My Florida diary, part 3: Myakka State Park, the Ringling Museum of Art and The Helmsley Sandcastle

The next morning we grudgingly leave the fabulous breakfast burritos in the Sunset Café at the Sunset Vistas behind and head south down the gulf coast, through Manatee County and down into Sarasota, eventually entering the lush Myakka State Park.

Myakka is hot, hot, hot.  We sit, quietly melting, waiting for our boat trip to start.  But as soon as we’re under the shade of the boat’s canopy and slipping slowly through the water, it’s fabulous.  And the breeze is wonderful.  Our guide, Captain Dick (a Vietnam vet), is great – his talk is full of gentle humour (‘see those massive ugly black birds over there that look like vultures?’  We all nod politely.  ‘Well, they’re vultures’) and tons of interesting information.  The river winds 14 shallow miles around the state park (the shallowness is one reason why we see the big gators – there are lots of areas in the river where they just can’t submerge).

We see wild pigs, all manner of cranes and herons, and – obviously – TONS of alligators.  We even spot an eagle, stopping to eat his catch in a tree.

Every so often a fish pings up onto the deck of the boat (they seem very athletic, flipping about in the water) and John reaches for his trusty fishslice to flip them back in.  At one stage our boat hits one of massive gators that slide ominously past us.  There is a terrific thud.  ‘Don’t mind him’, John says, ‘he won’t feel a thing’.

This place is an absolute must-see.  And park entry is really cheap at just $6 per car.  People come here to bike, hike, kayak and camp, and we could see why, it’s a stunning place.

After the sweaty excitement of all this gator spotting, we head back to the blogger bus for some slightly more sedate tourism in the shape of a private tour of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with Public Relations Manager, Scott Gardiner.  Don’t be fooled by the title into thinking that the Ringling is some sort of stuffy musuem with creaky floorboards and dusty portraits.  All told, the Ringling covers some 20 acres of gorgeous Sarasota seafront and includes, amongst beautiful gardens, John and Mable’s breathtaking mansion, Ca d’Zan (literally ‘house of John’), kept lovingly as it was when they lived there, along with the fabulous Circus Museum (including the amazing miniature circus, an epic reproduction of one of the enormous circuses pioneered by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from the War years, created by Howard Tibbals (who we actually bumped into while we were there!).

When I take the fellas back to Sarasota (oh and I will, I’m planning it already), I’ll stay at the Ringling for an entire day, have lunch in the beautiful gardens, and spend hours just soaking up the view from the terrace of the spectacular mansion.  It really deserves to be savoured.  The circus museum is tremendous fun as well and there are some amazing original pieces.  We ran out of time, which was a terrible shame, but hey, an excuse to go back too.

Last stop for the night is the Helmsley Sandcastle.  I was really looking forward to this proper ‘old Florida’ beauty as I’ve read about its original owners, millionaire philanthropists and property tycoons, Leona and Harry Helmsley (once owners of the Empire State Building).  The Helmsley Sandcastle is now owned by the Helmsley Trust and was built in the late 50s, then added to in  1966.  The hotel oozes vintage 60s charm and the endless white sand private beach is completely empty.  The Helmsley has a private car and driver that will drop you in to St Armand’s Circle, then pick you up after dinner.  The rooms are still 1960s in style, so it’s maybe not for you if you’re looking for uber-modern accommodation, but for me, this somehow adds to its charm, and the setting takes a lot of beating. I loved it.

For more information, check out the Visit Florida Facebook page.

I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays.  If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949

Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.

Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12

Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected

To book:, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.