It's not just their proximity to the sunsets, quiet neighborhoods or miles of waterfront in every direction that pull people westward, these barrier islands are famous for their world-class restaurants and posh, walkable shops, which happen to go great with a morning on an exclusive golf course or a sun-drenched day at the beach
Circus king John Ringling knew what he was doing when he purchased the property now known as Lido Key back in the 1920s. He intended for it to become a major tourist destination, and although this didn't happen during his life, the area encompassing Lido Key and St. Armands Circle is now a world-class vacation spot, with miles of gorgeous beaches, elegant residential neighborhoods and top-drawer shopping and dining establishments.
Lido Beach, stretching for several miles along the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is separated into two areas-North Lido Beach and South Lido Beach. The less populated half-mile of North Lido is accented by towering Australian pines that harbor walking paths and offer shelter from the harsh rays of the sun. More secluded, North Lido is an ideal spot to spread a picnic, take a quiet stroll or enjoy the splendor of a Sarasota sunset.
Mid-key, the public beach offers a brand-new swimming pool, concession stand, shops and lifeguard support. At the southern end of Lido Key, South Lido Park is a natural wonderland with acres of Australian pines, trails, a sugar-sand beach, kayak and canoe launches, wooden walkways, picnic areas and volleyball courts. Here you can go fishing in the waters known as Big Pass, grill out, go swimming in the Gulf (at your own risk-there are no lifeguards) and play horseshoes in the horseshoe pits. If you plan ahead, you can rent or bring a kayak or canoe and explore the narrow mangrove-lined canals teeming with native wildlife and vegetation.
ST. ARMANDS CIRCLE
Just a few steps from Lido Beach, St. Armands Circle is a sophisticated marketplace blossoming with outdoor cafes, award-winning restaurants, stylish nightclubs and distinctive galleries and boutiques. With its creative mix of old-world and contemporary architecture, elegantly landscaped plazas and tranquil courtyards, it's a delightful place to spend an afternoon or evening exploring.
Established in 1926 as a resort destination, St. Armands Circle was the vision of John Ringling, whose influence is still present. Many of the outstanding homes built in the '20s and '30s still grace the exclusive neighborhoods surrounding the Circle.
The Circle is popular for its seasonal art and crafts festivals, outdoor music series, holiday celebrations and boat and car shows. Visitors and residents flock to the Circle each month for "Smooth Jazz on St. Armands," which showcases prominent area musicians and groups. From 6 to 9 p.m. every fourth Friday, jazz aficionados relax under the stars listening to some of the area's hottest jazz sounds.
Whether you're wandering the Circle for the perfect ice cream (for the homemade variety, try Kilwin's), original wildlife art (Wyland's-where else?), jewelry as extreme art object (Optional Art), or an al fresco experience of oysters on the half shell (try Crab and Fin), you'll find inspired moments await you around every corner.
CITY ISLAND PARK
One of the most pleasant spots around to spread a picnic is at Ken Thompson Park on City Island, an 84-acre area with fishing piers, boat ramps, covered picnic tables, a nature boardwalk and a playground. This remote niche is home to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, a friendly sailing club where you can take lessons, embark on daylong sailing expeditions or sign up for a race around Sarasota Bay.
City Island also harbors The Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center where visitors can experience up-close encounters with just about any bird or reptile found on these shores. Just down the way is Mote Marine Laboratory, a world-respected marine research center. The Mote Aquarium features an impressive assortment of high-tech interactive exhibits, including a "shark attack theater," a ray "touch" pool, dolphin, shark and manatee habitats, and Molly the Mollusk, a 27-foot-long preserved squid. Eeeek.
After a day of sightseeing, you'll be ready to settle down with a mug of something frosty at a quintessential Florida seafood joint, and there are two of them on City Island: Old Salty Dog and the New Pass Grill and Bait Shop. These casual-style indoor-outdoor restaurants offer hearty burger and seafood platters and plenty of opportunities to sit back and let the Gulf breezes caress your mind, body and soul.
Just 10 miles long and never wider than a mile, Longboat Key is a tranquil, stunning sanctuary. This barrier island stretches north to south with dense mangroves, meandering canals and sailboat-dotted marinas populating the eastern shoreline. Longboat Key's western shore runs alongside a magnificent stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, with miles of sandy, uninterrupted beaches.
World-class resorts, luxury hotels, Old Florida cottages, sophisticated restaurants and private residences share space with verdant garden parks, secret bayous and tree-lined bike and walking paths. Nature lovers will delight in wandering the Joan M. Durante Community Park, an 18-acre site harboring native vegetation, exotic trees, butterfly gardens, a nature boardwalk and meandering hiking trails.
The north end of Longboat Key is home to Longboat Key Village, a charming neighborhood of historic homes, colorful bungalows, winding streets and the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant, one of the area's oldest and favorite seafood places, is here, along with the Mar Vista Pub, a casual seafood eatery with indoor and outdoor seating.
Vacationers will find a wide variety of accommodations from which to choose, including the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (with 21 courts, it's a tennis lover's heaven), the Longboat Key Club (golf aficionados will go for its 45 holes of bracing play) or the delightful Arbors by the Sea, informal cottages with private gardens located directly on the Gulf of Mexico. For that perfect candlelight dinner, Euphemia Haye, an award-winning restaurant with a stellar wine selection, will fulfill every romantic expectation.