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For more than 20 years, a new city has been rising to the east. Here are nine reasons to celebrate that right now. 

1) Because it’s one of the best places anywhere to watch polo.

Every Sunday afternoon from January through April, crowds hoof it to the 130-acre Sarasota Polo Club off University Parkway to cheer on local players as they compete against an impressive line-up of international players.

But although the polo and the players are the real deal, Lakewood Ranch has put its own relaxed spin on the Sport of Kings. Instead of socialites in fancy duds with silver tea services, people of every age and background come in shorts and sundresses, often with kids in tow. “This is not Palm Beach polo. It’s way more relaxed,” says Jennifer Grondahl, who’s been a regular polo-goer for many years. Tailgating gets competitive, though; most weeks there’s a themed contest—best decorating or best specific picnic basket dish. “I won Best Margarita a couple of years ago,” Grondahl says. “That was a personal accomplishment.”     

Surrounding the polo club are 35 private ranches that range from five to 40 acres, where devoted equestrians both live and board their horses (some 600 at last count), including members of the polo-loving and polo-playing First Family of Lakewood Ranch, the Uihleins.

But polo is only one of the sports that draw players and spectators. Of course there’s golf and tennis, but you might also fancy a game of cricket at the Sarasota International Cricket and Rugby Club. Next to soccer, cricket is the world’s most popular sport, and the Lakewood Ranch-based club draws members from 11 countries for year-round play. The rugby club hosted the Florida Cup in November, with 16 men’s teams, eight women’s teams and several high school teams competing from all over the state. The Sarasota club brought home the second-place trophy.

And speaking of soccer, when the 140-acre Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch opened off S.R. 70 in 2011 with its 28 playing fields, it attracted a flood of soccer enthusiasts from around the region and around the state. Its Labor Day tourney alone draws 250 student teams and more than 10,000 spectators.

 

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2) Because you can live in some of the best-designed homes on earth.

Every variety of housing stock imaginable exists in Lakewood Ranch, from one-bedroom rental apartments to some of the ritziest homes in our two-county area. And even if many residents can’t afford to live behind the gates of such communities as The Lake Club and Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club , they can ogle the mansions once a year, during the LWR Tour of Homes, when anyone can get through the neighborhood gates.

No, you won’t find the same variety of architectural styles you would in a place that has developed over time, and yes, neighborhoods do have a cookie-cutter look. But even if you’re not a fan of brand-new neighborhoods with rigid rules, walk into one of the homes and you’re likely to be impressed.

The developer and the builders in the ranch are some of the best in the business, and Lakewood Ranch has won an array of national awards, including “Best in American Living” from the National Association of Home Builders. Their floor plans are the culmination of 20 years of extensive market research into how homebuyers want to live today.

“They’re terrific homes,” says our Real Estate Junkie blogger, Bob Plunket. “I often take visitors out to see the Lakewood Ranch model homes and they’re entranced.” With high ceilings, lots of windows and natural light, beautiful kitchens and baths and open layouts designed for modern living, the homes are astonishingly comfortable. Many overlook nature preserves or lakes and have outdoor living areas equipped with the latest amenities, from summer kitchens to fireplaces.

When Ranchers get the itch to move, they tend to scratch it in another new home in a Ranch “village.” “We’ve just built our third house here; I never want to leave,” says Angela Massaro-Fain, who, with her husband, John, founded Grapevine Communications.

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3) Because when they say “Join the club,” they mean it.

Nobody over a certain age was born in Lakewood Ranch, and everyone is a stranger when he or she gets there. “It’s a young community, and there’s no established good-old-boy network,” says Heather Kasten, president of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance. “Everyone comes with an open heart; they’re eager to meet people.”

From the beginning, clubs have been an effective vehicle for meeting people with shared interests. The Lakewood Ranch Town Hall website lists dozens of clubs of every description, from the Asian women’s club and the couples ballroom dance club to clubs for genealogy, history, gardening, art, bingo, books, adventure travel, adult soccer, religion and more. And if you don’t see the club you want, starting one and posting it on the site will soon draw a like-minded crowd.      

 

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4) Because it’s a great place to be a biker.

In contrast to Sarasota and Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch was built with bicycles in mind. Most roads were planned with bike lanes, and as a result, you can travel miles of interconnected lanes in a single ride. Biking is big with retired boomers, one of the largest groups of Ranch residents, and as many as 100 of them—and some younger cyclists—meet at Village Bikes on Main Street each week in daylight-saving months for what they call the Village Idiots Wednesday Night Worlds, a 20- to 35-mile ride through various Lakewood Ranch communities that ends with beer at a pub. 

 

5) Because even though you’re in a master-planned community full of people and houses, you can walk outside and see an amazing variety of wildlife.

Wildlife abounds in the ranch—deer, otters, blue herons, sandhill cranes, wood storks, wild boar and an occasional bobcat crossing Hidden River Trail. The community was planned around nature preserves, and residents get out and use the many parks, trails and dog parks. You can fish on Lake Uihlein, at 160 acres the largest of Lakewood Ranch’s many lakes, and you can also see alligators—lots of alligators. (The largest they’ve removed, says a Ranch spokesman, was 8 feet long, although they’re typically 4 to 6 feet.)

Lakewood Ranch isn’t on the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count, but maybe it should be. “One night around sunset we saw snowy egrets, white egrets, white ibis and a couple of gorgeous roseate spoonbills in a swampy area near the apartments across the street from Lake Uihlein,” says Manatee Audubon Society secretary Jim Stephenson. “I got a great photograph of one of them in flight.” 

Although many residents worry that continued growth will reduce the presence of wildlife, there is still plenty of habitat left. Lakewood Ranch is surrounded by a ranch that is nearly as large as the community. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch encompasses 28,000 acres; there are several thousand head of beef cattle, 1,500 acres of citrus groves, a turf farm and tree farm, and 3,500 acres leased for vegetable farming. A guided tour of the ranching operations via charter bus is offered each fall during the Lakewood Ranch Tour of Homes; 10 tours went out last fall to meet the demand.  

6) Because it throws the biggest Halloween party in town.

This is a family-oriented community with a capital “F”—every public school is A-rated, after all—and Ranchers love a festival or civic gathering. The annual Halloween Boo Fest draws hundreds people of every age, many in creative costumes, to Lakewood Ranch Main Street. Holidays Around the Ranch is another big celebration, with its horse-drawn carriage rides and hot cocoa.

There are many more: the Art at the Ranch fine-art festival and Ovation, featuring performing arts organizations; Polo Under the Palms; the Suncoast Food and Wine Fest; Festa Italiana at Adventure Park. The monthly Music on Main street festival on Main Street draws visitors from Sarasota and Bradenton. And there’s a feeling of small-town Americana at most of these events; at the Memorial Day parade down Main Street last year, people were lined up five-deep to salute the veterans.

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7) Because one of the best seafood restaurants in town is miles from the Gulf.

We’re talking about the locally owned Lucky Pelican on Lake Osprey Drive, which earns raves for its raw bar and thumbs-up from TripAdvisor fans like KBH55, who wrote: “The BEST seafood in Sarasota! We have learned if we want to get a table without a wait we need to arrive by 5.” Nearby Lakewood Ranch Main Street has become a foodie destination, with Italian, Japanese, Scottish and American bistro-style eateries. It’s also home to a new Craft Growlers to Go and Tasting Room and the USF Culinary Innovation Lab, a teaching facility for USF’s hospitality program that can be rented for intimate private dinners prepared by expert chefs.

Literally hundreds of restaurants are sprinkled throughout the Ranch or just a few minutes west, in and around the new Mall at University Town Center. Some of them are among the region’s best.                             

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8) Because you’re minutes away from some of the best shopping in Southwest Florida.

If anyone doubted the center of Sarasota has been moving east, the shiny new Mall at UTC confirmed that demographic trend. The mall has more than 100 stores, many of them high-end, along with anchors Dillards, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, and University Parkway has burgeoned with retail as well. In addition, homegrown boutiques along Main Street offer apparel, home accessories and more. Today Ranchers are in the middle of the most diverse shopping experience between Tampa and Fort Myers.

9) Because you can get there from here.

One of the best things about Lakewood Ranch is how easy it is to leave. It’s right next to I-75, which gives you instant access north and south. “You can zip up to a Tampa Bay Lightning game, zip over to the Straz Center [both in Tampa],” says Kasten. “When I need to fly out, I can check the schedules at four different regional airports—Sarasota-Bradenton, Tampa, St. Pete and Punta Gorda.”

People who work in Tampa Bay can choose to live in Lakewood Ranch and commute, and many of them do. You’re also just a 20-minute drive away from downtown Sarasota and its cultural offerings and a few minutes more to the beaches.

The one fly in the ointment: Traffic. The new mall and record tourism have been creating congestion around the Ranch in the last few years, but the new diverging diamond interchange, the first of its kind in Florida, recently completed at University Parkway is making an improvement. 

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