There was a time in Florida when the crowds were sparse, the beaches virtually deserted and a table at a restaurant easy to find. To find that laid-back ambience today, head south on I-75 or take the scenic route down Tamiami Trail and past Old Spanish Point to the charming towns of Venice and Englewood.
Settled in the late 1800s and called Horse and Chaise, Venice used to be a sleepy snowbird town, full of retirees. The town's transformation into a Mediterranean village divided from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway began when a chemist named Frank Higel, who had lived in Venice, Italy, moved here and began to encourage millionaires from "up north" to settle here. Venice's reputation as the ideal place to spend the golden years was cemented when the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers bought 50,000 acres of land here and had it transformed into a retirement city.
Now that's changing, as more young families move into the shiny new subdivisions arising among the palmettos. But in the wide, palm-lined avenues of Main Street, there's plenty of evidence of the town's gracious old-fashioned charm.
You can while away an entire day in downtown Venice, eating, strolling and watching the day go by. Start the day late with brunch at one of the little mom-and-pop restaurants that line Main Street or the tiny streets that radiate from the center. Work off the quiche with a leisurely stroll down the street, stopping in at the various souvenir shops, bookstores and clothing stores to pick up a few reminders of your trip. Hungry again? Stop for a late pub lunch; and, if it's in season, watch the band set up in the village green across the street from Venice Little Theatre for afternoon concerts. Then continue down the street, past beautiful Mediterranean houses shaded by ancient oaks dripping Spanish moss, until the tang of the Gulf of Mexico hits you.
Venice Municipal Beach is the city's main public beach, and is often crowded in the evenings with local teens playing ball, moms walking with toddlers, and sunset-worshippers. The beach is famous for its shark's teeth-there's even a festival each year revolving around the theme-and you're likely to see people intently searching the sands for a good shark's tooth. Get there early if you want to snag one of the benches; the amber and gold grand finale to the day is a spectacular sight.
Before the sky gets dark, hop in your car and head down South Harbor Drive toward Caspersen Beach. Once you pass the pretty residential areas, the road will take you past a small airport and golf course and dog-friendly Brohard Park. Then the road narrows into a sand-covered strip until there's barely enough room for two cars to pass each other. At Caspersen, two-thirds of the land has been left thickly wooded. Park in the lot, and drink in the end of the day from the semi-deserted boardwalk with its spectacular view over the expanse of the Gulf.
Time for dinner at the perfect local hangout, Sharkey's on the Pier, where the atmosphere is casual and fun, and the staff friendly. Sit on the deck and sip a beer, or head indoors for fish and chips, ribs, or any of the delicious grouper dishes on the menu.
Further south, straddling the border between Sarasota and Charlotte counties, is the community of Englewood, a favorite with artists who found beach bungalow bargains years ago and continue to live on shady streets within walking distance to the beaches. It's close to the interesting wheel-shaped residential community of Rotunda and the upscale island community of Boca Grande, where the Bush family often vacations.
Dearborn Street is Englewood's main hub. Once a collection of car repair shops and commercial offices, it's becoming more interesting, drawing crowds for its twice-yearly arts festival. Perched near the edge of scenic Lemon Bay, Dearborn Street boasts a clutch of quality antique shops and funky galleries, with places to get a cup of coffee and delicious lunch or dinner.
For a taste of some of the most stunning natural habitat around, consider spending a morning hiking in Cedar Point Environmental Center, lounging around Don Pedro Island Recreational Area (accessible only by boat) or fishing at the Gasparilla Island State Recreational Area. For an overnight stay with a difference, consider camping or renting a cabin at Cayo Costa State Park, which offers miles of beaches and forests and a friendly array of bird life.
Whether your idea of fun is shopping, hiking, or simply watching the sun set as you sip a margarita on a boardwalk, a detour to south county could just put the cherry topping on your visit to the area.- Anu Varma
The Beach Scene
It's the land that big developers and high-rise builders forgot: Manasota Key, a slice of paradise bisected by a two-lane road, washed by the Gulf waves and breezes. The south end is home to a mixture of rentals and low-rise condominiums, while unpretentious ranch homes mingle with stately beach houses to the north end of the key.
Manasota Key is also home to four distinct beaches: the quiet Manasota Beach, Stump Pass Beach and Blind Pass Beach, ideal for fishing and swimming, and the livelier Englewood Public Beach, which has pavilions, horseshoes and volleyball. Whether you like a casual ambience or a more luxurious vibe, this barrier island has everything you need to while away your afternoon-or your golden years.