For many years, 'doing it ourselves' has been the chosen option when it comes to holidays.
We have frequently been attracted by the versatility, good offers available, breadth of choice and the mix-and-match facilities that independent travel booking has offered. What then, were we to make of a complete holiday, booked through an all-in holiday company on this occasion? Having been on so-called Ã¢Â€Â˜Package Holidays' many years ago, we were aware of how things worked, where one transaction takes you from Gatwick to Gatwick and all your worries in between are taken care of.
On this occasion we chose to travel with Virgin Holidays and we were going to somewhere we'd been several times before, but always as independent travellers. From the outset everything is made easy with Virgin. Their online brochures and resort ratings are easy to read and understand, have plenty of photos, and the search facilities are superb.
We spoke to someone at Virgin's call centre and there too everything was so easy. All the information we wanted and needed was immediately available.
We eventually decided on spending 10 days at the Sirata Beach Resort on Florida's Gulf Coast Ã¢Â€Â“ an area we knew well and one that has never failed to deliver when it comes to the sort of holiday we really enjoy: Warm and sunny, miles of clean white sandy beaches, plenty of restaurants and bars to suit all tastes and a relaxed and easy-going air that we have yet to match elsewhere.
We requested a Gulf-facing room which wasn't on the ground floor. Though Virgin clearly state that they cannot guarantee all requests, we were quietly confident that it would be taken into consideration. We are quietly confident people!
Once all the booking was done it was time to sit back, wait, and get all excited about what was to come. That's sometimes one of the better parts of any holidayÃ¢Â€Â¦ the build-up, the anticipation, the excitementÃ¢Â€Â¦ you know the sort of thing. It dates back to childhood, when the same day you arrive home from one holiday, you're speculating about next year's adventure. Where are we going to eat? What will the pool be like? Is it far to walk to the beach? What car will we have when we get there?
So the big day was approaching, and our tickets and documents arrived, all as planned. We shoved the necessary bits and bobs into the suitcases and off we went, planning on spending the night at a hotel at the airport and taking advantage of the twilight check in that is available up until 9pm. This really takes the pressure off the morning of the flight, as it means you don't need to be at the terminal as early as you would otherwise need to have been.
To make our day even more special we were invited to use Virgin's Executive Lounge. It might only be for an hour or two, but the welcome we received and the complete isolation from the hubbub of the departure lounge was worth the world. A comprehensive food menu, drinks selection, newspapers, and even massage and salon facilities are there, all available in the peace and quiet that is so hard to find these days in a modern airport. It really was a lovely tranquil and comfy environment to spend the time before a long flight.
Once called through to the gate, we were very promptly ushered through to our seats and everything went on time and according to plan. We were even offered an upgrade - but only for one of us, so we declined the offer in favour of sitting together. After a relaxing and pleasant 9 hours in the air, a couple of drinks and some excellent in-flight food, we stepped out into Orlando
International airport feeling almost as fresh as we did when we left. A minor hiccup with the baggage system was soon resolved and we were on our way to collect the car that we had ordered before setting off.
The car hire pickup arrangements in Orlando are so easy-going you wouldn't believe it. It's just a case of picking up your paperwork and popping across the road to the car park, where you are simply told to Ã¢Â€Â˜go and choose your car from row X' or whatever row it was. It gives you a chance to have a look at a few cars and then narrow down your choice. We ended up taking a bright yellow Chevvy which we had no hope of losing in a supermarket car park!
The drive down to St Pete Beach, on the Gulf Coast is an easy 2-hour run along fast Freeway and is over before you know it. Pulling into The Sirata Beach Resort, the sun was just setting over the Gulf Beach and this provided an absolutely beautiful welcome to what was going to be our home for the next 10 days. Our request for a beach-facing room was honoured and we settled in and unpacked before popping out for a quick drink and a snack before bed.
The Sirata offers almost everything you could wish for in a beach holiday. As well as its idyllic setting, it has a couple of pool/beach bars, several pools, its own restaurant - the Compass Grill, a souvenir/general store and much more. The atmosphere is easy-going and relaxed, and allows everyone to do their own thing. The beach is literally a few steps from anywhere in the resort and both pools offer plenty of places to either sit and sunbathe or shelter in the cooler shade. The lunch menu at both bars is brilliant, and there's nothing nicer than a frozen cocktail to cool you down after a morning on the beach.
After 10 days of heaven, our return journey was no less relaxing than the outward one. Everything was to go according to plan and we were both sad to be home after such a lovely break.
We can't commend Virgin Holidays highly enough. From start to finish they ensured that our holiday was one we could remember for all the right reasons, and they were an absolute pleasure to deal with throughout. If, like us, you are more accustomed to travelling independently, why not give them a try. It's very likely you'll be pleasantly surprised. Rather than doing everything for you, they make sure that the job of doing things yourself is made as easy as it possibly can be. Their booking system was effortless from start to finish and nothing needed to be chased or queried. It was a comprehensive and professional service from start to finish.
Virgin Holidays Orlando.Seven nights at the 3.5V Sirata Beach Resort from Â£779 per adult and from Â£355 per child, on a room only basis. Price is per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a standard room with return economy return international flights from Gatwick direct to Orlando, and car hire, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on two adults sharing