I know, I know, Sarasota. It’s where your grandparents moved in 1989 and your parents spend their winters today. Well, there is a reason. It is very, very nice here.
Sarasota Bay and the surrounding keys, islands and beaches make the area one of Florida’s most naturally beautiful spots for boaters and lubbers alike. To me — and I grew up in Florida — Sarasota is the best marina destination on the Sunshine State’s west coast.
Come in through New Pass from the north, with the white sand beaches of Lido Key and the homes along the channel with their protected docks, just minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. That entrance alone will have you calling your realtor to sell everything. But if you need more than 23 feet of air, the New Pass drawbridge will have you waiting until 20 or 40 minutes past the hour for an opening.
Big Sarasota Pass, just a few miles south, is an easier bet with plenty of water and clear overhead. The gorgeous beachfront homes of Siesta Key to starboard will tease you with their envy-inspiring private beaches cut into the riprap. The channel leads past more enviable waterfront homes with docks on Bird Key to port. Keep your eyes off your Zillow app and on the water. Straight ahead as you cross the Intracoastal Waterway are the mooring fields, the Marina Jack marina and restaurant, and the city beyond.
Most of the marinas around the bay are private — as I said, it’s really nice here — but that’s fine because the award-winning Marina Jack (marinajacks.com) is where you’ll want to tie up. It is in the heart of downtown and has everything most boaters need to provision, supply, repair and rest. Two restaurants are on the docks, and some real gems await just beyond.
The marina is adjacent to Bayfront Park, with a trail that winds along the docks, around the park and then back along the bay. You’ll pass a theme-park-worthy children’s play fountain and wind up at Oleary’s Tiki Bar & Grill. The idea of a tiki bar may seem a little hokey, but trust me, grab a table on the beach just before one of the stunning sunsets and sip on your favorite beverage. You’ll wish you were a regular.
For more serious repair needs, MarineMax is just inside the bridge at New Pass, and fishermen can pick up bait and tackle at the New Pass Grill & Bait Shop. Or pull up alongside Hart’s Landing for bait and tackle just under the John Ringling Causeway. Hart’s has been there since 1934 and isn’t going anywhere.
Hidden behind waterfront condos facing the marina are the city’s shops, restaurants and art galleries, as well as the opera house — all a short walk from the marina. If I had to pick two places to eat downtown, they’d be Clasico and Caragiulos.
Clasico (barclasico.com) offers modern seasonal cuisine that never disappoints, and some serious sidewalk appeal if you like outdoor seating. Caragiulos (caragiulos.com) has been serving the area’s best Italian food since 1989. I recommend the tortelloni alla vodka. It made me want to quit my job and eat the stuff full time.
If you are up for a more serious hike (2½ miles) or care to hitch a ride, take a left out of Marina Jack and head over the bridge to St. Armand Key. St. Armands Circle (starmandscircleassoc.com) is a collection of boutiques, shops and dining establishments that include Columbia, a favorite restaurant from Tampa that five generations have owned for 110 years. You’ve never had a sangria until you have one mixed tableside at this gem.
Remember the Wildlife
Before you leave, check out the wildlife with one of the local eco-tour guides. For the more adventurous, I recommend kayaking or paddleboarding for a couple of hours with Seashore Eco Tours (seashoreecotours.com). Despite the high-rise condos and grand homes that line the bay, the area remains decidedly wild. Manatee, dolphin and birds, from peregrine falcons to pelicans, are permanent residents, and quiet tours to and through the mangroves are a great way to see them all.
Come down (or up) to Sarasota if you find yourself on the west (best) coast of my home state. I think you’ll find out why your grandparents made that move in ’89. You may even find yourself trying to figure out how to get back here and settle in yourself. Maybe you’ll have your own dock facing the bay, closer to your mom. She would like that.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.