There’s something about Sarasota, along with its island neighbors Siesta Key and Anna Maria Island that make you feel as though you’ve come home even if you’ve never been there before.
Abundant sunshine and miles of pristine white sand attract summer-starved travelers from the north, especially during the winter and spring months, when they come in droves to take advantage of both.
Any time of year, however, is a good time to visit Florida’s Gulf Coast with its endless array of restaurants, shopping, activities, and blue water beaches to choose from.
Beyond the obvious attractions, there’s also an easy sense of belonging. Once you’ve slipped on your flipflops it doesn’t take much to settle into island time where the only pressing order of business is to enjoy the warm breeze and watch the sun set. The only drawback is that once you get there, you may not want to leave.
Anna Maria Island
What Anna Maria lacks in size, it makes up for in charm. Measuring in at just seven miles, Anna Maria encompasses three cities; Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and Anna Maria. Purposefully eschewing commercialization (although there’s a Publix and CVS), it feels like a slice of old Florida in the days before high rises and chain stores moved in.
A day spent on one of the island’s beaches is mandatory. Coquina Beach, located on the southern end of the island in Bradenton Beach has bathrooms, showers, life guards, pavilions, and a snack bar. Manatee Beach, which is more in the middle of the island, is located in Holmes Beach and also offers bathrooms, showers, life guards and a snack bar.
Getting around during high season can be tricky with traffic routinely clogging up the island’s main thoroughfare. Luckily there’s a free trolley shuttling passengers from one end of the island to the other making it nominally less painful. It also comes in handy after spending an evening at the Sandbar Restaurant, located on the island’s north end.
You will likely wait for a table outside, but once seated, your reward should include one (or more) of the restaurant’s signature rum punches served up in its own little bucket.
The menu includes a variety of seafood and other standard fare, but the location is what you go for. Set directly on the beach, it’s the ideal spot to while away an afternoon or evening watching seagulls, beach-goers and the occasional couple getting married barefoot on the sand.
For more casual fare, Hurricane Hanks, a tiny pub-style restaurant located inconspicuously between a liquor store and gift shop, offers cold beer and a mighty fine burger, which taste all the better after spending a few hours idling by the seaside.
Located in a small strip mall, Eat Here is an eclectic, charming little eatery, that warrants a stop. If it’s nice out, choose the al fresco dining option and enjoy a glass of wine under the outdoor canopy along with some great food choices including salads served up in a jar, wood stone pizzas and coq au vin.
If you don’t mind shelling out a few bucks, rent a boat for either a half or full day from Bradenton Beach Marina.
Starting at around $225 (not including gas, which is additional), you can pack up a picnic lunch and head out onto the open water, where you’re more likely than not to encounter friendly dolphins and the occasional manatee as you explore the area in and around Sarasota Bay.
Even if you’ve never sailed the seas before, it’s relatively easy, especially if you opt for a pontoon boat. The marina staff will provide with you operating instructions and maps to help guide you on where to go to ensure a great day out on the water.
Sarasota and Siesta Key
Consistently lavished with awards for its beaches and as one the best places to live in the U.S. Sarasota seemingly has it all. With its idyllic location on the water, a bevy of cultural offerings, as well as abundant shopping and dining, you’ll have a hard time deciding what to do first.
Nature lovers should consider taking a kayak tour of Sarasota Bay and the Lido Mangrove Tunnels with Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures. It’s great for folks of all ages and no kayaking experience necessary.
You’ll learn all about the area while scoping out all sorts of native birds and marine life including dolphins, manatee and thankfully, no alligators.
The mangrove tunnels provide a very cool glimpse into the local ecosystem, including the chance to get thisclose to the countless (like, as in, bazillions), tiny, black crabs that inhabit every free inch of the overhanging, canopied trees.
The faint-hearted can skip that part of the tour and instead spend the day treasure hunting at St. Armands Circle, a shoppers’ paradise nestled among the palm trees.
From boutique gift shops to upscale specialty and retail stores, whatever you’re looking for, it’s probably there, and finding it is the fun part.
After you’ve cleaned out your bank account, take a break at Sarasota’s oldest restaurant, Columbia.
Opened in 1959, it’s legendary to the area, serving up fine Spanish/Cuban cuisine including the restaurant’s signature “1905” salad, Cuban sandwich, tapas, and a host of other traditional dishes.
It’s practically mandatory, however, to start with one of Columbia’s stellar mojitos. Jam-packed with fresh mint leaves, it’s refreshing, exemplary, and the perfect way to end a punishing day of retail therapy.
Art aficionados will want to plan a visit to The Ringing, the State Art Museum of Florida.
Founded by passionate art connoisseur, John Ringling, one of the five brothers who owned and operated “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the museum is an impressive 31-gallery collection of art and antiquities from a variety of influences including European, Asian, American, Modern, and Contemporary.
Located on 66, lush, waterfront acres, the site is also home to Ringling’s palatial winter residence, the Ca’ d’Zan mansion, as well as the Ringling Circus Museum, and the magnificent Bayfront Gardens, which feature a nearly 29,000 square foot rose garden.
No trip to Sarasota is complete without spending a day or two on one of Siesta Key’s three beaches; Siesta Beach, Crescent Beach, and Turtle Beach.
Considered to be among some of the best in the world, the fine, white-sand beaches offer something for every personality from tennis and volleyball, to snorkeling and shell-collecting.
Quaint shops and boutiques can be found in nearby Siesta Village, including the usual souvenir and trinket fare. Rounding out the overall charm of the area are a host of individualized restaurants including Bonjour French Cafe.
Warm and inviting, the interior is decorated with French posters and memorabilia and the cuisine includes staples like crepes and Croque-Monsieur.
Breakfast there is especially good, with plenty of traditional French options including omelets, quiches, croissants, and other seriously delicious offerings.
Perhaps the most important thing to do while in Siesta Key is find a spot on the beach to call your own, stake an umbrella, then simply sit back, relax, and forget about everything else, because that’s what you’ve come for.
Originally Published Hartford Magazine March 2017