The Best Florida Beach Destination: Sarasota, Florida
Widening in the Middle - The Family Sarasota Beach Getaway
My grandfather spent most of his adult life in Florida. My father graduated from Orlando High School in 1948 and has seldom left the state during his long life. I am no fan of Florida's rigorous climate, or the almost joking lack of seasonal change, but I have to concede that when it comes to beaches, Florida is the business. Florida’s east coast has its roaring, tubular swells, but on the west coast the Gulf of Mexico laps at the shore like a contented housecat. On the west coast the palm trees are leathery, the shrubbery is tropical, and the talc-white sand glistens with crushed seashells. The calming water stretches away from the shore in bands of glassy color ranging from a pale, seafoam green to a deep, contemplative blue-black.
Sarasota is located at the waistline of the Florida peninsula, about an hour south of the cleft of land formed by Tampa/St. Petersburg. Sarasota is easy to find on a map with its familiar, vowel-rich beach name. But because Florida has so many different kinds of beaches to offer Sarasota is more difficult to place in a vacation priority list. There are good reasons to visit Sarasota for the traditional weeklong, condo-rental family trip. The beaches are pristine and soothing with their Mediterranean colors. The city has also become more active than it was during its charter tourist days when my family vacationed at the Diplomat Resort Motel, a concrete block motor court still open for business on Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Greater Sarasota is made up of four barrier islands that are contoured against the west coast of Florida. They provide 35 miles of blinding white beach. The town of Sarasota is on the mainland, connected by wide, graceful bridges to the four islands: Siesta Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key and Longboat Key. Sarasota/Bradenton Airport offers the closest approach for out-of-state visitors, but cheaper, more numerous flights arrive at Tampa International Airport, which is 50 miles north via the cathedral-like span of the Sunshine Skyway suspension bridge.
The attitude of Sarasota has become younger in the last dozen years. The conservatism of an elder community has gradually given way to a more relaxed - but not quite hip - middle-age ethos. For the most part the people on the beaches, and along the famous shopping/restaurant ring of St. Armands Circle, hover in a condition of contented medium age.
It is not only middle age, but also the middle class that is comfortably populous in Sarasota these days, keeping a moderated influence on the social environment. The high-end beach properties don’t brag about helicopter-pads like Palm Beach, nor is there anything like the rough-hewn, carnival boardwalks of Daytona Beach. You would have to look hard to find a biker bar or a tattoo parlor in Sarasota. Of course there are some style setters dressed in the latest pastel colors walking along St. Armonds Circle. Ocean pier clam shacks are relaxed and inviting. They sell bait to fishermen but also keep a list of export beer brands on the menu.
In Sarasota the beaches themselves are widening in the middle. Since April 2001 Sarasota has been involved in a major beach renourishment project to fill out eroding shorelines. Using barges and huge pipelines some 104,000 cubic yards of sand are fattening beaches along Longboat Key, extending the recreational surfaces by a hundred yards or more in some places.
The history of Sarasota as a popular beach retreat began in the 1920s when millionaire John Ringling made it a resting place for his off-season circus performers. The dividends of serving as a constant vacation destination for 80 years show in the range of Sarasota’s cultural and entertainment offerings. There is an aquarium, botanical gardens, an opera company, a ballet company, a symphony orchestra and at least one world-class museum. It is surprising to think about while you are standing on the beach with the smells of coconut oil, but Sarasota has a museum that should not be missed. The Ringling Museum of Art has a world-class collection of Western European, Asian and American art.
John Ringling built the museum in 1927 to house his extensive collection of baroque art. When the depression hit in 1930 he was forced to sell many of his assets and he donated the museum and art collection to Florida State University. The collection includes oversized paintings by Rubens and displayed portions of the Astor family’s Manhattan Fifth Avenue mansion, which Ringling purchased in the mid 1920s.
Sarasota is a family beach vacation destination with pure and simple attractions. It has an appeal that draws the interest of every age group and it is an ideal place for a multi-generational reunion. The area offers an ample array of hotels, condos and luxury resorts. Restaurants are plentiful and supermarkets ready to offer provisions for cookouts and paper-plate lunches.
Most of the year the scene looks the same. Along the beaches of Longboat Key the children dart into the surf. It’s clear to see that they are enamored with a sun-bleached universe about a hundred yards long and only as wide as mom and dad will let them roam. Lily Pulitzer-style umbrellas stick out from the white dunes shouldered in front of the water line. The parents look after their offspring from canvas lounge chairs, loose pages of paperback novels chattering in the sea breeze. The sun dips lazily in the sky toward the rewarding moment of a west coast sunset over the ocean. The parents also look enamored by a tiny universe that is only four islands long.
The Sarasota-Bradenton Airport (airport code SRQ) is served by several airlines including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways. The airport telephone number is 941-359-5200.
Tampa International Airport (airport code TPA) is larger than the regional Sarasota airport and it is serve by most major airlines and offers more frequent service. The airport telephone number is 813-870-8700.
The Ringling Museum of Art - 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, Florida 34243 (941-359-5700 - www.ringling.org).
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens – 811 South Palm Avenue, Sarasota, Florida 34236 (941-366-5731 – www.selby.org).
Sarasota Ballet - www.sarasotaballet.org.
Sarasota Opera - www.sarasotaopera.org.
Florida West Coast Symphony - www.fwcs.org.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:32:54 PM.