People flock to Sarasota and Manatee counties for our beaches—after all, Siesta Beach’s acres of sugar-white sand earned it the title of America’s No. 1 beach in 2011.
But they stay for the arts and culture, the tropical ambiance, the almost endless opportunities to keep active, and our warm, welcoming and beautiful neighborhoods. Whatever your lifestyle or life stage—be it young family, busy entrepreneur or active retiree—you’ll find something to keep you busy, and somewhere perfect to call home.
Sports minded? More than a thousand elite athletes—in golf, tennis, NFL, NBA, soccer, even lacrosse—make pilgrimages to Bradenton every year to train at the world-renowned IMG Academy. More than 40,000 top rowers from all over the globe are expected here in 2017 for the World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park. (We beat out Plovdid, Bulgaria, for the honor.) The Olympic pentathlon qualifying events will be held here in 2014. And our boys of spring training, the red-hot Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, take over Ed Smith Stadium and McKechnie Field each March.
But you don’t have to be a pro to participate in the area’s many free family beach runs, join the throngs walking the Ringling Bridge across a stunning span of Sarasota Bay, or sign up for a guided hike through one of the county-owned conservation preserves. Catch a Sunday afternoon match in season at the Sarasota Polo Club, go for a bicycle spin on the 10-mile Legacy Trail or play a round on one of our 86 golf courses—1,548 holes of golf, if you’re counting. Thanks to our international appeal, you can even play competitive cricket and petanque.
Are the arts more your thing? Four professional theater companies, the Asolo Rep (the state theater of Florida), Florida Studio Theatre, Banyan Theater Company and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, produce topical contemporary fare, occasional musicals and revivals of the classics. (The Wall Street Journal called the Asolo Rep’s recent production of Twelve Angry Men, “exceptional.”) The landmark Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Foundation as a purple seashell set along the bay, brings Broadway touring shows, as well as stars of the worlds of pop, jazz and classical music. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with art galleries, circus museum, Historic Asolo theater and Ca d’Zan mansion spread across 66 bayfront acres, has a well-deserved national reputation, as do the Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Ballet (the focus of yet another glowing New York Times profile late last November). And you can tread the boards yourself at our three strong amateur community theaters, the Players, Manatee Players and Venice Theatre.
When you want to get away from it all, experience “the real Florida” at Myakka River State Park, at 57 square miles, the largest in Florida’s state park system. (You will see gators; we guarantee it.) Historic Spanish Point in Osprey has 30 pleasant bayfront acres to ramble. Right downtown, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has a world-renowned orchid collection and a brand-new Children’s Rainforest Garden. Get up close and personal with sea life at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, or rent a kayak and explore the mangrove tunnels off South Lido Beach. And did we mention that our sugar-white beaches—34 miles of them alone in Sarasota County—are second to none?
So, ready to jump right in? Let’s find you a neighborhood.
AT A GLANCE
LAND AREA: 556 SQUARE MILES
PERSONS PER SQUARE MILE (2010): 683
POPULATION (2012 ESTIMATE): 386,147
COLLEGE GRADUATES: 29.3 PERCENT
MEAN TRAVEL TIME TO WORK: 21.7 MINUTES
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Long considered the cultural capital of Florida, sophisticated Sarasota County has been an intellectual haven for artists and writers for decades; home at one time or another to Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville); mystery writers John D. MacDonald, Mary Jane Clark and Martha Grimes;, John Jakes (North and South) and even the most blockbuster author of our modern time, Stephen King. Popular lecture series bring thought leaders to our doorstep. (The Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall series has featured everyone from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.) And SILL, the nonprofit Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning, offers dozens of lectures by retired college professors and former diplomats on global issues and music appreciation.
Beyond the abundance of cultural opportunities, Sarasota boasts an acclaimed public education system with one of the nation’s only public grade 2-12 schools for the academically gifted and a visual and performing arts magnet high school, as well as a strong commitment to teaching the arts in every classroom at every school. Its institutions of higher learning—which include the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Ringling College of Art and Design, and New College of Florida, the state’s honors college—bring vibrancy to the community. Sarasota’s medical facilities are first-rate, its streets clean and well maintained.
And it’s a shopper’s paradise, with charming destinations like St. Armands Circle, downtown Sarasota, Southside Village and the Island of Venice. Shopping is about to go on steroids with the planned October 2014 opening of University Town Center, under construction at I-75 and University Parkway. Gucci, Armani, Tiffany & Co., Anthropologie and Kate Spade are among the high-end stores that will inhabit it.
LIFE’S A BEACH
For many newcomers, a daily amble down the beach at sunrise is the quintessential Florida dream come true, and they often flock first to waterfront living on one of Sarasota’s barrier islands, or keys, as we call them.
Longboat Key is a manicured, 12-mile stretch of Gulf-to-bay living. The south end is dominated by the multimillion-dollar homes and luxury condominiums behind the gates of the Longboat Key Club; the north end is home to an eclectic collection of bungalows and beach cottages known as Longbeach Village. Beyond its beaches, Longboat’s attractions include golf, tennis, good restaurants, protected boating water for residents on the bayside, and a popular walking-biking trail that runs the island’s length.
Lido Key is known for its broad public beach and its proximity to the posh shops and restaurants of St. Armands Circle. On Lido, newer luxury beachfront condo towers like The Ritz-Carlton Beach Club and Orchid Beach Club mix with ’70s-era low-rise condominiums and a smattering of single-family beach homes.
Siesta Key, with its world-acclaimed white sand beach, is the most family-oriented of the keys. Housing choices range from Florida ranch-style and mid-century modern homes to Med Rev mansions. The heart of Siesta Key is the Village, with its outdoor bars and restaurants, eclectic shops and ice cream stands.
Further south are Casey and Manasota keys. Here, you’ll find some of the region’s largest and most opulent Gulf-to-bay estates. Life quietly revolves around the beaches and waterways, but there are cultural amenities, too. A short drive to the mainland is Historic Spanish Point, originally part of the Bertha Palmer estate (yes, that Palmer, of Chicago’s famed Palmer House Hotel). And the Hermitage Artist Retreat brings top visual artists, composers and writers to its historic beachfront campus on Manasota Key, many of whom give free beach readings and open studio tours.
DOWNTOWN SARASOTA AND BEYOND
If the middle of the action is where you want to be—theaters, restaurants, coffee shops, lovely Bayfront Park—take a look at the many downtown condominium options. Downtowners love walking to the lively Saturday morning farmer’s market and the numerous art festivals and street parties. Choices range from two-bedroom condos built in the 1970s to ultra-luxury apartments in the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. A renaissance in new-condo construction is about to begin, with a half-dozen big projects announced over the past several months, including Sansara, The Jewel and The Vue.
Immediately to the west, boaters are drawn to the choice neighborhoods of Bird Key, with its elegant bayfront, canal-front and garden homes, and Golden Gate Point, with its luxe condo towers and marina views.
Single-family homes can be found in the historic downtown neighborhoods of Laurel Park and Gillespie Park. And nearby, West of Trail, with an eclectic mix of old Florida cottages, bungalows, Florida ranches and newer Med Rev homes, retains its huge popularity; as do the charming Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach neighborhoods surrounding the Ringling Museum complex.
Country club communities have long been a draw to newcomers because of their golf and tennis amenities and the chance to join a ready-made group of new friends. In Sarasota County, there are dozens to choose from, among them The Oaks, The Meadows, Laurel Oak, The Founders Club, Serenoa, and Prestancia in the master-planned community of Palmer Ranch. Many are updating their amenities with luxurious spas and fitness centers.
Venice, in south Sarasota County, is also golf country. Several golf course communities offer a wide range of suburban ranch homes and villas with fairway views. Among them are Jacaranda Country Club, Plantation Golf & Country Club, Waterford Golf Club, Mission Valley Golf & Country Club, Calusa Lakes, Capri Isles, Pelican Pointe and the newer Sawgrass and Venetian Golf & River Club.
Speaking of Venice, the city founded in 1925 by a Cleveland, Ohio-based railroad union looking to lure winter visitors is poised for profound growth, with several major communities in various stages of planning and development.
Lennar recently purchased the nearly 1,100-acre Gran Paradiso development, which had sputtered during the Great Recession, and is marketing villa, manor, executive and estate homes surrounding a large clubhouse, resort-style pool, tennis, media center and fitness trails. WCI Communities’ Sarasota National, a 2,400-acre golf course community, will have 1,500-plus homes at build-out. And at build-out, Neal Communities’ Grand Palm will have 2,000 homes.
AT A GLANCE
LAND AREA: 743 SQUARE MILES
PERSONS PER SQUARE MILE (2010): 435
POPULATION (2012 ESTIMATE): 333,895
COLLEGE GRADUATES: 26 PERCENT
MEAN TRAVEL TIME TO WORK: 23.6 MINUTES
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
If you’re searching for the laid-back, old-Florida atmosphere that’s fast disappearing in other parts of the state, look no further than Manatee County.
Here, life revolves around the great outdoors—the white-sand beaches of Anna Maria Island; fishing, hiking, bicycling and kayaking at beautifully maintained public parks like 365-acre Emerson Point Preserve and 487-acre Robinson Preserve, located at the mouth of the Manatee River; and the fabulous new $6.2-million Riverwalk that meanders along a mile-and-a-quarter of the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton, with its own children’s splash park, fishing pier, tidal discovery zone and amphitheater that hosts live concerts and outdoor movie screenings.
Way, way back in 1539, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his crew of 600 landed on the banks of the Manatee River to start their infamous 4,000-mile journey across the southeastern United States. That spot is now commemorated by the De Soto National Monument, with its guided mangrove trail walks and living history demonstrations.
Old-timey McKechnie Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates have held spring training for 91 years, was built in 1923. A $10 million facelift in 2013 expanded seating to 8,500. More than 100,000 attend summer league games there to cheer on the Pirates’ minor league team, the Bradenton Marauders. Youth sports are thriving, too, thanks to complexes like the 140-acre Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, whose 22 playing fields host major soccer, lacrosse, youth football and other tourneys.
Shopping is also considered a sport in Manatee County. Ellenton Premier Outlets, with 130 brand-name outlet stores, is a powerhouse regional shopping magnet. And the new University Town Center, slated to open in October 2014, is on University Parkway just south of the Manatee County line.
The arts thrive here, too. The award-winning Manatee Players community theater troupe opened its long-awaited Manatee Performing Arts Center in downtown Bradenton in 2013 to rave reviews; State College of Florida mounts rotating exhibits in its Fine Arts Gallery and plays host to the Sarasota Orchestra in its 837-seat Neel Performing Arts Center. A family-friendly Art Slam each spring draws thousands to downtown Bradenton to watch visual artists in action and to create their own future masterpieces. And the popular new Bradenton Blues Festival brings famous performers to town.
LAKEWOOD RANCH AND BEYOND
When the master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch began development in the late 1990s, it changed the face of east Manatee County forever. Perennially included in Top 10 lists of America’s best master-planned communities, Lakewood Ranch is now home to more than 18,000 residents who live in 8,500-plus homes in dozens of neighborhoods surrounding nature preserves and parks. This “live, work, learn and play” community is also home to a medical center, public and private golf courses, shops, restaurants, a major commerce center and even a polo club.
Sixteen top builders all have met Lakewood Ranch’s rigorous standards to be invited to build here. In 2013 alone, Taylor Morrison introduced the Ranch’s first “active adult” community, Esplanade Golf and Country Club just north of S.R. 70, with an eventual 1,250 detached villas and single-family homes; and Lennar introduced Bridgewater, a neighborhood of upscale manor and estate homes. Building continues also in the neighborhoods of Country Club East and Central Park, and Canada’s Mattamy Homes recently announced plans for a 675-unit development.
Just up I-75, WCI Communities is developing Tidewater Preserve on the Manatee River, and Neal Communities is building the first phase of Eagle Trace, with 182 home sites.
Lakewood Ranch spurred a development boom in east Manatee County, and several country club communities are located nearby, including Lennar’s River Strand Golf & Country Club in the master-planned community of Heritage Harbour, and Rosedale Golf & Country Club, which recently introduced its newest 221-unit single-family subdivision, The Links.
Manatee County has its fair share of other golf communities, of course, including the venerable 1920s-era Sara Bay Country Club, where an early match between the world’s greatest amateur golfer, Bobby Jones, and the best professional, Walter Hagen, is the stuff of legend. Newer clubs include Palm-Aire Country Club, The Concession, River Wilderness Golf & Country Club, University Park Country Club and Waterlefe Golf & River Club.
But it’s really made its international sports reputation as the home to IMG Academy, the behemoth training center for top professional and amateur athletes. (Among the famed alums are tennis players Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova and golfer Paula Creamer.) Just as Lakewood Ranch transformed east Manatee County, IMG has brought an international presence and youthful vitality to southwest Manatee County as affluent families from all over the world come here to enroll their children. Arthur Rutenberg Homes, John Cannon Homes and Gibraltar Homes are building custom luxury homes at nearby Legends Bay.
Just as it did during the go-go years of the early 2000s, when 7,000 homes were built in just six years, the once rural east Manatee County town of Parrish is experiencing another building boom. Medallion Home is building Twin Rivers, a single-family community on 1,800 acres between Gamble Creek and the Manatee River. Neal Communities’ single-family River’s Reach, set on the headwaters of the Manatee River off Rye Road, is under way. Homes by Towne is planning 1,600 single-family homes, attached villas and multifamily homes in Eagle Pointe. And Neal Communities last year announced plans for the 2,000-home Villages of Amazon South, named for the huge Amazon distribution center being built just over the Hillsborough County line. At press time, the company was awaiting rezoning hearings.
ANNA MARIA ISLAND
In 2013, TripAdvisor once again named Anna Maria Island a Traveler’s Choice Destination winner and Forbes named it the third-prettiest city in the country for a reason: The Gulf-front community retains its old-fashioned Florida charm. A free trolley that runs the length of the seven-mile island is an excellent way to get a feel for the “sand in your shoes” sensibility of the three little cities, Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach. No big developments here, but remodeling and new construction are taking place. Just off the island on Anna Maria Sound, Minto Communities is creating Harbour Isle, a gated community of Southern coastal resort-style homes.