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Culture, history, old masters and circus people. Just what you’d expect in the sunshine state…what? Did I mention I just got back from Sarasota, Florida? Considered one of the best art towns in America, Sarasota is perched on the Gulf of Mexico, half-way down the state. The area has more than 90 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a quick drive, cross a bridge and you’ll hit Longboat Key, one of the six barrier islands that lie between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf. There are 35 miles of sugary sand along these islands and my first night we had dinner on the beach, watching dolphins chase schools of fish as the sun lowered into a golden pink sky. The stone crab was heavenly, as was the view.
Top 10 Activities in Sarasota:
1) Visit all the barrier islands and make sure to walk along the beach on Siesta Key, ranked No. 1 in the USA by Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.”
2) Tuck into the buffet at Der Dutchman in the Amish/Mennonite neighbourhood of Pinecraft. The broasted chicken (fried and roasted so the skin is amazingly crunchy) is to die for, as are the fresh salads and pickled beets. Save room for peanut butter pie. Pick up a tray of cinnamon rolls at the attached bakery, then nip into Carlisle Gifts to peruse the beautiful Amish quilts.
3) Eat seafood at The Shore Diner. Try the crab cakes and truffle fries or the eggs Benedict with lobster salad. Heavenly.
4) Photograph ‘gators at the Myakka River State Park from an airboat. The tours run 3-4 times a day, are around 1-hour long and cost $12 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, and kids 5 and under are free (they must sit on an adult’s lap).
5) Check out Hugh and Buffett, two manatees at Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium. They were born at the Miami Seaquarium and would have had difficulty adapting to the wild, so instead they help researchers understand their physiognomy and habits. All the animals here, sea turtles, penguins and dolphins take part in research programs that will ultimately help manage wild populations.
6) Sift through sand for shark teeth. Do this on any beach, or sign up for a pail of sand at the Mote Aquarium for guaranteed finds.
7) Kayak through the mangrove tunnels: Kayak Sarasota offers guided kayak tours at 10:15 am and 1:30 pm. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins or manatees. For sure you’ll see cormorants that like to suss out paddlers. www.ikayaksarasota.com
8) Catch a first-class performance. Choose from the Sarasota Orchestra, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera or Florida Studio Theatre.
9) Circus legacy. John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved with his wife Mable to a permanent home in Sarasota in 1926. Ca’d’Zan is a 56-room Venetian-inspired villa full of marble bathrooms, hand-painted frescos and pedigreed French furniture (some is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette). Next door is the Museum or Art, containing Ringling’s personal collection including paintings by Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and Gainsborough. Also on the sprawling property is the Circus Museum where you can try your hand at tight-rope walking or squeezing into a tiny clown car. www.sarasotaCircusHistory.org
10) Take a breather at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, on Sarasota Bay. Wander the 14 acres, contemplate life as you look over the Bay, marvel at the orchids and bromeliads. A leisurely lunch under the banyan trees makes for a perfect afternoon.