Floridian Flavours: Sunsets and Surfs - Brand USA MegaFam!
Earlier this year, one of our clients was lucky enough to land a place on the Brand USA MegaFam, courtesy of British Airways and American Airlines! Find out what Alison got up to on her ‘Floridian Flavours: Sunsets and Surfs’ tour here…
After the wonderful surprise of being upgraded to Club World on our British Airways flight BA2167 from London Gatwick, we enjoyed steak, champagne and cheese before touching down in Tampa, Florida ahead of schedule at 16.10 local time. Of course, the sun was shining (Florida being the Sunshine State and all) and we immediately felt the warmth as we disembarked.
Once we had cleared customs and collected our luggage, we boarded our Pegasus bus with a warm welcome from Willy – our driver for the tour. It took just under an hour to travel across Old Tampa Bay on the elevated highway which showed off the stunning surroundings of Clearwater. It truly was beautiful. We arrived at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and checked into our rooms to freshen up before meeting our agent in the reception. We walked over to Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key where we enjoyed a wonderful 3 course meal and a few cocktails at Watercolour Grillhouse before heading back to our hotel for a much-needed night sleep.
At 8.00, we met in the lobby feeling refreshed and boarded our bus to downtown St Petersburg where we enjoyed breakfast in Marchand’s Bar & Grill at the historic and very elegant The Vinoy Renaissance Resort. Once we had viewed the spectacular property and enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins and eggs, we departed for the Dali Museum. After an introduction from the Director of the Museum, we spent just over an hour touring the exhibits which was fascinating and very educational.
At midday, we made the short journey to the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort where we were met by the resort manager for a quick show round before lunch on the ‘Pirates Deck’ (part of the resort). Afterwards, the afternoon was enjoyed sunbathing on the beach, going on the inflatable slides and chatting with the resort managers, before heading back to the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel. After an hour to shower and get dressed up, we joined the resort and hotel managers to experience their private beach dining. We walked out onto the sand where a marquee had been set up alongside a BBQ and bar. We ate and chatted as the sun set which was a really special experience. Once the sun had set, we left the beach and headed into St Petersburg for drinks and dancing.
The following morning, we checked out of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and headed over to the Hyatt Regency for breakfast. After eating, we had a tour of the hotel before the hour and a half journey to Sarasota. Once there, we went to the Ringling - the State Art Museum of Florida - which is home to one of the preeminent art and cultural collections in the USA. We had a fascinating tour by a lady who really captured our attention and gave a great tour, enabling us to learn a lot in the short space of time we were there. We saw the interesting Circus Museum and spent some time walking around the magnificent Bayfront gardens before eating lunch in the museum.
We then spent a few hours on the bus heading to Fort Myers and Sanibel, where we arrived at the beautiful South Seas Island Resort. The resort is surrounded by 330 acres of wildlife preserve where dolphins and manatees are regular guests. After an hour by the pool, we changed for dinner which we would enjoy later that evening after a Sunset Cruise with Captiva Cruises. We boarded the boat and headed out into the sea where we spent an hour cruising while watching the Gulf of Mexico sunset and learning about the wildlife from a talk given by the boat’s captain. We returned to dry land where we were met by the resort managers to enjoy outside dining at the Harbourside Bar & Grill restaurant. Here, we enjoyed freshly caught seafood which was truly delicious.
In the morning, we checked out of South Seas Island Resort and headed to a fantastic eatery called The Island Cow on Sanibel Island for breakfast. Here, we ate stacks of pancakes and muffins with coffee to get us fuelled for the day ahead. Visiting the restaurant has been an island tradition for over 15 years and it's become a destination in its own right for both visitors and locals. Once we were full, we departed the island for Naples.
It took just over an hour to get to downtown Naples where we hired EMU Trikes and went on a historic tour of Naples – it was so much fun! We followed in convoy on our trikes around the city from the Marina through to the residential parts of town. The motorised trikes enabled us to sit back and enjoy the tour, after which we went for lunch at Sea Salt which was a truly memorable dining experience.
Later that afternoon, we drove to the Naples Botanical Gardens where we spent an hour in the 170 acre world-class garden paradise that features plants and cultures of the tropics and subtropics between the latitudes of 26 degrees north and south. After learning a lot about plants and environment, we left the Botanical Gardens and headed to the Edgewater Beach Hotel to freshen up before enjoying dinner at the Coast Restaurant in the hotel. Once we had eaten, we headed out to a local bar in Naples for some drinks and live music before a well-deserved rest.
We departed Naples early for the two hour drive to the Everglades National Park. Once in the depths of the park, we arrived at Wooten’s Animal Sanctuary to experience an Airboat tour on the Everglades. We experienced the beauty of the 259 private acres of grasslands, gliding along the water watching out for alligators. As we were heading back to base, we finally spotted a two metre long alligator lurking in the shallow waters – it was great to see one of these magnificent creatures at home in the wild.
After spending some time at the Sanctuary, we left to head to Miami. On the way, we stopped at the historic Wooten’s Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee where we learnt the story of the pioneers who tamed the vast wilderness of the Everglades. Shortly afterwards, we stopped at the roadside in Ochopee to visit the smallest post office in the USA! It was a small white shed just big enough for one man to sell postcards and stamps as well as receiving and sending mail to destinations all over the world. Once, the building was a tool shed, but was converted into the post office after a fire in 1953 destroyed the original post office located in the Gaunt Company Store.
After we had sent our postcards, we departed for the Clyde Butcher Gallery: his stunning photography transcends political boundaries, challenging viewers to work together to protect natural places across the globe. After viewing Clyde’s photography, we began the two hour journey to Miami.
We arrived around 4pm and checked straight into the JW Marriott Marquis: located in the heart of downtown Miami, the hotel is close to the city’s exciting Wynwood Art district, the new Frost Science Museum and the Perez Art Museum in addition to the renowned Miami Design District. After a site visit and late lunch at the hotel, we transferred to Bayside Marketplace where we set off on a harbour cruise with Island Queen Bay Cruises. For the next two hours, we relaxed while cruising around Miami’s coast, seeing some spectacular houses belonging to the rich and famous.
After the cruise, we headed to the Mondrian South Beach Hotel for more fine dining on the hotel’s terrace: sitting next to the swimming pool with the Miami city skyline in the background was just incredible! Then, it was time to enjoy a night of drinks and dancing in glamorous South Beach.
Today, we had breakfast followed by a tour of 1 Hotel South Beach – my favourite hotel so far. It felt really luxurious and the rooftop pool opened out to a stunning view of South Beach. After spending a few hours here, we left for Dadeland Mall for a spot of shopping before heading to the Biltmore Hotel, a stunning venue on the outskirts of Miami. Here, we looked around the hotel before enjoying a tasty lunch.
We spent the afternoon visiting the Little Havanna area of Miami where we shopped for souvenirs and saw some amazing artwork. Once back at the hotel, we headed out for dinner before spending the evening at The Setai Miami Beach for the evening where some stayed out to party and others went back to the hotel for an early night.
We enjoyed a luxurious lie in before it was time to go back to the airport for our two hour flight to Nashville. We landed just before 1pm and headed to the Thompson Nashville, a great hotel boasting a rooftop terrace with stunning views over the city. Once checked in, we spent some of our free time exploring the area on foot – I decided to check out Broadway – before it was time to change for dinner. Here, we met the other agents who had enjoyed different itineraries on the MegaFam for dinner at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. Before eating, we got to spend time in the museum and seeing the costumes and collectables once owned by the most famous people in music was a great experience. After dinner, we hit up the bright lights of Broadway again to sample the famous Honky Tonk bars and dance the night away!
Today, we got to spend time visiting the RCA Studio B and the Johnny Cash Museum, followed by lunch at the famous Martin’s BBQ Joint. After a few busy days, we enjoyed some free time at the hotel before changing into our fancy frocks for the MegaFam Finale Party.
We were transported from our hotel to the ‘Ole Red’ Nashville restaurant which was inspired by Grand Ole Opry member Blake Shelton’s No 1 hit. We were lucky enough to be the first group ever to use the retail space and live music venue as it was their opening night! We had canapes and drinks while watching live music before heading out to experience Broadway on our final night.
After checking out of our last hotel, we boarded our bus to visit the Gaylord Opryland Hotel for a look around before a group brunch. Here, we heard the other itinerary groups chat about their tours (find out about Hollie from Lime’s experience on the Great Lakes: Midwest and Motown itinerary here) – everyone looked like they had a great time. Afterwards, we toured the Ryman Auditorium for a tour before our final stop at Opry Mills Mall for a bit of shopping before arriving at Nashville airport to fly home.
It was very exciting at the airport as we were on the inaugural flight from Nashville to London Heathrow with British Airways. There was a lot of fanfare with balloons, cake, goodie bags and a band which created a lot of attention and excitement from us all. What a great way to end the most fantastic trip!