Endless Vacation: 20 Must-Do's

By Hannah Wallace Photography by William S. Speer December 1, 2009

ev.jpgWorld-Class Caviar

Mote Marine Laboratory, known to scientists around the world, is now making a name for itself with gastronomes. Mote is producing caviar in a way that’s both economically and environmentally responsible, raising the sturgeon indoors as part of an extensive fish-farming project. Gastronomes compare the smooth Mote caviar ($123 per ounce) to that of the Caspian Sea ossetra, which goes for upwards of $200 per ounce. Try it locally on the deviled eggs at Libby’s Café + Bar. Available at Morton’s Market, 1924 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 955-9856. Or order the “Royal Siberian Caviar” online from

Take the Long Way No matter where you're headed, when you drive the 11-mile stretch of Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key, the journey is as beautiful as the destination. The long, narrow island, which has no bridge connecting it directly to the mainland, provides a constant slideshow of quintessential Sarasota imagery alongside the two-lane road: a rolling, meticulously landscaped expanse of golf course, grand condominium towers, modest ’50s bungalows, and foliage of the greenest greens against the bluest sky you’ve ever seen. As you move north, to your left, the wide open Gulf of Mexico abuts the road; to your right, an island trailer park enjoys the best view in town. Make a plan for dinner on Anna Maria after shopping on St. Armands. It’s worth the drive.

Lions and Tigers and Bears—Oh, My!

Kids will love the homey atmosphere and the up-close-and-personal encounters with retired circus lions, tigers, bears, chimpanzees and other rescued animals at the Big Cat Habitat and Sanctuary on Palmer Boulevard. Director Kay Rosaire, who comes from a family that’s been involved in the circus for generations, runs the place as a labor of love. And because the big cats have big appetites, there’s a fun way you can contribute to the nonprofit: They love it when people bring them raw meat. Weekend shows run through mid-May. 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota, (941) 371-6377;

Tennis Phenoms

See the next Grand Slam tennis champs before they sign their endorsement deals. The Eddie Herr tennis tournament at Bradenton’s IMG Academies, held every December, has showcased such stars as Anna Kournikova and Andy Roddick right before they went pro, and it’s open to the public. The 300-acre IMG campus annually trains more than 12,000 athletes from 80 countries in everything from tennis to baseball and soccer. The Eddie Herr tournament (Nov. 27 through Dec. 6 in 2009) is one of the few opportunities for the public to experience the campus and see those young athletes up close. 5500 34th St. W., Bradenton, (941) 727-0303.

Mai Tai Mystique

The 40-year-old  Bahi Hut cocktail lounge is a piece of Sarasota history. The smoky interior screams ’60s lounge, with dark wood and stone walls, mod hanging lights and red tabletop votives. Mai tais are the signature drink, but they’re limited to two per customer: The super-strong secret recipe has a deceptive fruitiness (its sibling, the Sneaky Tiki, packs less punch). But the Bahi’s biggest kick comes from its eclectic clientele: actors and stagehands from the nearby Asolo Rep, high-minded college students, hip-hop 20-somethings and the after-theater crowd. Consider it Sarasota uncensored. 4675 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 355-5141. Adjacent to the Golden Host Resort.

Mucho Caliente The newest addition to Sarasota’s nightlife is the Pisco Lounge in the Peruvian-themed Selva Grill on Main Street. Go on Thursday or Friday night—fashionably late, of course—when the bar sizzles with the city’s cool crowd in their William Rast jeans and Jimmy Choo shoes. Make friends over pisco sours and a plate of anticuchos, and who knows? You may find yourself hatching plans for Sarasota’s next big thing. 1345 Main St., Sarasota. (941) 362-4427;

Garden of Yoga

At Rosemary Court Yoga in the hip little Rosemary District just north of Fruitville Road, you can find your center in a historic—and serene—locale. Four restored 1920s houses surround a charming gated garden with brick paths and koi ponds. Inside the main house, yoga practitioners of all levels are greeted by hard-wood floors, natural light,classes in various styles of yoga, and a sense of welcoming calm that have made it a favorite of visitors as well as residents. After class, take some time to explore the district’s interesting mix of artful boutiques, home stores, restaurants and more. 810 Central Ave., Sarasota, (941) 952-5280;

Birdwatching Central

From scrub jays at Oscar Scherer State Park to great blue herons along the downtown waterfront, Sarasota is aflutter with birding opportunities. If you have to pick just one, the Sarasota Audubon Society recommends the Celery Fields east of I-75 between Fruitville Road and Palmer Boulevard. Experts surveying the 300-acre county park have spotted 206 species, including short-eared owls, black-necked stilts and white-rumped sandpipers. Bald eagles like to perch on the lamp poles, and black-bellied whistling ducks often fly overhead. Come just before dusk to see flocks of sandhill cranes (above) and other species gliding in to roost for the night. Check with the Sarasota Audubon Society (941-364-9212) for guided birding walks.

Crossing the Bridge

The Ringling Causeway Bridge from downtown to Bird Key is a Sarasota landmark—and destination. The sleek structure is 3,300 feet long and rises nearly 70 feet above Sarasota Bay, and it offers a breezy, unbeatable view: a sparkling panorama of the bay, Bird Key, the downtown skyline and the Gulf of Mexico glimmering on the horizon. So many walkers, joggers and cyclists traverse its spacious sidewalks that tackling the bridge is as much a social event as a workout. For an unforgettable perspective on our seaside city, every visitor should cross it—without a car—at least once.

Sunset Lottery

In an Anna Maria Island tradition that feels like a neighborhood get-together, guests at the Sandbar’s beachfront dining area can guess the exact time when the last glimpse of the sun will sink below the Gulf of Mexico. Once you’ve named your time, just sit back and enjoy the show. The table that comes closest—usually by a matter of seconds—wins a bottle of champagne. But really, with the Sandbar’s front-row sunset seats, powder-soft sand at your feet and the promise of a delicious evening under the stars, isn’t everyone a winner? 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria, (941) 778-0444;

Pie Wars

The Key lime pie is the signature pastry of tropical Florida, and Floribbean Flo’s on the South Trail serves possibly the best version of the tart treat this side of Key Largo ($13.95). But Yoder’s Restaurant’s rich and velvety peanut butter cream pie ($16) might be the most sinful thing ever to come out of Pinecraft, the Amish community on Bahia Vista Street. Locals squabble over which pie rules. Consider this your mandate to buy one of each and start tasting. Bet you decide to finish them both before rendering your verdict. Floribbean Flo’s, 7644 Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 922-2888; Yoder’s Restaurant (whole pies available for takeout), 3434 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota, (941) 955-7771;

The Gold Standard

The John and Mable Ringling Museum is presenting a dazzling show, Gothic Art in the Gilded Age, from Dec. 16, 2009, through April 4, 2010. During the Gilded Age (from 1870 to World War I) wealthy American collectors discovered early Renaissance artwork. In 1927, John Ringling purchased a significant collection of Gothic works from Alva Vanderbilt Belmont for his new Sarasota museum. Now all those pieces (up until now, scattered throughout the Ringling’s galleries and storage areas) have been brought together in a way that re-creates the lavish experience of entering the Vanderbilts’ Newport mansion. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 359-5700;

Meet Me at Mattison’s

Sarasota super-chef Paul Mattison’s Mattison’s City Grille turns into a virtual downtown party Friday and Saturday nights as live bands belt out music for diners, dancers and anyone who happens by on the sidewalk. We dare you not to shake your groove thing. When it comes time to rest your dogs, cool off with a mojito and refuel. The menu goes from all-out rack of lamb to burgers and light bites—including crispy shrimp Rangoon or Mattison’s famous goat cheese bruschetta. 1 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, (941) 330-0440;

Friendly Fins

Spotting a dolphin in the wild is magical—in part because there’s no telling when those dorsal fins will break the surface. There are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife, but at Siesta Key’s Ophelia’s On the Bay, diners often see dolphins—and you’ll enjoy one of the area’s finest culinary experiences. Kayakers and boaters on the Intracoastal frequently report sightings. (Do not feed or touch dolphins—they bite!) Or drop in on Harley and Moonshine, the resident dolphins at Mote Aquarium. They aren’t the same species you’d see frolicking near our shores, but they’re fun and frisky—especially at feeding time. Check with Mote for their schedule. (Mote has extensively studied all the dolphins in Sarasota Bay; go to to read the story, The Secret Lives of Dolphins.) Ophelia’s On the Bay, 9105 Midnight Pass Road, Sarasota, (941) 349-2212; Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, (941) 388-4441;

Island Flavor

Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Café emphasizes Sarasota’s beachy side with cuisine that’s both sophisticated and comforting—much like the atmosphere on chic St. Armands Circle, where the restaurant sits just blocks from the beach. Take your taste buds on vacation with locally inspired selections like Shoal Bay Snapper and Sanibel stuffed chicken. Our surprise pick for the can’t-miss dish? Blackbeard’s Butterscotch. It's made fresh (think eggs, sugar and Scotch whisky—not your grandmother’s powdered pudding) and topped with chocolate ganache, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Our foodie friends insist you will sob with joy. 300 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle, (941) 388-2888;

Polo Party

Go for the horses or go for the hats—either way, you won’t be disappointed with a Sunday polo match at the Sarasota Polo Club in Lakewood Ranch. The sport—two teams of four players on horseback pounding across a 300-yard field—is thrilling, but the social scene is a big draw, too, as ladies and gents in their Sunday finest mix and mingle on the sidelines. (There’s plenty of room for casual tailgaters, too.) Check with the club for a schedule of league games and international tournaments on select Sundays through April. 8201 Polo Club Lane, Sarasota, (941) 907-0000;

Changes In Attitudes

Sure, it’s one of Sarasota’s corniest tourist attractions, but everybody loves LeBarge. The two-story, palm-tree-topped party boat offers a sunset cruise that’s a must for visitors—and a recurring pleasure for lots of locals as well. A musician plays Jimmy Buffett-type songs as LeBarge glides around Sarasota Bay, past Bird Key, Lido Key and Siesta Key. You’ll discover that the most gorgeous views of Sarasota are the ones you see from the water. There are beer and wine, finger food, and, best of all, an incredible Sarasota sunset. The party sets sail from downtown Sarasota’s Marina Plaza. (941) 366-6116;

School Houses

The Sarasota School of Architecture is becoming one of the town’s biggest tourist attractions. Led by famed architect Paul Rudolph, the mid-century Sarasota School gave the world an iconic new Florida style based on strong, clean lines, breezeways, and walls of glass. A good place to learn more about these 1950s and ’60s creations is the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, where a beautifully crafted exhibit includes Ezra Stoller photographs and wooden models. While you’re there, pick up the Sarasota Architectural Preservation Foundation’s guidebook ($10) for a terrific driving tour of all of the town’s architecturally significant buildings. SCVB, 701 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (800) 800-3906, (941) 957-1877;

Fresh Catch

For off-the-boat-fresh shellfish, our contributing food and wine editor Judi Gallagher recommends buying jumbo shrimp from the Saturday morning downtown farmers’ market. Here’s chef Judi’s recipe for Shrimp Bloody Mary Gazpacho.

Shrimp Ingredients:

1 pound medium shrimp in

shell, peeled and deveined

½ cup diced red and yellow


¼ cup diced English cucumber

½ red onion diced

1 clove garlic minced

1 cup (6) thinly sliced scallions

Sauce Ingredients:

1/4 cup Absolut Peppar vodka

1 jar V8 spicy or

spicy bloody Mary mix

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons bottled


1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Tabasco

6 small non-stem glasses

Bring a large saucepan of salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 2 quarts water) to a boil. Add shrimp, remove from heat and let stand in water until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool to room temperature, 30 minutes. Reserve some whole shrimp for garnish. Slice the shrimp into thirds and transfer to a large bowl with diced vegetables. Whisk together all sauce ingredients. Add fresh ground black pepper, garlic, lemon juice and sea salt to taste. Just before serving, stir sauce into shrimp mixture. Spoon into glasses and serve. Garnish with whole shrimp, diced avocado and lemon zest. (Shrimp can be cooked and tossed with vegetables four hours ahead.)

New Game in Town

Sarasota’s Major League tradition dates back to 1924, when the New York Giants began holding spring training at Payne Park. Over the years, the Red Sox, Dodgers, White Sox and Reds have all started seasons in Sarasota. This year, the town is set to root for our newest home team: the Baltimore Orioles. The boys from Camden Yards will play their 2010 spring training home games in Sarasota’s own Ed Smith Stadium, and we couldn’t be happier. Seeing the big leaguers play in the Sarasota sunshine is about as good as it gets. Ed Smith Stadium, 2700 12th St., Sarasota, (941) 954-4101.



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

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