Polo is not an activity you normally associate with Florida, but on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon I had a great time joining in the excitement with the crowd at Lakewood Ranch, Bradenton as the battling teams thundered up and down on their beautiful ponies, writes Ruth Brindle.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

Chukkers and Champagne. Photo International Polo Club _1

The horses were gorgeous and the players were gorgeous too. I had no idea about the rules but that wasn’t important. I had my glossy magazine for background info, and it was just fun to be a part of the spectacle.

And while we usually associate this expensive sport with the Royals and impossibly rich types – both players and spectators – here at the Sarasota Polo Club, it was not only a family-friendly affair but also an inexpensive day out.

We lined up along the field’s sideline with locals who had set up pergolas, barbeques and tables groaning with lovely lunchtime treats. For us less organised visitors there was the chance to enjoy reasonably priced fast food, cold drinks, and even a glass of Pimms! On the far side of the field some club members showed off their amazing vintage cars. Cowboy hats and boots were very much in evidence as some members do, indeed, own their own ranches nearby.

This was a most surprising find in an area about half-an-hour inland from the beautiful Gulf islands of Anna Maria and Longboat Key that I have previously written and raved about.

Lakewood Ranch started out as a residential area but has developed into a huge and successful community not only to live, but to work and play in too. Visitors who want a break from the beaches can find interesting independent shops and boutiques here along Main Street, and great restaurants from Parisian cafes to a Scottish pub. We enjoyed one of the best meals we’ve ever had in the area at The Polo Grill and Bar.

 There’s a small cinema, a farmer’s market and regular events, including festivals and concerts. A big draw are the championship golf courses, miles of recreational trails and even the chance to watch such sporting delights as Ultimate Frisbee and even soccer tournaments.

Sporting teams of all types stay in the area to take advantage of the 140 acres of playing fields for their own tournaments, but Brit visitors can also find a lot to take part in or watch. Incidentally you can even take part in the art of polo, or keep your feet on the ground with tennis or golf lessons.

Staying at the Holiday Inn at Lakewood Ranch is a great central base with a good steakhouse restaurant (try the buffalo for something different). From here it’s just a few minutes’ drive to the polo club and also to some fantastic shopping venues. And shopping is, after all, one of our national pastimes - even better when you can pick up some great bargains.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

Lakewood Ranch Main Street

Ellenton Premium Outlets is the largest outlet mall on the Gulf coast with more than 125 shops to browse. Year-round discounts and our favourable exchange rates at the moment mean you can pick up some amazing buys.

You can also discover new high-quality labels and brands you might not be able to afford at home. For instance, I discovered some great quality fashion at J. Crew, one of Michelle Obama’s favourite brands.

Ellenton is also an ideal place to stock up on some extra luggage if you’ve filled your suitcase to the brim by the end of the holiday!

But whether you prefer to shop before or after you get stuck in to some serious holiday relaxing, Bradenton is well worth a stop, especially to visit the South Florida Museum. It’s home to Snooty, the oldest living manatee in captivity. He was born in an aquarium on July 21, 1948 and his 60th and 65th birthdays were marked with great celebration.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

On the museum website you can even watch this gentle plant eating creature on a Snooty cam. The museum’s planetarium and exhibits outlining the early history of the area are fascinating too.

Of course, activities on, near or under the water are always on the agenda here, so take the time to try something different – you can rent a kayak, canoe or powerboat, go off-shore fishing, parasailing, windsurfing, even horse surfing. For those with a need for speed you can watch or try out your karting skills at Andersen Race Park

Visiting in the winter months is a great opportunity to watch top sporting teams at their spring training camps. The Pittsburgh Pirates invade the Bradenton area at McKechnie Field from mid-February in preparation for the 2015 season.

The stadium has recently undergone a £7 million upgrade. And with the popularity of rowing during the 2012 Olympics here in the UK, there’s a good reason to visit this area in 2017 for the World Rowing Championships. But get booked in soon as there will be 1,000 world-class athletes from more than 70 countries arriving, along with 40,000 spectators.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:


How to get there

Return flights with British Airways from London Heathrow to Tampa from £586 per person -www.britishairways.com

Holiday Inn at Lakewood Ranch from £75 per night - hilr.com

More information on Bradenton at www.BradentonGulfIslands.com

Find all the information you’ll need to plan your Bradenton Area adventure, on the official app, available for iPhone, iPadand Android.