Miami Weekend Getaways: The Central Gulf Coast
An Insiders Look at all there is in Sarasota, Clearwater and Crystal River
So maybe the Gulf coast is more your thing. Though a slightly longer drive, Florida’s other coast has the best beaches in the state, and more wildlife to experience. So take a look at the pristine white beaches of Sarasota, the dolphin watching in Clearwater, and the up-close and personal swimming with the manatees in Crystal River, and where to eat and stay while you’re doing all those cities have to offer.
The main draw in Sarasota - other than pleasant retirement - is obviously its beaches. And no beach tops Siesta Key - which was Dr. Beach’s #1 Beach in 2011 and voted Best Sand Beach by Travel Channel in 2008.
However if you’re more hipster about beaches and don’t want to go to the one that’s all blown-up and played out, the white quartz sand at Longboat Key Beach is just as good as Siesta Key. And you can say you were going there “before it was cool.”
Off the beaches, there’s still plenty of nature to enjoy. Check out the 58 square miles of wetlands on the world’s 2 biggest airboats at Mayakka River State Park, then hike through the treetops on its canopy walkway. Or kayak
Sarasota has the most vibrant cultural scene on the Gulf Coast, most of which is housed at The Ringling. The Ringling is the sprawling Venetian gothic compound that used to house circus magnate John Ringling, and now is the home to Ca’ d’Zan, an art museum, a performing arts center and the circus museum.
Ca’ d’Zan - translated to “House of John” - was Ringling’s 36,000 square foot, four-story mansion that’s preserved as an historic home with bayfront gardens.
The Asolo Theater may be the most notable of all the cultural ingredients in Sarasota. This home to the Sarasota Ballet, Opera, Repertory Theatre and Symphony was taken piece by piece from its original home in Italy and reconstructed in Sarasota. Giving an old world feel to performances in very not-old world Florida.
The Museum or Art is a 21-gallery museum built to hold Ringling’s impressive collection, most notably the Old Masters collection including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens. It’s modeled on the Florentine Uffizi Gallery and has a sculpture-filled courtyard with a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.
In 1927, Ringling made Sarasota the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus, and now Sarasota is home to the Circus Museum, full of all kinds of early-20th century circus artifacts and a full-scale recreation of Ringling’s shows from 1919-1938.
For shopping, you’ll want to hit St. Armand’s Circle, full of boutiques and restaurants with a definitive small town feel.
The Shore Diner in Saint Armand Circle will be about as close as you get to actually landing on the set of Cougartown. The retractable roof patio and menu full of slow roasted carnitas tacos, giant cauliflower steak and loads of seafood specialties make this a magnet for Sarasota’s fit and hip.
Michael’s on East is the best steakhouse in town that doesn’t have locations in 28 other cities, and is Sarasota’s only AAA 4 diamond rates restaurant.
Ophelia’s on the Bay is your destination for brunch. Not only because they’ve got a sprawling brunch buffer with everything from fresh baked cinnamon rolls to waffles to prime rib to grouper, but because the view from the patio might be the best waterfront dining in town.
Lido Beach Resort, though not as all-encompassing as Longboat, is the top resort on Siesta Key with 222 tropical-inspired rooms and two heated pools right on the beach. And for Florida residents they also offer 15% off, free breakfast, and even a welcome cocktail.
For a more boutique feel, the Hotel Ranola in downtown Sarasota is a 9-room, former apartment hotel built in the 1920s, but with a modern, sleek feel inside. It’s the only hotel in the heart of downtown, and its rooms have full kitchens and sitting rooms, making the urban hotel feel more like a spacious resort.
The main attraction in Crystal River is, obviously the Manatees. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is going to be your top destination for manatee swimming, where you can frolic with the mentees in the perfectly clear water of the spring fed Crystal River. And there’s no shortage of charter companies that’ll take you out in small boats to go and swim with them.
Even once you’ve had your fill of manatees, there’s plenty more to do on the water in Crystal River. Float through the springs at the National Wildlife Refuge and relax sans-sea cow. Or kayak through the park to see more than you could just by floating.
The Crystal River Preserve State Park also has a twice-weekly boat tour that takes you through the region and teaches its pre-Columbian history.
Recreational scalloping is also massively popular in Crystal River. Again, there’s plenty of companies that’ll take you out to catch your own shellfish, and just a month ago marked the beginning of the season.
For the more foodie-oriented, Vintage on 5th sits in a renovated 1940s church downtown, and has a menu boasting stuff like porcini and truffle ravioli, sesame soy glazed ahi and Caribbean jerk shrimp.
And for the true, small town diner feel, Mama Sally’s South can’t be beat, especially at breakfast time.
The Plantation on Crystal River is the preeminent resort in the area, and the only one with full amenities like 27 holes of golf, a full-service spa, and private manatee tours. The resort sits right on Kings Bay, where manatees will float by and if you’ve got a water view you won’t even have to leave your room to spot them.
The Lake House Bed & Breakfast just up the road in Inverness is in an historic home from the 1930s, and while a bit of a drive from Crystal River is convenient to golf courses and lakes, plus offers fresh baked bread and breakfast entrees every morning.
Or, if you’d like a whole island to yourself, the Paradise Found Retreat will give you the run of their 2, 2-bwedroom houses, 11 kayaks, tiki hut, heated 45-foot pool, waterfalls, Jacuzzi, and fire ring. Plus, you have your own security gate and land bridge, so once your group is on the island, anything goes.
Much like Sarasota, the main attraction in Clearwater is the beaches, and was named Florida’s Top Beach Town by Dr. Beach last year. The white quartz sand beaches never get too hot, and the water is always a perfect, still turquoise blue. Or for a more secluded beach, head south to Caladesi Island State Park, one of the best preserved beaches in Florida that’s only accessible by boat.
The next biggest attraction is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where you’ll see Winter the Dolphin from Warner Bros. hit movie “Dolphin Tale” and the upcoming sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2.” They also run the Sea Life Safari tour, which takes you out on a boat to catch dolphins and other Gulf Coast sea life in a more natural habitat.
If you want to get under the water, dive one of over 10 artificial reefs near Clearwater, including the Coast Guard Cutter Blackhorn, tugboats up to 100 years old, WW2 tanks and more,
Dolphin watching is another popular waterbound excursion, as the warm waters of the gulf are home to the marine mammals year-round. And many tour operators guarantee dolphin sightings or you get your money back.
Catch the nightly sunset festival at Pier 60 from 6-10 p.m., where you’ll see street theatre, artisans, dancers and magical acts. Plus, every Friday and Saturday during the summer, families can bring a blankets and chairs and watch a free film screening on a jumbo screen.
No trip to Clearwater is complete without eating at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. This local and tourist favorite is the largest of the Frenchy’s empire, and is exactly what you picture when you imagine having fresh seafood beachside in Florida. The Super Grouper sandwich is the must-have on the menu, but everything here is fresh from the Gulf.
If you’re the sort of person who’d stop in the middle of Tennessee to get some chicken and dumpins at the original Cracker Barrel, The Original Hooters on Gulf-to-Bay Road is going to be a must-stop. The food is, well, Hooters food, but, hey it WAS the first.
The Brown Boxer, though not noted for its food, was recently voted the top bar in the Tampa Bay area.
Sandpearl Resort sits on the former site of the Clearwater Beach hotel, built in 1917. It fronts 700 feet of pure white sand and has 203 rooms plus 50 full suites with washer/dryer and optional personal chef service. That on top of the 4 restaurants, full spa and fitness center makes this AAA 4 Diamond resort the best luxury option in Clearwater.
For not-so-luxury, Frenchy’s Oasis Motel - the lodging offshoot of the Frenchy’s restaurant - gives the same funky beach feel as the trademark eateries, with a renovated throwback feel to the beachside motels of the 1960s. If the 1960s had in-room flat screens, Blu-Ray and MP3 players.
On the bay side of Clearwater Beach, there’s the Sea Captain Resort on the Bay. While not the luxury property of the Sandpearl, this full-service resort has large rooms, efficiencies and suites plus rentable bicycles to go and explore the area. And is a better budget option than its luxurious neighbor.
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