Cross the magnificent Sunshine Skyway Bridge and head south on I-75 to the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, on U.S. 301 East in Ellenton for a taste of southern heritage no longer found this far south in Florida. Built in 1844, the Gamble Plantation was one of the most successful sugar mill plantations in the state. The old sugar mill ruins are located a short walk from the park and guided tours of the mansion are available Thursday to Monday. The park grounds are open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to sunset. Call (941) 723-4536.
To frolic like the dolphins or be lulled to serene bliss on any one of the beautiful beaches, goes without saying while you are here. Sunset strolls are magical! For more inland exploration, head to downtown Bradenton, to The South Florida Museum, 201 Tenth St. West. Conveniently located in downtown Bradenton, this facility explores Florida from "Astronomy to Zoology" with exhibits delving into the area's cultural and natural history. Be sure to greet Snooty, the friendly manatee, the oldest "born and raised" in captivity. Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, the first Saturday in November and the second Monday in March. Call (941) 746-4131.
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy, near Longboat Key on City Island reveals the secrets of the sea to kids and adults of all ages. Discover more than 100 marine species, such as sea turtles, stingrays, manatees, seahorses, sharks and other sea life from Florida and beyond. Safely pet stingrays, sea urchins and other cool critters. Enjoy fascinating exhibits spotlighting real ocean research of the adjoining Mote Marine Laboratory. Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., 365 days per year; call (941) 388-4441, www.mote.org.
It's easy to see why this area of the state is often proclaimed as Florida's Cultural Coast. The choices are spectacular: world-class theatre, opera, symphony, visual arts and dance. In Sarasota, the "crown jewel" is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Rd., with an extensive collection of internationally recognized works by Italian and Northern European Artists, in addition to French, Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish works over the past five centuries, as well as a collection of modern and contemporary art. Also in the Ringling museum complex is Ca'd'Zan, the lavish home of John and Mable Ringling and the Museum of the Circus. Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily; on Thursday, the Museum of Art and Circus Museum are open until 8 p.m. Call (941) 351-1660 for special events.