Florida wasn’t somewhere on our must visit list, in fact it didn’t feature at all. But when Samantha’s sister invited us to her beach wedding on Anna Maria island, near Tampa and Bradenton, we thought we’d make a holiday of it. Especially after the effort of a long haul flight with an 18 month old baby.
Whenever we mentioned our family holiday to Florida, it was assumed we were going to Disney World – “it’s not really our thing” we replied. For our first week we’d focus on the wedding, staying with close family in an Airbnb on Longboat key. For our second week we drove up to Georgia and Jekyll Island. Between these we’d visit Cape Canaveral, and on our last day, yes, for one day, because we were flying home from Orlando, we paid a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
We flew with Sam’s mum, on a 7 hour Virgin Atlantic flight to Orlando. Having 3 adults to 1 baby made the flight easier, and in seats offering a bassinet and extra legroom, we played and entertained each other, the time passed by, and we didn’t need our TV screens or movies.
We rented a car big enough for 3 adults, baby, luggage and buggy (or stroller as we’ve come to know it). That meant a mid-sized SUV, still a small vehicle on America’s roads. We rented through Alamo, and after landing (and a brief foray at customs where we decided to declare some clementines rather than leave them on the plane – don’t do this, it’s not worth it), we picked our car – “pick any one you want, the keys are on the dashboard”.
In our white Hyundai Tucson automatic we pulled out of the parking lot and into Florida’s bright sunshine, aircon blasting, Apple maps giving directions – our destination 3 hours away. After a brief mixup, a wrong turn and a U-turn, we were travelling West along FL-417 then the interstate I-4. Wide lanes, and plenty of space made driving easy, though Orlando’s evening rush slowed us down. We drove past the turning for Disney World, a Mickey Mouse eared pylon indicating Disney’s territory.
Spotify played a calming yoga playlist, and Conway slept in his new oversized car seat. We kept going all the way to Fruitville, Sarasota, the bridge to St. Armand’s then north to our condo. Harry’s convenience store gave us all the immediate reserves we needed.
The pictures of our Airbnb condo made it look diminutive. It was not, and it welcomed us with high ceilings, light rooms and comfortable furnishings. It looked East, out onto Sarasota bay, visible through classic Venetian blinds and palms and yacht masts. An outdoor balcony sat above a lush blue swimming pool.
In the bay we watched brown pelicans, fishing bald eagles and once in a while a dolphin or two would surface close by.
At dawn the morning sun turned everything a glorious rich orange.
We’d given ourselves enough time before the wedding activities to acclimatise and relax. On our first day it was all about overcoming jet lag, getting Conway onto the right timezone, eating and trying to relax. We were up early, and had porridge (oatmeal) and coffee for breakfast.
Sam, Conway and Sam’s mum (Nana) enjoyed a swim in the pool, a bald eagle overlooked them from a nearby tree. I tidied, and then while Conway napped – for 3 hours – Sam and Nana drove to Publix to buy lunch.
The bride and groom to be joined us for lunch, and we ate delicious fresh pastrami with pickles, cheese, chips and ginger ale.
Around 5:30 we grew hungry, and realised that despite the morning’s trip to buy food, we didn’t actually have anything for dinner. This would be the only night we could have dinner with Nana, we quickly got our things together and headed out to find a restaurant.
Euphemia Haye was nearby, and its one of the best restaurants in the area, offering a fine dining experience – they didn’t have a table, but – they did have space upstairs in The Loft – a separate and more casual affair, with some of the same fantastic food. Nana and I ordered expensive duck, Sam had a prawn Cesar salad and Conway – as usual – got the best pickings from all of us – and a free banana he’d spied on the dessert counter.
We rounded out the meal with two giant slices of key lime pie to go.
Conway was soon au fait with our condo, he was just tall enough to open some of the doors, he ventured into the kitchen and explored all the cupboards, he kicked and threw his beach ball off the walls, and danced when we put music on. This morning he ate porridge in a new pink polo shirt, outside a flock of pelicans flew by.
This morning, before it got too hot, I took some time out to find a route to the beach. As the crow flies it’s super close, but the road is lined with private mansions and private beach access, and there’s no obvious way through.
A 10 minute walk north and there’s public beach access, to a pristine beach with soft glowing sand, calm blue water, washed up shells and seabirds. Ruddy turnstones, willets, sandpipers, sanderlings and laughing gulls peruse the wet sands. Later in the year you’d find turtle tracks too.
We ate our take-home key lime pie on the balcony, the sugary sweetness of 2 slices still too much when divided by three. Nana left with the to-be weds and best man, firstly to help buy all the wedding booze, then going on to stay with the parents of the groom. They were running errands all day – up and down the county buying things, finding things, getting suits, picking up guests from the airport and more.
In Brighton we walk everywhere – from our flat we stroll into town, go to the beach, do our shopping or go to appointments. Everything is accessible on foot. Longboat key, and by extension Florida and the USA are the opposite, places are designed for big cars – roads are wide, parking lots big and plentiful, and everything spread out. This took some getting used to.
We needed to hop in the car for everything, and then, particularly from Longboat key, everything is at least a 10 minute drive. It’s 10 minutes to the nearest shop, but 40 minutes to most places in Sarasota or Bradenton, where the wedding chores were. If you’re in a car, the massive parking lot means parking is always easy – the ‘where will I park’ anxiety that comes with driving in England isn’t a thing here. There’s always a space. It’s just, to get from a shop to the one next door, you need to drive too.
While Samantha and Conway napped, I took a trip to Publix and we cooked a chilli con carne.
We live by the sea, but since Conway has been walking we haven’t been down to the waterfront – it’s been winter and the water is shockingly cold. When the afternoon had cooled, and we wouldn’t instantly melt into a pool of sweat, we took the stroller out to the beach.
We covered ourselves in SPF50 sun lotion, donned summer hats, and stepped through the sands down to the sea. We let Conway meander to the water’s edge in his blue beach shoes, and when the waves washed in and covered his feet he giggled with glee. With each wave there was excited laughter, mummy lifted him and they played at dodging the waves, or just embraced the cool sea water, wide smiles on our faces.
I stayed at home to babysit while Sam joined the wedding party and family for an evening meal of fondue in Sarasota. Grandad (and father of the bride), landed in Tampa, and he would be staying with us for 4 days.