Shopping the World

By staff December 1, 2002

The term global economy has a unique meaning in this part of Florida to shoppers both serious and recreational. It means you can get just about anything in the world you want. Right here. You'll be amazed at the international variety alluringly displayed in boutiques and department stores on the barrier islands and on the mainland. Shopping here is a sophisticated retail safari that will transport you from the ancient world to a futuristic realm just by walking a block or two. Why is it all here? Because that's where you are.

St. Armands Circle: At this international shopping venue the streets are named for U.S. presidents because circus impresario and Sarasota resident John Ringling once envisioned St. Armands as the site of a winter White House for Warren G. Harding. Ringling later bequeathed St. Armands to the City of Sarasota, and over the years the area developed into a resort shopping and dining destination. Global shopping really boogies on St. Armands, yet the boutiques are carefully focused. Garden ornaments are featured in one, fudge in another. In others you'll find santons from Provence, costly bed linens from Italy, and colorful plateware from Spain. Jewelry shops display South Seas pearls as big as marbles, and in kid-oriented emporiums you'll find marbles as big as pearls. Most tourists reserve a full day to explore all the shops and culinary opportunities on St. Armands, and almost all return to stroll the Circle under the stars. Buy an ice cream, sip wine at an outdoor cafe, or climb aboard for a horse and buggy ride around the Circle. Somebody bring the camera.

Downtown Sarasota: Sarasota's urban core is a colorful amalgamation of the practical and fanciful. There are florists, drugstores, banks, a pawnshop and a spacious library. There are places to buy postcards or the latest bestseller and lots of sidewalk cafes where you can write or read. Downtown is the place for quality art galleries and antique shops (most of them concentrated on pretty Palm Avenue), restaurants, the Sarasota Opera, and several temples of live theater, such as the Golden Apple, a popular dinner theater. A 20-plex movie theater on upper Main has all the latest flicks. If you follow Main Street to the end, you can walk across U.S. 41 and end up on the bayfront. Streets surrounding Main have charming fruit names-Lemon, Pineapple, Orange, Cocoanut, etc.-and these streets host specialty boutiques galore and fine restaurants. One of those streets (it runs parallel to Main) is Fruitville Road, and it's the mecca for junk, secondhand, thrift, consignment and polished antique shops.

SOMA: South of Main Street takes in Towles Court, a genuine artists' colony. More than 40 artists have homes in the area and maintain their studios and sales galleries there, too. The vividly painted vintage houses are hallmarks of this vibrant live-work neighborhood. Reserve half a day for Towles Court and consider lunch or dinner at Lavanda, a continental restaurant where you can eat inside or on the wide porch. The nearby neighborhood of Burns Court is dominated by the town's esteemed art cinema, which has three screens. Surrounding the cinema are restaurants, antique shops, kicky-luxury clothiers, art galleries, and little storefronts full of elegant junque as well as exquisite home decor objects. Herald Square, in the same vicinity, is home to the amazing Woman's Exchange, a grand, well-organized consignment store that locals and seasonal visitors frequent religiously. Herald Square also boasts several quality antique shops and a great little eatery called Citrus.

South of Downtown-Sarasota Quay, Midtown Plaza, Southgate Plaza, Sarasota Pavilion, Sarasota Square Mall: All these tempting shopping venues are conveniently located on the Tamiami Trail (also called U.S. 41). Each mall has unique characteristics and each is a destination in its own right. The Quay is an elevated Mediterranean-style mall with beautiful views of Sarasota Bay, and most of the dining spots take advantage of the vistas. There's a mix of specialty shops and culinary enticements. Midtown Plaza is home to Michael's On East, an award-winning gourmet restaurant that also has a chic bar. At Davidson's Drugs you'll find sunglasses, shell souvenirs, beach reading, cosmetics, even a post office. This small mall is a mix of specialty shops and eateries and is anchored by a large supermarket. Also this is one of the few malls in America where you can make an appointment to have your tarot cards read! The place to go is Elysian Fields, which also stocks a comforting assortment of New Age healing stones, books, silver jewelry and aromatherapy products.

Southgate Plaza is a small and chi-chi enclosed linear mall with a Saks Fifth Avenue (where the style icons congregate) and Burdines at one end and a Dillards at the other. In between are jewelry shops and bookstores, athletic shoe emporiums and haunts for classically polished working women, such as Ann Taylor and Talbot's. Southgate also has several fine culinary experiences to offer, from Asian and Italian to genuine deli fare. No cinemas, but you can surely get inspired about making your home look like a movie set with national home and hearth retailers such as Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma.

Sarasota Pavilion appeals to discount divas with Steinmart, Ross and Marshall's. There's also a big bargain bookstore, shoe warehouse, major craft emporium, and a huge bath and bedding palace. Young people go straight to Old Navy. The Pavilion is not an enclosed mall; you walk outside under connecting arcades and there are several nearby places to stop for lunch and dinner. Panera Bread Company is one of the most popular. No cinemas.

Sarasota Square Mall, enclosed and spacious, is the family all-purpose plaza with a generous food court and familiar stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Burdines and Dillards. Find tropical clothes and fabulous sandals at the specialty shops here to round out your vacation wardrobe and discover inexpensive souvenirs, too. And you can also take in a movie, at the cineplex on the eastern end of the parking lot.

Southside Village: Situated in an older part of town near Memorial Hospital, this is a relaxed blend of residential neighborhoods, doctors' offices and specialty shops within walking distance for local residents. There's also a fine selection of ethnic restaurants as well as American bistros. Bambinos is a remarkable (and decidedly upscale) baby store, while Ribbon's has a diverse collection of gift and small home decor items. Fred's is a boisterous bistro with a wine bar that makes it a favorite date-night destination. And Morton's Market is a gourmet emporium that excels in take-out meals and delicious bakery goods. Annabelle's features an impressive array of upscale cookware and beautiful things to help set a unique and glamorous table. No cinemas, and street parking can sometimes be frustrating. But tourists who sample Southside Village often think they'd like to live in one of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Siesta Key Village: The Sarasota casual lifestyle is epitomized in this laid-back beach community with its many shops devoted to beachwear, sun gear, flower-festooned flip-flops, and snack foods or frozen tropical coolers. Whimsical shops are artlessly grouped on boardwalks, upper decks, or right on the sand. Every so often there's an opportunity to stop for a sandwich or a full, satisfying meal. Some of the most dazzling (and daring) bathing suits are sold on Siesta Key, and some of the best bodies in Sarasota are wearing them at the big public beach just outside the Village. There's a post office in the big Davidson's Drug store in the middle of the village, so bring your postcards for mailing. Siesta Key is home to The Pelican, a weekly newspaper that can bring you up to speed on local events and sales on this charming barrier island. No movie theaters but several places to rent videos if it rains on your plans.

Venice: Keep driving south from Sarasota on Tamiami Trail and you will eventually come to the Isle of Venice, a beguiling Old Florida collection of shops, restaurants and residential neighborhoods that sit on the water's edge. Historic Venice has a relaxed charm that visitors find enchanting. Visitors want to stroll, not walk or run. They take time out for afternoon tea. They saunter to the beach and enjoy the sunset. After 30 minutes on the island, you will fall into the pace, feel the drowsy rhythm and start smiling. A day spent discovering the discreet charms of Venice is an excursion you'll cherish.

Fishermen's Village at Punta Gorda: Welcome to a picturesque waterfront complex of 33 specialty shops, a half dozen reliable restaurants and a marina with room for nearly 100 boats. And there are about 50 luxury villas in the Village in case you love shopping here so much that you decide to buy a place and move to Punta Gorda permanently. You can rent a sail boat or jet skis; or you might choose to bicycle along the Peace River, where you could catch sight of dolphins at play. Or climb aboard a charter boat and test your skill as an angler. Fishermen's Village stands on the site of the old King Street Pier that was home to the fish packing plants so necessary to the industry of the area. Today the charming shops and the recreational activities reflect the unique history of this old Florida fishing community. Plenty of photo opportunities, so bring your camera.

Longboat Key-Avenue of the Flowers and Centre Shops: Both retail destinations are located on gracious Gulf of Mexico Drive, the long, narrow main road that's lined with attractive tropical landscaping and high-rise condominiums overlooking the Gulf or the bay. Longboat Key is a well-manicured island, and both these bustling little shopping areas reinforce the polished refinement of the area. A big Publix market with an excellent bakery and deli is a hallmark of Avenue of the Flowers, and it's surrounded by a chic mix of clothing and specialty shops geared to amuse the tourist and meet the everyday needs of locals. Farther on down Gulf of Mexico Drive heading toward the quaint village shopping on Anna Maria Island and Holmes Beach is the Centre Shops, a medley of art galleries, eateries and small select boutiques. It's also the home of Maureen's Palm Grille, known for its martini bar.

Prime Outlets, Ellenton: Multitasking shoppers have high praise for this venue. Arranged under a sheltering Mediterranean arcade are upwards of 140 specialty shops sporting designer labels you know and love. You'll need a full day to effectively browse and slap the racks in places such as Saks Off 5th, Ann Taylor, DKNY, Escada, Jones of New York and more. The mall is not limited to clothing, so expect to find kitchen shops, electronic stores, jewelry and cosmetics galleries, toy and bookstores and home decor centers. Practical types come to Ellenton with their holiday shopping lists and accomplish miracles while having a great time and saving money. There's a food court when you need to take a break and a big parking lot that can accommodate large vans. No movies-not that anyone would have time to take two hours away from shopping.

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