The Vacation Guide: Attractions

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ATTRACTIONS

Note: Check each attraction’s website for admission fees, hours of operation, and even the occasional discount coupon.

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EXPLORAMA 

Expect more than child’s play at Selby Gardens’ new Children’s Rainforest Garden.

Something exciting for families has sprouted at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. With a 16-foot-high waterfall, swinging bridges, field research stations, an epiphyte canyon, caves and Amazon village with an amphitheater, the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden that opened in November promises to open up a whole new world of outdoor exploration for the younger set.

How big a world? Well, the adventure trail rises 27 feet into the banyan trees. Budding young botanists will be able to feel what it’s like to explore the rainforest treetops, just like Selby scientists. And they’re invited to get their hands dirty in the hands-on gardening area.

Entry to the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden is included in your admission to Selby Gardens, which is open every day of the year except Christmas.

BRADENTON

De Soto National Memorial, 8300 De Soto Memorial Highway, Bradenton. (941) 792-0458. The site near the mouth of the Manatee River where explorer Hernando de Soto set foot on “La Florida” in 1539 is now a peaceful, 25-acre riverfront park, with “living history” re-enactments staged during the winter and spring. nps.gov/deso

South Florida Museum/Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131. Meet 65-year-old Snooty the manatee at this little gem of a museum; also stargaze at Bishop Planetarium and enjoy exhibits about the region’s history and native peoples. southfloridamuseum.org

ELLENTON

Gamble Plantation and Mansion, 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton. (941) 723-4536. South Florida’s only surviving plantation, this once extensive sugar plantation is believed to be where Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin hid until he could escape to England after the fall of the Confederacy. Guided tours are offered Thursday through Monday. floridastateparks.org/gambleplantation

OSPREY

Historic Spanish Point, 337 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 966-5214. A 30-acre bayfront enclave once home to Chicago socialite Mrs. Bertha Palmer, Historic Spanish Point features a prehistoric shell midden, pioneer-era buildings, miles of walking paths flanked by native plants, and Mrs. Palmer’s own extensive gardens (the butterfly garden is the largest on the Gulf coast). historicspanishpoint.org

Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956. Noted by bird-watchers for its many threatened (but famously friendly) scrub jays, the park has 15 miles of hiking and bicycling trails, plus kayaking and canoeing on calm South Creek, fishing and swimming in Lake Osprey, and picnic and camp sites. floridastateparks.org/oscarscherer

SARASOTA

Ringling Museum of Art/Cà d’Zan Mansion/Ringling Circus Museum/Historic Asolo Theater5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. One of the 20 largest museums in North America. the Museum of Art, best known for its Baroque paintings, especially those by Peter Paul Rubens, also hosts a variety of exhibitions annually. Sarasota’s circus heritage is honored in the Tibbals Learning Center, which houses the world’s biggest miniature circus—amazing in its detail. John and Mable Ringling’s bayfront Venetian mansion, the Cà d’Zan, is a tribute to their lavish social lifestyle. The Historic Asolo Theater, a restored, 18th-century Italian jewel box, hosts performances and movie screenings. Massive banyan trees and Mable Ringling’s 100-year-old rose garden dot the expansive grounds. Two good restaurants, too: the chic, Italian-themed Treviso and the casual Banyan Café. Admission to the art museum only is waived on Mondays. ringling.org

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 371-6377. An eighth-generation animal trainer, Kay Rosaire began rescuing neglected and abused big cats in 1987. Today, Big Cat Habitat is home to dozens of lions and tigers—not to mention bears, birds, a chimpanzee and more. See the animals up close during regular educational demonstrations and private tours. bigcathabitat.org

Crowley Museum and Nature Center, 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000. Set on 185 acres of Old Florida pine forest and Myakka River marsh in pastoral east Sarasota County, Crowley is home to several 19th-century structures as well as everyday pioneer tools and furnishings from the Old Miakka General Store. A half-mile boardwalk with two-story observation tower is a birders’ paradise. crowleyfl.org

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. This internationally renowned, 9.5-acre bayfront property hosts one of the world’s best collections of rare orchids and is home to some 20,000 plants—many collected by Selby’s own scientists during international research trips. Tour the Tropical Conservatory and grounds, seeing banyan, bamboo and mangrove collections, as well as a butterfly garden. The gift shop is a favorite with locals for items from orchids to tropical-themed books and art. selby.org

Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441. An internationally known scientific hub focused on marine life. Experience more than 100 species of live marine animals: sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, seahorses and more. This is not a Sea World-type attraction but a working lab with exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of marine life. Enjoy hands-on activities, like the popular stingray touch tank, and peek into the labs to glimpse the world-renowned research that takes place at Mote Marine Laboratory. mote.org

Myakka River State Park, nine miles east of I-75, 13208 S.R. 72. (941) 361-6511. At 38,000 acres, Florida’s largest state park. Hike 39 miles of trails, canoe or kayak on the Myakka River, bike, fish, take an air boat tour, ride a horse on a wilderness trail and much more. And yes, you will see alligators—and you could spot deer, wild hogs, even an occasional bobcat. The Canopy Walk high up in the trees is a must-do. Plus, the park offers the best lodging deal in town: $70 for a group of up to six to stay in a rustic but comfy cabin. floridastateparks.org/myakkariver

Sarasota Classic Car Museum, 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-6228. No car lover should miss this Sarasota institution, open since 1953, and featuring more than 100 automobiles, including Ferraris, DeLoreans and even John Lennon’s Bentley. There’s an antique game arcade and a camera exhibit, too. sarasotacarmuseum.org

Sarasota Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305. One of the last of the great Old Florida tourist attractions, Jungle Gardens is a 10-acre oasis of low-key charm and natural beauty that opened in 1940. Wander the tropical gardens, enjoy the bird and reptile shows, and hand-feed the big pink flamingos. sarasotajunglegardens.com

VENICE

Warm Mineral Springs, 12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. (941) 426-1692. This South County attraction, which some claim is the original Fountain of Youth, is home to mineralized waters that are believed to ease all kinds of ailments. Take a dip and see for yourself—or skip the water and get pampered at the spa. warmmineral.com

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