By Patty Ryan
In Sarasota, the beach residents turn off lights to avoid distracting sea turtles. When birds of many species adopt a county drainage field, the community responds by building an Audubon Nature Center. Voters tax themselves to extend a popular bike trail.
It isn’t difficult to be an eco-tourist in this city on the west coast of Florida, or to be mesmerized by the nature that surrounds it. Deer graze in fields of yellow tickseed just 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, humans graze at tables of chefs who encourage sustainable fishing and seek locally sourced food.
It’s a city of volunteers and stewardship, of partnerships among businesses and environmental groups. If you don’t have a bike, they’ll rent you one. If you can’t pedal it, someone else might pedal while you ride as a passenger, hearing about places along the trail.
Myakka River State Park
At 58 square miles, the Myakka River State Park could be a good-sized city, but its mayor would just have to be a gator, and the city council a flock of birds. All are in abundance at this nature mecca east of Interstate 75. Birders report sightings of the Bachman’s sparrow, roseate spoonbill, osprey, sandhill crane, swallow-tailed kite and white-tailed kite, among others. A short tree canopy walkway allows visitors to cross a suspension bridge perched 25 feet above ground, though the real payoff comes after climbing steps to an adjoining 74-foot-tall tower. The area’s most prominent feature is the Myakka River, which crosses three counties while meandering toward the Gulf of Mexico coast. Take a boat tour or rent a canoe or kayak. The park is near enough to Sarasota for a day trip but large enough for a much longer stay.
Oscar Sherer State Park
The Oscar Scherer State Park sits at the edge of suburbia between Sarasota and Venice. Its 1,381 acres provide habit for the Florida scrub jay, along with white-tailed deer, alligators, gopher tortoises, bald eagles and bob cats, not to mention the occasional tourist in an RV. There are 15 miles of biking and walking trails, including a stretch of the Legacy Trail that connects Sarasota to Venice.
Guide to Natural Areas
Parks, small and large, are at every turn, both inland and along the Sarasota coast. Download Sarasota County’s free Natural Areas Guide for a detailed look at county parks and preserves. “What kind of wild are you?” it asks. Want family friendly activity? Lots of shade? Equestrian trails? The guide even tells you where sandhill cranes and limpkins hang out. And, for additional options, check neighboring Manatee County, to the north.
Celery Fields, for Birds
Technically speaking, the land known as Celery Fields is a storm water collection zone, but if you’re a bird, it’s a splash party. The Sarasota Audubon Society worked with Sarasota County to return the former celery farm to its wetland origins, after surveys at the site recorded more than 200 species. Cooler months mean more variety, with volunteer naturalists on the boardwalk to answer questions.
Felts Audubon Preserve
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
After high-rises spoiled her coastal view, Marie Selby responded by planting tall bamboo at her Sarasota Bay estate. She died in 1971 but left a legacy of beauty that became the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. With 20,000 greenhouse plants and more outdoors, Selby Gardens has something for every taste, including orchids and bromeliads from a tropical rainforest, a butterfly garden, a children’s rain forest, a fern garden and, naturally, a bamboo garden.
Turtle Nesting Season
Just about anywhere along the coast, you could stumble upon a giant sea turtle lumbering out of the Gulf of Mexico at night to lay eggs in the sand. (Cautionary turtle advice found here.) More likely, you’ll see the aftermath, a roped-off quadrant of beach, possibly bearing the name of a turtle nest sponsor. May through October is sea turtle nesting season, and beach communities get vigilant about protecting turtles, nests, eggs and hatchlings. That means posting signs on nests and keeping beaches dark, so that baby turtles are drawn to the water, not to porch lights.
MOTE Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
You can still see turtles up close at MOTE Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, which even has an annual footrace to benefit them. The research, rehab and educational facility is home to turtles, sharks and manatees, including survivors of traumatic encounters with boats. Mote’s busy educational calendar includes interpretive bay walks, full moon kayak trips and eco-boat tours in conjunction with Sarasota Bay Explorers. Check the aquarium’s Experiences page to join in.
Next door to Mote is Save Our Seabirds, which rehabilitates wild birds and cares for the ones who can’t make it on their own. Visitors welcome.
One could experience Florida’s Gulf Coast almost entirely on the water, exploring estuaries, barrier islands and rivers with a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard. The free, downloadable Sarasota County Blueways Paddling Guide provides trail maps, launch sites, navigational notes, points of interest and environmental insights for the trip. (Farther south, in the Sanibel-Fort Myers area, there’s the Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail.) Set out on your own or find a naturalist to lead the way. Bay Wise Kayak Eco Tours, part of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, offers free guided tours from December to April for members who book in advance and have their own boats
No kayak? No worry. Most tour companies can provide them. Green businesses and tour companies band together in the Sarasota-Bradenton area through the Ecko project, a nonprofit collaborative that promotes responsible, sustainable travel. The Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism oversees a similar program statewide. Both list participating local tour companies online, including Wayne Adventures, Biotica Ecotours, Happy Paddler, Bay Wise Kayak Eco Tours, FLOW Kayak and Paddle Tours, Sarasota Bay Explorers (at MOTE Marine), Around the Bend Nature Tours, and Carefree Learner.
Tour, Shop and Dine
Maybe you like a little shopping and dining with your ecotourism. Meet the mangrove tunnels. They’re perfect for kayaks and those who appreciate coastal ecosystems, but they’re also just a few minutes from famous St. Armands Circle, known for its fine shops and restaurants. You’ll find the mangrove tunnels at Ted Sperling Park on south Lido Key, which is next to St. Armands Key. Years ago, channels were dug amid the mangroves to encourage better water circulation and discourage mosquitoes, but then the branches grew to form arbors that give paddlers shade.
FOOD AND DINING
Some might say no eco-vacation is complete without eating lionfish. The striped, spiny, invasive predators from the Indo-Pacific region wreak havoc on native Florida fish such as snapper and grouper. This inspires human countermeasures such as Sarasota’s annual Lionfish Derby or the state’s summer Lionfish Challenge. Spearfishing divers, who stow lionfish in special containers to avoid getting stung, compete for prizes, while chefs show people how to prepare the fish. Revenge is sweet, or at least tender and buttery. Whole Foods stores in Florida committed to carry lionfish, but it can be tricky to find a restaurant that serves it.
Chef/owner Steve Phelps at the Sarasota restaurant, Indigenous, tames lionfish whenever he can get it, perhaps turning it into ceviche and serving it with citrus, radish, cilantro, fried sweet potato, crunchy black quinoa and limo pepper aioli. His ever-changing menu focuses on sustainable seafood and locally sourced ingredients. He’s affiliated with the California-based Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which has a smartphone app that steers diners nationally toward sustainable seafood choices. The family-friendly Red Lobster chain, which started in Florida, partnered with Seafood Watch in 2018 and has pledged to serve only “traceable, sustainable and responsibly sourced seafood.” The Seafood Shack in Cortez, north of Sarasota, is another Seafood Watch partner.
Eat Like a Local
Dozens of independently owned, long-established Sarasota area restaurants belong to Sarasota-Manatee Originals, which has the motto, “Eat Like a Local,” and promises meals freshly prepared using local ingredients. For additional restaurant choices, there’s a searchable guide from VisitSarasota.
Dakin Dairy Farms
Interested in learning about a dairy farm’s efforts at sustainability? Family-owned Dakin Dairy Farms near Myakka City offers tours, and admission includes a hay ride through the barns. You can picnic on the farm and get a look at its grass-fed cows.
Bike, Ped Paths
Two continuous bicycle and pedestrian trails link southeast Sarasota to nearby Venice. The Legacy Trail, built on a former rail corridor, is more than 10 miles long and growing, with plans to tie in downtown Sarasota. The trail south leads to the Historic Venice Train Depot. From there, the Venetian Waterway Park takes over, adding about 5 miles of paved trail along each bank of the Intracoastal Waterway. The west bank trail ends at rocky Caspersen Beach Park, where people often find shark teeth.
For those with mobility challenges, there are free Legacy Trail Surrey Rides from late winter to early spring. Advance reservations are required. The surrey is a canopied, four-wheeled bike pedaled by volunteers.
At Sarasota Bike Tours, visitors can rent a bike for a week or sign up for a complete experience, with a tour guide to lead the way. The company offers bike tours of Siesta Key sunsets, the historic district, museums and restaurants. Or, trolley rides from Discover Sarasota Tours let you look around while someone else does the driving. Choose among themed tours – public sculpture, circus landmarks, sports history -- or get a little of everything in a sightseeing tour.
Trolleys, Share Programs
Sarasota County Area Transit, which provides scheduled bus service throughout the area, also operates the free Siesta Key Breeze Trolley. And the Gotcha electric ride share program will cart riders around for a few dollars a trip within a limited service area that includes Lido Key, St. Armands Circle, and western neighborhoods of Sarasota.
If you’re driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, you can plot your course for charging stations on Plugshare.
Florida Green Lodging
The Florida Green Lodging program keeps a registry with hundreds of eco-conscious innkeepers committed to recycling, energy efficiency or water conservation. The Hyatt Regency Sarasota and the Resort at Longboat Key Club both received one of the program’s higher honors: three palms, on a scale of one to four. Check the website for other participating hotels in the area.
Myakka River State Park and Oscar Scherer State Park have campsites for tents and RVs. In addition, Myakka has cabins, which get two palms on the Florida Green Lodging scale. Reservations recommended, well in advance.
Countless volunteer hours go into preserving Florida natural areas. If you’d like to pitch in, even for a day, you’ll be in good company.
Volunteers help the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program build oyster reefs, plant native plants in parks and preserves, remove trash from tidal creeks and bay islands, and weed out invasive plants that keep native plants and wildlife from flourishing. Get started at the program’s volunteer page.
The Sarasota Audubon Society welcomes extra hands at the Celery Fields, where there are duties small and large. Volunteers can weed, prune, plant, refill bird feeders, tidy up the building or help organize and restock the information center. Sign up here.
The group, Friends of the Legacy Trail, puts volunteers to work pedaling surrey rides, staffing information tables, fitting bike helmets, patrolling the trail and helping with logistics of the annual Tour de Parks bike ride.
Check local events calendars to see if your visit coincides with a civic group’s beach cleanup. They are scattered throughout the year. Or set out on your own. Picking up plastic on the beach is a painless way to show your respect for nature.
Find more recommendations for your Sarasota vacation at VisitSarasota.
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