Freelance Writer & Editor
By Susan Ladika | Sarasota | January 15, 2009 | HGTV's FrontDoor.com
Talk about a county of contrasts. Sarasota might be best known as a city with a wealthy, elderly and conservative population base and for helping to send President Bush to the White House in 2000 thanks to Katherine Harris, then Florida's secretary of state and a Sarasota resident. But the area's also home to a thriving arts community and a stronghold for Florida's burgeoning green movement. It's a city where the major industries are tourism, recreation and real estate development, but it's striving to diversify its base.
It's a county with million-dollar mansions and towering condos along its beaches and bays, and a thriving, walkable downtown Sarasota filled with shops and restaurants. But head east past Interstate 75, and you're back in old Florida, with acre upon acre of trees and scrub, where a visit to Myakka River State Park will bring you face to face with an alligator, armadillo or anhinga.
Sarasota County is made up of four municipalities with a combined population topping 135,000, plus large swaths of unincorporated areas with a population topping 250,000. It's not unusual to include neighboring Manatee County in the mix and to talk about the Sarasota-Bradenton area. The vast majority of Sarasota County's population is white, at 86 percent, and it skews much older than most, with 30 percent of the population age 65 and older. But don't count out kids, who make up 16 percent of the population.
Looking for history combined with walkability? Check out Laurel Park in downtown Sarasota. In 2008, this neighborhood was designated a National Register of Historic Places District. The neighborhood is filled with single-family homes, duplexes and small apartment buildings, with many dating back to the 1920s, in styles such as bungalow, Mission revival, Colonial revival and Mediterranean revival. If a neighborhood filled with historic homes, brick-lined streets and trees dripping with Spanish moss isn't enough, it's within a stone's throw of downtown shops, restaurants and entertainment. Residents run the spectrum from professionals to artists, and young families to retirees, not to mention plenty of pets.
While it may not be for everyone, Gillespie Park is a neighborhood on the upswing. Renovated 1920s bungalows, ranch-style homes from the 1950s and 1960s, small apartment buildings and a smattering of new construction make the neighborhood just north of downtown an interesting mix. Named in honor of Sarasota's first mayor, John Gillespie, the neighborhood's centerpiece is a sprawling park of the same name, boasting a lake with a refreshing fountain. The neighborhood has a diverse population base, bringing together renters and property owners. It's also a quick walk to the shops of Main Street.
This sprawling planned community east of Interstate 75 on the Sarasota-Manatee county line offers something for everyone, from townhouses to million-dollar-plus estate homes. You'll find everyone from young families to empty-nesters living in the seven villages that make up Lakewood Ranch. You'll also find recreation ranging from playgrounds to pools to polo, with half of the 8,500-acre community set aside for open space and recreation areas, including miles of hiking trails. Several village centers have been established, so there are plenty of shopping and dining opportunities close to home. Lakewood Ranch also has the distinction of being a green community, and since 2005, new construction is required to follow Florida Green Building Coalition standards.
This bayfront neighborhood in the shadow of the historic Ringling estate is filled with historic homes dating to the 1920s, along with modern mansions and more moderately priced homes. Because of its location near New College of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design, the neighborhood draws wealthy professionals and families as well as professors and college students. With its location along Sarasota Bay, neighbors often gather at the Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach parks to watch the sunset.
If you're looking for that laid-back, beach vibe, take a look at Siesta Key, which has consistently won accolades for its sparkling sand. Sure there are the obligatory condominiums and manicured subdivisions, but the south tip of the key, in the Turtle Beach area, swims in tropical foliage, giving it the feeling of an old-time Florida resort. The north end of the key has Siesta Village, a compact downtown with a number of beachy restaurants serving up fresh seafood, cold beers and beach music. While Siesta Key's population runs the gamut, be prepared for an influx of tourists and snowbirds during the winter season.
Learn about the places Sarasota locals can't live without
Morton's Gourmet Market
1924 S. Osprey Ave.
Morton's Gourmet Market and the city of Sarasota have grown up together in the past 55 years. From its beginnings as a small independent grocer in a newly awakened seaside town, Morton's has evolved into the city's signature market. Shopping at Morton's is whatever you want it to be: local produce and seafood, or artisan cheeses and fine wines from around the world. Locals know it as the go-to place for hard to find ingredients as well as a great place to pick up a ready-to-go picnic for the beach.
Sharky's on the Pier
1600 Harbor Drive S., Venice
You can't get more Florida than this. There's plenty of outdoor seating, as well as a thatch-roofed bar mixing up specialty drinks like Sharky's Pier Punch, Bait Bucket Margarita and Mango Bango. But everyone knows drinking on an empty stomach can be dangerous, so try some conch fritters or a grouper wrap. To work off the food and drink, take a stroll down the pier jutting 700 feet into the Gulf of Mexico.
Pastry Art Bakery
1512 Main St.
After wandering the world, not to mention the restaurant business, for almost a decade, Pastry Art owner John Andersen came to Sarasota and rescued the coffeehouse from the brink of bankruptcy, building it into one of the area's premier java joints, where you can savor a latte and enjoy one of the shops famed confections: grande tarts, Napoleons, cannolis, custards and eclairs. Go ahead, have two.
431 St. Armand's Circle
Sarasota is full of fabulous restaurants, but when you're ready for that singular splurge, it's time for Cafe L'Europe. Even the sidewalk seating is reminiscent of a meal on the Continent, which is, of course, where the restaurant draws its focus. Guests can enjoy elegant service and a robust menu. With a definite nod to his coastal locale, executive chef Keith Daum has developed quite an array of specialties, along with the traditional continental fare.
34900 Bermont Road
Going green and eating healthy doesn't get much easier than a membership in Worden Farm. For about $30 per week, you'll get a share of the farm's harvest from December through April. Members can pick up a box of produce selected by the farmer each week at one of several satellite delivery points, including Sarasota's Downtown Market. Members also have the option of visiting the farm and picking out their own mix of veggies.
Siesta Key drum circle
Break away from the club scene and truly get your groove on at the beach. Almost every Sunday evening, about an hour before sunset, people gather just south of the main pavilion on Siesta Key for a drum circle that often takes on a persona all its own. Women shimmy. Men twirl. A kaleidoscope of musicians keeps the beat with a percussion menagerie. Need a midweek fix of karma and rhythm? A similar circle frequently sets up at Nokomis Beach on Casey Key on Wednesday nights.
539 S. Orange Ave.
Where else can you find everything from a fox fur to a tiki bar for sale in one place? There's nothing quite like the consignment shop run by the Woman's Exchange, with the profits used to support arts projects in Sarasota and Manatee counties. You can also donate your gently used items: That sofa you've been longing to replace may help fund a scholarship for someone pursuing a career in the arts, or help providing funding for an arts organization.
Towles Court Artist Colony
Just off U.S. 301 south of Main Street
On the third Friday evening of each month, get your art fix at Towles Court's free gallery walk, featuring works by dozens of artists. Glass, painting, sculptures and much more are all on display in this little slice of paradise in the heart of the city, where lush, tropical foliage frames funky Key West-colored cottages. Afterwards stop by Lavanda restaurant for an elegant dinner featuring Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.
Myakka River State Park
13208 State Road 72
Looking for a respite from the 'burbs? Or maybe just a cool place to go gator watching, catch a meteor shower or wander through the tree canopy? Myakka River State Park offers all that and host of other encounters with nature, from feral hogs to bald eagles. Canoeing, hiking and camping are all great ways to explore the scenic river. The park has one of the few tree canopy suspension bridges in the world, which allows visitors to climb 35 feet up into the treetops to survey flora and fauna up close and for miles around.
Top of the John Ringling Boulevard Bridge
Park your car at Bird Key Park, and run, walk or bike to the top of the John Ringling Boulevard Bridge, linking the mainland with St. Armand's Key. Spread out below you is a panorama of downtown Sarasota, with condos, hotels and office towers sparkling in the sunlight. You can't beat the exercise or the view.
Downtown Farmers Market
Lemon Avenue and Main Street
No need to leave the pooch at home during the Downtown Farmers Market each Saturday in Sarasota. The canines are nearly as plentiful as the human customers who are there to buy farm-fresh produce, tasty bakery fare and arts and crafts items. It's the place to see and be seen for both the dogs and their doting owners.
Fit in with the locals by getting to know Sarasota secrets
What's the 941? Sure it's the area code for the Sarasota County area, but it's also what locals say when they want to know what's shaking in town.
Purple Cow: Mention "purple cow" in Sarasota, and everyone knows you're not talking about the poem or the ice cream soda. Instead, the grape-colored building set along Sarasota Bay is the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. There you can see everything from a Broadway musical to a symphony orchestra to a guest lecture by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. And by the way, it's pronounced Way-zel, not Weasel. Another dead giveaway if you're a local or not.
SRQ: SRQ is the code airlines use to designate Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. But it's now become the code name for everything Sarasota. If someone asks, "What's happening in SRQ," you'll know just what they mean. There's also a popular local magazine with the same name.
Tamiami Trail: Back before the days of interstates zipping motorists from place to place, the Tamiami Trail, or U.S. Highway 41, was the main way to get from Tampa to Miami. Mom-and-pop motels and roadside attractions popped up along the route. While residents in places like Tampa now simply call it U.S. 41, in Sarasota it still bears its old name, and locals will talk about houses being "east of the Trail" or "west of the Trail."
Marina Jack: Sure it's the name of a popular waterfront restaurant and marina downtown on Sarasota Bay. But if a local says: "Meet me at Marina Jack's," be sure to ask exactly where they mean, because it is used interchangeably with the entire Bayfront Park area.
Stone Crab season: Oct. 15 is a date to be remembered in Sarasota. It doesn't mark some big battle or famous person's birthday, but does mark the opening of the stone crab claw season. Snorkelers and divers prepare in advance, setting up "stone crab mansions" - cinderblock structures where the crustaceans like to gather - then mark the location with GPS. When the calendar flips to Oct. 15, the harvesters take to the water, filling up their buckets with tasty stone crab claws, while the crabs are set free to grow new claws for another harvest.
Ringling College of Art and Design and New College of Florida: Despite its demographics, Sarasota has carved out a niche for itself in the college scene. Founded in 1931 by circus magnate John Ringling, Ringling College of Art and Design has evolved into one of the country's premier schools of its kind. In 2006, BusinessWeek named it one of the top 60 design schools in the world, and its computer animation program has been ranked best in the world by 3D World magazine. Meanwhile, nearby New College of Florida, the state's "Honor College for the Liberal Arts," is known for its independent research and student-driven curriculum. Publications like U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review also rank it among the top of the class.
These staples of Sarasota make the city stand out from the rest
All Things Ringling: Where else can you say elephants helped build a major bridge? But that's what happened in this former circus town, where John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey fame, and his wife, Mable, settled in the 1920s, eventually making Sarasota the circus' winter quarters. The pair had a major impact on shaping the face of Sarasota, and at one point owned about one-quarter of its real estate. Under Mable's direction, the opulent Venetian Gothic-style mansion Ca d'Zan was built along the shores of Sarasota Bay. The two amassed one of the most notable private art collections in the United States with works by Rubens, Velazquez and other famous masters, and these paintings and sculptures became the basis of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Their circus days are memorialized at the Circus Museum. These days there are even cocktails on the terrace of Ca d'Zan the third Thursday of each month, and Big Band concerts in the museum courtyard on the first Thursday from February to May.
St. Armand's Circle: What about that bridge Ringling's elephants helped to construct? It connects the mainland with St. Armand's Key, one of a string of small islands between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. St. Armand's Circle, on St. Armand's Key, is a district of high-end shopping and fine dining.
Arts abound: Although it's only a city of 55,000, Sarasota has a reputation for the arts that would rival a community 10 times its size. You can take in a concert by the Florida West Coast Symphony, watch a production by the Sarasota Opera, or view a performance at historic Asolo Theatre. There are countless other cultural events and festivals throughout the year.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has a collection of 6,000 orchids from around the globe. The garden specializes in epiphytes, or plants that live on other plants, thriving in the moist Florida climate.
Mote Marine Laboratory: This is one of the few marine research institutes in the world that combine research and a public aquarium. Along with a stingray touch pool and a manatee exhibit, Mote scientists rehabilitate stranded or injured dolphins, whales and sea turtles.
Shark's teeth and seashells: Sarasota County has some of Florida's premier shelling grounds. Wander the beaches, especially after a storm, and you'll see piles of seashells washed up by the Gulf of Mexico. Venice, a seaside town in the south part of the county, is known as a bonanza for those hunting sharks' teeth. Yep, shark teeth. The beaches are full of black, fossilized teeth from prehistoric sharks that once filled these waters. It's pretty freaky.
Making it easy to be green: Florida isn't exactly leading the charge when it comes to green development, but Sarasota's consistently been ahead of the pack in the state. Both the city and county offer expedited permitting and inspections for buildings constructed to green building standards. There's a Green Realtors Alliance, the Green Marketplace, which sells green home and building supplies, and a directory of green businesses. Each fall Lakewood Ranch hosts Efest, an event celebrating the green lifestyle.