Beautiful and accessible, Lido and Longboat Key offer miles of beaches, vacation homes and some of Sarasota's most popular parks and tourist attractions.
Lido provides an escape hatch for local residents during high season's influx of visitors. There's always a parking space somewhere, the beach concession serves beer (and the best hamburgers in the county), and the Radisson Lido Beach Resort boasts the area's only public beachside bar. The drinks are pricey, but the view is fabulous.
South Lido Beach is renowned as much for its wildlife as its rollicking weekend crowds. Hundreds of exotic birds nest in the Australian pines that rim the island, and it's common to spy a furry raccoon staring down. A maze of canoe trails through the mangroves provides seclusion and scenic beauty for paddlers.
On North Lido, a low tide will allow you access all the way around to near the Longboat Key drawbridge. The public is permitted on the beach (please stay out of private yards), and it's worth the walk. Spectacular residences front the bay, and if you can get around to Longboat Pass, have a seat and enjoy the boat traffic rushing out to the Gulf.
ST ARMANDS CIRCLE Eighty years ago, circus impresario John Ringling created St. Armands Circle as a haven for visiting dignitaries. Since then, it's evolved into one of Florida's best-known shopping destinations, with an international collection of chi-chi jewelry and designer clothing boutiques, restaurants and sidewalk cafes. People line the block to indulge their sweet tooth at Kilwin's, where you can watch fudge being made while you wait for homemade ice cream. The continental food at Café L'Europe has attracted generations of diners, as has the Latin-themed fare at The Columbia (every newcomer has to order the famous-and garlicky-1905 salad); other fine restaurants large and small abound.
Like spokes in a wheel, the streets, named for American Presidents, emanate from a center hub that hosts events throughout the year. The St. Armands association sponsors seasonal jazz shows, a Christmas Walk and more, and you can find nightlife at clubs like Cha Cha Coconuts and 15 South.
The speed limit on St. Armands Circle is 25 mph, and even that can be fast on crowded days. Parking is permitted on the inside edge of the circle. A public lot behind Crab & Fin is also accessible from Adams and Monroe.
CITY ISLAND PARK After a year-long renovation, City Park has been reborn as a beautiful, multi-tasking gathering space, with attractive new palms, covered picnic areas along the waterfront, even two new public restrooms. Breezes rustling through majestic Australian pine trees carry the clanking of sailboat masts moored outside the adjacent Sailing Squadron, and at night the island offers stunning views of the city skyline. It's a terrific spot to watch storms blow in over the bay, and a favorite boat launch for fishermen and children's pram regattas.
The Pelican Man Bird Sanctuary provides a bird's-eye view of Florida's unique feathered species, and Mote Marine Aquarium, a major research center with exhibits, aquariums and more, showcases wild marine life. Go ahead and poke your fingers into the rays' tank and feel the gorgeous creatures that glide around you in the water. Or watch a live shark feeding (call 388-4441 for feeding times).
After visiting it all, relax at the Old Salty Dog or New Pass Bait Shop with a frosty beer and a fresh, tasty burger.
LONGBOAT KEY If St. Armands Circle is Sarasota's Rodeo Drive, Longboat Key is its Palm Beach, a stream of luxurious homes and condominiums cloaked in lush landscaping and manicured hedges. Accommodations here are among the area's most glamorous, from the Longboat Key Club to The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, renowned for its Presidential visits and whimsical Monkey Room bar.
Longboat's clean straightaway bike path invites serious riders clad in formal bike wear and sleek racing helmets, who adore the island's 24-mile round-trip distance down Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Longboat also boasts what may be the best martini bar in town, the New York-inspired Maureen's Palm Grille in the Centre Shops. Euphemia Haye at the northern end of the island is a perennial winner of Florida Trend's Golden Spoon award, and its upstairs HayeLoft is devoted to the art of the dessert. Pattigeorge's, on the bayside, serves contemporary and fusion-inspired food and hosts many special dinners and wine events. The island is also home to old Florida spots, like Mar Vista, where diners often arrive by boat.
Beach parking on Longboat Key is sparse. Most spots are along Gulf of Mexico Drive and hold just a few cars; those that hold more are not prominently marked. Check out Whitney Beach, where finding a space is worth the trouble for this secluded, blinding white sand.
TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY
Longboat and Lido Keys are both accessible from St. Armands, but to avoid the snarl of cars crawling around the Circle, try these shortcuts.
To Longboat Key: Turn right on Washington, then right on Ben Franklin Drive and follow the bridge.
To Lido Key and the beaches: Turn left at Washington. You'll be competing with other hometowners who know this trick, so have courage. Follow Washington to Boulevard of the Presidents. Turn left, then right on Garfield. Garfield ends in front of the Radisson Hotel and the public beach.
Both routes take you past some of the most spectacular waterfront homes surrounding St. Armands Circle, so enjoy the view.