Calling All Connoisseurs

By staff December 1, 2003

You're familiar with the expression "think globally, act locally." In this resort town, that sentiment can aptly be applied to the enjoyment of shopping. Because this part of Southwest Florida is an international playground, shopping just naturally assumes a cosmopolitan character. You're vacationing in the perfect place to acquire 18K gold and diamond jewelry creations from Italy, an Asian feng shui tabletop fountain, or luxury ceramics from Spain. And we haven't even talked about all the indigenous treasures sprinkled throughout town. Sarasota shell shops are the spot for gathering exquisite seashells and chunks of snowy coral to add to your design scheme back home. Locally crafted jewelry, baskets, paintings and sculpture abound in nearly every shopping district you'll wander into during your stay. If acquiring remarkable objects made across the world or across the street appeals to your senses, you'll be overjoyed to discover Sarasota shopping.

St. Armands Circle: Circus impresario, art collector and real estate developer John Ringling once owned St. Armands Key and saw it as the site of a Presidential winter White House. Ringling's lofty scheme fell apart when the Great Depression struck, and he subsequently bequeathed St. Armands to the City of Sarasota. Gradually, the Circle evolved into a stunning resort shopping and dining destination. All around the Circle is a collection of sophisticated boutiques and art galleries, as well as award-winning restaurants and relaxed sidewalk cafes. At night you can climb into a horse-drawn carriage for a ride under the stars. Or you might want to stroll the Circle while indulging in an ice cream or a piece of fudge from Kilwin's, a place that makes its own. St. Armands is Sarasota's retail jewel and a magnet for both the casual and serious hedonist.

Downtown Sarasota: If you walk the length of Main Street, you'll end up at Sarasota Bay. And an energizing walk it is. Along the way you'll find a colorful amalgamation of the useful and idyllic. Sprinkled among sidewalk cafes, full-service restaurants, bakeries and bistros are galleries to browse, specialty clothing boutiques, and our spacious public library. There are literary places to pick up postcards or the latest best seller. Downtown is also the destination for diverse art emporiums, quality jewelers and antique shops (most of them concentrated on pretty Palm Avenue). For entertainment, check out the Sarasota Opera and The Golden Apple, a popular dinner theater. A 20-plex movie theater on upper Main called the Hollywood 20 has all the latest flicks. Radiating from Main the streets and avenues have enchanting fruit names-Lemon, Pineapple, Orange, Cocoanut, etc.-and these destinations host boutiques galore and more eateries. One of those streets (it runs parallel to Main) is Fruitville Road, a mecca for elegant junque and authentic antiques.

Burns Square/Towles Court: South of Main Street lie these two historic neighborhoods offering an intimate, strolling-browsing experience. At vividly painted Towles Court, more than 40 artists maintain home/studios and sales galleries using a concept called "live/work." Located in Burns Court is Burns Court Cinema, the town's esteemed art movie house, which is colored a bold raspberry. Surrounding the three-screen cinema are restaurants, antique shops, clothiers, art galleries, and intimate boutiques focused on home decor objects. Burns Square is also where you'll find the Woman's Exchange, a huge consignment store that locals and seasonal visitors frequent religiously. So do area interior designers!

South of Downtown-Sarasota Quay, Midtown Plaza, Westfield Shoppingtown (Southgate), Sarasota Pavilion, Westfield Shoppingtown Sarasota (formerly Sarasota Square Mall): How convenient that all these shopping venues are located on Tamiami Trail (also called U.S. 41). Each mall has unique characteristics, meaning that you should definitely explore them all. The Quay (next to the majestic Ritz-Carlton) is an elevated Mediterranean-style mall with spectacular views of Sarasota Bay. Midtown Plaza is a compact mall that's a merry mix of specialty shops and eateries and is anchored by a large supermarket. Davidson Drugs has beguiling budget souvenirs including shells. One of the town's prestige restaurants, Michael's On East, is part of this mall, as is Michael's Wine Cellar.

Westfield Shoppingtown (Southgate) is the city's ultra-chic enclosed mall, with a Saks Fifth Avenue 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 (and varied) culinary experiences to offer, from Asian and Italian to genuine deli fare. No cinemas, but you can 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 the young set and discount divas with Steinmart, Marshall's, Books-A-Million and Michael's craft emporium. Teens go straight to Old Navy; their moms check out Bed, Bath & Beyond. Panera Bread Company is one of the most popular places to stop for meals or bakery goodies to go. The newly renamed Westfield Shoppingtown Sarasota, about to undergo major expansion and updating, is big, fully enclosed and offers a generous food court and familiar family-friendly stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Burdines and Dillards. Additionally, there are plenty of specialty shops for all ages. Reliable places to find bathing suits and beach supplies.

Southside Village: Situated in an older part of town near Sarasota Memorial Hospital, this neighborhood is undergoing a full-scale retail renaissance, and some streets are under construction for expanded venues of fun. Southside shopping is a relaxed blend of residential necessities, such as Morton's Gourmet Market, and hip restaurants such as Fred's (an American bistro) and the popular Chutney's, which features Middle East specialties. Ribbons has a diverse collection of gift and small home decor items; Annabelle's features upscale cookware and beautiful objects to set a glamorous table; and Coffrin's Jewelers has been helping its customers sparkle for years. Street parking can sometimes be frustrating, but tourists who sample Southside Village usually think they'd like to live in one of the surrounding neighborhoods so they could walk to all the fun.

Siesta Key Village: Welcome to stress-less shopping at its most congenial. In the Village, beach-oriented shops are casually grouped on boardwalks, upper decks, or right on the sand. Every so often you'll be tempted by the opportunity to stop for a sandwich or a full, satisfying meal. The restaurants on Siesta Key are indeed exceptional-don't be fooled by the relaxed nature of the place. 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 will bring you up to speed on local events and real estate opportunities on this charming barrier island. No movie theaters, but several places to rent videos.

Southbay Fashion Center: A collection of stores in the town of Osprey (like the bird), this strip mall on Tamiami Trail features a supermarket, a comprehensive chain drugstore and specialty boutiques, as well as a few choice places to eat. Southbay is the convenient neighborhood place to shop for people who live in the nearby luxury gated communities. It's also a destination for those in the market for new furniture or design inspiration; the spacious Ethan Allen furniture gallery is located at Southbay, as is the new Coastal Home by Beall's, which presents home furnishings with a Tommy Bahama-like flavor.

Venice: The historic isle of Venice (south of Sarasota on Tamiami Trail) has a mellow, retro seductiveness that visitors never fail to find engaging. The antique and collectibles shops on the main thoroughfares are quaint, and bargains abound. Merchants will take time for long chats. Later, take a stroll down the pretty boulevard to the Gulf and get into the drowsy rhythm that the locals have perfected to an art form. Sunsets are amazing on Venice Beach, and dinner at any of the waterfront establishments will end a perfect day spent discovering discreet Florida charms.

Fishermen's Village at Punta Gorda: Fishermen's Village is located on the site of the old King Street Pier that was home to fish packing plants once so necessary to the livelihood of the area. Today three dozen picture-perfect specialty boutiques and a half dozen lovely restaurants (as well as a marina) are arranged here for maximum convenience and postcard visual appeal. There are also 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. If you're just day-tripping, you can rent a sail boat or jet skis. Or you might bicycle along the Peace River where dolphins frolic. Maybe you'll join a charter boat party and test your skill as an angler. Plenty of photo opportunities.

Longboat Key-Avenue of the Flowers and Centre Shops: Avenue of the Flowers, just off the narrow main highway called Gulf of Mexico Drive, is as fetching as its name and is characterized by a chic mélange of upscale clothiers and specialty shops geared to amuse the tourist and meet the everyday needs of locals. The deli and bakery at the Publix Market are renowned. Farther north on Gulf of Mexico Drive, heading toward the carefree beach towns of Anna Maria Island and Holmes Beach, is the Centre Shops, a medley of art galleries, eateries and chic boutiques. Centre Shops is also the home of Maureen's Palm Grille, famous for its martini bar and gourmet menu. Gracious Gulf of Mexico Drive takes its speed limit seriously, so be warned. The attractive road is lined with opulent tropical landscaping and elegant high-rise condominiums overlooking the water. Longboat Key is a meticulously manicured island, and these breezy shopping areas reinforce the Southern polish of the place.

Prime Outlets, Ellenton: Realistically, you'll need a full day to browse and slap the racks in such august off-price palaces as Saks Off 5th, Ann Taylor, DKNY, Escada, Jones of New York and more. But this mall isn't limited to clothing, so expect to discover kitchen shops, electronic stores, jewelry and cosmetics galleries, toy and bookstores and home decor centers. Practical tourists come to Ellenton with their holiday shopping lists and accomplish wedding and birthday miracles while having a great time and saving money. Of course, there's a food court for when you need to regroup and take nourishment. Shopping is organized under a pretty Mediterranean arcade, and there are upwards of 140 specialty shops to investigate, many sporting designer labels you know and trust. Wear comfortable shoes. No movies, not that you would have time to take two hours away from tracking down such amazing bargains.

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