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Perfect plans to experience all Sarasota has to offer

Don’t leave town without filling your senses with these lesser-known Sarasota wonders.

Looking for ways to keep guests busy? Go wild in the magical mangrove tunnels on Lido Key.
Looking for ways to keep guests busy? Go wild in the magical mangrove tunnels on Lido Key.
Photo by Heidi Kurpiela
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It’s that time of year when guests start arriving for the holidays and the gorgeous weather. How to entertain them? 

There’s plenty of museums, galleries, theaters, recreational opportunities and attractions — the usual suspects. Experienced residents know that many adventures are left out of the line-up and even high-profile attractions hold secrets and surprises. 

Here are a few ways to keep your guests happily exploring and discovering.

Groove it

Marvel in the ever-changing lights of “Joseph’s Coat” by James Turrell at The Ringling.
Photo by Giovanni Lunardi

“Joseph’s Coat” is one of James Turrell’s “skyspaces” — an oculus or circular window revealing the sky above. In the artist’s design, the aperture works as a lens, projecting an image of the heavens on the floor. Night or day, fair weather or foul, the sky’s colors are ever-changing. To give Mother Nature a boost, high-tech LED lights create a daily lightshow at sunrise and sunset. Relax on one of the benches in the light-drenched courtyard and melt into the groove. 

If You Go: The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road; 359-5700; 

Each Sunday before the sun goes down, the rhythm of life fills the air at Siesta Key Public Beach. Twilight hush gives way to the percussive power of drums, tambourines, bongos and maracas. It’s the Siesta Key drum circle — a grassroots event with no head honcho running the show. One magic day years ago, a few drummers hit the skins. It’s now become a weekly ritual. Join the finger-popping audience. Or bring your own drum and join in. 

If You Go: At the pavilion between Lifeguard stands 3 and 4 on Siesta Key Public Beach.

Close encounters of the natural kind

Delight in multicolored fluttering marvels at Historic Spanish Point’s butterfly house.
Courtesy image

Historic Spanish Point’s 30-acre bayside property in Osprey is a nature preserve of indigenous Florida flora and fauna. Lepidoptera fans will delight in its butterfly house — the only one of its kind in our region. Once inside the screened space, you’re swarmed with fluttering butterflies, including the zebra longwing, malachite, and Julia species. These multicolored marvels are right at home with all their favorite Florida-native flowers and plants. 

If You Go: Historic Spanish Point, 401 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey; 366-5731; 

Manatees were once mistaken for mermaids. Today, we know these gentle giants live in a world of their own. When their world meets the human world, the consequences can be harsh. The Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat at Bishop Museum of Science and Nature offers a 60,000-gallon sanctuary where sick and injured manatees can heal. Here, you can get up close and learn more about their mysterious lives. 

If You Go: Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton; 746-4131; 

Enjoy a tranquil stroll through Selby Garden’s botanical kingdom on the Steinwachs Family Foundation Mangrove Walkway, which loops alongside Sarasota Bay.
Photo by Bruce Holst

Steinwachs Family Foundation Mangrove Walkway is the road less traveled at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. This shady boardwalk loops around the Sarasota Bay shoreline, where mangroves flourish at the interface of land and sea. Explore their complex root and stem systems, marvel at the fiddler crabs and other feisty fauna, and feast your eyes on the picture-postcard spectacle of Sarasota Bay. 

If You Go: Selby Gardens, 1534 Mound St., Sarasota; 366-5731; 

Joan M. Durante Park is a 32-acre slice of subtropical paradise on Longboat Key. Within this bayside Eden, you’re on nature’s time with zero stress and infinite possibilities. There are miles of walking trails, a children’s playground and a boardwalk winding through mangrove forests and leading to a killer view of the bay. Your destination is up to you. Meditate beneath a gumbo-limbo tree. Sit by the pond and watch waterfowl sweep down for their afternoon sip. Wander down any path with no particular direction home. 

If You Go: 5550 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key.

For an uplifting experience, try Art Ovation’s rooftop pool bar where you can sip ‘neath the twinkling stars and brightly lit cityscape ‘till midnight. Dig into that heated conversation about Sarasota’s growth with the prefect cocktail to discuss such matters —The Ringling, created with rum and injected with anise-flavored absinthe. Is that a vision or a hallucination? We’ll never know. 

If You Go: 1255 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 316-0808;

Kid stuff

The Payne Park Circus Playground provides hours of fun for kids and their adults.
Photo by Nancy Guth

Local kids don’t need to run away to join the circus. The polychromatic circus playground at Payne Park Circus Playground provides two zones: one for kids 2 to 5 and another for kids 5 to 12. Little ones can play on swings, slides, crawl-tubes and a rock-climbing wall — or bang out music on the park’s circle of drums, contrabass chimes and a xylophone. When the tykes need to beat the heat, they can also run through a fountain of misting rings. Café in the Park is just a few steps away for a refreshing sip, sandwich or ice cream. 

If You Go: 2050 Adams Lane, Sarasota.

The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature’s Mosaic Backyard Universe is the coolest backyard around. Its Science Shed boasts microscopes and other scientific devices, including Learning Expedition Kits. The Cardboard Rocket takes the refrigerator-box space explorations of young astronauts to the next level with virtual reality. The Mighty Oak Tree House Platform offers front-row seats (along with telescopes and binoculars) of a miniature solar system. The freshwater pond is there to explore the delights of the microcosms of ponds, estuaries and tidal lagoons. It’s always fun, never dumbed down and fully ADA-accessible. 

If You Go: Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton; 746-4131; 

Sara and Zota are the two giant ibises who greet you at the Ibis Playground at The Bay.
Courtesy image

The ibis is a fine-feathered Florida native. The creative minds of Monstrum took inspiration from this beautiful, curved-beak bird to create the Ibis Playground at The Bay. Each of its two playhouses takes the form of a giant ibis. These larger-than-life sculptures, (aka “Sara” and “Zota”), feature slides, tunnels and vantage points. Shaded picnic tables are nearby, along with real ibises, looking for lunch on the water’s edge just beyond.

If You Go: The Bay is a public park alongside Sarasota Bay in downtown Sarasota. Access is at 1055 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota;

Odysseys and adventures

Mote Marine’s Sarasota Bay Explorers’ family-friendly cruise explores the life aquatic and the history and ecology of Sarasota and Roberts bays. With the help of an onboard biologist, you’ll learn about marine wildlife and maybe spot dolphins, puffer fish, seahorses, nesting egrets, herons, ibis and eagles. 

If You Go: 600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota; 388-4200;

The Legacy Trail, a former rail corridor for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is now more than 30 miles of interconnected paved bike trails winding through waterways and woods from Venice to south Sarasota. There are occasional brushes with civilization but also plenty of gators, turtles, snakes and otters to meet. 

If You Go:

Star Fish Company is a restaurant and seafood market in Cortez Village.
Photo by Nancy Guth

Cortez Village is an authentic working fishing village in Cortez, complete with Florida cracker cottages, walkable streets, rusty fishing boats and their seasoned crews and a handful of rickety waterside restaurants. Curious about its history? The folks at the Cortez Village Historical Society will happily fill you in.

If You Go: 124th St. Court W.;

Join a cadre of folks and their canine companions running, walking and biking over the John Ringling Causeway bridge, which makes a graceful, 60-foot arc across Sarasota Bay. Go with the flow, pack a nosh and relax at the gorgeous bayfront parks at either end. If fishing’s your thing, bring a rod and reel and hang at the T.J. “Tony” Saprito Fishing Pier. If you’re low on bait or grog, Hart’s Landing is right below the bridge. 

If You Go: 920 John Ringling Blvd.; 955-0011;

Go wild in the magical mangrove tunnels on Lido Key.
Photo by Heidi Kurpiela

Explore Florida’s unique ecosystem on a kayak or paddleboard trek through Lido Key’s magical mangrove tunnels. The mangroves’ parabolic roots have an alien feel — they’d be right at home in the water world of “Avatar.” There’s abundant wildlife, including waterbirds, turtles, dolphin and manatees. It’s a sacred space and an awesome experience. 

If You Go: Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach Nature Park, 2201 Benjamin Franklin Drive, Sarasota.

Cool places to stay

Chain hotels offer generic, formulaic repetition. If your guests are tired of the same-old, same-old, take heart. These five options are utterly unique. 

Enjoy a private hot tub at Turtle Beach Resort.
Courtesy image

Turtle Beach Resort is an intimate compound of Caribbean-themed cottages on Little Sarasota Bay on Siesta Key. Luxuriate in a bubbling hot tub, kayak down mangrove-laden canals, or stroll the sugary sands along the turquoise Gulf. After feasting at the celebrated Ophelia’s restaurant next door, return to that hot tub and renew your romance. There’s more room at the inn at the sister property across the street — The Inn at Turtle Beach Resort. 

If You Go: 9049 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key; 349-4554;

Open your door to one of the 16 cottages at Little Gull on Longboat Key and leave the rat race behind. These charming one-, two- and four-bedroom suites come with fully equipped kitchens, wood-burning fireplaces, four-poster beds and washers and dryers. There are eight beachside units and eight on the bay — each offers family-style comfort, tranquil surroundings and the chance to create forever memories. 

If You Go: 5330 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key;

The owners of Bungalow Beach Resort on Anna Maria Island have lovingly restored this historic property (former army barracks) to a sweet beachside retreat with hardwood floors, cathedral-beamed ceilings, white wicker furniture, plush linens, private porches and kitchens. When you’re not beach-bumming, explore the island’s three towns — Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. 

If You Go: 2000 Gulf Drive N., Anna Maria Island; 800-779-3601; 

The Resort at Longboat Key Club is the ideal playground for vacationers seeking upscale pampering. Golfers enjoy 45 challenging holes; tennis fans have 20 Har-Tru tennis courts — and there’s some pickleball courts, too. Add a luxe spa, several restaurants and stunning sunsets and you’ll remember why you needed a vacation in the first place. 

If You Go: 301 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; 383-8821;

Rolling Waves Cottages has been a beloved local getaway since opening day in 1948.  With eight ancient cabins smack on a pristine stretch of Longboat Key’s beach, it’s a perfect antidote for the 21st-century grind. Beware: The resort is delightfully rustic and quaint but sticks to the bare necessities. For that view of sand and shore? Some might feel it’s all they need. 

If You Go: 6351 Gulf of Drive, Longboat Key; 383-1323;



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.


Su Byron

Su Byron has worked in the regional arts and cultural world for the past 25 years as a writer, an editor, and a public relations and marketing specialist. For 12 of those years, she was the co-publisher of the Sarasota Arts Review, a monthly arts and entertainment newspaper. Su is a freelance writer whose regular columns and articles appear in a host of regional and national publications.

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