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Puttin’ on the Ritz in Sarasota & Siesta Key

by Charlie Peay on February 2nd, 2009

If you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime, there’s no better time to start than right now! Sarasota, Florida has everything you’d expect–haute couture, fabulous dining, and a charming mix of Mediterranean and Southwest Florida influences. There are beautiful harbors, majestic condominiums, modern high-rises and gleaming yachts of just about every size and description everywhere you look…all wonderfully complimented by neo-classic Spanish architecture, Sarasota chic, and regal palm trees blowing in the cool Gulf breezes. When it comes to luxurious living and stately surroundings, it doesn’t take long to realize that Sarasota doesn’t take a back seat to any other resort destination! If you like leisure activities, you can unwind with some of the best golf, tennis, boating or fishing around, and even take in a cricket or polo match while you’re here.
When you first roll into town (I would suggest taking the Fruitville Road Exit off I-75 to reach downtown and Ringling Boulevard, or the Bee Ridge Exit a little further south to reach Siesta Key),you are immediately overcome with a sense of grandeur, elegance, and quiet sophistication. If you happen to visit any of the trendy shops and restaurants on Main Street or the bustling marina at Sarasota Bayfront Park, you’ll be swept away by a pleasurable tide of adventure, freedom and fun. The famous Kissing Sailor statue which is always on display in front of Marina Jack, seems to embody the very essence of Sarasota’s carefree lifestyleand perpetual “joie de vivre”. You can almost feel the excitement along the waterfront as you drive down Bayfront Drive and catch a glimpse of elegant sailboats and sleek watercraft resting at their moorings. When you reach Golden Gate Point where John Ringling Boulevard splits off from North Tamiami Trail, you can cross over beautiful Sarasota Bay on Ringling Bridge to nearby Lido Key (for newcomers to the area, Tamiami Trail, aka Highway 41, is the major North-South thoroughfare from Tampa to Miami, hence the name “Tamiami”). Whichever direction you look out across this lovely bay, there are magnificent sights to behold, with miles and miles of scenic coastland and blue-green water as far as the eye can see.
The entrance onto St. Armands Key, just before Lido Key, will take you directly to St. Armands Circle and its unique collection of upscale boutiques, shops and eateries. There are so many distractions in the St. Armands district that you can easily spend the whole afternoon here without really trying. Columbia Restaurant, Hemingway’s, Café L’Europe, Crab & Fin, Café Gallante, and La Colonne are some of the restaurants which have earned a stellar reputation on St. Armands. There is also Tommy Bahama Tropical Café, Taste of Italy, 15 South Ristorante, Kilwin’s Chocolates, and Ben & Jerry’s if you’re looking for more ways to pass the time. On any day during lunch, you’re likely to see tourists and locals weaving their way along the crowded sidewalks or relaxing and enjoying the weather in one of the posh open-air cafes. Whenever I visit St. Armands, I always have the feeling I’m in some secluded spot along the Mediterranean rather than in Southwest Florida, but maybe that’s part of the allure of this unique shopping and epicurean destination.
Just up the road, if you follow John Ringling Parkway towards Longboat Key, you’ll find the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium which is located at Ken Thompson Park on City Island. The Mote facility features science and education exhibits in addition to a world famous aquarium, complete with a variety of marine life and a 135-gallon shark tank! From Mote Aquarium, if you continue heading north on Gulf of Mexico Drive and cross over the bridge, you’ll come to fabulous Longboat Key which is packed with even more world-class vacation resorts, restaurants, shops, golf, tennis, secluded parks and unspoiled beaches. You can actually drive all the way up Longboat Key in about 30 minutes or so (depending on the traffic) if you’d like to visit Bradenton Beach or Anna Maria Island, but be careful to observe the 45 mph speed limit!
When coming from Sarasota, if you continue straight across St. Armands Circle, you’ll come to Lido Key which offers a perfect beachfront setting only a quarter mile away! Lido Beach is very private and has easy access, but remember that you’re on your own while you’re at the beach since there are no lifeguards in this section (and swimmers beware, since the current can be very swift!). There are restrooms, concessions, gift shops, and cabana beach rentals for your convenience, plus an observation deck and parking for 400 cars! If you have any nature lovers in your group, be sure to stop by the Nature Center at South Lido Park in the Hamsen Bayou at the south end of Lido Key. The park is bordered by four bodies of water (Gulf of Mexico, Big Pass, Sarasota Bay, and Brushy Bayou) and offers two kayak trails, a nature trail, a boardwalk, and a picnic area which is shaded by Australian pines! The park also has restrooms, cooking grills, a beachside playground, a volleyball court, and an observation tower.
To reach Siesta Key from downtown Sarasota, all you have to do is follow Bayfront Drive-Highway 41 South around Sarasota Harbor until it turns into Mound Street, then turn right at the intersection of South Washington Boulevard. You’ll stay on South Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) for about 2.5 miles, then turn right on Siesta Drive which will take you directly to “downtown” Siesta Key (if you continue straight on Highway 41 South for another 3 miles, you’ll intersect Stickney Point Road which is the other access onto the island). Simply stay on Siesta Drive and bear left where it intersects with Higel Avenue, then turn right on Ocean Boulevard just past Midnight Pass Road. This will lead you right through the heart of Siesta Key Village where you’ll find many of the island’s top attractions including restaurants, bars and shops. Some of my favorite spots in the Village include the Old Salty Dog, Siesta Key Oyster Bar, Daiquiri Deck, Lobster Pot, Café Continental, Village Café, Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill, and Bella Roma Italian Restaurant. One thing’s for sure–there always seems to be a jovial, upbeat crowd of tourists milling about, whether they’re enjoying fresh oysters on the half shell or checking into their tropical accommodation of choice.
If you like tropics, you’ll absolutely love Siesta Key! Beautiful towering palms, lush tropical foliage and majestic banyan trees greet you everywhere you turn. Once you make your way through Siesta Key Village and turn left on Beach Road, you’ll be right at Siesta Key Public Beach where another of Siesta Key’s natural wonders awaits…over a half mile of the finest white sand beaches to be found anywhere in the U.S.! There are volleyball, softball, tennis and food concessions facilities here for the whole family with water sports of every kind. Lifeguards watch over the public beach all year long to ensure the safety of swimmers and group picnic pavilions are available for a nominal fee. There’s even an 800-car parking lot but be sure to arrive early because parking spaces have been known to go fast!
Crescent Beach which is located just south of Siesta Key Public Beach is usually a little less crowded and has the same fine, white sand. It stretches for about one and a half miles down to Point of Rocks approximately halfway down the island, where scuba divers like to explore the stunning underwater scenery. Point of Rocks is home to the Siesta Key Marina, which offers a wide selection of fishing equipment along with dry boat storage, parasailing, Jet Skis, boat rentals and more! Just look for the big blue anchor sign over Stickney Point Bridge right after you come onto the island. While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to check out Clayton’s Siesta Grille, Anna’s II Deli, and the Crescent Beach Grocery.
At the southern end of Siesta Key, last but not least, you’ll find Turtle Beach Park. The sand here may be a bit coarser, but the shelling is better! Turtle Beach is also quieter, and although there are no lifeguards or food concessions, there are plenty of picnic tables and grills, with ample parking and playground equipment. The nearby Turtle Beach Pub Restaurant has casual family dining and daily happy hour from 3-6:00 pm, and just down the street Ophelia’s On The Bay, now in its 17th season, offers serious fine dining and spectacular views of Little Sarasota Bay. But that’s not all folks…Siesta Key is literally brimming over with fabulous places to stay, and finding the Perfect Vacation Rental has never been easier than visiting!
Before you and your party leave Sarasota, you should definitely plan to visit the world renowned Ringling Museum of Art, Selby Gardens and Sarasota Island Park & Marina. And after you’re through, there are plenty of bars, pubs and restaurants in the downtown area from which to choose. Polo Grill & Bar, Marina Jack, Mattison’s, C’est La Vie, Morel, & Bijou Café are just a few of the popular casual upscale dining establishments that come to mind. Whether you like arts, shopping, sports, fishing, concerts or festivals, Sarasota and her sister islands have something for everyone…a blend of old and new, casual and refined, but always warm and inviting, and just waiting to be discovered!

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