Driving down the seemingly endless wide open roads I am reminded just how accessible America is. I was fortunate enough to fly stateside for New Year’s Eve and see in 2019 exploring Florida’s west coast on a mini-road trip. After an 8 hour flight with Virgin Atlantic I was welcomed with 28 degrees and perfect sunshine in the city of Orlando, a much-needed climate from the grey chill of the UK. Many come in droves for the infamous Disneyland, and if you’re a fan then it’s certainly the destination for you. You don’t need to enter the park to be infected with the contagious magic. From air hostesses wearing glittery Minnie ears, to telephone pylons in the shape of Mickey Mouse, you can’t go far without the reminder that Disney is on your doorstep. And yet, that was not the reason for my visit; I had 2 days to absorb what the west coast could offer up for the New Year.
After a jet-lagged sleep in The Florida Hotel & Conference Centre it was an early rise, heading straight for Sanibel Island, recommended to me by several people – it seemed its reputation preceded it. A mere 3 hour drive from Orlando, through a concoction of trailer parks, fields and shopping outlets until we hit the sun-kissed tranquility of the Gulf of Mexico. Fueling up on an American style breakfast (had to be done) we then made our way to Sanibel Island by way of several road bridges across the water. Also known as Florida’s Barrier Islands, they are naturally formed by shifting sands that build upon an existing sandbar to eventually form an island, each well connected by road bridges with beautiful views along the way.
The west coast is also well known for sea turtles nesting from March through October, many of the beaches are private but the public ones have plenty of information at all the access points in an attempt to protect the endangered species.
Sanibel itself is quite the destination mainly due to its wildlife parks, specifically the Darling National Park, and also the endless beaches full of incredible shells. I enjoyed the simplicity of walking along the coastline, finding some shells to sneak back for the kids. Swimming in the warm Gulf is a must, followed of course by gorging out at the Sunset Grill for the Island’s freshest seafood. I indulged in the coconut shrimp and the ‘Grouper Rueben’ – a grouper sandwich with swiss cheese and coleslaw – a.k.a perfection. Sitting on the deck was the ideal spot to contemplate where I might end up for New Year’s Eve. The spontaneity would either make the trip or be my downfall – being the busiest night of the year!
Luckily I wasn’t alone in my decision and my friend (a fellow seasoned traveller) and I felt that New Year’s Eve on Venice Beach would be a particularly fun way to start the year. Venice was attractive partly due to the great looking beaches and partly due to it being the only hotel room left this side of Tampa! We arrived just in time to grab some beers, snacks and head to the beach to catch the sun setting on 2018 for the last time. A quick word of caution – it can be frustratingly tricky to access the beaches; many are private and have access points few and far between. Luckily we persisted, and found our spot in the sand to watch the sun go down. Apart from a few thin and wispy cirrus clouds we had a beautiful clear blue sky and once I’d set up a time-lapse to capture the end of 2018 we drank as the sun dipped below the ocean.
After a quick shower and change to look less ‘beach bum’ and more ‘party ready’, we hit the only Beach Bar in Venice, hoping they could squeeze us in. We were in luck! Sharky’s (aptly named) is smack bang in the heart of the Shark Tooth Capital of the world, where some people visit just so they can search for rare shark teeth. We managed to get two tickets and a table relatively quickly despite the majority of Venice Beach descending on the bar for the celebration. It was the ideal relaxed Beach Party, serving up seafood, frozen cocktails and an eclectic mix of live music right on the beach. What better way to see in the New Year, celebrating with a friendly group from South Carolina and a stunning firework display off the pier.
Thanks to my son, my body clock did not acknowledge my hangover, and I was up at 6am, probably still a little tipsy, and most definitely exhausted. Nevertheless we hydrated ourselves, took some paracetamol and manned up to continue our journey north. We were headed to Siesta Key – yet another beautiful island in the area of Sarasota. Its relaxed charm was ideal for us to recharge and get some breakfast. After some much needed food at ‘Another Broken Egg Café’ we scouted out some white sandy beaches, full of people relaxing on New Year’s Day. Although it was tempting to stay (forever) we eventually pushed on to our final destination – Clearwater.
Situated in Pinellas County, Clearwater was voted 2018’s #1 Beach in America by TripAdvisor, part of the Top 10 Beaches of the World and it was made Forbes Best Spring Break Beaches as well. Despite the slight over-crowding of New Year’s Day it was truly a stunning stretch of perfect white sand, clear blue water and colorful architecture lining the shores. It certainly lived up to the hype, and we spent our last few hours relaxing and resting before our late drive back to Orlando.
Our whistle-stop tour was a great way to get an overview of what the West Coast has to offer, it’s ideal for families and those looking for something quieter, and shows a world outside of Disney! It is plentiful in romantic hotels, beautiful food and family friendly resorts. If you’re looking for something more lively then it may be worth staying on the East coast and possibly venturing south towards Miami – the West coast definitely gets my vote and is well worth setting aside a few days from your Florida vacation to enjoy.