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Authentic Florida’s Siesta Key

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Siesta Key's sugary white sand, temperate Gulf of Mexico and gentle breezes will soothe the savage beast.

March 20, 2014


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Sarasota’s Siesta Key is a popular destination for weather-weary travelers in search of a warmer climate, beautiful beaches and a slower pace.

The sugary white sand, the calm and temperate Gulf of Mexico and gentle breezes ruffling through nearby palm fronds will certainly soothe the savage beast, and even the stressed vacationer in search of island relaxation.

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There’s a lot to love about Siesta Key, but the “beach sand” is one of the highlights. Powdery white, with a fine texture, it’s both cool and soft under your bare feet as you walk along the water’s edge. Gulls swoop, pelicans glide and sandpipers play tag with each wave. Look offshore and you’re likely to see a pod of dolphins swimming and playing in the sparkling aqua water.

Idyllic, isn’t it? And that’s why Siesta Key’s beach was voted No. 1 by coastal expert Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as “Dr. Beach,” when he added this destination to an elite list of “best beaches” anywhere.

Fortunate to be born and raised on Siesta Key, I actually have some knowledge of the area and have been forever spoiled by the contrast of the white sand, turquoise Gulf of Mexico and pink-tangerine sunsets.

My bohemian parents loved the beach and cherished island living. They sought views of the Gulf of Mexico and found that by renting small cottages near the beach they could afford to have the view every day. Family time for us was not traveling to a theme park, or even going to the mainland; it was a walk on the beach followed by a swim in the Gulf.  No complaints from this Florida gal.

As a child, I roamed every inch of the key and have always enjoyed my home from an authentic perspective. For me, now, my idyllic vacation is going back to my roots and staying in a classic cottage or bungalow, dining on fresh seafood while discovering “real Florida” and a “special” (if not secret) place to watch the sunset.

But is it possible to find authentic Siesta Key, now home to mega mansions, beach condos and auspicious wealth? My answer is: Know where to go.

So, here’s a little help for your next “authentic” Siesta Key vacation.

Enjoying authentic Siesta Key would include a departure from the standard high-rise condominium, leaving behind the fast food (or not-so-good food) meal, and passing by the parking at crowded beach lots. It’s time to find the real deal.

First, some geographical perspective: The eight-mile long island is connected to the mainland by two drawbridges, on the north end and one mid-island. The north bridge connects you to downtown Sarasota, while the south bridge will connect you to south Sarasota and Venice.  Near the north end is Siesta Village, a quaint area with restaurants/bars and shops. To the south end is Siesta Village South, a slightly smaller version of the north end village. Siesta’s Public Beach is located between the two bridges mid-way on the island and the beach stretches a few miles north and south in either direction.

The Beaches

The Siesta Key Public Beach is popular if you don’t mind the parking and crowds.  Early morning is the key to secure your space. There are plenty of amenities (beach volleyball, picnic areas), including a beach pavilion. Sunday evenings, you may even want to catch Siesta’s sunset ritual, the drum circle gathering, featuring drummers and dancers.

There are 13 public accesses to Siesta Beach, some with limited parking, but again, the early bird gets the parking. I also like the beach off the Terrace (or Access No. 5), at the south end of Siesta Village or any of the accesses (Nos. 2-10) heading south towards the public beach.  Most have nice wide beaches and are perfect for a sunset view.

Because of its shape, the portion of the beach to the south of the main parking lot is called Crescent Beach – it’s an enjoyable two-mile stroll from the public beach. As you reach the end of the actual beach, a sea wall will stop your stroll, but I recommend climbing around the seawall and walking along Point of Rocks, a collection of old, flattened boulders that have little tidal pools carved out from the waves. Loads of shells have amassed on the beach and it’s a fun walk with kids. Just be careful, the wet areas can be slippery.

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At the far south end of the Key is Turtle Beach, also a favorite. It’s less crowded, and while the sand is not quite as white or fine like the public beach, it’s a lovely place to picnic and watch the sunset. There are nearby facilities and a nice lagoon on the bay side where you can launch a boat, kayak or paddleboard. Manatees are often spotted in the canal.  A nearby preserve in and around the mangroves is excellent for kayaking, especially on full moon evenings.  Several outfitters on the island can supply kayaks, bikes and beach toys.

Accommodations

For laid-back and charming accommodations with a slice of “real” Florida, I often go with older, charming, often renovated motel-like accommodations. Here are a few:

South Siesta Key

Crescent Towers  – Don’t let the name fool you. The only towers you’ll see here are those on the sand castle you build on the 300 feet of beachfront. This is an older, low-rise motel (with apartments) directly on the beach located near Point of Rocks at the south end of Crescent Beach. I have stayed there many times and have always enjoyed it. www.crescenttowers.com

The Resorts of Sara Sea Circle – this is a collection of really cute, classic old motels that have been updated. Most are within walking distance of the beach. www.tropicalbeachresorts.com

Siesta Royale – Another classic on the beach, just north of the south bridge. It resembles a 1960s postcard but is well kept and lovely. www.siestaroyale.com

Turtle Beach Campground  – the only place you can camp on Siesta Key. Small and popular so reservations are a must (especially during the winter season). www.scgov.net/TurtleBeachCampground/Pages/default.aspx

North Siesta Key

Tropical Breeze Resorts – this is a collection of homes that have been purchased within the same neighborhood, but well designed to look like a resort. The accommodations are classically restored and within walking distance to Siesta Village and the beach. www.tropicalbreezeinn.com

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Beach Palms – These are cute vintage bungalows, almost considered Siesta Key rustic, if there’s such a thing. Walking distance to the Village. www.beachpalms.com

Food

There are many restaurants on the key and you’ll certainly find your favorite. Here are a few that stand out for me:

My favorite place for seafood (the authentic Florida food) is off the island, called Walt’s Seafood Restaurant and Market (you can buy it fresh, too) located on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) not far from Siesta Key. www.waltsfish.com

My favorite Siesta restaurant for a grouper sandwich, a Gulf coast favorite, is The Old Salty Dog, on the north end of Siesta Village. www.theoldsaltydog.com

Personally, my favorite restaurant for Key lime pie is The Hub in Siesta Village, but Key lime pie is a dessert staple around here and you could have so much fun trying and comparing the many offerings. www.cottageonthekey.wix.com/hubbajagrill

If you want to take a picnic lunch to the beach, try Anna’s Deli on the south end. It’s been there for years and I highly recommend the Surfer sandwich. www.surfersandwich.com

For fine dining, try Ophelia’s Restaurant, both for the food and especially the view, located on the south end. You can eat outdoors. www.opheliasonthebay.net  And if you need to look good for that dinner, try Key Spa & Salon www.siestakeyspa.com

For more of the in-depth story on Florida Manatees or for authentic Florida ideas and travel, go to Authentic Florida. Sign up for Authentic Florida’s free E-News, a bi-monthly newsletter featuring the latest Florida travel, food and living ideas.