Twin-centre holidays in combination with Orlando are becoming more and more popular, and we’ve already looked at Clearwater to the west, St Augustine to the north, and now, let’s head south for the best reasons to visit spectacular Sarasota.
1) Those Glorious Beaches!
The city of Sarasota is located on the mainland, but there are several destinations on its three barrier islands that offer the beach scene you’ve been looking for. The crowds of Clearwater and Daytona are largely absent, except at weekends in high season, making them a terrific choice for those seeking a truly relaxed experience. Let’s take a look at each:
The northernmost island (key) is Longboat Key, and while it is a superb option for low crowds and a private setting, there are no real amenities directly at Longboat’s beaches, so you’ll want to bring food and drink, and, if you’re shy, a bladder made of steel, as there are also no public restrooms. If that’s your thing, go for it! If not, Lido Key and Siesta Key are more convenience-friendly destinations.
Want a bit of nature with your suntan while you’re on Longboat Key? Pop over to rustic Quick Point Nature Preserve and check out the flora and fauna from the raised boardwalk. You are likely to see loads of shorebirds, and with a bit of luck, dolphins frolicking in the calm waters. And if you’re wondering what those fish are that launch themselves into the air, they’re mullet, and they’re very obviously insane.
Along with alligators, the gentle manatee is one of the iconic animals of the Sunshine State, and if you’ve never seen one, make time for a short excursion over to Ted Sperling Park, just a mile south of the end of the causeway out of Sarasota, where tides from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico converge to create the ideal climate for manatees. Even in the warmer months, when the majority have gone out to sea, you are likely to see at least a few of these fascinating creatures.
The middle key is Lido Key, which is the first key you come to when you cross the causeway, and its namesake beach is one of Florida’s best. With parking, restrooms and concessions, it’s also among the most popular, but weekdays, especially off season, are less congested. Bring a towel, maybe a picnic, definitely several bottles of water and high SPF sunscreen, and enjoy!
Active travellers won’t want to miss the chance to kayak or paddleboard through Lido Key’s “mangrove tunnels” along waterways that were dug out by human hands to keep those pesky mozzies Florida was so well known for at bay. Over time, mangrove trees along the channels’ shores formed a living archway over the crystal-clear water (watch for fish, jellyfish, and abundant fiddler crabs!), and now it’s a popular attraction, with outfitters nearby who can fit you out with whatever form of self-propelled transport you choose. If you’re new to paddleboarding, or have never tried it but always wanted to, this is the ideal time to give it a go. The water is shallow, there are no waves, and because it’s nearly always quiet (you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself), no one other than your loved ones will laugh if you end up in the drink.
Just south of Lido Key and accessible via Siesta Drive is Siesta Key, where the beaches have that talcum-powder soft sand you’ve been looking for. Siesta Beach’s waters are calm and shallow, with plenty of lifeguards, so it’s perfect for families. The quiet of Crescent Beach appeals to couples, and those who take their water sports seriously will appreciate all that’s on offer at Turtle Beach. Take a free tour (and tasting!) at Siesta Key Rum to finish off a memorable day.
2) Get A Bit Of Culture!
St Armand’s Circle is the shopping and dining spot for visitors to Sarasota and Lido Key. There are 63 shops, 24 drinking and dining outlets, and the kind of sunsets you can’t wait to post on your social media to make all your friends jealous. Need the latest Lilly Pulitzer design or a new Tommy Bahama shirt so you can hang with the cool kids? You’ll find them here, along with quirky brands and luxury boutiques such as Ancient Olive and Wyland Galleries.
As you stroll around the area and surrounding grounds, keep an eye out for bronze statues. Many were from the private collection of John and Mable Ringling (we’ll meet them next) and placed there when he owned the property.
Ringling Circus history: Back in the day, few things got the hearts of children pounding the way “The circus is coming to town!” did, and a huge part of that American travelling-show culture came from the work of the Ringling brothers.
There are four sections to their grand estate: the Museum of Art, filled with pieces John and Mable Ringling collected from all over the world; the Bayfront Gardens, including Mable Ringling’s gorgeous rose garden; the Circus Museum; and Ca D’Zan, the latter two of which are the reason you’re here.
The Circus Museum is absolutely filled with props, posters, costumes, clown cars, the cannon performers would be shot from, and even an original circus wagon plus the family’s train car. The jewel in the crown here, though, is a mock-up of the Big Top and the entire circus-day goings-on. Magnificent!
Visitors can also tour Ca D’Zan, the Ringlings’ Venetian Gothic winter home, built in the 1920s, with literally no expense spared. An elegant—and astonishing—look at how the uber-rich lived. No, it’s not boring and yes, you’ll wish you lived there.
3) Gators, Guaranteed!
You’ve looked at every lake, river, and puddle in Orlando and you still haven’t seen a gator. Myakka River in Myakka River State Park, 19 miles (30km) east of downtown Sarasota, has you covered. It has earned the designation of a “Florida Wild and Scenic River” for its uniquely Floridian beauty, and for its abundant wildlife, gators included.
Take an airboat ride, enjoy a leisurely safari tram tour into the backcountry (mid-December through May), or just stroll along the boardwalk or treetop canopy walkway. If you have the stamina, hike out to the Deep Hole, where gators congregate in their multitudes. But heed this advice and heed it well: never, ever, under any circumstances, approach a gator in the wild, not because they want to eat you, but because it’s strictly against the law. Don’t harass it (there are massive consequences for doing so, as well as it being a real jerk thing to do), and don’t try to feed it (remember, your hands are made of meat, and it’s also completely illegal). And no matter how fast you think you are, a gator can outrun you in the first 30 yards on land! So just be happy you have the chance to see them, and take all the pictures you like (from a distance).
Sarasota has a lot to recommend it, from shopping, dining, museums, history, and especially its countless opportunities to get out and have some fun on the water and in Florida’s natural attractions. Take a few days out of your Orlando touring and enjoy all this marvellous destination has to offer.
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