Sarasota: Florida’s West Coast Wonder

Orlando, Miami, Palm Beach – these are the cities that get top billing when considering Florida’s top vacation destinations. But, it is the Sunshine State’s west coast that truly features the best of what Florida can offer, and Sarasota is its heart and soul.

Sarasota lies on Florida’s Gulf Coast and is known for its award-winning, white talcum-powder beaches, vast cultural offerings, and natural beauty. With an increase in flights to its international airport, it’s even more accessible than ever. Sarasota, located south of the Tampa Bay area and north of Fort Meyers includes several barrier islands, known as keys, which lie just off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Ritz Carlton, positioned across from the city’s downtown area and marina, has served as our Sarasota home on several trips. Although its location on the mainland’s bayside might seem inconvenient, a quick trip across the John Ringling Causeway by car or hotel shuttle brings you to the resort’s lovely pool and beach club on Lido Key. Located between Long Boat and Siesta Keys, Lido also features an array of small, beachside hotels and condo rentals and acres of recreational area. Adjacent to Lido Key is St. Armonds Key with its popular pedestrian area. St. Armonds Circle is a charming place in which to meander and sample the diverse restaurants and sidewalk cafes, specialty stores, gelato and ice cream shops, all laid out in a lush, tropical, circular setting.

Ritz Carlton Sarasota

The Ritz Carlton Sarasota Beach Club — just steps from its gorgeous gulf beach

Sarasota’s downtown area, with its scattered high-rise office buildings and hotels, and low-rise historic areas offer an eclectic mix of eateries and galleries with annual street fairs, farmers markets, and art exhibits a focal point of the downtown culture.

Of course those gorgeous, white-sand beaches are Sarasota’s draw. We spend hours there collecting shells, fishing, and snorkeling in the Gulf — much calmer than Florida’s eastern, Atlantic coast. On cloudy days, there are plenty of nearby fun and educational activities including Jungle Gardens, MOTE Aquarium, kayak tours, and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Sarasota, Florida

The MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium offers hands-on learning like panning for shark teeth

Last year a highlight of our trip was a half-day spent with Tearin’ Em up Charters. We were met one early morning at the pier behind the Ritz Carlton and whisked away for a four-hour, hook-to-fork adventure on Captain Doug’s charter boat. We cast our lines in and around the inlets and then, with our catch of the day in the boat’s cooler, pulled up to the bayside beach of South Lido Park. We jumped out of the boat into the shallow water and strode up to the rustic beachside campsite complete with wooden picnic tables and barbeque station.

Sarasota, Florida

Jack reels in a Spotted Seatrout from the emerald-blue waters surrounding Long Boat Key

Captain Doug, a classically trained and experienced chef, had all the fixings to whip up his signature shore lunch. Right on the spot, he fileted and prepared my sons’ spotted sea trout en papillote, wrapping the freshly caught fish with sweet potatoes, Vidalia onions, and ginger root into a foil pouch. While we waited for it to cook, he offered us skewers and marshmallows, which we roasted in the fire and then sprinkled with fresh lime juice for a delicious take on “Siesta Key Lime Pie.” Accompanying our meal was warm honey-pepper corn bread and grill-cooked beans. After we finished our mouth-watering, open-air meal, we boarded the boat for our trip back to the Ritz Carlton, with our stomachs and our hearts full.

Sarasota, Florida

Lido Key’s acres of recreational area provide the perfect setting for a seaside picnic

While our tasty beach barbecue cooks up over the open flame, Harris toasts a marshmallow appetizer

While our tasty beach barbecue cooks up over the open flame, Harris toasts a marshmallow appetizer

Unique Family Traveler sampling of things to do and places to eat in Sarasota:

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: This 14-acre “oasis of inspiration and tranquility” on the Bay features rare tropical plants including 6,000 orchids.

Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures: Their kayak eco-tour takes you through the exotic mangrove tunnels on Lido Key into the bay to view manatees and dolphins.

MOTE Aquarium: There’s plenty to see — sharks, sea turtles, manatees, seahorses, dolphins, plus over 100 other species, along with touch pools and viewable, working marine-studies labs.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens: Meander through 10 acres of lush, tropical, winding jungle trails and view creatures like Florida’s crocodiles and famous pink flamingos

John & Mable Ringling Museum: This original, 66-acre winter home of the legendary circus entrepreneurs, features an art museum, a 56-room estate, and the world’s largest miniature circus.

Ritz Kids: This Ritz Carlton camp program, held at their beach club, has top-notch staff who will keep young kids engaged with a diverse set of activities including swimming, arts, science and nature-studies

Darwin’s on 4th: This downtown Peruvian restaurant features a mix of Latin American flavors with an Asian flair including an extensive selection of ceviches.

Pacific Rim: Japanese/Thai fusion cuisine and sushi in Sarasota’s lovely Southside Village neighborhood.

Café Epicure: Authentic Italian in the downtown area with sidewalk seating, offering excellent, freshly made pasta, thin-crust pizza, and homemade desserts and gelato.

Le Macaron: Located on St. Armonds Circle, this French patisserie creates mouth- watering, freshly-baked macarons — the perfect place for cappuccino and dessert.

Tommy Bahama: On St. Armonds Circle, serving contemporary, American cuisine with a tropical twist. Get a table upstairs for a view of the setting sun and order the delicious coconut shrimp.

Jack Dusty: The Ritz Carlton Sarasota’s lively seafood restaurant is not your typical hotel dining experience – recently opened, this restaurant’s creative “coastal cuisine,” first-rate service, casually elegant décor, and bay views are delightful.

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Ritz Carlton Sarasota