Super Shopping

By staff December 1, 2004

Browsing, snacking, strolling, sipping, buying, packing-realizing you need a much bigger suitcase. That's what shopping here is all about.

Although we're renowned for our beautiful beaches, the variety and quality of our shopping venues always come as a pleasant surprise. Shopping in our suburban malls, beach villages, artist's studio neighborhoods or downtown enclaves is both an international delight and an intensely indigenous experience.

Expect to find a blend of the utilitarian and the unique, the dazzling and the daffy. Shark-teeth necklaces compete with snakeskin ankle- strap stilettos. You'll find French bed linens, Italian gold bracelets, a pair of flip-flops for each day of the week and, of course, the "best" key lime pie recipe printed on a postcard. Recreational shopping takes on a whole new definition In Southwest Florida. So locate your sunglasses and plop on a straw. Now you're ready to participate in the best and most enjoyable treasure hunt of your vacation.

Main Street, Sarasota: Charmingly small-town, but with plenty of shops to satisfy a big-city appetite for what's smart and sassy. Main Street is an inviting place for a stroll (mid to lower Main) amid consignment shops, dress boutiques, home décor emporiums, art galleries and lots of eating opportunities, including outdoor cafes, the last refuge for smokers. A multi-screen movie theater dominates one end of this long two-way street, and a view of Sarasota Bay enhances the other. Because of a recent building boom of high-rise condominiums, Main Street and the avenues with fruit names off Main now boast more daily-living amenities than ever before; and this hub of Sarasota truly evokes an intimate urban neighborhood ambience. Street parking, but the movie theater also offers an enclosed multi-level garage.

Palm Avenue and Lower Main Street: Often when you're on vacation, the home you left behind reveals itself in sharp relief; and you suddenly realize you need to redecorate. If you're in this felicitous frame of mind, then Palm Avenue and lower Main Street are right up your design alley. Here you'll discover Oriental rug and fine art galleries, home décor boutiques, antiques emporiums and elegant design studios. Dotted throughout these two streets that run perpendicular to one another are ethnic restaurants, outdoor cafes, coffee houses, even an independent quality bookstore. A leisurely stroll amid the riches of these two streets is bound to inspire and elevate your lifestyle even if all you end up doing is dreaming and scheming about glorious new spaces to return home to. No cinemas in this part of town, but who could possibly have time, anyway? Street parking.

Burns Square/Towles Court: Just off Pineapple Avenue, Burns Square has genuine art house cinema with three screens and an eclectic collection of antiques and gift galleries, funky secondhand and consignment shops, good ethnic restaurants and respected design studios. Towles Court, on Adams Lane and Morrill Court, is an artists' colony that features live-work-studio space for active artists in a collection of restored 1920s cottages. Plan to participate in a regularly scheduled Friday night art walk in the neighborhood. It's a great way to experience the bohemian local culture.

Southside Village: Just off South Osprey Avenue, this is an old and popular residential neighborhood recently enlivened by new and specialty shopping and restaurant venues. Expect a few exceptional stores and viable nightlife here in the form of an American bistro and wine tasting room. A huge gourmet market dominates a small walking area of shops that cater to home décor and kitchen accessories as well as emporiums that feature imported art and gift items, doctors' offices, dry cleaners, a pub and bakery. No cinemas; street and lot parking.

Midtown Plaza: An outdoor mall off South Tamiami Trail where you can accomplish quite a bit without walking very much, including food shopping at a full-service supermarket, getting your hair done and filling a prescription at a spacious drugstore that doubles as an all-purpose gift shop. (This is the place to get your nautilus nightlight.) At Midtown there are places to eat from budget to ultra-fine dining. And this mall is home to a unique New Age boutique that sells books on Buddhism as well as Japanese incense, Eastern music CDs, inspirational greeting cards and serenity aids. If that doesn't work, sign up for a private tarot card reading.

Westgate Shoppingtown, Southgate Plaza: This is the area's chichi enclosed linear shopping mall. Located at South Tamiami Trail and Bee Ridge Road, this long narrow space under a light-filled dome ceiling offers luxury-brand buying possibilities in elegant shops with a food court and relaxed restaurants. Besides the heady jumble of enticing stores, there's a myriad of freestanding kiosks offering unusual buys as well as a place to have your hair cut and nails done. Visitors can easily spend an entire day in this upscale cocoon, gleefully ignoring the beach and other outdoor activities. No cinemas; easy parking in security-patrolled open-air mall lot.

Westfield Shoppingtown, Sarasota Square Mall: This is the town's big, all-purpose mall, complete with a popular soft-sculpture indoor playground for tykes and great-looking bright red strollers for babes, located at South Tamiami Trail and Beneva Road. The fully enclosed mall is a mix of well- known national stores and regional haunts. Expect a big food court, movie theaters, plenty of parking and things to buy at all price points. Whether you need items for the beach or to embellish your rented condo, clothing for the whole family, or if you just want a day of indoor fun searching for unusual vacation souvenirs, this is the mall that has something for every single member of the family. Easy mall parking or take the bus.

Sarasota Pavilion: This spacious, rambling open-air mall is convenient to the south bridge to Siesta Key and is situated on U.S. 41 (called the Tamiami Trail), the main artery that serves the Manatee-Sarasota-Venice communities. Consequently, this shopping area is always bustling with all age groups of locals as well as seasonal visitors. The Pavilion is noted for its off-price stores, making it a special destination for bargain hunters. You'll recognize your favorite dollar-saving haunts right away, meaning you may have to buy a few additional suitcases for the trip home. And, yes, you will find suitcases at this mall at discounted prices. Big parking lot, no cinemas. Plenty of places to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Siesta Key Village: Time-honored sand-in-your shoes shopping at Ocean Boulevard on Siesta Key. Buy an ice cream waffle cone and window shop amid surfboard emporiums, T-shirt and beach towel shops, jewelry stores, and boutiques that carry everything from bathing suits and tennis togs to cocktail dresses. Plenty of restaurants offer outdoor patio dining as well as air-conditioned inside spaces, many with live entertainment after the sun goes down.

St. Armands Circle: This is island shopping at its most internationally beguiling, as chic brand luxury venues sit side-by-side with seashell huts and humble postcard emporiums. A historic location, St. Armands Key (just over the Ringling Causeway from the mainland) once belonged to circus impresario John Ringling, who envisioned the beach community as a summer White House for Warren Harding. But tragic events intervened and that never came to pass. The Presidential street names on St. Armands Key are a legacy of Ringling's grand scheme. Today, the Circle and the streets that radiate from the Circle are filled with restaurants, art galleries, gift boutiques, impressive jewelry shops, and clothing stores that specialize in beach and tennis wear, smart business attire and gala gowns, too. The Circle really jumps at night with live music and plenty of seasonal events planned by the active merchants' association.

Venice Island: This is amiable old-time Florida browsing shopping on Venice Avenue just over the bridge from the mainland. You meander in and out of quaint shops (many of them under awnings to keep you shaded) that are mostly beach or easy-living themed. At the end of the avenue you meet the beach. Time your shopping excursion accordingly, and you can walk both sides of the boulevard and end up on the sand in time for a glorious sunset. Then pick a restaurant and relax. Nothing is rushed or urgent about downtown Venice shopping. People are friendly, parking is easy, life is good.

Fisherman's Village at Punta Gorda: Intrepid merchants who operate the quaint stores organized on the site of the old King Street Pier are busy refurbishing in the wake of hurricanes and expanding their picture-perfect specialty boutiques. Choose from half a dozen lovely restaurants that are arranged for maximum convenience and postcard eye appeal, or rent a boat or bike to get a new perspective on a truly inviting area.

Longboat Key Centre Shops/Avenue of the Flowers: The Centre Shops off Gulf of Mexico Drive, are a neat and convenient assemblage of intimate restaurants (one that features an award-winning martini bar) and casual eateries as well as quirky places to buy unusual gift items and collectibles, clothes and home décor accessories. Popular with year-round and seasonal visitors, the area has a small but bustling ambience with friendly merchants who know the first names of many of their customers. Avenue of the Flowers is famous for its Publix market, with a deli and bakery so popular it's where the locals and returning seasonal visitors meet and greet on a regular basis.

University Outlet Mall: Recently reinvented, upgraded and expanded, this open-air collection of eateries and shopping venues at I 75 and University Parkway, is finally living up to its potential, and it's increasingly popular with local residents as well as tourists. Great buys on quality merchandize from clothing to china, furniture to fur-lined jackets. This mall is also very near a huge national home improvement store and several quality chain restaurants.

Prime Outlets, Ellenton: This is a day trip north of Sarasota on I 75, and you'll need every hour you assign to your trek to this conveniently organized outdoor mall, because it's expanded since last year. The shops are arranged village fashion, with covered walkways and lots of places to sit and rest a spell. Mediterranean courtyards, colorful mosaics, terra cotta tile roofs and pretty fountains add to the allure. There's a spacious food court and dozens of brand name stores that showcase clothing, sporting goods, home furnishings, fine linens for bath and table, children's apparel, kitchen and electronic accessories, jewelry and cosmetics.

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