Venice, Florida - Part 2
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There’s something rather special about being afloat in
Venice, especially when there are just half a dozen friends on a powerful
launch pottering out to visit a paradise island in perfect conditions.
Definitely a day for high-factor sunscreen as we eased along
the flat calm of the Intracoastal waterway, because this particular Venice is on the
Gulf Coast of Florida, a few miles south of bustling, beautiful Sarasota.
Before exploring by boat, we had already enjoyed the
delightful Downtown area and headed south of town to Casperson Beach, where the
Intracoastal, which loops round to make Venice an island, rejoins the Gulf of
Looking back inland from here, there’s easy access to the
Venetian Waterways Park, a linear trail for walkers, cyclists, joggers and
skaters that runs for miles along both sides of the Intracoastal.
There’s another favourite access point to the trail and the
water at Legacy Park, adjoining the Historic Venice Train Station and Caboose,
which also marks the southern end of the Legacy Trail to Sarasota, following
the route of the disused railroad track.
This is also a popular launching spot for boats, and it’s
where we met up with friends Steve and Lauren, along with their pals James and
Jennifer, for a fishing and sightseeing trip which took us further south along
the Gulf Coast.
Once away from Venice, we cruised in glorious sunshine
alongside Manasota Key and took in some great views as we headed through Lemon
Bay, and then edged up a quiet inlet with only inches of clearance under the
keel, so that we could climb over the side to wade around and cast our lines
close to the fringe of mangroves.
No fish, sadly, but we made up for that with lunch at Stump Pass Marina, with its
distinctive yellow lighthouse, where we refuelled ourselves as well as the boat
before sailing for Gasparilla Sound, taking a look at the exclusive community
of Boca Grande and then steering for an even more exclusive retreat.
This turned out to be a special surprise, for skipper James’
partner, Jennifer, shared with us her
favourite secret spot, an uninhabited island where we ran the boat ashore and
clambered out onto an untouched, snow-white beach, where the only sound came
from seabirds and the gentle breakers.
Until, that is, a hidden bottle of bubbly was produced from
the skipper’s icebox as if by magic, and the cork was popped to toast our
wedding anniversary, which was celebrated by walking along in the surf while
pledging not to reveal the SatNav co-ordinates to anyone else!
When it was time to make our way back, we took to the Gulf
rather than retracing the more sedate Intracoastal route and hammered up the
‘outside’ of the Keys with the wind and spray in our faces. We slowed down to
cruise past Venice itself, then turned into Venice Inlet, between the North and
South Jetty fishing spots, and took a left at Snake Island to tie up at Pop’s
There’s something a bit Hollywood about arriving at a
restaurant by boat, but any temptation to do some showing off is tempered by
the fact that you’re being watched by an audience of diners, cocktail fans and
sunset watchers who are just willing you to make a fool of yourself and fall in
Mercifully, no red faces, except from the day’s sun and
spray, and we enjoyed a leisurely seafood meal before tootling back to Legacy
Park to disembark as the sun dipped into the sea.
A memorable day, indeed, but then holidays in this part of
the world are measured in memorable days, and it’s hard to bring to mind any
significant times when you don’t have a smile on your face.
There's often a look of astonishment as well, especially
when faced with the size of helpings in most restaurants, never mind the ones
with all-you-can-eat options.
One such was the Gold Rush
BBQ off the main South Tamiami Trail, billed as ‘an American legend’ and
certainly trying to live up to it, with what looked at first glance like
platters full of half an animal per serving as they dished up racks of ribs!
All-you-can-eat in my case wasn’t very much at all when compared
with most of those around me, after I pleaded for an ‘English senior’ helping
of a ‘season-rubbed and hickory-smoked’ quarter of a chicken, which even then
came complete with two sides and a delicious ‘gold nugget’ cornbread. Throw in
an all-American root beer (and another sneaky cornbread!) and the bill for me
was still less than $12, while some nearby heaped platters being polished off
by my companions didn’t come to much more.
Quantity isn’t the be-all and end-all, either, for the
quality of the food, like in most other eating places around here, is top notch.
It might not be fine dining in a posh sense, but most of the dining around here
is still mighty fine!
It starts off with a traditional American breakfast, which
certainly sets you up for the day, and the inclusive spread at the Best
Western Plus Ambassador Suites was no exception. Not far out of Venice,
this comfortable and useful base with a heated (!) pool and most other
facilities you could want, is just off
Interstate 75 and is really handy for both town and country. Loaded up
with a help-yourself breakfast from a spread including DIY hot waffles and all
manner of other goodies like cereals, muffins and fresh fruit, we were well
placed to get to all the attractions of Venice and its surrounding area,
including my chum Steve’s ranch out in the wilds bordering Myakka River State Park.
Steve is partner in a popular veterinary practice and his
spread complements one of Florida’s oldest and largest parks in being a haven
for animals, including horses, deer and rare breed cattle as well as countless
birds and other exotic varieties of local wildlife.
One in particular triggered a warning from Steve, who told
us to watch out for nocturnal visitors trundling across the rural roads when we
made our way back to our hotel, something a bit larger than the hedgehogs we
find squished back in Britain. The four-legged hazards at large on the lanes
were prehistoric-looking armadillos, endlessly fascinating and cute, but hit
one when you’re driving anything other than a huge back-country 4x4 and your
car could be flipped over in a moment. Well worth keeping an eye open, though,
if only to say you’ve seen one!
Not quite as welcome are some rather larger visitors to his
garden pond which itself is the size of many, a municipal boating lake in the
UK, because, as the adjoining park’s brochure warns laconically, alligators are abundant in the area, which
helps to explain the 6-inch-high electric fence on the lawns between Steve’s
pond and his kitchen.
Some do end up in the kitchen, or at least the massive porch
BBQ, and they also figure on the menu at the park’s Pink Gator Cafe (it’s built
on stilts to be alligator and flood-proof!) in a home-made stew.
No threat to the reptile population, as we saw goodness
knows how many on an airboat ride on Upper Myakka Lake, where our guide told us
there were about 1,000 lurking around the place. There are seemingly
superfluous warnings not to approach, tease, frighten or feed them, but their
presence didn’t seem to deter several kayakers and anglers, with some guys in
shorts even standing in the shallows to cast their bait. There was no
inclination to follow them, especially after a park ranger shook his head and
drawled that the foolhardy fishermen were quite likely to prove tempting bait
themselves. Not surprisingly, swimming is banned in the reserve’s two shallow
lakes, but there’s an awful lot more on offer in the 58 square miles of
wetlands, prairies, oak-pine hammocks and pinelands, including a seven-mile
scenic drive through the trees and along the lakeside on a paved road, many
miles of dirt roads to explore and nearly 40 miles of hiking and biking trails
to the remote interior.
You can take your own horse in there too, or get off the
ground altogether and head for the treetops on a canopy walkway, and climb a
70ft tower for a great overview. There’s also a decking birdwalk over the water
at the north end of the lake to help you get nearer the alligators and local
feathered inhabitants; and if you really want to hear the call of the wild at
close quarters, you can head for any of the six self-styled primitive campsites
or rent a log cabin dating back to when the park was founded in the 1930s.
What with trips on the world’s two largest airboats and
ground safaris by a tram made up of open carriages towed by a 4x4, the
marvellous park is very accessible.
And like every other attraction in this part of the world,
it’s great for Silver Travellers, because other than alligators, it also boasts
something else in abundance, accessible restrooms!
David Graham travelled to Venice on an extended trip to
Florida, flying from Manchester
to Tampa, via Atlanta, with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta, spending time in
the Tampa Bay area, including Clearwater and St Petersburg,
before heading south via Bradenton
and Sarasota; staying in various hotels, notably Best Western Plus Siesta Key
Gateway and the Best
Western Plus Ambassador Suites, Venice
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