To some, the beach is merely a playpen for a day, its sugary sand a nuisance to be swept away before heading home. But think of a beach only as an afternoon's amusement, and you miss one of nature's greatest creations.
From the hovering seabirds picking off glittering fish in an ebbing tide to the skittering crabs and colorful shells, a beach is more than a tract of land. It is a living, breathing creature, with all the alternating filibuster and tranquility of a tempestuous woman. One moment, her water's glassy surface can lull you into unsurpassable bliss; the next day, a tropical storm can send waves churning into the dunes with frightening fury.
But her threatening moods seldom last longer than a day, or few hours; so if her temperament is not to your liking, leave her be and come back when the sun or tides make her more amenable. Then, when you leave again, you'll find that her clinging sand beckons you back like a sad soul lost in the throes of unrequited love.
Sarasota has some 20 of these sirens along the coastline stretching from Venice to Anna Maria. Whether you come to fish their waters, dive to discover their underwater treasures, or meditate on a solitary blanket at sunset, you're bound to find your perfect hideaway here.
With few exceptions, parking is ample and free. Alcohol is allowed on most beaches (in cans only, please), and pets are even permitted in certain areas, on leashes, of course. Check the signs for complete details, as they vary. But of course they would, since no two beaches, like no two women, are ever exactly alike.
Bean Point. North of Sarasota on Anna Maria Island. Enjoys beautiful views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Egmont Key.
Bayfront Park. Just north of Pine Avenue near the Anna Maria City Pier. A favorite of fishermen, boaters, kayakers and canoeists. A new shopping center is providing even more incentive to visit this popular beach.
Manatee Public Beach. Right off Gulf Drive in Holmes Beach. Showers, restrooms, lifeguards, concessions, and a kids' playground.
Palma Sola Causeway. A few miles east of Manatee Public Beach on Manatee Avenue. Few amenities, but popular with jet skiers and tailgaters.
Cortez Beach and Coquina Beach. Further south along Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach. Its unique position allows for great fishing and snorkeling, but beware the tides. And the crowds. Boaters flock to nearby islands during the summer. On the beach itself, lots of shade trees, good picnic areas and ample space for showers and restrooms. Fortunately, plenty of space for parking, too.
Whitney Beach. On the north end of Longboat Key. It has limited parking and no amenities, but the sand is so white, and the area so secluded, no one cares.
North Lido Beach. Just off St. Armands Circle at the north end of Lido Key. Awash in Australian pines and good shelling, this stretch of beach is surprisingly remote. At its tip lie some of Sarasota's spectacular Gulf-front homes.
Lido Beach. Just off St. Armands. This is where many locals flee to escape seasonal crowds. The reasons: ample parking, concessions (including beer), clean restrooms and cabana rentals.
South Lido Park. At the tip of Lido. The crowds can be tight on weekends, when lively salsa music, volleyballs and frisbees fill the air, but there are plenty of picnic tables and grills to go around. There's also a shower area and restrooms. Beware the dangerous currents-this is not a good swimming beach-and wild raccoons. Both can be hazardous to your health.
Siesta Key Public Beach. Along Midnight Pass Road on Siesta. What we're famous for-blinding white quartz sand, frequently judged among the finest in the world. Large concession area, gift shop, restrooms and showers. Tennis courts, fitness trail, baseball fields and live music on weekends. The parking lot is huge, but still manages to fill up quickly during season. If cars are circling the parking lot, try to find a space in one of the accesses that run between the beach and Siesta Village.
Turtle Beach. On Midnight Pass Road at Siesta Key's south end. A large picnic shelter and free boat ramps allow easy access to and from Little Sarasota Bay. There are also a playground, volleyball court and dune walkovers. The beach itself is narrower than Siesta, with a bit more shells, but offers stellar sunset views.
Palmer Point. At the southern tip of Siesta. This beach runs all the way north to Casey Key and offers divine seclusion. The reason: Private homeowners control entry to the road leading up to it, so it's accessible only by boat.
Nokomis Beach. On Casey Key, in southern Sarasota County. This family-friendly park sits on 22 acres and features a boat ramp, boardwalk, restrooms and a concession pavilion.
North Jetty Park. On the southern tip of Casey Key, and adjacent to Nokomis Beach. Another family favorite for its horseshoe and volleyball courts, picnic shelters, concessions and bait shop. The jetty juts out into the Gulf for some of the finest fishing around. The surfing here draws people from across the state.
Venice Municipal Beach. Just off downtown Venice. Famous for the petrified sharks' teeth that wash ashore. Also popular for scuba diving and snorkeling along its coral reef. A pavilion, concessions, and restrooms, too.
Caspersen Beach. South of Venice Airport. Caspersen offers a boardwalk and nature trail and a new fishing pier.
Brohard Park. North of Caspersen. Home to the Venice Fishing Pier and a wetland area that makes it ideal for bird watching. Also has a snack bar and bait shop.
Manasota Beach. On Manasota Key at the west end of the Manasota Bridge. Its scenic boardwalk on the Intracoastal side winds through the mangroves. There are also picnic shelters, restrooms and a boat ramp.
Gasparilla Island. South of Englewood and across the bridge to Boca Grande. Seven miles of unspoiled beaches and excellent fishing. One of the state's top locations for tarpon.
If you love the peace of a private beach, but don't want to spring for an oceanfront home with one attached, here's a solution: Head south to Venice. Skip Venice Beach at the edge of downtown; though it's not as packed as Siesta Key, it still has plenty of locals playing volleyball or paddling. To escape the crowds and enjoy a secluded sunset, head south on South Harbor Drive.
Just after Brohard Park-where your dogs are welcome to frolic-the road narrows into a winding lane covered in a fine gritty layer of sand, with nothing between you and the sea other than gentle dunes topped by swaying sea oats. This is Caspersen Beach, where two-thirds of the land has been left natural and thickly wooded. There's parking, though, and a great stretch of boardwalk from which to watch the waves sweep in over the coastline. This beach is rarely crowded, and you may be the only person strolling along the narrow strip of sand, looking for shells or prehistoric sharks' teeth, or checking out the nature trail that winds through the vegetation between the Gulf and the Intracoastal Waterway. When you're ready for a rest, there are picnic tables and, even better, a flight of wooden steps at the edge of the boardwalk that provides a vantage point from which to watch the sun set.
Caspersen Beach is located at 4100 S. Harbor Drive, Venice. Note that there are no lifeguards on duty here.
-By Anu Varma