Exploring Florida: from Sanibel Island to Orlando

Few years ago, three girls went to Florida and drove from Miami to the Keys, and then along the west coast up to Naples and Sanibel Island. I was one of the three. I enjoyed staying in Florida and I’ve been left with positive memories of that country. I fell in love with Key West, with Naples and the white beaches of Captiva Island. Every place was a pleasant surprise, especially those I had never heard about. Like Sanibel Island.

Sanibel island and Captiva island

SANIBEL ISLAND & THE SHELL SEEKERS

Have you ever heard about a little island called Sanibel, not far from Fort Meyers? It is very popular among shell seekers, as its beaches are made of fragments of translucent, empty shells, brought ashore by the tides. The island retains the charm and natural beauty that has always characterized the island, one of dozens of barrier reef islands scattered on the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

If you are fond of shelling, walk along the shell like, just where the highest waves stop as they roll ashore. This is what an old man told us on the island, a fisherman who lived in a little blue house by the sea. Like Captiva, Sanibel island has a quiet charm. Amid mangrove trees and shallow bays, pelicans, herons and sea turtles make their home. And if you like lighthouses, you cannot miss Lighthouse Beach at sunset.

CA’d’ZAN & THE CIRCUS

Sanibel island is connected to the mainland by a bridge over the blue. From there, we headed North, toward Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg. Nearby is the town of Sarasota, where it’s worth stopping only to pay a visit to Ca’d’ Zan, an American symbol of the Roaring Twenties, a Venetian-Gothic style villa with sumptuously furnished rooms, a wonderful terrace overlooking the sea and a park with old trees.

saint petersburg

The museum houses works of American, European and Japanese artists, and a special section is dedicated to the circus, displaying models and small and large tents: Maple & John Ringling, the owners of the villa, owned in fact also the biggest circus of the time.

florida birds

SAINT PETERSBURG

We drove along the Skyway Highway to Saint Petersburg Bay, with skyscrapers looming in the distance and villas overlooking the sea. In Saint Petersburg we took a pleasant walk on the pier, stopping to admire the Floating Chapel. It is a  little chapel built on water for couples who want to celebrate their wedding in an unusual place. Saint Petersburg is an inconspicuous town, yet it gave me a feeling of priceless freedom. We stayed in a little hotel by the sea, which was average, but quiet. At dawn, seagulls and other sea birds were our only companions. We walked barefoot on the sand and dined in one of the restaurants overlooking the sea, serving fish and Mexican food, enjoying the lively atmosphere.

crystal river

TARPON SPRINGS, THE SPONGE CAPITAL

The next day was Sunday, and we went to Tarpon Springs. Before getting there, however, we stopped in Clearwater, fascinated by its promising name. But there’s nothing special about this town, so we ended up in a Starbucks to cool down with an iced frappuccino. On the contrary, Tarpon Springs was an unexpected surprise. Home to a large Greek community, the town is widely considered to be the Sponge Capital of the World. In the streets of Tarpon Springs there are many shops that sell all shapes and sizes of sponge, as well as coloured houses, cafés and restaurants. Here you can order Yemista (peppers or tomatoes stuffed with rice), salad with Tzatziki sauce, Dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice, onions, tomatoes and spices) and Greek yogurt.

Sunset in Florida

ADVENTURE IN A CHURCH

While exploring the town, we walked into an Orthodox church where a girl was being baptized. Unwilling to leave without visiting the church, we pretended to be interested in attending the ceremony. The girl, dressed in white, was being solemnly “freed” from her sins through a seemingly endless ritual, until we had enough. A little intimidated by the not-so-encouraging glances from the girl’s relatives, we slipped surreptitiously out of the church.

Twilight on Crystal river

CRYSTAL RIVER & MANATEES

Our journey then took us to Crystal River and the Plantation Inn, a peaceful and elegant resort among pistachio meadows, which lie quietly under a rose sky. Lavish villas, boats anchored along the river, and softly swaying palm trees frame a world built for privileged people, Americans that can afford to move down here and spend their days playing golf. It looks like the set of a TV series. And it’s not the first time in the US that I feel like I’ve jumped in a film. Life imitates fiction, or perhaps fiction imitates life.

forida highway

At dawn, my brave friend joined a tour called “swimming with the manatees”. Manatess are funny mammals also called “sea cows”, herbivores grazing in the water. I’m not so sporty, therefore I lazily spent a couple of hours by the swimming pool. Almost unwillingly, we checked out and headed East toward Orlando. We passed through forests and isolated towns, but also large mansions which reminded us of Gone with the Wind.

FLORIDA IS HOT. VERY HOT.

We stopped in a restaurant along the road, one of those very American places serving pizza, beer and coke. Here we met a group of policemen whose motorbikes were parked outside, next to our car. We left with a large plastic glass and a box of chocolate cookies, and soon we were back on the road. Let me tell you, Florida is HOT. I’m not a fan of humidity and high temperatures, so it was a challenge for me to resist the sun, the heat, and above all, the air conditioned. Don’t ever forget to take a scarf and a pullover with you every time you enter a hotel, shop or restaurant. I forgot, and got a terrible cold.

st petersburg

ORLANDO & CHEESECAKE

Gone with the Wind becomes a distant memory as we approach Orlando, the city of amusement parks. Orlando is not even a city. It’s a cluster of skyscrapers, shops, outlets, hotels, and Disney. We can’t resist the temptation to stop at Buena Vista Lake Outlet. Here we give in to yet another temptation and order an Italian espresso in America.

Anyways, we also spot a Cheesecake Factory and before we know it, we are sitting at a table next to the window in front of a large slice of cheesecake, perfectly aware that chains are never the best choice. But in the city of theme parks, I give up on hunting for a special, cozy café and agree to this mystic experience. My vanilla bean cheesecake is quite good, even though I could never define it as “light”. But in Orlando, among palm trees, big signs, Pizza Hut everywhere, Disney and Harry Potter, it’s just fine.

HOW TO REACH SANIBEL

If you’re not on the road already, you can fly to Fort Meyers. It is located approximately 20 miles from Sanibel island. It’s a small island with two main roads, a Visitor center and a shopping district, a lighthouse and resorts and beaches along Gulf Drive. The best beaches are Bowman’s Beach, a lovely secluded place, Lighthouse Beach and the romantic Blind Pass beach, all the way at the north end of the island.

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