Jonathan Ross: Relax in Florida
'For a start, there's 160 TV channels but nothing really worth watching on any of them. I do, however, love being able to take my surfboard across the road to the ocean to catch some small waves.'
Where are the Gulf Islands?Just off Florida's west coast, about 15 miles from the popular resort of St Petersburg, is a chain of islands stretching 28 miles across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
It starts with lovely Anna Maria Island and bowls on down in a ribbon of white sand to Lido Key, ending with Siesta Key. All the islands are connected to the mainland by short causeways.
Why go there?The Gulf Islands have a relaxed Caribbean feel. They're more unspoilt and intimate – and less packed – than the mainland resorts. And since so many locals take their breaks there, there's an authentic, un-touristy atmosphere.
Anna Maria IslandAround seven and a half miles long and only one and a half miles across at its widest point, Anna Maria is a low-level haven and has the most historical significance. You can travel all over it free of charge on the island's air-conditioned Manatee Trolley buses, which run approximately every 20 minutes.
Must see must do
Beaches Bean Point Beach, backed by dunes and pine trees at the northern tip of the island, is the quietest stretch of sand. Holmes Beach in the middle of the island is livelier and has a wide selection of restaurants, shops and bars. Bradenton Beach, the most southerly of the three strands, is also the most bustling and has a trendy marina.
Island Historical Museum Take a break from the beach and check out the museum, originally built as a house to store ice. The exhibits include rare old photographs, maps and records from the early 1900s. The videos of interviews with early residents give you a real feel of what the island used to be like.
Bradenton Town Take the five-mile trip over the Palma Sola Causeway, which links Holmes Beach to Bradenton, to see the manatee aquatic refuge. The refuge is built on several levels to allow visitors to watch the manatees both above and below water.
Food and drink The island has a good choice of cafés and restaurants; breakfasts with waffles are one of the best meals, as are fresh seafood dishes. Local specialities to try include grilled Cajun-style grouper fish infused with a spicy marinade.
Lido KeyOf all the islands, Lido Key has the youngest feel to it thanks to its vibrant nightlife. The island's causeway, which links it to the mainland, starts at St Armands Circle, a busy central area filled with bars, shops and restaurants, then continues on over the bay and into the
city of Sarasota.
Must see must do
Beaches South Lido Beach is a belt of dazzling sand backed by a huge grassy park and shaded by pine trees, which makes it popular for barbecues. With its swimming pool and shops, Lido Beach, overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf, is the island's most sociable beach scene. North Lido Beach – a pristine half-mile stretch – is the least populated. It's worth following the neighbourhood road Benjamin Franklin Drive, as it skirts several smaller and more intimate beaches, which during the week can be deserted.
Mote Marine Aquarium Check it out for its assortment of sea creatures, from local loggerhead turtles to sea horses. The centrepiece is the massive outdoor shark tank.
Sarasota Stroll over to the mainland for a meal at this attractive waterfront city with its restored storefronts, antique shops and bars. For interesting diversions, visit the Jungle Gardens and its flamingo lagoon, the Ringling Museum of Art and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens with its plantation-style mansion.
Food and drink The main avenues on Lido Key are packed with bars and clubs and St Armands Circle always has an array of street entertainers who perform well into the evening.
Dale Winton says: 'I've been to Florida five times in the past year. I can't keep away. It's perfect because I love shopping and sunshine.
'I don't go to touristy parts like Orlando, I go to Clearwater, a quiet place where I can unwind after a series. I usually go on my own with scripts for my next show and just relax and get my head together.'
Siesta KeySiesta Key has a less manicured, more outdoorsy feel. The beaches are fabulous for sunbathing or exploring as they boast warm onshore breezes and are rich in wildlife. The glittering sands are made of eroded quartz crystals, which feel like sugar underfoot and remain cool even in high summer.
Must see must do
Beaches Siesta Key Beach, a wide white strand running beside Ocean Boulevard, is the most popular and attracts a fairly hip crowd. Turtle Beach has slightly coarser sand, making it better for seashell collecting. It's also less crowded and has a smattering of bars. Sporty Crescent Beach offers the best facilities, with tennis and volleyball courts, wooden footbridges and a fitness trail. Head for remote Palmer Point Beach for private picnics.
Watersports Snorkelling is the most popular activity, but parasailing and sailboarding are also available.
Boat Trips Dolphins are common and best seen from a boat – there are plenty of trips to choose from. Expect to pay around £60 for an afternoon's charter.
Weekly Drum Circle Every Sunday, an hour before sunset, people gather south of the main pavilion to beat drums. It's mesmerising, if baffling.
Cycling This is the perfect way to discover hidden beaches. Bike hire outlets are plentiful.
Food and drink The best bars and restaurants – most with outdoor seating – are found along Ocean Boulevard, which runs through Siesta Village.
When to go
Peak season on the islands is February
to April, with average temperatures around 28°C (82°F). Between May and September, they rise to 32°C (90°F).
How to get there/where to stay
Virgin Holidays (0870 2202468 or www.virginholidays.co.uk)
Bon Voyage (0800 3160194 or www.bon-voyage.co.uk)
Best Western Golden Host Resort on Siesta Key (0800 393130 or www.best
Florida Vacations (01582 469661 or www.vacationsgroup.co.uk)
Continental Airlines (0845 6076760 or www.continental.com) has return flights from Gatwich to Tampa (45 minutes transfer time)