The Fab 52

By staff December 1, 2005

1. Visit Selby Botanical Gardens to admire its remarkable collection of tropical orchids, then take your own orchid home from the plant shop. These beautiful plants with long-lasting blooms are surprisingly easy to grow, and the volunteers will help you determine which species fits your skill level. (Dendrobiums or phalaenopsis, anyone?) 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731.

2. Discover our pioneer past at Crowley Museum and Nature Center, on 190 unspoiled acres near the Myakka River in east Sarasota County. Tour the homespun museum, with its collection of housewares and farm tools from the late 1800s. And on a clear, crisp day, the boardwalk that traverses Maple Branch Swamp and Tatum Sawgrass Marsh is a birdwatcher's Eden. 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000.

3. More than 1,000 alligators live in Upper Myakka Lake at Myakka River State Park. You're sure to see some of them on the world's largest airboats, the Gator Gal and Myakka Maiden. Your captain provides lively commentary about the slightly sinister beasts and lots of other wildlife, too. The boat is shaded, but we like sitting in the open air in front of the captain for the unobstructed view. 13207 S.R. 72, Sarasota. (941) 361-6511.

4. You'll love Venice Avenue, aka Venice Main Street, for what it isn't. There are no Gap or chain restaurants; instead you'll find homegrown retailers, antique dealers, an ice cream parlor and a park with a bandshell, where the Gentlemen of Jazz give free concerts every Thursday afternoon. "Cross the Bridge to Yesteryear" is Venice Main Street's slogan. It fits. (941) 484-6722.

5. Film cognoscenti have been flocking to Video Renaissance for 20 years, whether they're in the mood to rent a classic MGM musical or an obscure independent movie. The clerks are treasure troves of movie lore, and 25,000 films are stacked sky-high in this hole-in-the-wall hotspot. Some are so independent they've been purchased from the filmmakers themselves. 2243 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota. (941) 925-2780.

6. If you're searching for a fabulously kitschy Florida souvenir, head to the Sarasota Jungle Gardens gift shop, where you'll find classic rubber alligators, seashell-encrusted curios and orange-blossom perfume along with more grown-up buys, like glass butterfly feeders and garden steppingstones. Aunt Edna back in Schenectady will surely want several of the tiny pink flamingo-shaped soaps. 3701 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305.

7. While away a pleasant hour on Sarasota Bay on Le Barge, the only tourist boat we've seen with a palm tree lashed to its upper deck. The morning tour is a dolphin watch; sightsee down posh canals in the afternoon; and sing along to an acoustic guitarist at sunset. Drinks and food available. Le Barge, which seats 140, leaves from the docks at downtown's Bayfront Park; reservations are suggested. 2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota. (941) 366-6116.

8. The anachronistic Mennonite community of Pinecraft, off Bahia Vista Street, is home to some of the best comfort food east of Indiana. If it's meat loaf, mashed potatoes and cream pies you're craving, head straight to family-owned Yoder's at 3434 Bahia Vista, a Sarasota institution since 1975, where kindly women in plain cotton dresses make sure you won't go hungry.

9. People gather by the thousands at downtown Sarasota's Saturday farmers' market for the vegetables, flowers, homemade jams, hippie-esque macramé potholders and beaded necklaces, and other crafts. But mostly it's a chance to grab some coffee, catch up with neighbors, pet a dog and harangue a city commissioner or two-in other words, to feel like you're part of the community. Priceless. Lemon Avenue between Main and First streets. (941) 951-2656.

10. Only one youth opera program in all of America both prepares youngsters to sing with professional companies and produces operas completely sung by them-and it's ours. At Sarasota Opera's Youth Opera performances, the voices are marvelous and the sets and costumes first-rate. In May: Aaron Copland's The Second Hurricane, featuring a cast of 60. 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-8450.

11. You gotta experience Lakewood Ranch's annual Pug Parade to believe it: 150 or more pugs bedecked as bumblebees, Donald Trump and everything else imaginable, strutting down a runway in front of hundreds of fevered fans. They come from all over Florida to compete for awards like Most Physically Fit, Best Curled Tail and Miss Congeniality. Last year's top winner: a pug dressed like Lucille Ball in her famous candy company assembly-line episode. Sweet. (941) 487-1116.

12. Sarasota's famed luxury lifestyle can be yours without mortgaging the farm. Just grab a copy of the real estate section in the weekend Sarasota Herald-Tribune and start hitting the Sunday afternoon open houses. Lido Shores, Sanderling Club, The Oaks-all these swanky neighborhoods can be yours, if only for an hour or two.

13. Do the thrift-shop thing, Sarasota style. Everybody, but everybody (including the town's top designers) goes to Curtis Brothers, a secondhand emporium at 2088 12th St. housing everything from vintage plateware to lovely antique case goods and upholstered furniture. The Woman's Exchange at 539 S. Orange Ave. is the grandmama of all consignment shops, chock-full of furniture, clothes, Oriental rugs and even garden statuary-everything you need for your new getaway condo. Curtis Brothers, (941) 366-9766; Woman's Exchange, (941) 955-7859.

14. Thrill to the sounds of roaring motorboats and the sights of talented young skiers jumping, somersaulting, wake boarding and performing heart-stopping four-tier pyramids at the Ski-A-Rees, a Sarasota tradition for almost 50 years. The award-winning amateur water-ski troupe gives free Sunday performances in the fall and spring right off City Island. 115 Ken Thompson Parkway. (941) 388-1666.

15. Stroll picturesque shopping mecca St. Armands Circle and try on a Tommy Bahama silk shirt with a hibiscus print or a Lilly Pulitzer sundress in pink and lime-green (depending on your gender). Then try not to drip any ice cream on it when you sample the goods from Big Olaf, Kilwin's, Ben and Jerry's or Scoopdaddy's. St. Armands proves this simple truth: You can never have too many ice cream shops.

16. Get lost in a time warp at Jack Vinales Antiques at 539 S. Pineapple, where it's always somewhere around 1950. This is the place to pick up genuine Bakelite, McCoy pottery, a Heywood Wakefield coffee table, a starburst clock or a cool chrome martini set. Jack is thoroughly knowledgeable and refined, and he'll steer you to the right mid-century-modern merchandise. And he always has an interesting assortment of art on the walls. (941) 957-0002.


Hide the camera and hand over the keys. These classic Sarasota concoctions are not for the faint of liver.

17. Start off the evening with a little seafood in your booze. Siesta Key Oyster Bar's Oyster Shooter is a glass of Absolut Peppar, Tabasco and horseradish with a real (but not live) mollusk at the bottom. It looks like brine and tastes like burning, but how often do you find a shot you can chew? 5238 Ocean Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 346-5443.

18. Head next door and ask the bartender at the Daiquiri Deck for the Seven Deadly Sins. He'll fill your glass from seven of the Deck's spinning frozen-drink machines (including flavors like "Purple Haze" and "Deck Diesel"), top it off with Bacardi 151, and you'll do a little spinning of your own. 5250 Ocean Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 349-8697.

19. A Sarasota institution on North Tamiami Trail, the Bahi Hut ferments a secret mixture of rums and fruit juices daily for its Sneaky Tiki. It tastes virgin compared to the Bahi's famous Mai Tai, but look out: The sweet little Tiki packs a kick that'll creep up on you. 4675 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-5141.

20. Breathe in the sawdust, hot dogs and cotton candy that are part of the city's circus tradition. During the December holidays and over spring break, you can gasp at the daring and skill of the PAL Sailor Circus performers-Sarasota County students one and all. And during February you can head over to the Circus Sarasota Big Top for thrills, chills and laughs from top international pros. May all your days be circus days. PAL Sailor Circus, (941) 361-6350; Circus Sarasota, (941) 355-9335.

21. Those in the know stop by Selby Gallery, at the Ringling School of Art and Design, to acquire great student art at a very affordable price, especially during the Best of Ringling student show each spring. But it's not just works from young up-and-comers you can find here; the gallery also presents exhibitions by its talented faculty and from regional and national artists and designers, whom you frequently have a chance to meet and greet. 2700 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 359-7563.

22. Bone up on what you didn't know about Sarasota's heritage with a visit to the Sarasota History Center, tucked away between the tourist pagoda and Art Center Sarasota on North Tamiami in a 1941 building that bridges art deco and art moderne. Even when the center isn't hosting one of its special exhibitions, it's still a treasure trove of books, newspaper clippings, maps and old photographs that capture the sense of the last 150 years or so along our shores. 701 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 861-1180.

23. Get a case of culture shock by attending four-count 'em, four-operas during one of two special March weekends at the Sarasota Opera House. (They're La Bohème, The Marriage of Figaro, I masnadieri and Die Fledermaus). You can also attend four plays over one weekend at the Asolo Theatre during November, January or March (that includes one FSU/Asolo Conservatory production). You may be exhausted, but you'll be entertained and enlightened, too. Sarasota Opera, (941) 366-8450; Asolo Theatre, (941) 351-8000.

24. Wanna play at being one of the paparazzi? Stake your claim at the Sarasota Film Festival's Night of a Thousand Stars party, where the stars and the starstruck take over the Michael's On East ballroom and courtyard and get down. The wall-to-wall bodies make it a challenge to actually carve your path to the food stations, but so what? It's all about the glamour, darling, and it goes on into the wee hours. Sarasota Film Festival, (941) 364-9514.

25. Catch a rising star with one of Booker High School Visual and Performing Arts Center's top-notch productions. Rave reviews (last year's Seussical the Musical won big at the Florida Theatre Conference) greet these anything-but-amateur shows; grads have gone on to Broadway and Hollywood. This year's season ranges from the comic (Once Upon a Mattress, Dec. 7-10) to the classic (Hamlet, Feb. 8-11) to the Cole Porter perennial Anything Goes (April 19-22). 3201 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. (941) 355-2967.

26. Do some star searching at Bradenton's Bishop Planetarium, now totally renovated and updated following a fire a few years ago. The state-of-the-science, all-digital domed theater presents both celestial shows that explore the universe and sound-and-light extravaganzas that rock the house with hits from Aerosmith, The Doors, Metallica and U2. Shows aimed at younger kids, too. 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131.

27. The Westcoast Gospel Choir of Florida performs traditional foot-stomping, hand-clapping, roof-raising gospel that could make all the trees of the field get up and dance with joy. Under the leadership of Bishop Henry L. Porter, the choir remains a treasure of Sarasota's African-American heritage, bringing its message of love to audiences nationwide through concerts, CDs and Webcasts. They perform at various concerts and church services; for the latest, call (941) 365-7543.

fish shacks

Great grub at our favorite Old-Florida hangouts.

28. Part English pub, part dog show, the Old Salty Dog gets plenty of canines at its pooch-friendly patio tables, but none of them sit and stay like the dish that gave the place its name: a foot-long, quarter-pound hot dog from Geier's Sausage Kitchen, batter-dipped and deep-fried (cheese and bacon optional). Try it twice at two locations on Siesta Key and City Island. 5023 Ocean Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 349-0158. 1601 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4311.

29. Kayakers along the Intracoastal Waterway can paddle to the sandy shore at Casey Key Fish House when they need energy food-like a grilled grouper sandwich (a candidate for the best around) with a frozen drink from the tiki bar to wash it down. Of course, landlubbers are also welcome to enjoy the right-on-the-water dining. 801 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey. (941) 966-1901.

30. Shuck 'em and chuck 'em. There's no room for daintiness at Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant and Oyster Bar off South Tamiami Trail. Local families bring the young 'uns for a relaxed dinner, and it's the first place on everyone's lips when talk turns to shellfish. Sit down with some friends, some beers and a few dozen oysters and have at it. 5353 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 925-4444.

31. The Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island stretches 350 feet off the beach and into the waters of Tampa Bay, where you can drop a line and try your hand at catching lunch or dinner-the restaurant will even cook your fresh-caught filets to order. But don't worry if the fish aren't biting; there's plenty of fresh seafood in-house. 877 N. Shore Drive, Anna Maria. (941) 778-2780.

32. Sometimes all you need is a good burger. At the Hob Nob Drive In on U.S. 301, they don't mess around: Since 1957, the straight-up classic American drive-in fare and ice-cold draft beer have drawn locals and tourists in droves. There's a roof overhead, but it's open-air dining, and the swivel barstools and picnic tables are perfect for swapping tales with the gregarious regulars. After tasting the juicy Hob Nob double cheeseburger, you'll be a regular, too. 1701 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 955-5001.

33. Get your yuks at two local laugh factories. Nationally known stand-ups have been splitting sides at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre on North Tamiami Trail for 16 years. The Sarasota institution is also a great place to spot the funniest local characters-on and off the stage. Downtown, Florida Studio Theatre's Improv takes audience requests during weekly performances. Bring your favorite gripe, and the cast will use it to launch a laugh riot. McCurdy's, 3333 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 925-FUNY; FST, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-9000.

34. Because of the state's explosive development, the Florida scrub jay is now one of the most threatened species on the continent. You can see these friendly, light-blue natives at Oscar Scherer State Park. (They often approach and even perch on visitors.) Pack binoculars and a picnic lunch and enjoy canoeing or hiking more than 15 miles of trails through the rapidly vanishing ecosystem that used to cover most of Sarasota County. 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956.

35. Look down on it all from a parasailing flight with Fun and Sun Parasail on Anna Maria Island or any number of parasailors on the local keys. You'll launch from a motorboat before flying as high as 500 feet. The air up there is wonderfully calm-no wind, no noise, and the best view in town. Fly solo or go tandem, the better to spot dolphins, sharks and some impressive island real estate. And don't sweat the return trip: Coming down is as slow and easy as going up. 135 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach. (941) 795-1000.

36. Float among the walking trees on a kayak mangrove tour, the coastal equivalent of a nature hike, from Island Style Wind & Watersports. Weave and paddle through the roots and tunnels of the mangrove forests just off south Lido Key. These natural treasures house everything from fiddler crabs to bald eagles, and knowledgeable guides can help you identify every gill, gull and heron. 2433 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 954-1009.

37. In Sarasota the saying goes, "If it's Baroque, don't miss it." Peter Paul Rubens is all the rage at the Ringling Museum. Visit all 21 galleries, and be sure to linger in No. 13 with Rubens' The Departure of Lot and His Family from Sodom. The Flemish master used apprentices for some of his work, but this vibrant painting is all Peter Paul. 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700.

38. Roll up your sleeves and shake hands with a stingray at Mote Aquarium's Ray Touch Pool, where the velvety creatures swim within easy petting range (and all residents have had their stinging barbs removed). Once you've felt a live ray glide under your fingertips, get your hands on starfish, horseshoe crabs and more at Mote's Contact Cove. You can also visit the shark habitat, which is not quite so touchy-feely. 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441.

39. Nothing says Florida like sun and seafood, and no one knows how to turn a simple fishing trip into a daylong sun-stained reel-and-relax excursion quite like Floridians. Charter boats leave daily from downtown's Marina Jack; in addition to fetching dinner fish like grouper and Key West grunts, you can reel in the beautiful views of the bay, keys and Gulf the way they were meant to be enjoyed-from the water. 2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota. (941) 955-9488.

40. The sunset over Phillippi Creek is a beautiful sight; add Boris the singing gondolier and his decorated handmade gondola, and it's a sublime experience. This eccentric yet utterly romantic little ride loops through a quiet canal as Boris, a former Russian Olympic rower, serenades in Italian (he'll also sing traditional Ukrainian songs if you ask). Bring a bottle of wine and drift away. By reservation only. (941) 954-1051.

41. Go behind the scenes on the Cà d'Zan Private Places Tour, which takes small groups through the third and fourth floors of John and Mable Ringling's 1920s mansion. Hear the stories behind their homey guest bedrooms and occasionally bizarre Venetian extravagance (the painted ceilings of the game room have reduced many a visitor to laughter). Top it off with a 360-degree view from the tower, John's private spot for showing Longboat Key to prospective land buyers. 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700.

42. Start the day off right with breakfast on Siesta Key Beach. Sure, sunsets get all the attention, but mornings on Siesta are simply heaven: wide-open sugar sand, calm waters, and peace and quiet. Wake up with an early-morning swim before fixing scrambled eggs and bacon (on the beach's charcoal grills or your own camp stove), to be enjoyed with a cold glass of Florida O.J. in the shade of the Australian pines. 948 Beach Road, Sarasota. (941) 346-3207.

43. For some boho flavor, tour the Towles Court Artist Colony. More than 30 local artists rehabbed the oak-shaded neighborhood's quaint 1920s bungalows into brightly painted working studios and galleries, and they open their homes to the public every third Friday of the month. There's plenty to see and buy, from jewelry to furniture, but the real sell is the functional integration of art and community. West of U.S. 301 between Adams and Morrill. Tours: (941) 993-2210.

44. Those big chain bookstores are, like, so corporate. Sarasota News & Books is a locally owned, independent bookshop and café where you're sure to see someone you know. This is where the theater crowd browses, New College students study in ivy-covered alcoves, and professionals and retirees meet for coffee and conversation. The café serves beer and wine, too. With a small-town feel and uptown ambitions, it's an anchor of the downtown scene. 1341 Main St., Sarasota. (941) 365-6215.

top tours

Explore the area by land, air and sea-morning, noon and night.

45. Sarasota from the air is a realtor's dream. Take a sunrise helicopter tour with Florida Suncoast Helicopters and see beautiful homes, glitzy condos and some impressive high-rise architecture-and look closely for the (mostly harmless) sharks in the bay. Half the fun is the thrill of the 'copter, a strangely exhilarating way to put all luxury into perspective. (941) 355-1259.

46. During the day, get a sense for the past-and future-of modern architecture by touring the area's famous Sarasota School of Architecture buildings. Realtor Martie Lieberman, an expert on mod style, offers specialized driving tours of these unique homes, schools, churches and public buildings designed by masters like Paul Rudolph, Tim Seibert and Victor Lundy. You'll see what's on the market, in the design textbooks, and on the cutting edge.

47. When you've had enough sun, sign up for Walk on the Wild Side's moonlight canoe tour of Sarasota Bay. Start at sunset and travel on the waters behind the opulent Ringling estate as moonbeams dance on the waves and bioluminescent organisms make the water glow and shimmer in your wake. 3434 N. Tamiami Trail, Suite 817, Sarasota. (941) 351-6500.

48. Hit the streets on a guided sunset Segway tour. What's a Segway? A sort of futuristic two-wheeled upright scooter that uses gyroscopes to balance. (It's much easier than it sounds.) The fun of riding is an attraction in itself-there's nothing quite like it-plus you'll get a good dose of local color and lore. You can now find these in other cities, but Segway tours started here. Florida Ever-Glides, 200 S. Washington Blvd., Suite 11, Sarasota. (941) 363-9556.

49. The circus has deep roots in Sarasota, and the Rosaire family roots go extra-deep, into more than eight generations of world-famous animal trainers. At Rosaire's Big Cat Habitat, Kay Rosaire and her family rescue, raise and train exotic animals of many stripes, including lions, tigers and bears. The Big Cat Encounter, which features miniature horses, chimpanzees and a six-tiger act, is as educating as it is entertaining. 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 359-0949 or (941) 371-6377.

50. Visitors to Warm Mineral Springs in North Port get pampered by Mother Earth herself. The waters of this 1.4-acre, 230-foot-deep aquifer lake maintain a constant 87 degrees and boast the richest mineral content of any spring in the world. People come from all over for a rejuvenating soak, which is great for physical therapy or just a relaxing weekend. If only Ponce de Leon had known. 12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. (941) 426-1692.

51. Even in the biggest cities, film lovers won't find anything better than Burns Court Cinema, with three screens and an ever-changing selection of new indie and art films, from the important to the obscure. Afterwards, you can admire the little 1920s-era bungalows around the theater or duck into a nearby café. If you're here in November, don't miss the 10-day-long Cine-World Festival. And there's now a branch of the theater out east in Lakewood Ranch. 506 Burns Lane, Sarasota. (941) 955-3456.

52. Let's be honest: You didn't come here for the nightlife. Yes, you can find a few dives and upscale dance spots scattered around town. But if you want consistently good live music and a friendly, casual crowd to share it with, do what locals do: Head to the Five O'Clock Club in Southside Village. The sidewalk scene at the chi-chi bars around the corner is worth checking out, too. 1930 Hillview St., Sarasota. (941) 366-5555.

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