The Expandable Vacation

By staff January 1, 2002

SARASOTA has it all-islands with sugar-white sandy beaches, a famous art museum, live theater, ballet and a symphony, outdoor cafes, golf galore and tropical flowers in more colors than an artist's imagination. For many visitors, the problem is deciding just which of those many attractions to experience during the limited time of their stay. To help you decide what flavors to savor for the time you're here, we offer some suggestions for various-length vacations.

The Whirlwind

Even if you're here just for three days, you can get a great sense of the city-providing you include these basic elements of any Sarasota vacation.

Hit The Beach

Yes, Sarasota has lots of culture and fine dining, but come clean-isn't the real reason you're here those miles of beautiful white beaches? So shed your shoes, slip into your bathing suit and head out to one of our island beaches. To best enjoy the sun-n-surf, choose the beach that fits your mood of the moment. We've included a listing of all our beaches later in this story, but here are a few suggestions for starters.

Siesta Key Public Beach, with its wide expanse of award-winning, blazingly white sand, is the most popular playground in the city. Get ready to expend some energy in a day of jumping waves, throwing Frisbees, smacking volleyballs, spreading out feasts in the picnic area or playing tennis on free public courts with Gulf views few private clubs could ever match. Of course, you can always just laze in a lounge chair under a shady umbrella and relax the day away.

Solitude seekers hoping to completely drop out head to Longboat Key's uncrowded sandy shores, which soothe frayed nerves and rejuvenate burned-out spirits. Lido Beach offers two great escapes: a combo day of sunshine, swimming and shopping with St. Armands Circle just a short walk away, or a day on the south end's park. There you can kayak through mangrove trails, picnic in a shady spot with fabulous water views or just cultivate your tan. To the south, Venice Beach has a fishing pier stretching into the Gulf, lots of Margaritaville spirit at the tiki bar at Sharky's On The Pier, and long stretches of beach where beachcombers sift through the sands with "Florida Snow Shovels" in search of prehistoric sharks' teeth.

Visit The Ringling

When people find out you've been to Sarasota, the first thing they often ask is, "Did you get to the Ringling Museum?" The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Florida's only state museum, sits on the 60 bayfront acres where the circus magnate and his wife entertained the rich and famous in their elaborate mansion, Cà d'Zan (House of John). Ringling also built an elaborate, pink 15th-century-style Florentine Renaissance villa and filled it with his collection of art spanning more than 500 years of European and American history, including the works of Rubens and Rembrandt. The museum's signature piece is the bronze cast of Michelangelo's David, who gazes over the elegant courtyard.

Be sure to stroll through the beautiful rose garden on the path to Cà d'Zan. The 1925, 30-room mansion was patterned after a Venetian palace; it has been extensively renovated and will be re-opened in March 2002, but if you're here before then, it's still worth a visit. You can admire the elaborate exterior and enjoy views of Sarasota Bay and Longboat Key from the lovely bayfront terrace. The colorful Circus Museum is filled with fun memorabilia of Ringling's Greatest Show on Earth, including vintage posters, calliopes, colorful circus wagons, magnificent costumes ablaze in sequins and an impressive miniature circus.

See Sea Marvels

Sarasota is beautiful by land, but you've only seen a sliver of what's here if you don't spend some time exploring the surrounding world of water.

Start your sea adventure at Mote Marine Laboratory on City Island. Viewing the aquarium is a quick course in the sea critters of our local area. Exhibits boasting fun facts, whimsical signs and bright colors will entertain-and educate-kids and adults alike. "Fish in Disguise" has everyone searching for flounder that blend in with the sand, and you may also spot exotic creatures like stargazers (fish that produce up to 50 volts of electricity when threatened), baby seahorses being born and a mystical-looking display of gorgeous jellyfish. The newest exhibit, "Mysterious Mollusks," offers rare views of cuttlefish changing color and stars a preserved 37-foot-long giant squid, one of only two in the U.S. There are also chances to touch stingrays, lightning whelks and horseshoe crabs, and come eye to eye with sharks, manatees and loggerhead turtles.

Be sure to head out into Sarasota Bay on the shaded pontoon boat, the Sarasota Bay Explorer (tickets available at Mote's entrance). A naturalist narrates the excursion, telling stories about Sarasota history as you cruise by impressive bayside mansions of Bird and Siesta Keys and talking about shorebirds as you glide by rookeries where pelicans and egrets nest.

You can also get up close and personal with the sea life the guide nets and keeps alive in the boat's aquarium. The guide takes each creature out, one at a time, and tells all about them; passengers can touch the cowfish, baby grouper, sea stars, pinfish-whatever came up in the net. It's a grand experience for all ages.

Shop The Circle

It's not a vacation without shopping, and it's definitely not a Sarasota vacation without a stroll around St. Armands Circle. This landmark shopping destination was named for original owner Charles Amand, but it was John Ringling who laid out the street patterns of the area and named the streets after presidents. The inner ring is a beautiful park decked out in antique statuary, blooming hibiscus and great palm trees. It's encircled by the Circus Ring of Fame, where plaques honor the greatest stars of the circus. Around the outer circle are 150 boutiques, restaurants, galleries, gift shops and night spots. Outdoor cafes make for great dining experiences, ice cream shops offer more flavors than you've ever imagined, and the essence of handmade chocolate and fudge sweetens the air.

The Sampler

Five days make a work week-or a wonderful holiday, if you're in Sarasota. Start with the basic elements, above, then expand your holiday horizons by sampling the following experiences.

Go Down The Garden Path

It's easy to drop out at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a quiet retreat along the lapping waters of Sarasota Bay. As soon as you turn off 41 onto South Palm Avenue, the world changes. Aged oak trees line the streets, their branches hosting huge staghorn ferns and hanging Spanish moss. Flowers bloom in a riot of colors, from the purples of passion flowers to the reds of ultra-tropical heliconias and greens of all shades. Tree ferns, the pleated leaves of licuala palms and bromeliads frame the entrance to the world-renowned gardens, which are home to more than 20,000 exotic plants including more than 6,000 orchids.

Stepping into the Display House is like walking into a magical corner of a rainforest. This is a place to linger over orchids of every imaginable size, color and shape, astounding bromeliads and a calming waterfall. Outside, wander the path through bamboo groves, tarry at the koi pond with its Hawaiian ambience and marvel at the mammoth banyan trees, some planted by the Selby family in the 1930s.

You can also explore a succulent and cactus garden, wildflower and butterfly gardens, a bo tree (the kind Buddha meditated under for six years) medicinal plant, herb and tropical food gardens, and a boardwalk winding through the waterside mangroves. The bookshop is housed in the old home of Marie and William Selby; the Payne Museum displays botanical photography and art exhibits.

Take In A Show

Sarasota is known for its arts, and many visitors are drawn here for the chance to see a play, hear an opera or watch a live danceperformance. Venues range from the landmarkVanWezel Performing Arts Hall, which attracts world-class touring stars and shows, to the state's FSU/Asolo Center for the Performing Arts to impressive community theaters. At the long-running Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, you can even enjoy dinner with a show. (For a complete listing of cultural groups, which includes the Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet, Florida West Coast Symphony, Sarasota Film Festival and many more draws, see page 39.) You can also call or stop by the Sarasota County Arts Council for more information on the region's lively arts scene.

Walk On The Wild Side

Beyond our beaches are thousands of acres of parks, woodlands and wildlife. Myakka River State Park, about 20 miles southeast of Sarasota, offers more than 35,000 acres of pristine wetlands, prairies and dense woodlands along the Myakka River. It's a birder's paradise with frequent sightings of pink roseate spoonbills, sandhill cranes, wood storks, ospreys and turkey vultures, just to name a few. Canoes can be rented for paddling watery trails framed in aged oaks dripping in Spanish moss, sabal palms and saw palmettos; the tram tour is an easy way to get off the beaten path to view nature at its best, or you can trek the 39 miles of hiking trails through hammocks and marshes. The Gator Gal is a fun airboat ride through the marshes; and a canopy walk takes you into the world of the treetops. All offer great opportunities to view the American alligator, those ancient reptiles that eerily glide through the waters everywhere in the park.

Closer to town, Oscar Sherer State Park offers canoing and hiking trails, including through the habitat of the threatened-and amazingly friendly-scrub jay. You're likely to see a number of these chatty, bright-blue birds; you may even have one light on your arm and look inquiringly into your eyes.

Seven Heaven

An entire week of rest and recreation, swimming and sunsets, hot tickets and cool shopping-you're going to feel like an honorary native, especially if you add to the experiences above with these ideas.

Do Downtown

We know-downtowns all over the country are coming back, but bet you haven't seen one as charming as Sarasota's, overlooking a sparkling blue bay dotted with boats and filled with art galleries, unique boutiques, restaurants and theaters on palm-lined streets bright with bougainvillea and other tropical flowers. You can board the little trolley for free rides around the city, find fresh produce, coffee, plants and herbs at the Saturday morning Farmer's Market, and duck into the cool interior of a historic watering hole-Main Street's Gator Club.

A stroll down Pineapple Avenue wins most hearts. From Selby Library with its archway aquarium, walk south past the 1926 Sarasota Opera House and on to Burns Court, a little side street of charming bungalows from the 1920s, and the Burns Court Cinema, where independent and foreign films draw big crowds. Now you're in a district some call SoMa (south of Main) and you could while away an entire day in the collection of diverse little shops that offer everything from trendy eyeglasses and women's fashions to antique furniture and mirrors. There are also some neat little eateries in this area.

One street over, Palm Avenue is framed in art galleries; and at the eastern end of downtown, Towles Court offers a full block of Caribbean-colored old Sarasota bungalows turned into artists' studios and galleries. Just a couple blocks away, the Museum of Asian Art, the first museum in the Southeastern U.S. devoted exclusively to Asian art, displays an impressive collection, including the famous Yangtze River Collection of Chinese jade carvings.

Explore A Jungle

Since the 1940s the lush tropical setting of Sarasota Jungle Gardens has been bringing smiles to children of all ages. Small enough to explore in a few hours, this attraction leads you down gorgeously planted paths through the popular posing area, where colorful macaws, cockatoos and African gray parrots sit on visitors' arms while they have their pictures taken. The bird and reptile shows bring on oohs and aahs, the flock of flamingos preening by a pretty lake is a sight to behold and kids love the donkeys and goats of the petting zoo. It's a picture-perfect old Florida attraction, refreshingly low-key, and the gift shop has every Florida souvenir collectors dream about, from kitschy alligator art to quite respectable shell jewelry.

Enter Mall World

True, there are malls in every town, but somehow shopping is more fun when you're on vacation. And how many malls back home have tall palm trees in the parking lot and sea breezes cooling the cars? Malls here run the gamut from the extremely upscale to the deeply discounted and many offer movies, video game rooms and other family fun. They're the perfect place to hide out from one of our famous afternoon rainstorms; by the time the shower's over and you come out loaded down with shopping bags and movie memories, you may even see a gorgeous, sky-spanning rainbow.

Paddle A Kayak

Sarasota is completely different when viewed from the water. Rent a kayak, pack a cooler and some fishing poles and launch from any of these easily accessible sites. At O'Leary's downtown, you can sample a frosty beer, then put your kayak in the water and paddle over to the small islands surrounding Selby Gardens. The city skyline is beautiful at sunset, and there's great fishing just outside the gardens. Want a bigger adventure? From the boat ramps at Turtle Beach on Siesta Key, you can explore all the way down to the Casey Key Fish House. Along the way, you'll find ample fishing, lush scenery and sea birds, and magnificent homes (including a view of novelist Stephen King's new abode). Plus, there's a great little tiki bar at the end of the line that enjoys frequent visits from Beggar the dolphin. On Longboat Key, launch from Buttonwood Harbor (beside the Poseidon restaurant's parking lot), and head straight out into the bay. Manatees and dolphins frequent this area, as do flounder and redfish.

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