Florida isn’t just sunny, says Dom Joly, it’s home to…the nicest people on the planet

I hate Florida, or at least I thought I did. I had travelled to the United States many, many times before filming commitments took me to Miami for the first time. It was love at first sight. Like a stunning cocktail, Miami was a blend of the best of American can-do culture and Cuban/ Latino energy, ever-present sunshine and Art Deco architecture to boot. But while Miami was seriously cool, I still felt that I was right about the rest of Florida. To me it was a vast swamp populated by alligators, rednecks and the worst kind of British tourists.

Alabaster sands and happy faces: Dom, Stacey, Jackson and Parker on the beach at Anna Maria Island

Alabaster sands and happy faces: Dom, Stacey, Jackson and Parker on the beach at Anna Maria Island

Alabaster sands and happy faces: Dom, Stacey, Jackson and Parker on the beach at Anna Maria Island

So I was more than a little nervous before taking a flight to Orlando, a flight so packed with families that there was an extra 30 minutes’ boarding time in order to deal with the stroller-jam. I could feel that this might not be my kind of holiday – a half-term break with the kids to the Gulf Coast, while trying to avoid taking them to theme parks. And yet… as we cruised in over Cape Canaveral, that excited feeling I get every time I visit America hit me again. This is the wonder continent. I’m never dismissive when people spout the usual line about 70 per cent of Americans not owning a passport.

Why travel abroad when all of this is on your doorstep? I probably wouldn’t go abroad either. I could never be bored of America, and I determined to give the rest of Florida a fair crack of the whip. We picked up our SUV from the car rental place. As usual, this process was as smooth as most customer relations matters in the States. A man just looked at my coupon, waved me over to a row of vehicles and said: ‘Take your pick.’ It was the polar opposite of the UK, where you have to produce four living great-grandparents and pass a psych test to rent a Reliant Robin. It was late and getting dark. I roared out of Michael Mouse Town as fast as possible, hoping that my daughter Parker and son Jackson wouldn’t notice the multitude of bright signs inviting them to spend days in kid heaven/parent hell theme parks.

Old-school charm: The pool area at the Mainsail Inn on Anna Maria Island

Old-school charm: The pool area at the Mainsail Inn on Anna Maria Island

Old-school charm: The pool area at the Mainsail Inn on Anna Maria Island

On our way to the city of Sarasota, we stopped at a fast-food joint called D’Arbys. Back home, this would be a slightly depressing, unhealthy experience. In the USA it’s an exotic, exciting, unhealthy experience. Fast food somehow just makes sense in America. It’s part of the scenery. We loaded up on roast beef sandwiches, curly fries and jalapeno poppers. ‘We love America,’ chanted the kids as they tackled sandwiches bigger than their heads. I knew we must be approaching Sarasota when the tattooed Brit pedestrians started to give way for rotund Floridians in shorts, golf shirts and obligatory baseball caps.

Sarasota bills itself as a place ‘where urban amenities meet small-town living’. It’s possibly the worst slogan for a city since Melbourne’s ‘A nice place to live’. Rubbish as they are, however, both slogans are correct. Sarasota is a wonderful place, with a series of keys stretching up the Gulf Coast opposite the city. We started on Siesta Key, an island that claims to have America’s No 1 beach. That’s quite a claim, and I wondered what the qualifications were. The sand was certainly the finest and whitest I have ever seen, but was it really better than Hawaii? We went for a walk on the sand at dawn the following day, and it was like stepping on to a velvet carpet. I was impressed, although perhaps a little underwhelmed, given the hype.

Shop in style: Chic St Armands Circle at Lido Key

Shop in style: Chic St Armands Circle at Lido Key

Shop in style: Chic St Armands Circle at Lido Key

We looked out over the Gulf towards Mexico – thankfully there was no sign in the water of the hideous oil spill that threatened the tourist industry here in 2010. I was relieved, as I thought there might be some residual anger at the BP Deepwater Horizon accident and, by proxy, at us. But anger, I soon discovered, is an almost unknown entity on these keys. I know Americans are habitually ‘nice’, but the inhabitants of Sarasota and the surrounding keys make Canadians look like hostile jerks . . . and they’re the ‘nicest’ race on Earth.

It was almost as if somebody had dropped a happy pill in the water. Not that there wasn’t a lot to be happy about. There is the constant sun, for starters – this is not a place for rain-lovers, though there is the occasional hurricane. We headed into central Sarasota to have a look around. It was pleasant, if a little empty. Looking for some action, we drove to St Armands Circle at Lido Key. This part of town has that very rare thing in America – a roundabout.

The Circle is one of the principal shopping hubs of Sarasota and is a totally fabulous place to wander about. The kids went crazy in the multifarious ice-cream stores while I assuaged my chilli addiction in Pepper Palace, a shop that deals in every hot sauce known to man. I sampled the legendary Ghost Pepper, and rather regretted it for the rest of the day. Later, my wife Stacey and I had ginormous, delicious, stone-baked pizzas in Venezia, an Italian restaurant run by Argentine-Italians. Completely unsolicited, locals hearing our English accents would come up and recommend things for us to do – kayak over to Midnight Pass, try the Ringling Museum, go to the Blue Dolphin for breakfast…

That night I decided to spoil the family and we checked in for some serious luxury at the Ritz-Carlton, whose main benefit, apart from astonishingly good service, is its sumptuous beach club on Lido Key. It’s a place where people read Vanity Fair, not for escapism, but to see what their friends are up to. I loved it. The following day we drove north to Anna Maria Island, where we met Captain Wayne for a fishing trip. Now I know nothing about fishing and was pretty sure this would be a wasted morning away from sun and fun. How wrong I was.

We reeled in so many groupers, mackerels and yellow jacks that it was as if a frogman were placing them on our hooks. On the way back to shore, we cruised alongside happy pods of dolphins and spotted a vast eagle ray sunning itself on the surface. The kids were all beside themselves. Back on land, we drove to the north end of Anna Maria Island. Here, at last, was ‘old’ Florida, full of brightly painted beach shacks. We hit the Sandbar, a local institution, and scoffed plates of delicious food seemingly prepared for a family of giants.

Fittingly, I spotted a gentleman waddle past on the beach. He wore a T-shirt that read ‘I’m not fat, I’m American’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We waddled back to the Mainsail Inn, our home for the next couple of days. We had a seriously tasteful flat overlooking the stunning beach. Stacey and I poured ourselves some wine and sat on the balcony watching the sun set. As the final rays dappled on our faces, we spotted three dolphins frolicking in the sea about 100 yards away. A pelican swooped down for a final fish supper. The sun disappeared, there was a momentary green flash, and then it was night. It was time to sleep, to dream of island life, manatees, and margheritas… I love Florida. Did I say that already?

Travel facts: Plan your own American adventure

America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299) offers a seven-night holiday to Sarasota and Anna Maria Island from £1,330pp, or £3,820 for a family of two adults and two children aged between two and 11.

This includes return flights on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Orlando, fully-inclusive car hire, four nights at the Ritz-Carlton at Lido Key and three nights self-catering at the Mainsail Beach Inn on Anna Maria Island. For more information, visit bradentongulfislands.com and visitsarasota.org.


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