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Sarasota – Beyond the Beaches

Text by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Kayaking the mangrove tunnels

Jeff and Stephanie kayaking the mangrove tunnels.

Located 60 miles south of Tampa on Florida’s West Coast, Sarasota and her string of 8 islands boast some of the best beaches not only in Florida, but in the whole U.S. Siesta Beach, Sarasota’s most famous beach, has been ranked #1 on numerous occasions, including Dr. Beach in 2017 and Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice in 2015 and 2017. Sure, we love to enjoy a day at the beach, relaxing in the warm sunshine. But like many people, we also want to fill our days with activities. And in today’s pandemic-struck world, we want to be outdoors as much as possible. Well, our recent trip to Sarasota provided plenty of choices to enjoy outdoor activities in a safe and healthy way.

Kayak the Mangroves

One activity we think is a must is to take a guided kayak tour of the Lido Key mangrove tunnels with Kayaking SRQ. Even if you have never kayaked before, you will have a safe and enjoyable experience paddling Lido Key’s hidden gem. With one of Kayaking SRQ’s expert guides like Steffan or Tyler providing instruction and a wealth of information about the mangroves and the origin of the tunnels, you will quickly feel at ease on your kayak. And be prepared for some great photo opportunities.

Sharks, Manatees, and Otters

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aqquarium Sarasota

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium – Photo by Conor Goulding/Mote Marine Laboratory. Courtesy of Visit Sarasota.

Get a close-up look at many of the marine animals that you may paddle by with a visit to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. Mote is not only an aquarium with a variety of exhibits, it is also a working marine laboratory. As a result, Mote offers a blend of entertainment and education. One of its exhibits is the 135,000-gallon open water Shark Zone. Here you can learn about these fascinating creatures based on the research Mote has been doing on sharks since its opening in 1955. You will also marvel at the giant goliath groupers. Other exhibits include manatees, stingrays, sea turtles, playful sea otters, and many more marine animals. Many of these exhibits are in open-air spaces with coverings overhead.

Cruise the Bay

Spend two fun-filled hours on a floating tropical island with LeBarge Tropical Cruises. The boat’s open-air top deck is outfitted with palm trees and party lights. The Tropical Sunset Cruise creates a perfect atmosphere to soak in the beauty of the setting sun while listening to the live music of Jimmy Buffet-styled entertainers. LeBarge Tropical Cruises also offers a variety of other cruises such as The Rhythm on the Bay, the Dolphin & Manatee Watch Cruise and a Sightseeing & Nature Cruise. A light fare menu and a nice selection of tropical cocktails and other beverages are available.

Tranquil Gardens

After all the fun on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay, enjoy a peaceful stroll through the tranquil paths and beautiful gardens of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Located on

Marie Selby Gardens - Sarasota Beyond the Beaches

Marie Selby Gardens – Photo courtesy of Visit Sarasota.

the shores of Sarasota Bay in Downtown Sarasota, the gardens provide a tropical oasis in an urban setting. The Downtown Campus comprises 15 acres and includes the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns, and other tropical plants. The 30-acre Spanish Point Campus, located about 10 miles south of Downtown, showcases native Florida plants.

Discover the City

Discover Sarasota - Beyond the Beaches

Discover Sarasota Tours

Now that you’re downtown, take some time to explore the city. And a great way to do this is with one of the Discover Sarasota Tours. Offering ten different tour themes, you can discover exactly what you want about Sarasota. There’s a City Sightseeing Tour, where you can learn the history, culture, and neighborhoods of Sarasota. Or maybe you are intrigued with history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – there’s a tour for that. (Sarasota was the winter home of the Circus and the city is steeped in Circus history.) Other tours explore Amish life, art and sculpture, food and drink, shopping, and even the haunted lore of Sarasota.

A Circus’ Legacy

You don’t have to be a circus fan to enjoy The Ringling – the museums, gardens, and palatial home of John and Mable Ringling. This extravagant legacy of the Ringling’s includes the Ringling

Ca'd'Zan - The Ringlings' winter home in Sarasota - Beyond the Beaches

Ca’d’Zan – John and Mabel Ringling’s winter home. Photo courtesy of Visit Sarasota.

Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan – the Ringlings’ magnificent home situated on the shores of Sarasota Bay – and the beautiful Bayfront Gardens. The Museum of Art is a pink, Renaissance-style palace with 21 galleries enclosing a sculpture-adorned courtyard. The Circus Museum houses a unique collection of circus memorabilia, the Ringlings’ private railroad car, and the fascinating 3,800 square foot Howard Bros. Circus Model, a re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Even though the museums at The Ringling have enacted safety precautions due to the pandemic, you may not want to spend too much time indoors. But do take the time to wander the 66 acres of the beautiful Bayfront Gardens and grounds of Ca’d’Zan in order to admire the Ringlings’ wonderful legacy.

Ligers and Tigons, Oh My!

Brutus - Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota - Beyond the Beaches

Brutus – Big Cat Habitat’s resident liger. Photo courtesy of Visit Sarasota.

It’s not exactly the circus, but it does have lions, and tigers, and bears. Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary is a large-animal reserve in eastern Sarasota County. The non-profit sanctuary is a permanent home for dozens of exotic animals, offering placement for animals in need. The main attractions here are the lions and tigers – and the unusual species of ligers and tigons (the result of mating lions with tigers). The ligers and tigons at Big Cat Habitat are beautiful, healthy looking animals. The Habitat also houses a variety of bears, primates, birds, reptiles, and many other animal species. Kids will love the petting zoo. Except for a 25-minute animal demonstration, all of the Habitat’s viewing areas are outdoors.

Keeping Active

Keeping your activity outdoors is easy because Sarasota County has a number state parks, preserves, and parks offering plenty of opportunities for fishing, hiking, kayaking, walking, biking, and bird watching. Myakka River State Park is 58 square miles of unspoiled wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands. Boating, fishing, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities on the water while hikers and bicyclists explore miles of trails and backroads. Oscar Scherer State Park has fifteen miles of walking/hiking trails and ten miles of biking trails. The very popular 12-mile long Legacy Trail, a paved walking and biking path running from Venice to Sarasota, runs directly through the park. The park also has canoeing, kayaking, fishing, swimming, and bird watching. Sarasota’s Celery Fields offers over 300 acres of wetlands with opportunities to spot more than 200 bird species.

Although the virus pandemic may be curtailing your indoor activities at the moment, it won’t be long before visitors will get to experience Sarasota’s vibrant Arts & Culture offerings. Known

Sarasota public art beyond the beaches

“Unconditional Surrender” – Sarasota public art. Photo courtesy of Visit Sarasota.

as “Florida’s Cultural Coast,” Sarasota has a wealth of museums, art galleries and performing art venues. There are 9 performing arts organizations less than a mile from the center of Sarasota. Check out the multitude of offerings at Visit Sarasota – you will be impressed by what lies beyond its beaches.


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