Sun, Sand and Shopping!

By: Lisa Codianne Fowler

ADD TO FAVORITES
Boutique shopping, local dining, and brilliant white-sand beaches make for a spectacular visit in the Sarasota area.

Sarasota's beach communities are as diverse as its sunny shores. Each area has its own personality and unique coastal strands. From island boutiques to designer stores, you can shop 'til you drop, then refresh on a beach only steps away. You'll discover that in Sarasota, you really can have it all.

Siesta Key

There's nothing like early morning in Sarasota. The air is cool, the sky is clear and shoppers are just beginning to surface. I was one. My husband Patrick and I had just devoured a sumptuous breakfast al fresco at the Broken Egg Restaurant and Gallery on Siesta Key. This is a formidable way to start an ambitious day, or even a not-so-ambitious one. We ordered fresh brewed coffee, Norwegian smoked salmon, bagels and crab cakes benedict from a seemingly infinite menu of creative egg dishes, pancakes and more. And while Patrick wasn't particularly looking forward to shopping, he was willing to tag along for yet another treat - lounging on the powder-soft sands of Siesta Public Beach.

Siesta Village is the quintessential beach community: quaint, laid-back and, well, "beachy." If you peek past the thick clusters of palms and sea grapes along the roads, you might glimpse one of many waterfront mansions, where some of the country's rich and famous - and some just rich - live and play. Yet, despite abounding affluence, locals navigate by bicycle, and flip-flops, T-shirts and cutoffs are de rigueur. Casual outdoor cafés dot the streets amid beach boutiques, art galleries, salons, ice cream parlors and gift shops. I scooped up a fabulous straw hat just perfect for a sunny seaside day.

Picnic areas, concession stands, lifeguards, a playground, trails, tennis and volleyball courts make Siesta Public Beach a family favorite, but it's the expanse of floury sand that truly sets it apart; the beaches here are known as the world's finest and whitest. Unlike beaches elsewhere that are made up of coral, quartz and shell fragments, Siesta's sand is 99% quartz. Even on the hottest days, it is so reflective that it feels cool under foot. The water is as unique, safely shallow near the shore and a calming mint green color with a hint of baby blue.

Dr. Stephen Leatherman, also known as "Dr. Beach," named Siesta the top beach in America in 2011, USA Today International Edition rated it "The Third Best Walking Beach in the USA," the Travel Channel hailed it as the "Best Sand Beach" for two years running," and Conde Nast Traveler Magazine awarded it "The Best of the Best Sand." So it came as no surprise to learn that Siesta Beach also flies the distinctive Blue Wave flag, indicating its environmental certification as one of America's cleanest, safest and well-managed beaches. All of its amenities, coupled with free parking, also make it one of the most popular. We were glad we arrived early.

We took a refreshing dip, then strolled the water's edge and enjoyed watching children giggling in the surf and building sandcastles on the shore. Laughing gulls soared overhead and sandpipers trotted back and forth along the coastline like tiny windup toys. We came upon a volleyball game in progress, but opted out, choosing instead to recline on the sand and bask in the warm rays of the sun.


Venice

Patrick and I next drove south to Venice, a historical gem graced by Northern Italian architecture and beautifully landscaped boulevards dating back to the original city plans of 1925. Parks, fountains, statuary benches and nostalgic streetlights add to the Old World ambience.

True to its name, Venice is surrounded by waterways; three bridges lead to downtown's "Island Avenues." One of the few carefully planned cities in the United States, Venice is artistically landscaped with palms, flowers, silver trumpet trees, live oaks and pines. It is now a Florida MainStreet City, a designation awarded by the State of Florida for historic preservation.

We strolled west down Venice Avenue, which leads straight to the Gulf, exploring the antique shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries and craft stores along the way. The sidewalk cafés, gourmet restaurants and, particularly, T.J. Carney's - an authentic Irish pub - beckoned, but my own Irishman was on a mission - to get back to the beach.

One of the few cities on Florida's west coast without a barrier island, Venice is known as "The Shark's Tooth Capital of the World." The fossil-laden shores of Venice Beach are celebrated annually at Venice's Shark's Tooth Festival in April. Combing the beach for prehistoric sharks' teeth has always been a favorite pastime of visitors and residents here. Success is practically guaranteed; sharks have lived and died in the Gulf for millions of years, and since they regenerate their teeth, a single shark can produce thousands. The teeth may be black, brown, or gray, depending on the minerals in the soil in which they have been buried. Fossilized bones of other prehistoric animals such as camels, bison and tapirs can sometimes be found washed up on the shore as well.

Another Blue Wave certified beach, this one also boasts excellent shelling, smooth white sand, crystal-blue waters, lifeguards, a fishing pier and popular restaurant, Sharky's On the Pier. Casual indoor and outdoor dining, a panoramic view of the Gulf and live music and dancing in the evenings render this island-style restaurant a popular place among locals and tourists alike. Fortified after a light-but-satisfying bite of crab-stuffed mushrooms, we set off on our treasure hunt.

Time flies when you're amassing fossils; we went for a swim to cool off, explored the diving reef just a quarter mile offshore, and barely managed to squeeze in a nap. After all, it had been a busy day so far.


Lido Key

Later on we ended up at St. Armands Circle for some serious, sophisticated shopping (or rather, window-shopping). The European-flavored complex is world-renowned for its collection of upscale clothing and jewelry stores, art galleries and array of fine eateries. A venue for concerts, contests, art shows and festivals, it seems there's always a celebration underway. Off-season finds fewer events but fabulous sales. Unique boutiques with catchy names like Oh My Gauze and Dream Weaver are no less tempting than the homemade fudge at Kilwin's Chocolates, a St. Armands institution.

The Circle is a charming synthesis of past and present, with lush tropical plantings, courtyards and patios, antique Italian statuary and contemporary architecture, all contributing to an international atmosphere of warmth and elegance. Fringed by lovely Lido Key, St. Armands is one of the reasons we adore Sarasota; Lido is our favorite spot to watch a sunset. We had just enough time beforehand for a leisurely dinner at Crab and Fin, choosing to sit outdoors so that we could people-watch.

No T-shirts and cutoffs here. Locals dress resort-chic, even en-route to, or returning from, the beach. And where better to walk off dinner? Mid-key, Lido Public Beach conveniently has a concession stand and beach chairs for rent, as well as public restrooms, showers, lockers, dressing facilities, lifeguards and plenty of parking.

At the south end, South Lido Park has tall pines, inland trails, picnic tables and ample parking as well. To the far north and within easy walking distance of St. Armands, it's just wild, natural beauty; sea oats, Australian pines and sugar white coastline hug sparkling, turquoise waters. Parking is limited but privacy is plentiful. Sunday mornings often find us relaxing here with newspaper, coffee and breakfast in tow. Evenings are just as soothing, with the added bonus of spectacular sunsets.

This night was no different. As the fiery sun slipped behind the horizon, seabirds plunged for dinner, creating a dramatic silhouette against the sky. A small crowd gathered... a few families picnicked, artists painted, guitarists strummed and photographers reveled in the opportunities to capture nature at its best.

For more information on beach getaways in Sarasota County, visit visitsarasota.org or call the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-522-9799.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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