While Florida is perhaps best known for the all-night partying on South Beach and the all-day amusements in Orlando, one of the Sunshine State’s true gems is the Gulf Coast city of Sarasota, home to a burgeoning arts and live-music scene and one of the loveliest beaches you’ll find anywhere.
The beach on Siesta Key has been voted one of the most beautiful in the world by several rankings, and once you arrive it will be clear why. Miles of powdery white sand meet the crystal-clear ocean as far as the eye can see. The sand is so white and reflective that even on the hottest days, it feels cool under your feet. Come by on Sunday evening at sundown for the weekly drum circle — a famous Sarasota experience.
Gay travellers may prefer North Lido Beach, the unofficial homo hangout just to the north on Lido Key. To get there, access the beach from St Armand’s Circle and follow the walking path north along the grass for about five minutes. This half-mile stretch of sand can be cruisey, but it is also popular with couples.
When you’ve had enough of the sun, you can explore the shopping and food options around St Armand’s Circle, famous for its upscale boutiques and cafés. You can watch artists at work in several galleries, find unique fashions, sample homemade chocolates and sweets and enjoy a fantastic meal in a trendy restaurant. Don’t miss Nola Tropical Winery, a wine boutique specializing in Florida wines. Skip the wine smoothies for reasons that should be obvious, and enjoy the delectable dessert wines, fruit blends (the green-apple riesling is fantastic) and craft wines made with local grapes. Nola offers free tastings, too.
Among Sarasota’s more distinctive attractions you’ll find the Ringling Estate — formerly owned by John and Mable Ringling, of Ringling Brothers fame. John and his brother Charles were major developers in Sarasota’s early history, and the estate is just one of the legacies he’s left to the city. The sprawling grounds include a spectacular art gallery featuring the work of European, American and Asian masters; the Circus Museum, which tells the story of Ringling Brothers Circus; an 18th-century theatre that was imported from Italy; a massive botanical garden; and the exquisite Ca’d’Zan mansion, with its gorgeous patio over Sarasota Bay. Don’t miss the enormous, incredibly detailed miniature recreation of a circus site, an awe-inspiring monument to the scale of the circus endeavour that would involve thousands of workers, hundreds of animals and tons of food set up and torn down every day to put on The Greatest Show on Earth in a new city.
Animal lovers will enjoy Sarasota’s spectacular animal museums, including the Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium and the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. The sanctuary is actually home to a wide variety of large mammals, including several species of bears, monkeys, goats and camels, in addition to the famous lions, tigers and ligers. Take the opportunity to feed a sausage to a bear, who will stand on his hind legs for the treat, revealing his towering majesty.
The gay nightlife in Sarasota is small but proud: the one gay nightclub, Throb, is located in an industrial park and draws a fun mixed crowd on Saturdays. Most gays party in nearby St Petersburg, a 45-minute drive north.
But there are plenty of other things to do in Sarasota at night. The live music scene is incredibly vibrant, and most bars and restaurants will have a band playing nightly. Siesta Key’s restaurants on Ocean Boulevard feature fun, young cover bands with a casual beach-bum feel, while the drag on Main Street is home to a hip new-music scene. On Friday nights, galleries on Main Street are open late and often feature live performances and exciting installation works. Sarasota is also home to the world-class Sarasota Opera and several theatre and dance companies.
This isn’t the Florida you’ll see in a Pitbull music video or a Disney vacation package. It’s not a sleepy retirement community or expensive beach resort. Sarasota is a unique, lively, beautiful and exciting getaway, and I can’t wait to return.