If you're looking for fabulous year-round boating, miles of white-sand beaches, and plenty to explore, you just might find Florida's Sarasota and Bradenton area to be your ideal destination. Recreational opportunities abound, and include boating, flats fishing, surf fishing, trolling, scuba diving, snorkeling, spear fishing, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife viewing, bird watching and eco-tours -- not to mention all the fabulous things to do ashore.
In 1929, John Ringling chose Sarasota as the headquarters for his circus. His legacy lives on at the Museum of the Circus and the Ringling Museum of Art. Next door is Ringling's 18th-century Italianate theater, originally constructed for Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus. The theater has plays and operas for the pubic year round.Each year in June, the Sarasota Music Festival brings outstanding musicians from around the world to town for three weeks of performances. Local concerts are also held every weekend at Island Park, including a jazz festival every March.
If you can't pull yourself away from the water even while you're on land, head to the Mote Marine Science Aquarium, located at City Island Park. The facility displays more than 100 marine species and includes a 135,000-gallon shark exhibit. It is also home to rescued manatees, sea turtles and dolphins that cannot be returned to the wild.
Sarasota has a diverse restaurant scene. The award-winning Ceviche's Tapa Bar & Grill (1216 1st St., 941-952-1036) offers a unique tapas menu in an intimate atmosphere. Yoder's Restaurant (3434 Bahia Vista St., 941-955-7771) is a much-loved Amish spot renowned for its pies. The well-established Columbia Restaurant (411 St. Armands Circle, 941-388-3987) has some of the finest Cuban food on the Gulf Coast.
Gunkholing up the lovely Manatee River brings you to the city of Bradenton, which offers a taste of the laid-back lifestyle of old Florida. Visit the Village of Arts, the Gulf Coast's largest arts district, where cottages have been converted into artist studios, galleries, and restaurants. Downtown, the ArtCenter Manatee features three galleries, five classrooms, a gift shop and an art library.Hours of history and excellent exhibitions await at the South Florida Museum, the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium. If the season is right, enjoy a pre-season baseball game at the training camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Fire & Stone Pizza (10519 Cortez Road W., 941-792-5300) is a family-owned pizzeria that many consider the region's best for pizza -- and the salad bar is terrific. At the Gecko Grill & Pub (7228 55th Ave. E., 941-727-8988) the famous mouth-watering Gecko Burger is a must. For the steak and seafood connoisseur, Michael John's Brasserie (104 Carlton Arms Blvd., 941-747-8032) is a gourmet experience and has a quaint and cozy atmosphere.
In the Sarasota area, dockage can be found in the heart of downtown at Marina Jack, a favorite for transient boaters (marinajack.com, 941- 955-9488). Another option is Sara Bay Marina (941-359-0390, sarabaymarina.com), which has both wet and dry slips plus a tiki bar, pool and many other amenities.
Brandenton also has excellent marina facilities. Twin Dolphin Marina (941-747-8300, twindolphinmarina.com) is within walking distance of the historic district and Old Main Street, and is home to the popular Pier 22 Restaurant & Ballroom, which has spectacular views. The property offers wet and dry slips, a fuel dock, heated pool, spa, and all the amenities you would expect from a first-class marina. Riviera Dunes Marina (941-981-5330, rivieradunesmarina.org) is a luxurious full-service facility. Two heated pools, a large social deck and the Bella Mia Grill & Bar are just some of its top-notch amenities.
DON'T MISS THE SISTER KEYS!
Siesta Key and Longboat Key sit between the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the tranquil waters of Sarasota Bay. Combined, their 19 miles of white sand beaches, abundant resort amenities and easy-going, laid-back atmosphere make for the perfect place to kick back, de-stress and enjoy a truly tropical vibe.