What's not to like about Florida, the Sunshine State? Just the name alone conjures up visions of sugary-white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, umbrella drinks and shimmering blue-green water. Some of the best beaches on the planet can be found on Florida's Gulf Coast, and a get-away weekend cruise from Sarasota to Bradenton can rejuvenate any mariner's mind, body and soul.Sarasota makes an excellent launching port for this get-away weekend cruise to Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island and Bradenton, Fla. Marina Jack in Sarasota offers easy access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West (GIWW) and is in close proximity to downtown Sarasota, offering the weary seafarer an easy walk to multiethnic and seafood restaurants, an eclectic mix of retailers and stunning sunsets across the bay. The protected GIWW makes cruising a pleasure and planning a get-away weekend a breeze even if waking to a breezy day. Full steam ahead.
An easy seven-mile cruise north of Sarasota on the GIWW to Longboat Key Club Moorings (941-383-8383, longboatkeymarina.com), a full-service marina with concierge services awaits you. Located in Longboat Key Club's gated resort community surrounded by lush green golf courses, as sidewalks meander through seaside neighborhoods, a heated pool and hot tub, tennis courts and an easy walk to gulf beaches gives the visiting mariner time to kick back and relax. Hop aboard the Longboat Key trolley to historic St. Armands Circle. Once owned by circus magnate John Ringling, his vision of the central rotary with streets extending like spokes from its hub remains vivid today. Over 130 boutiques, gourmet restaurants and ice cream and chocolatier parlors line the streets, and lavish tropical garden courtyards bound its perimeter. Each courtyard garden adorned by one of 40 Greek or Roman statues from Ringling's personal art collection makes shopping and eating a cultural moment. For a spectacular sunset not to be missed, take a walk across Gulf Drive to Longboat Key beach. After a fulfilling day, who wants to cook? Dine dockside at Portofino Restaurant and Bar, which serves classic northern Italian fare. With a nightcap aboard, your day is complete.
Just north of Longboat Key is Anna Maria Island, a seven-mile stretch of a sugary-white sand coastline, emerald green water and home to three cities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (center) and Bradenton Beach (south). Our next port of call: Galati Yacht Basin (941-778-0755, galatiyachts.com), located at the north end of Anna Maria Island in the protected cove of Bimini Bay. The yacht basin is conveniently located within a half-mile walk to award-winning Pine Avenue shopping village, Anna Maria City Pier, AMI Historical Museum and AMI's free trolley service. Deemed The Key West of the North with its vibrant art community, AMI Cultural Connections actively promotes events throughout the year. Never a dull day on the island. Many of the island's artisan artifacts can be found in any of the galleries, studios or emporiums located along the islands' trolley route (Island Gallery West, Artists' Guild Gallery, Art League of Anna Maria Island, Fukinsei Art Lab, Restless natives, Libby's Jewelry, Island tattoo and Beach Life, to name a few). Tired of shopping? Grab sandwiches to go at Ginny's & Jane E's Island Bakery, an experience unto itself, and enjoy a day at any one of the Island's six beaches: Anna Maria, Holmes, Manatee, Bradenton, Cortez and Coquina. For dinner, stop at Anna Maria City Pier and make reservations at the Waterfront Restaurant for a unique island dining experience, or check out the Ocean Star Hibachi Sushi Bar located in the yacht basin.
From Anna Maria Island head east to Bradenton, Fla. for overnight dockage at Twin Dolphin Marina (941-747-8300, twindolphinmarina.com) on Manatee River and the famous Riverwalk Park. With a renaissance-like redevelopment of the waterfront, Bradenton transformed its downtown seafront into an inviting outdoor river walkway bound by lush botanical gardens, a 400-seat outdoor amphitheater, a multicolor splash fountain, a fishing pier, a tidal basin, outdoor seating, beach volleyball courts and a skate park. Don't be surprised to find a bride and groom along with their wedding entourage out for pictures. Across from Twin Dolphin Marina is the entrance to Old Main Street (12th Street West) and on 10th Street West is the South Florida Aquarium, Planetarium and History Museum. Meet Manatee County's official mascot, Snooty, the world's oldest manatee in captivity. From October through May, every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. downtown Bradenton is host to a farmers market, where you'll find locally grown fruits and vegetables, freshly harvested seafood and resident artists and craftspeople selling their wares. For a fail-safe dinner aboard, local chefs and restaurateurs demonstrate how to prepare some of their signature dishes from ingredients you can purchase in the market.