In search of... The thinking person's Florida

There's more to the Sunshine State than Disney World. Victoria Summerley finds a mouse-free zone on the Gulf Coast
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The Independent Travel

To most people, Florida means package tours and Walt Disney World, loud shirts on Miami Beach or an encounter with an alligator in the Everglades. But on the Gulf Coast, you'll find peace and quiet, miles of white beaches, and even a smidgen of culture. And it's a perfect place for a sun-and-sand family holiday during February half-term or at Easter.

To most people, Florida means package tours and Walt Disney World, loud shirts on Miami Beach or an encounter with an alligator in the Everglades. But on the Gulf Coast, you'll find peace and quiet, miles of white beaches, and even a smidgen of culture. And it's a perfect place for a sun-and-sand family holiday during February half-term or at Easter.

You're not going to tell me you took your children to Florida without going to Walt Disney World? You're taking the Mickey!

Hand on heart, they didn't want to go. I thought they'd change their minds as we headed out of Orlando on Interstate 4, bound for St Petersburg and the Gulf Coast. But we passed Disney exit after Disney exit (Animal Kingdom! Epcot!) and there came not a squeak from the back seat.

S o where was this mouse-free paradise?

We were headed for the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa on St Pete Beach, which lies on a spit of land called Pass-a-Grille Island between Boca Ciega Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. St Petersburg is about 20 minutes away by car. The Don (as locals call it) is itself a landmark – a point of reference on navigation charts, no less. It's a stupendous pink wedding cake of a place, covered in turrets and twirly bits.

The Don? Sounds like something out of the Mafia

Oh, absolutely. It was built in 1928, one year before the St Valentine's Day Massacre, and Al Capone roamed its corridors, as did F Scott Fitzgerald. But it has calmed down a bit since its raffish youth. In fact, like most reformed characters, it went through a bit of a rough time in its middle years. It was turned into a convalescent hospital for US servicemen during the Second World War and subsequently fell into disrepair. It reopened as a hotel in 1973, underwent a massive renovation in 1993 and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is also, appropriately, known as the Pink Palace.

Bet it's expensive

It doesn't come cheap. But it is wonderful (and before you ask, yes, I paid for this holiday). We were celebrating the end of the 11-plus exams, an ordeal to which all children (and parents) in our particular London borough are subjected. The Don CeSar proved the perfect antidote. Needless to say, the service and the food are superb. There are three pools, including a huge hot tub and an underwater sound system in the biggest pool, and an ice-cream parlour with the most exotic range of flavours I've ever seen (my son favoured the Superman, a rather worrying mix of bright red, blue and yellow). Then there is a smart shopping mall, an even smarter restaurant, a beachfront restaurant, a beachfront snack bar and a pool bar with waiter service, which dished up the strongest piña coladas I've ever tasted. Take my advice: don't let the waiter talk you into having a rum floater on the top. Not before sundown, anyway.

So you just lazed by the pool?

Quite a bit, yes. But we also walked along the beach (the hotel is actually on the beach), collected shells and generally chilled out. By our third day there, all of us were ready to go and do some sightseeing.

Yes, you mentioned some culture

We took route 275 south to Sarasota, via the majestic Sunshine Skyway, which appears to soar almost vertically into the sky as you approach the mouth of Tampa Bay. The Sunshine Skyway has a rather macabre history that belies its sunny name. In 1980, the original bridge was hit by a Liberian tanker and 35 people, most of them in a Greyhound bus, died. (It is said that a phantom hitch-hiker can sometimes be seen trying to thumb a lift; the Skyway is also a favourite spot for suicides.) But press on to Sarasota, where the Ringling Museum of Art will soothe your nerves with a collection of Baroque and Renaissance masterpieces housed in a neo-Italian Renaissance villa. The gardens are laid out in the Italianate style, too, and contain reproductions of the world's great sculptures, including a larger-than-lifesize Michelangelo's David. It sounds completely naff, but, in fact, it's rather nice. (And the paintings inside are 100 per cent genuine.)

Sarasota was the winter home of the Ringling Circus, so it is only appropriate that there should be a circus museum next door, complete with interactive exhibits and a wonderful miniature automated circus, with seven rings and even a grand-finale-style procession. If you want to see an example of how well the Americans do this kind of thing, visit the circus museum. My children were enthralled.

Do I have to go all the way to Sarasota for a bit of intellectual stimulation?

Not at all, though it's worth the trip and has a thriving café society, with coffee shops and restaurants, and an enticing selection of craft and book shops. But St Petersburg is itself home to a Museum of Fine Art and a Salvador Dalí Museum, plus the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Florida International Museum. And if the children get bored, you can take them down to the Pier, where there's an aquarium, a viewing platform and lots of opportunities to buy candy floss and ice cream and other things that make holes in parental bank balances.

What about a bit of fresh air after all this sightseeing?

We joined Captain Stefan on one of the dolphin-watching tours that operate around Tampa Bay, taking a day trip to Egmont Key, which houses an abandoned fort and a colony of wild tortoises. We took a packed lunch and, although there were a handful of other people on the boat, it seemed as if we had the island to ourselves as we picnicked in the shade of the fort and watched the lizards darting in the sun. The St Petersburg/Clearwater area of Florida offers miles of walks and hikes in a variety of nature reserves and state parks, on islands and on the mainland. There are armadillos and raccoons as well as wading birds such as ibises and cranes.

You've sold it to me. How do I get there?

We booked a package with Thomson A La Carte (to request a brochure or check availability, call 0870 550 2550), which included return flights, b&b accommodation and one week's car hire. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies daily to Orlando from £306 return plus tax. For further information on the Don CeSar, go to www.doncesar.com or call 001 800 637 7200. Rates start at around $288 per night for room only.

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