close to home confuses you, it shouldn't.
This really is a remarkable museum, with thought provoking tours, stunning architecture and better gazpacho than I had in four years of living in Spain.
Showcasing more than 100 pieces, the museum made me realise just how much of a genius Salvador Dali was. And the bright airy space made his work feel a lot less creepy: it gave it the space to breathe.
Stand in front of the Abraham Lincoln piece and see for yourself.
But Dali isn't the only big name in town. The Morean Arts Center hosts a permanent collection of Chihuly glasswork and lives on a whole avenue dedicated to exploring and understanding the arts.
Gorgeous historic hotel with a modern extension.
Lavish rooms and fantastic breakfast service. Great views across the Marina and fresh and funky Paul's Landing claims to mark the spot where oranges first reached Florida.
Walkable to the Dali Museum if it's not too hot and you have time on your hands.
It's another short drive (45 minutes) from St Pete to Bradenton but it's the kind of drive that sums up driving in Florida. Water everywhere. Blue skies everywhere. And concrete bridges sweeping across great swathes of even more blue.
Watch out for pelicans swooping as you make it over Highway 275.
Bradenton itself has a very different feel to the other stops on this Florida itinerary.
Most visitors, I sense, zoom on past to the well-heeled sands of Anna Maria Island, leaving downtown Bradenton with a quieter, more riverside feel.
From the 1930s historic Hampton Inn & Suites, you can walk to through Bradenton's Old Main Street and on to its new, creative Riverwalk, stopping off at Corwin's for ice cream along the way.
About Corwin's and Pier 22
Pier 22 overlooks the Manatee River and Twin Dolphin Marina, which makes for a remarkably beautiful setting for dinner as the sun sets.
But there's a local history connection, too, with the name coming from Samuel C. Corwin (1858 - 1934,) a local businessman who worked on and then bought the area around Pier 22.
Here splash pads and art installations wait just minutes from the South Florida Museum, home to a planetarium and some rescued manatees.
Further afield, a car is handy for checking out the quirky Arts Village (see the video below) and making a stop at two very different foodie stops: the citrus Mixon's Fruit Farm, which claims to serve the state's best Reuben sandwich, and Farmhouse Donuts, which serves donuts called Sweet Squealing Pig and Cow Patties amid rustic home decor.
You can also, of course, drive to the coast to soak in the sand of the lovely Anna Maria Island.
When it's time to drive on to Sarasota, stop off in the intriguing Manatee Village Historical Park en route for a look at how buildings used to look back in the pioneer days.
Historic hotel with plentiful parking and an excellent location for local art, history, culture and the Riverwalk.
DIY breakfast option. More on the Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton here.
It's the shortest drive to Sarasota, at only 30 minutes or so, but you're saving yourself for the drive back to Orlando, not to mention all the upcoming day trips.
Sarasota has so many things to do that she deserves an article all to herself and I shall return to link back to it here!
The behemoth that everyone begins with is The Ringling, half museum, half Renaissance fantasy.
Founded by circus magnates, John and Mable Ringling, expect to find vast art galleries, theatre performances and bayfront gardens and plan for a whole day here.
Often overlooked are the supremely gorgeous Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the world centre for orchid and epiphyte research with tranquil gardens that overlook the bay mixed in with truly creative floral art.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island also hits research headlines with its work on endangered species and its 135,000 gallon shark habitat.
But there is a danger of "Aquarium Burnout" with this itinerary, so if you think you could be afflicted then head outdoors instead with a Sea Life Encounters Cruise with Sarasota Bay Explorers (they work with and next to the Mote.)
We saw dolphins, osprey, crabs and snapper fish - and that's not even the half of it (see the video above!)
Reserve a day to drive inland to the moss and alligator wetlands of Myakka River State Park, stopping off in the Amish holiday enclaves of Yoder's on the way there and Der Dutchman on the way back for a legendary slice of pie.
New development St Armand's lines up chic eateries and concept surf stores into a compact, walkable circle (it's another legacy of the Ringlings, through both design and the Italian statues standing on the circle.)
And then there are the beaches.
Lido Beach lives just a short distance from St Armand's, with white sand and blue water.
And then Siesta Beach keeps getting ranked as the USA No. 1. Its quartz sand from the Appalachian mountains leave it white and cool underfoot, and the painted lifeguard stations give its horizon an iconic, timeless feel.
Beaches run for miles along Siesta Key; parking is pretty easy and access is free.
If you can squeeze in an extra day then drive further south to Venice Beach.
Otherwise, it's time to pack up the car and head back to Orlando (leave three hours to be on the safe side if you have an international flight to catch.)
That's it for this Fly Drive Florida itinerary. More on different aspects of the #thinktheusa project soon.
Disclosure: We worked in partnership with some great companies to help put this trip together, while always keeping the right to write what we want, the way we want, of course (it gets a bit pointless otherwise.) We've mentioned them where appropriate in the text, but also the key partners were Hertz UK and Visit Florida, with internet access from Cellhire.
Internet on the Move
Crucial for navigation, quickly checking closing times and, er, wasting time on social media networks (!), mobile internet seems more and more essential on a road trip. But it can be pricey and a bit fiddly to get set up with a SIM card at the airport (and diabolically expensive to use most roaming mobile data networks.)
We tested out renting a mobile wifi device (aka a mifi) - great for a family trip as everyone can join a single device instead of replacing all your SIM cards. Plus, you keep your original phone number in case people from home need to contact you (work, hospital appointments, relatives, nurseries etc.)
Cellhire is a world leader in mobile communications, providing travellers with voice and data connectivity all over the world. The USA MiFi, one of Cellhire’s most popular products, is frequently chosen by travellers wanting instant data connectivity abroad; and it works in the majority of tourist destinations. With super-fast 4G speeds and available on a 5GB or 10GB bundle, the USA MiFi ensures you’re able to connect multiple devices safely and securely for as little as £50 a month.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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