As director of the county’s parks and recreation department, John McCarthy knows a lot about Sarasota’s beaches. In fact, just last year, he walked all 35 miles of them, for an article for our 2009 Visitor’s Annual that proved to be one of our most popular stories ever. (Click here to read his “A Walk on the Beach”—and all the comments it generated.) This year, we called on his expertise again, asking him to name his 10 favorite county beaches. he protested it was almost like asking a father to name his favorite children. But we persevered, and his short list of Sarasota’s Best Beaches made us eager to rediscover each one all over again. Here they are.
And while we’re on the subject of best beaches: Click here to read our December 2011 story, "A Day at the Beach," about Siesta Key beach being named America’s Best Beach.
Best Beachcombing Beach
Remote and secluded, Caspersen Beach is the second Sarasota beach I visited as a child. I still remember how long the drive seemed from downtown Sarasota to this beach well south of Venice. With old masonry trowels, we sifted sand off an eroding bluff; and in a stroke of beginner’s luck, I found a jet-black three-inch-long Carcharodon megalodon shark tooth. Much to my disappointment, it was split down the middle, so I sometimes say I’ll spend the rest of my life looking for the other half.
Here beachcombers can find great shells plus fossilized bones and teeth from long-extinct Pleistocene mammals. The Gulf currents and shifting sands expose a time capsule; as the waves roll in, so do the ancient treasures. Each day beachgoers search for perfect specimens or smaller fragments of extinct mastodon, horses and camels. Copper shell fragments from World War II aerial target practice can sometimes be found as well. Beyond the entrance, with its ample parking, restrooms, and a trail connection to the Venetian Waterway Park, this palm-lined beach, one of the most pristine on the Gulf coast, is bigger than most people realize, stretching for over a mile south in splendid isolation.
Best Little Beach
Shell Road Beach
Shell Road beach access on Siesta Key leads to what was once Sarasota’s largest and most popular bathing beach. On the former site of fishermen’s camps, Shell Road Beach overlooked Big Sarasota Pass and was accessible from the main shell roadway that ran parallel to the beach. Long before Siesta Public Beach grew in popularity, this beach was considered Sarasota’s best for what was then called “surf-bathing.” Over the years, the sands shifted; and the old shell road that ran along the shore has vanished. It remains only in history books and in the smallest of beach accesses at the end of Shell Road. But the tiny stretch of beachfront grants an expansive view of Big Pass with South Lido Beach in the background. It provides a privileged perspective on natural splendor, and though the beach that was once Sarasota’s most popular is now one of the smallest, admirers still consider it one of Sarasota’s best.
Best Camping Beach
While a variety of beach-front lodging is available along Sarasota’s beaches, Turtle Beach Campground is the only place where you can camp at the beach. The shady campground is a piece of old Florida that’s been operating since the 1920s. Here you can pitch your tent or park your RV, then mingle with the locals and visitors from afar.
The sound of the surf provides both lullaby and wake-up call. Sleep in late or rise early to great swimming, beachcombing or fishing, or just relax in the warm sun or in the cool shade.
One of the county’s oldest beach parks, Turtle Beach includes a beautiful wide beach and boat launching ramps for access to the bay. The lagoon across from the beach provides convenient launching of kayaks—the perfect way to explore the nearby Jim Neville Marine Preserve, with its shallow sea grass meadows, mangrove islands and wading birds.
Best Fun-in-the-Sun Beach
Siesta Public Beach
Sarasota’s most popular beach, welcoming millions of visitors annually, is world-famous Siesta Beach. It boasts the world’s finest sand—each grain of this brilliant crystalline white powder is 99 percent pure quartz. Siesta’s soft sand is perfect for walking, sunbathing, playing beach volleyball or just hanging out.
Siesta Beach is Sarasota’s Central Park. Many residents and visitors start each day here with a long walk on the gently sloped, crescent-shaped shoreline. Triathlons, volleyball tournaments and cause-driven walk-a-thons bring the
The drum circles on Sunday nights before sunset draw an eclectic crowd; and signature events, including the “Say I Do Again” Valentine’s Day vows, where married couples throng the beach to renew their commitment, and the Siesta Chamber’s Fourth of July fireworks, celebrate the best all-around beach that Sarasota has to offer.
Best Snorkeling Beach
Point of Rocks
The only natural breakwater along Sarasota’s sandy shoreline, this rare Gulf-front stretch on south Siesta Key formed over geologic time as freshwater springs mineralized acres of shells into a rocky outcropping and marine wonderland.
Shown on nautical maps as early as the 1700s as Rocky Point, this longtime landmark aided coastal explorers as they navigated an otherwise unremarkable shoreline. Unique both above and below the surface, Point of Rocks is easily explored with a mask and snorkel. It’s one of the few near-shore places along the Gulf coastline where marine life can put down some roots, a rare treat for divers. Recently this rocky landmark has sparked conflict between visitors and homeowners, leading the county to re-examine the issue of public access to the beach. However the question is decided, respect both for neighbors and for nature is essential here. The shell-encrusted rock and the sea life it engenders are fragile; we must ensure this historic area remains a treasure for years to come.
Best-Kept Secret Beach
Surprisingly few Sarasotans have dis-covered the tranquility and beauty of the 12-mile shoreline of Longboat Key. And there’s a good reason for that: Until recently, unless you were a resident in one of the exclusive condominiums that line the Gulf of Mexico, you couldn’t find a place to park. But now the public accesses along Gulf of Mexico Drive have been clearly marked, encouraging visitors to explore this serene seascape, where a recently renourished beach and restored sand dunes attract shorebirds, marine turtles and the occasional beachcomber. When I walked all of Sarasota’s beaches last year, I was amazed at the variety of shells I spotted on Longboat.
If your idea of the perfect beach is near-perfect solitude, this may be the beach for you, because even with the newly marked accesses, the exclusive ambiance of Longboat Key and the lack of public beach amenities should keep this stunning stretch of sand something of a secret for years to come.
Best Fishing and Surfing Beach
North Jetty Beach
The impressive rock jetties at North Jetty Beach in Nokomis were created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize Venice Inlet for boating access to the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the jetties provide the perfect platform for Gulf-front fishing, and a wide variety of fish is caught daily by residents and visitors. And the combination of near-shore bottom profile and the influence of the jetties makes for the best surfing waves in Southwest Florida. The view north along Casey Key and south along Venice Beach is gorgeous, one of the most scenic vistas in Sarasota County. It’s not unusual to see West Indian manatees and bottlenose dolphins as you wait for the fish to bite. An old Ybor City streetcar serves as a funky bait stand and concession, where you can find hot food, cold beer, and a fascinating mix of people.
Best Beach for an Adventure
Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach
South Lido is the most ecologically diverse of all our beaches. Constantly shaped by wind and wave, the ever-changing shorelines of Lido Key foster a myriad of coastal habitats, from emergent dune to mangrove forest to rare bits of coastal hammock. My first visit to South Lido Beach was on a field trip with Pine View High School biology teacher Solomon Malinsky. These expeditions into the sea grasses and mangroves opened my eyes to the diversity of coastal habitats and marine life that is fundamental to Florida’s ecology.
The shoreline on South Lido wraps from the Gulf of Mexico around Big Pass to Sarasota Bay. At its southern tip, the shoreline changes shape with every tide, wave and storm. Shorebirds and sea life thrive all along the shore. This is a popular beach for fishing, sunbathing, or to visit by water. A variety of power and sailing craft moor along the pass to picnic or just cool off in the blue-green water.
Best Swimming Beach
I moved to Sarasota when I was seven, and soon after, my father took our family to our first local beach—Lido. I remember heading straight for the water, then building a sandcastle and watching the tide take it away. I didn’t realize it, but my first beach visit was my last opportunity to see the historic Lido Casino. The casino was an elegant art deco building that served as a social and recreational hub for three decades. Iconic for the graceful concrete seahorses that adorned it, the casino provided beach cabanas, a restaurant, an elegant ballroom and a swimming pool. It was built as a federal economic stimulus project in 1939, but in 1969, the tide of “progress” washed the Lido Casino away.
The only remnant of the historic Lido Casino is the freshwater swimming pool, which still provides a family-friendly atmosphere. The nearby concession stand offers beach gear and a menu of tasty food. The gentle, sloping shoreline and public lifeguards keep beachgoers safe. With the combination of Gulf beach and the only freshwater pool at a Sarasota beach, children of all ages can splash the day away at Lido Beach.
Best Sunset Beach
Palmer Point Beach
One of my wife’s and my favoite places to watch the sunset is Palmer Point Beach. The site was once owned by the famous Bertha Honore Palmer, who came to Sarasota from Chicago 100 years ago. The sandy bayside shoreline welcomes lightweight kayaks and powerboats. A short walk over the dune reveals the Gulf beach and a fantastic sunset view. A great place for a late-in-the day picnic, this is the ideal spot for taking perfect sunset-over-the-sea-oats photographs.
John F. McCarthy is general manager of Parks and Recreation for Sarasota County. He can be seen on the Travel Channel’s America’s Best Beaches and Florida’s Top 10 Beaches.