Ruth Brindle finds out that the Sunshine State has cowboys too
OUR giant American steaks are sizzling on the barbecue beside our luxury cabin as a small herd of buffalo wander slowly by intent on their own dinner waiting across the fields.
It could be a scene straight out of the wild west, but we weren’t in Arizona or Texas but on the final leg of a packed family trip to Florida.
Westgate River Ranch, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, is just an hour south of Orlando, and definitely a place to relax after an amazing but very busy week around the theme parks.
The ranch proved both a revelation and a great find. Who knew there were cowboys in the Sunshine State and a genuine rodeo too? Not us, but in fact the history of ranching began in Florida back in the early 1700s when settlers came to the state to take advantage of the wild cattle and horses roaming the unspoilt countryside, left from earlier Spanish settlements.
These tough cattlemen were known as cracker cowboys taking the name from the crack of the bullwhips they used.
River Ranch itself once served as a stopping off point for the small herds of cattle which would then be combined into big herds of 1,000 to 2,000 beasts to be driven to the seaport markets for the Spanish to export to Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The ‘town’ of Kicco (Kissimmee Island Cattle Company) no longer exists, but its heritage as an unspoilt wilderness of ‘old Florida’ is kept alive through the 7,000 acre KICCO Wildlife Management Area adjoining the property. Guests at Westgate River Ranch can venture out into this wilderness along part of the 1,300-mile Florida Trail, formerly a cattle trail and also travel along the Kissimmee River – but more of those adventures later.
Your cowboy experience begins the moment you arrive at the dude ranch reception. All the staff are wearing cowboy hats, jeans and ornate buckles on their belts. Our three youngsters, aged 10, eight and four also didn’t need any encouragement to sit on the beautiful American saddles as we signed in. It was to be the first of many memorable photo opportunities during our stay.
The three generations of our big group had booked adjoining cabins, both of which had full kitchens and very comfy and spacious living areas and bedrooms. There was a barbecue out back, unspoilt views and, yes, those wandering buffalo and long-horned Watusi cattle to wonder at.
Getting around was great fun in our ‘limo’ golf cart that accommodated all of our seven-strong party. In fact, we’d use any excuse just to get in and whizz around the quiet roads of the 1,700-acre estate. There’s such a lot to experience here and you can be as busy or relaxed as you choose.
An Adventure Pass (£24.50 a day for 5-12 year olds) is a good investment as both kids and adults loved the zip line, mini golf, mechanical bull, rock wall and bungee jumper that they could go on again and again.
There’s a lovely petting farm too with goats, sheep, deer, turkeys, rabbits, pot-bellied pigs, llamas, emus, peacocks and other exotic creatures that’s free to visit. Very little ones can also enjoy a safe pony ride here.
During our stay we were determined to take advantage of all the activities which I’d booked in advance to make sure of a suitable slot as this place is popular with day visitors too.
An hour’s horseback ride was best taken in the morning before the heat of the day, and a swamp buggy ride on a giant vehicle high up above the scrub gave us a great view of the countryside and the chance to spot wildlife such as white-tailed deer, bald eagles, wild hogs, hawks, sandhill cranes, wading birds, cows, bulls, alligators and wild turkeys.
But one of the biggest thrills was an exhilarating airboat ride, CSI Miami-style, along the river to spot alligators, deer and lots of birdlife.
Our driver was even able to get us close to a nest of baby gators.
We also managed to fit in archery and fishing and could have tried tennis, skeet shooting and basketball, but merely relaxing and doing nothing much at all in this quiet haven was just as attractive.
The big event here, however, is the Saturday evening rodeo with professional male and female riders showing off their scary skills of trick riding, bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing. It’s a great fun event followed by an outdoor dance party in front of the River Ranch Saloon. Time to ‘take your partner by the hand and do-si-do.’
And if you want to make like the family from ‘Little House on the Prairie’ book a dinner hayride complete with singing cowboy and a cookout buffet in the East Corral.
But while we cooked for ourselves most of the time, we also enjoyed a couple of hearty meals at the on-site Smokehouse Grill restaurant and at lunchtimes chose giant, filling freshly-made sandwiches or big slices of pizza in the Deli at the General Store.
You can buy supplies here, but it’s better to shop at a bigger supermarket on your way to the ranch.
We chose the spacious cabins from various options, but increasingly more holidaymakers are choosing the camping, or ‘glamping’ option. It definitely is not roughing it. This is luxury camping with air conditioning, private, lock-up bathrooms and even a concierge service to organise activities and bring your breakfast tea and coffee.
A romantic touch is the campfire lit each evening to toast marshmallows or make s’mores – a totally delicious American campfire chocolate speciality.
Even more exclusive and upmarket are the latest addition to the Westgate scene – luxe teepees. I had a chance to look around these gorgeous, colourful accommodations with names such as Dancing Warrior, Roaming Buffalo and Soaring Eagle, before they were available to book. They are both comfortable and stylish with Victorian-style cast iron baths, showers and toilets.
They sleep four with a king bed and a sleeper sofa, then you can watch the sun go down over the trees of the natural oak hammock in your rocking chair. If it gets cold there’s a fire set in a huge stone fireplace that serves to separate the bedroom and bathroom from prying eyes so you can keep your teepee ‘door’ open. There’s even air conditioning and your own concierge to bring you breakfast in the morning to eat on your own table outside.
And as it’s the nature of camping to meet new friends there’s also the communal camp fire and authentic ‘chickee hut’ for socialising, built by Seminole Indians, the original settlers of this land.
This certainly is five-star camping and teepee guests also get complimentary activities and golf cart too. I think I know where I’ll be sitting out under the stars next year – Glastonbury eat your heart out, you can keep your mud, I’ll take some Florida sunshine and a home on the range any time.
Lodge rooms start at £120 per night and a glamping tent £127. Luxe Teepees start at £342, including activities. For further information on Westgate River Ranch visit www.westgatedestinations.com
America As You Like It offers a seven night fly-drive to Florida, including return flights from London to Orlando, seven days fully inclusive economy car hire, five nights self-catering at the Mystic Dunes Resort, Orlando in a one bedroom apartment, and two nights self-catering at the Westgate River Ranch in a Saddle Club Cabin, from £895 per person, based on two sharing.
www.americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299.