Wild Wanderings in Sarasota

The idea of Sarasota as a wild vacation destination isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Check out these local favorites for a nature-filled vacation.

The idea of Sarasota as a wild vacation destination isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. If your idea of "wild" involves seeing giant alligators up close, kayaking scenic rivers and bays, and coming nose-to-snout with a 1,200-pound manatee, then the Sarasota area is as wild as it gets.

For a truly untamed experience, head east to Myakka City. It's home to Myakka River State Park, where you'll find a wide expanse of flower-dotted prairie and wildlife-rich marshland. Be sure to look for gators – the park's wetlands attract huge ones. You can look down on their habitat from the treetops while climbing the 74-foot tower of the Myakka Canopy Walkway; cruise among them on one of the world's largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or Gator Gal  (the more adventurous can paddle among them in a rented kayak or canoe); or eye them from the park's 39 miles of nature trails. You can even bite into them – the concession stand sells gator jerky and gator stew.

You'll spot plenty of other wildlife here, too, from bobcats to deer to wild turkeys. Birders can check more than 100 species off their life lists, especially along the birding trail boardwalk – known as the Birdwalk – that runs along Upper Myakka Lake. (Park rangers offer beginning birding classes on Sunday mornings from Thanksgiving through Easter.)

Nearby, the Crowley Museum & Nature Center is a hidden gem that offers superb nature trails for every ability level. A 2,000-foot elevated wooden boardwalk weaves through a pine flatwood and an oak hammock, across swamp and marshland, to an observation platform with amazing views of the Myakka River. Scores of wildflowers and butterflies dot the surrounding landscape.

While you're here, brush up on your Florida pioneer history at the historic, one-room Tatum Ridge Schoolhouse – the oldest in the county. (It's currently under renovation.) There's also a blacksmith shop, working sugar cane mill and restored 1889 Cracker house, which once housed a family of 15.

Fifteen people living under one roof? Now that's wild.

Enjoying Myakka River State Park

Ranger Programs: Ranger-led programs include Saturday morning nature walks (year 'round) and campfire circles on Saturday evenings (offered Thanksgiving through Easter).

Camping: Seventy-six full-facility campsites: Big Flats Campground is the largest, within walking distance to Upper Lake and the tours offered there; Old Prairie is smaller but just as scenic. Both offer water and electricity. Six primitive campgrounds are also on site, though you'll have to hike several miles to get there.

Cabin Rentals: Five log cabins sleep up to six people each. They were built in the 1930s but have been modernized with heat and A/C, full bathrooms, fireplaces, screened porches, etc. They book up to a year in advance, so be sure to call well ahead of your visit.

More Wild Adventures

Herrmanns' Royal Lipizzan Ranch (Myakka City): Watch the rare, creamy-white Lipizzan stallions practice their world-famous haute école performance at their home ranch in Myakka City. Seasonal only.

Sarasota Ski-A-Rees (Sarasota): Watch free waterski performances by the Sarasota Ski-A-Rees on Sundays at 2 p.m. in the fall and winter months. Shows take place next door to Mote Marine Laboratory.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium (Sarasota): Research facility and aquarium with local and exotic marine species, from tiny seahorses (born and bred here) to a 27-foot preserved squid, affectionately named "Molly the Mollusk." There's sea turtles and manatees, too. Newer exhibits explore the life of sharks, with the interactive SHARKTRACKER and 135,000-gallon shark habitat. The touch tanks – with stingrays, horseshoe crabs and sea stars (but no sharks) – are always a hit with kids.

Parker Manatee Aquarium (Bradenton): Inside the South Florida Museum. Say hello to Florida's most famous manatee, Snooty. Arrive during feeding time for a real treat (1,200-pound Snooty eats more than 70 heads of lettuce a day).

Where to Eat

J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Café (Sarasota): It may look like an antiques store, but this place is all about the food: Large portions of home-cooked, Southern-style meals like country-fried chicken and catfish. Enjoy folk, bluegrass or acoustic music most nights.

Linger Lodge (Bradenton): Don't let the animal heads, snakes, gator jaws and other wildlife paraphernalia scare you away before sampling something off the "Road Kill" menu, like "Road Toad a la Mode" or "The Chicken (that didn't cross the road)." This stop was deemed one of the "Top 5 Weirdest Restaurants in the U.S" by Today Show's Al Roker. Not an adventurous eater? You can always stick with more traditional fare like the grouper or pulled pork.

For more information on planning your own nature getaway to the Sarasota area, visit the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau web site at www.sarasotafl.org.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners


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