Attractions & Nature Guide

By Amy Bennett Williams Photography by William S. Speer December 1, 2009

ng.jpgSecrets of Mother Nature

At water's edge, the stream was no more than a thin, damp sheet ribboning up the beach. Higher up on the sand, it became deeper,  a wet channel leading toward the wall of red mangroves, before disappearing into them. How could we not follow it? 

My mom and I ducked into the dark archway. The beach vanished behind us; the stream snaked ahead. Now ankle deep in warm tannic water, we picked our way upstream. Inside the shadowy tunnel, a greeny gold luminosity played over the water, dappling our faces and rippling over the leafy walls that closed above us.

On either side, the mangroves’ roots—slender flying buttresses—were spangled with barnacles. Then the mangroves thinned, the landscape opened, and we found ourselves in a sunny clearing.

Here, hundreds of horseshoe crab shells littered the pale sand. The dun-colored husks lay everywhere. It was hard to take three steps without crunching them like leathery eggs. Had we discovered a horseshoe crab graveyard?

I turned one over and a squad of tiny crabs swarmed out, then scattered. My mom and I examined some of the empty horseshoe shells. Their odd profusion was just the sort of Florida phenomenon that fascinates her.

A surgeon’s daughter, she inherited her father’s love of learning about the inner workings of things. That, coupled with her taste for art and adventure, created for me a childhood filled with science and sensory surprise.

Come pomegranate time, she’d peel so many, it looked as if she were wearing violet gloves. I remember her smile as we gorged on the sweetly exotic capsules within. A fruit’s season is short, we learned. Stains disappear soon enough; enjoy while you can.

She was by my side that first kaleidoscopic afternoon at the Jungle Gardens, as a keeper approached with a bird that to my seven-year-old eyes looked as big as a peacock—a hyacinth macaw with an inky scimitar bill and lizardy, talon-tipped feet. It was as beautiful as it was frightening. Whispering encouragement, my mother gently touched the bird’s head. It ruffled its lapis feathers and half-closed its eyes. The keeper looked at her; she nodded, holding out a cardigan-clad arm. Calmly, carefully, the bird stepped on; then my mom looked at me. Would I like to try? Well, it hadn’t attacked her, so I slowly reached out. The macaw eased itself onto me.

The claws prickled. It was heavier than it looked. I remember my arm trembling, but it may have been from the thrill: eye-to-yellow-ringed-eye with a creature that looked like it had just fluttered in from a faraway jungle. The world felt as if it held just the bird, my mother, and me. But someone was there to snap a picture; I still have it in my top desk drawer.  

A few years later, again at my mother’s side, I had my first up-close encounter with an alligator—a hatchling handed to us by a nature center volunteer. The length of a Coke can, with no more heft than a kitten, it regarded us with glittery amber eyes. At least I thought it did—it may have been looking at the ceiling tiles, or at nothing at all.

I held the baby up to my cheek. Smooth as polished marble—sun-warmed marble. Cold-blooded, of course, does not necessarily mean cold; it simply means they’re as warm as their surroundings, which in this case was almost body temperature.

One of the subtropical party tricks my mother taught me and I now use to amuse my own children is lizard hypnotism. You catch yourself an anole, slowly turn it over in the palm of your hand so it’s belly up but not panicked, then gently, gently, gently stroke its throat and tummy. Soon, the critter relaxes and sprawls motionless in your hand. Your audience gasps, then cheers as you flip the lizard upright again and it shakes itself awake and scampers off.

So I lightly gripped the little ’gator, eased it into position and traced a line up and down its sleek underside. Soon came the familiar relaxation, the loose-limbed lolling, which lasted until I flipped the baby back over. My mom smiled as it squiggled between two of my fingers and began to chirp. Neither musical nor dissonant, it was a charming sound. In the wild, of course, that noise would attract the attention of this baby’s own mother, and for a moment, I had one of those flashing, unbidden visions: a charging female, my mother, me. And though my mom’s not much bigger than a child, I knew there’d be a fierce tussle over who would protect whom.

That long-ago afternoon she and I pushed our way into the mangrove labyrinth was the first time I’d been surrounded by the peculiar trees. We walked back to the beach under the low arches of limbs, as sunlight flickered and flashed through dark leaf lace. We breathed generations of fallen leaves, now sulfurous ghosts. We listened to the languid wash of the tide, the bubbling clicks of barnacles, the tiny clatter of tree-climbing crabs. Birth, death, muck, water, mother, daughter.

Later, I did some reading about mangroves and the creatures that live among them. I learned the horseshoe-crab carpet we’d seen wasn’t evidence of mass death; it was simply molted shells. And I learned that red mangroves don’t just drop their seeds the way so many other trees do. Instead, their seeds germinate and actually begin growing while still attached to the branch.

Thus sheltered and nourished, when the young mangrove finally separates from the big tree and slips into the water below, it’s ready to sink strong roots of its own.

Those facts might have been new to me, but the larger lesson wasn’t. It’s one my mother has spent her entire life teaching me.

Amy Bennett Williams, an essayist for NPR affiliate WGCU, is editor of the Fort Myers News-Press’ Sunday magazine, Tropicalia, and has won a number of state and national writing awards.


Note: Many of the attractions offer discount Web coupons; be sure to check each listing’s site before you go.


De Soto National Memorial, 3000 75th St. NW, Bradenton. (941) 792-0458. In May 1953, explorer Hernando de Soto stepped foot on “La Florida” close to the mouth of the Manatee River in Bradenton. Today this site is a 25-acre park with 3,000 feet of shoreline and plenty of natural beauty—check out the sinuously sculptural gumbo-limbo trees. Kids and adults will appreciate the exhibit about the Conquistadors and the “living history” re-enactments from mid-December to the last weekend in December. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free of charge.

South Florida Museum/Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131. This little gem of a museum has a number of attractions, chief among them Snooty, the senior-citizen manatee, whose big 6-0 birthday last summer sparked major local celebration. After the requisite viewing of Snooty in the Parker Manatee Aquarium, you can stargaze at Bishop Planetarium’s all-digital, full-dome planetarium/theater or learn more about the region’s history and native peoples at the South Florida Museum. Hours: January-April, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.; May-December, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission: Adults $15.95, seniors $13.95, children four-12 $11, free for children under four. For a discount Web coupon, visit


Gamble Plantation and Mansion, 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton. (941) 723-4536. Yes, there were plantations this far south in Florida, and ours has a bit of important history attached to it as well. Once home to Major Robert Gamble, this once extensive sugar plantation is also believed to be where Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin hid until he could make his escape to England after the fall of the Confederacy. Guided tours are offered six times a day. To really get the feel of the place, spread out a picnic under the live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, on the beautiful grounds. Open 8 a.m. until sundown daily. Free.


Historic Spanish Point, 337 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 966-5214. The former bayfront estate of Chicago socialite Mrs. Bertha Palmer—whose life and contributions to Sarasota are being celebrated throughout 2010 to mark the centennial of her arrival—this 30-acre enclave is an archaeological, historical and environmental treasure. You can get a sense of how the pioneers lived as you view a home built in 1901; examine a 15-foot-high prehistoric shell midden; or just ramble through the lovely grounds. The gardens are terrific, ranging from the formal Duchene lawn to a jungle walk, and the butterfly garden is the largest on the Gulf coast. Be sure to spend some time on the bayfront boardwalk, where you’ll see diving ospreys and may get an up-close view of a manatee.  Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. except for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission: Adults $9, children 6-12 $3, seniors $8, Florida residents $8. For a discount coupon, visit


Ringling Museum of Art/Cà d’Zan Mansion/Ringling Circus Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 351-1660. Thanks to a recent $76 million transformation, this 66-acre complex has become one of the 20 largest museums in North America, and certainly one of the most varied. The Museum of Art, best known for its cache of Baroque paintings, especially those by Peter Paul Rubens, now offers 21 galleries, including the stunning new Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing, which hosts a variety of exhibitions annually. Circus fans will find two separate venues celebrating this Sarasota-linked art form, including the new Tibbals Learning Center, which houses the world’s biggest miniature circus—amazing in all its detail. John and Mable Ringling’s Venetian mansion, the Cà d’Zan, has been splendidly restored; don’t miss the Private Places tour of the upstairs bedroom and game room. Two good restaurants, too—the chic, Italian-themed Treviso and the more casual Banyan Café. Open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Admission: Adults $19, seniors over 65 and active U.S. military $16, children ages six-17, students with ID and Florida teachers, $6. Free for all museum members and children under six accompanied by an adult. On Mondays, admission to the museum of art is free.

Crowley Museum and Nature Center, 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000. Visitors don’t always know about the Crowley, which is in pastoral east Sarasota County, but it’s a great place to absorb the history and nature of rural Southwest Florida. You can tour the Tatum Ridge schoolhouse (the oldest surviving in Sarasota County) or visit the pioneer area, where many historic objects are available for perusal. Then take to the meandering nature trails through the 190-acre property and soak in the sights, sounds and smells of the Florida that used to be. Open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. from May 1-Dec. 31 and Tuesday-Sunday from Jan. 1-April 30. Admission: Adults $7, children five-12 $3, free for children under five.

G.WIZ: The Hands-On Science Museum, 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. (941) 309-4949. There’s always something fun for kids—and their parents—happening at the Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone—G.WIZ. The museum frequently hosts traveling exhibitions; recent ones have offered artifacts and information from the era of King Tut to the Titanic.  You’ll also find many permanent exhibits, including Mindball, ExploraZone, TechZone and BodyZone, where kids can build bridges with magnets, create their own bolt of lightning, examine amphibians and even make an animated video, complete with soundtrack. And that’s just a sampling. Open Monday-Saturday, Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-6 p.m. Admission: Adults $9, seniors $8, children three-16 $6. Group discounts are available.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. This internationally known bayfront property hosts one of the world’s best collections of rare orchids (more than 6,000) and is home to some 20,000 plants. The Tropical Display House is dazzling, and you can also tour the Selby estate, experience an indoor “rainforest,” examine a dart frog collection, and view all sorts of different gardens, including one of tropical bamboo, as you walk along the pathways that wind through the estate and along the bay. Save some time for the gift shop, a favorite with locals for items from fabulous orchids to tropical-themed art, and the changing exhibitions, too. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. except Christmas.  Admission:  Adults $17, children six-11 $6, members free.

Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441. Here you will see more than 100 species of marine life, from sharks and dolphins to sea turtles and manatees. This is not a Sea World-type attraction but a working lab with exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of marine life. Kids love the touch pools, and it’s also fun to see volunteers feed the sharks and explain their behavior.  A new feature allows children to find hidden fossils in the sand.  Visitors can also peek into the working labs and get a glimpse of the world-renowned research that takes place at Mote Marine Laboratory. Admission: Adults $17, seniors $16, children four-12 $12. Free for children under three. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., including holidays. For a discount Web coupon, visit

Myakka River State Park, nine miles east of I-75, 13208 S.R. 72. (941) 361-6511. This vast expanse of scenic Florida—38,000 acres—offers a world of outdoor entertainment. You can hike 39 miles of trails, canoe or kayak on the Myakka River, ride a bike, fish, take an air boat tour, ride a horse on a wilderness trail and much more. To schedule a tour, call 361-6511.  And yes, you will see alligators—and you could spot deer, wild hogs, even an occasional bobcat. The Canopy Walk high up in the trees is a must-do; a nature adventure series (January-April) offers tons of cool experiences, and Saturday-night campfires with a ranger are great family fun. Plus, the park offers the best lodging deal in town: $70 for a group of six to stay in a rustic but comfy cabin.  Open 8 a.m. to sunset daily.  Admission: $5 per vehicle of two to eight people.

Sarasota Classic Car Museum, 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-6228. No car lover should miss this Sarasota institution, open since 1953. The Sarasota Classic Car Museum features more than 100 automobiles, including Ferraris, DeLoreans and even John Lennon’s Mercedes; a 4,000-square-foot open-air garden atrium and an antique game arcade. Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. except Christmas Day. Admission:  Adults $8.50, seniors $7.65, children 13-17 $5.75, children six-12 $4, free for children under six. For a discount Web coupon, visit

Sarasota Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305. One of the last of the great Old Florida tourist attractions, Jungle Gardens is an oasis of low-key charm and natural beauty just a few minutes from downtown. You can spend a few hours or a day wandering through the 10 acres of tropical vegetation, taking in the bird and reptile shows and watching the kids use up excess energy on the playground. You haven’t been to Sarasota until you’ve had your picture taken with a parrot on your arm, and it’s exciting to hand-feed the big pink flamingos that crowd around you asking for a treat. The little Flamingo Café has surprisingly good food for a snack shop. Admission:  Adults $14, seniors (62 and up) $13, children three-12 $10, free for children under three. For a discount Web coupon, visit

Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956. Take a guided canoe trip with a park ranger—or go on your own; bicycle or hike through the winding nature trails or simply enjoy the sights and sounds of this state park, which is known for its scrubby and pine flatwoods and is one of the best places to see the threatened Florida scrub jay—a friendly bird that often alights on visitor’s hands—or heads. Open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset. Admission: $4 per vehicle for up to eight people; $24.42 per night to camp.


The Springs, 12200 San Servano, North Port. (941) 426-1692. This Venice attraction, which some claim is the original Fountain of Youth, is home to mineralized waters that are believed to ease back pain, skin conditions, sinusitis and other ailments. Take a dip and see for yourself—or skip the water and get pampered at the spa. Open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission:  Adults $20, students $14, AAA members $18, children 12 and under $8.



This article appears in the December 2009 issue of Sarasota Magazine.

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