"Stepping out on the balcony of my hotel room on the first morning of our stay was a bit like entering the set of a nature documentary"

Half-submerged among the weeds, a 12-foot alligator lazed in the afternoon heat. A brood of babies swam around her and a couple climbed on her back to bask in the Florida sun.

Choice photographer Clive Nicholls snapped away until she flicked her tail languidly and glided away, deeper into the weeds of the stagnant watercourse.

A couple of hours later, we were in the world of alligator handbags with an invitation to a preview of the sophisticated new Saks of Fifth Avenue store in Sarasota, the day before the opening of the first new shopping mall in America since the world financial crisis.

The beach at Coquina Park

Sun, shopping and scenery sum up perfectly the attractions of the wonderful city and its slice of Florida’s Gulf Coast and swampy wildlife paradise, although you need to add in culture, too.

Stepping out on the balcony of my hotel room on the first morning of our stay was a bit like entering the set of a nature documentary. A flight of half a dozen pelicans bombed along the shoreline. silhouetted against the rosy sunrise. Down on the beach, flocks of waders poked and prodded the tideline then rose like a cloud to swoop on a new hunting ground.

By the time we got our own feet on the sand after breakfast it was warming up nicely. A few amateur fishermen, up to their waist in water to stay cool, cast their lines into the blue swell.

Patrolling the water’s edge were the professional fishers in the form of Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, looking rather disdainfully at the efforts of their human counterparts, then unerringly darting into the shallows to return with a wriggling flash of silver in their beaks.

Our hotel was on Lido Key, one of a series of islands connected to the mainland, and each other, by causeways. On the seaward sides of the keys are the glorious snowy-sand beaches; on the inward sides around the protected lagoons are magnificent waterfront homes as well as marinas full of impressive boats.

Patrolling the lagoons are more fishers – Ospreys lazily picking up unwary prey in their talons and flapping off to enjoy breakfast.

Driving over the causeway to Longboat Key there were glimpses of idyllic beaches and dream homes, but just across the bridge on to Ana Maria Island we found a spot of paradise. Coquina Park gives you easy access. There’s plenty of parking, shady picnic places and permanent barbecues. It was Sunday and a group was enjoying an after-church picnic in one of the larger shelters.

The real gem, though, is the beach looking across to Longboat Key. You can sit on a bench overlooking the sound between the two islands and see the birdlife, every shade of green and blue in the waters, and watch the boats motor in and out. Some were anchoring off the flat beaches opposite and taking a picnic ashore. Others were heading more seriously out into the Gulf of Mexico with their flying bridges and rods at the ready in search of big-game fish.

With the syrupy warmth bathing my shady bench, I could have stayed there all day.

However, there’s much more to see.

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Contact details and information about all the places mentioned are available on the tourist information website: (www.visitsarasota.org)