Weekend Layover: Sarasota, Florida

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Since the Scots settled Sarasota in the 1880s, this slice of semitropical paradise has lured the rich and famous. Romanov Prince Mikhail Cantacuzène and his wife, Julia, granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, moved here after the Russian Revolution. Stephen King, Dick Vitale and Katherine Harris are among the prominent personalities who call it home today.

Whether you gravitate to the outdoors (the city boasts more than 50 miles of waterfront property), the arts (every medium is represented here) or sporting events (such as the Modern Pentathlon World Cup), there are ample reasons to visit Sarasota.

Day 1

Kick off your weekend with happy hour (4 to 6:30 p.m.) at The Table Creekside. Though only a few yards from one of Sarasota’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares (U.S. 41), this spot offers the same intimate ambience you’d find at your best friend’s lake house. Whether you choose to dine indoors or alfresco, you can look out on Phillippi Creek, its surrounding neighborhoods, and the local gondolier (sì, he sings and wears a striped boat-neck shirt). Everything costs a mere five dollars, which can spur indecision and overindulgence. Avoid those tortures by ordering a bojito (basil, vodka, club soda, simple syrup, and lime), the bacon jam flatbread (topped with manchego and fontina cheeses and sautéed Vidalia onions), Chilean sea bass fritters (served with Key lime aioli), or spinach fondue (ask to swap the pita wedges with yucca mozzarella rolls). Then promptly remove the menu from sight.

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Photo via Owen’s Fish Camp

For nightlife, visit Burns Court. This neighborhood of mostly stucco buildings, which date back to 1924, houses nearly 50 small businesses in its roughly 12 square blocks. On the second Friday of the month, (many of) the boutiques, art galleries, and salons keep extended hours and serve refreshments. End the evening at Owen’s Fish Camp. Don’t fret if you overhear the hostess announce an epically long wait (you’re likely too full to enjoy this heavy Southern fare anyway), for the real fun happens in the backyard of this cracker-style bungalow. Grab a beer, a jar of spicy boiled peanuts, and a seat at a picnic table, bar stool, settee or tire swing. Then unwind while local bluegrass groups perform tunes like “Wagon Wheel,” “Country Roads,” and “Landside” beneath strings of globe lights. If you get a little restless—play a round or two of corn hole, or roast s’mores over a fire pit.

Day 2

Avoid the crowds milling about downtown for the weekly farmer’s market. Duck into Lolita Tartine in the nearby Rosemary District for a basket of mini croissants and a cup of café au lait, and enjoy your petit déjeuner in peace.

Next, head over to Lido Key for a guided kayak tour of Sarasota’s mangrove tunnels and local wildlife, including sea birds, manatees, dolphins and rays.

Migrate two miles north to City Island, where you can dry off and refuel at New Pass Grill & Bait Shop, a restaurant that’s ramshackle in appearance but beloved for its juicy burgers and crispy onion rings. (Note: if your idea of vacation does not involve completely throwing nutrition to the wind, opt for the sesame ahi tuna at Café L’Europe on St. Armands Circle instead.)

Just down the street, you’ll find Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, which includes manatee, shark, sea turtle, Florida bay and coral reef exhibits, as well as windows into Mote’s animal hospitals and sea horse conservation laboratory.

Siesta Key Beach Photo via Flickr/Alex

Follow up a sun-soaked day with some swank. You can’t beat a candlelit dinner at Bijou Cafe. With its romantic atmosphere (ivy-clad entrance, window-lined dining room facing a courtyard) and rich menu (examples: shrimp and crab bisque, seasoned with cognac and sherry; veal Milanese; amarula crème brulee), the Bijou is, indeed, a gem. Located in the heart of the theater district, it’s also in close proximity of several after-dinner attractions, including The Sarasota Opera, Florida Studio Theatre, Van Wezel Performing Arts Center and The Sarasota Orchestra.

Day 3

You can’t visit Sarasota without stepping foot on Siesta Key Beach, which recently nabbed Trip Advisor’s accolade for the best beach in the U.S.. Jumpstart your Sunday with a powerwalk along its 99 percent pure quartz sand, then reward yourself with breakfast at Sun Garden Cafe in the Siesta Key Village. Have the “bikini bagel” filled with turkey sausage, avocado, tomato and sprouts, if you’re watching your waistline; indulge in the Nutella stuffed toast, if you’re not.

Photo courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

En route to the airport, visit the place that established Sarasota as a bastion of culture: The Ringling Estate. In 1924, circus magnate John Ringling and his wife, Mabel, commissioned New York architect Dwight James Baum to design a 36,000-square foot Venetian palace, known as Cà d’Zan, for the then staggering price of $1.5 million. Tours give a glimpse of the couple’s glamorous life; few sights rival the stained-glass view of Sarasota Bay from the Ringlings’ living room. Also on the property: an art museum, which features the Ringlings’ substantial collection of paintings and artifacts by the likes of Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens. An additional museum is stuffed with circus manuscripts and artifacts, such as Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willie” costume and a 44,000-piece miniature circus. At sunset, make your way to the 66-acre garden, and have your camera ready for the perfect memento from Southwest Florida.

Getting There
Delta, American Airlines/U.S. Airways, United, JetBlue and Air Canada serve the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

To Stay
Hotel Indigo is located downtown, within walking distance of dozens of bars, restaurants and shops. The décor is simple and clean —coastal, not beachy. Special features include shuttle service to St. Armand’s Circle, complimentary bicycle rentals, free Wi-Fi, and pet-friendly rooms.

No two rooms are the same at the Gulf Beach Resort Motel, Lido Key’s oldest motel, built in 1950. In 1977, it was converted into a condo motel, with all 49 units decorated individually by their owners. This historical property, which abuts Lido Beach (the best spot in Sarasota to watch a sunset), includes a heated pool, barbecue pit, tiki bar and easy access to dozens of shops and restaurants on St. Armand’s Circle.

Katie Hendrick is a freelance writer in Sarasota, Florida. Her work has appeared in Garden & Gun, Popular Mechanics, The Local Palate and Our State.