By WARREN RESEN, Member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Assoc.
One in a series of Florida Travel articles
Traveling to the Caribbean usually means visiting tropical islands with white sand beaches, warm turquoise waters and palm trees. Sound familiar? This is the theme Florida’s Tourism Bureau uses to lure visitors to a place where we already live.
Traveling to Florida’s islands can be done faster, cheaper and with less hassle then distant, supposedly romantic islands. And, if the weather turns bad here, you can always pack up and go home. There are other differences that make traveling within Florida more enjoyable.
On Florida’s islands, the natives speak a passable English. There is no exchange rate to figure on purchases and most delightful of all, you are not constantly assaulted by vendors, cab drivers or tour operators.
When people think of Florida’s islands, the Florida Keys usually come to mind. But there are many islands on both coasts of the state. On this trip I visited Longboat Key, an island directly west of Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico. At 12 miles long, it is fairly large as islands go but only a quarter mile wide at its widest point.
The housing is upscale and lawns are immaculately maintained. Actually, it was almost too perfect for me so it was a delight to find the tiny Sandpiper Inn, almost hidden amongst the condos, time shares and hotels.
The Sandpiper Inn is a reminder of Florida the way it was before development. The Inn has been here for more than 50 years and it was wonderful being in a resort where the rooms were not cookie cutter motel units. The eleven studio, one and two bedroom units are all fully equipped efficiencies giving guests a choice of eating in or dining out.
Getting to the beach was as easy as a stroll down a lushly landscaped path, not through a crowded lobby. The white sand beach was virtually deserted.
Mary Lou and Richard, the Inn’s managers, take a personal interest in seeing that all of their guests are comfortable and have everything needed during their stay. They like to refer to the Sandpiper Inn as “Forgotten Florida,” those places that were here long before the condos and limited beach access.
Now that I was there, what to do? Without those pesky Caribbean Island tour guides, how could I find my way around? Easy. There are brochures everywhere about area attractions and just up the road is a helpful Chamber of Commerce.
Get in your car and travel a few miles south to St. Armand’s Circle to enjoy fabulous dining and shopping. It is a circular version of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills with more than 150 specialty shops. Boutiques, jewelry shops, art galleries, restaurants and most important, ice-cream parlors are on every block. One particular place of note is the Columbia restaurant right on The Circle. The restaurant has been here for more than 50 years while its flagship store in Tampa has been operating for 105 years. It’s a unique place to stop for lunch or dinner.
If you’d like to spend time in a honky-tonk environment, just north of Longboat Key is Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island. Here are the touristy shops and restaurants familiar to resort beach goers. Both locations are so close to the Sandpiper Inn that you can easily do both stops in one day.
The biggest decision one has to make on vacation is, “Where do we go for dinner?” I do have one suggestion before you leave the serenity of Sandpiper Inn for your evening out. Sit in the Sandpiper Inn’s gazebo, or in a chaise lounge on the beach, to enjoy one of the magnificent sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
The north end of Longboat Key is the most historic part of the island. It was an old fishing village and part of that history is still there in the visage of the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub. This waterfront institution began life in 1912 as a fishing and bait shack. It the 1940s it switched over to a beer and burger joint. Over the years it was expanded into a full service restaurant while keeping its historical flavor.
Specializing in fresh seafood, but also offering more humble fare, diners have the option of eating inside the air conditioned restaurant or sitting outside and enjoying fresh breezes while overlooking the wide bay. A sister restaurant the BeachHouse, both owned by Ed Chiles son of Florida’s late governor Lawton Chiles, is just north on Anna Maria Island directly on the Gulf of Mexico. What a delight it was to dine there watching a beautiful Florida sunset while three dolphins rolled lazily just off shore.
What else is there to do on Longboat Key or, for that matter, on almost any of Florida’s islands? Just about anything you like. All water sports are available, from swimming, kayaking, jet skiing, to fishing and even parasailing. But this area has even more to offer than most in the cultural heart of Sarasota.
Sarasota, just a few miles away, is known for fine arts, theatre of all kinds including the circus, Selby Gardens and museums, most specifically the magnificent Ringling Museum of Art. Visitors can spend the better part of a day at this one location viewing its museums, yes there are several, and the gardens. Entry to all venues is included in the price, or so I thought.
The Ringling Mansion, named the Ca’ d’Zan, (House of John), is indicative of the wealth and opulence of that era and the first floor of the mansion is included in the $25 entrance fee. However, if you want to see the second floor, it is $5 more and must be done in the company of a docent. Should you also want to visit the third floor, then it is an additional $20 in addition to the fee for the second floor. These additional fees were never explained to me when I paid my entry fee at the front desk
In my opinion the general admission fee is fairly priced considering the many offerings of the property and especially in comparison with other venues today. I would like to suggest to the management of this museum that they either reconsider the pricing policy or at least make it clear to visitors up front.
My last evening on Longboat I dined at a small restaurant, on the water of course, a few miles south of the Sandpiper Inn. Located on the bay side of the island, PattiGeorge’s is a contemporary American restaurant offering a small but ambitious menu of foods from around the world prepared and presented in their own unique style. For those discriminating diners who demand gourmet food, this restaurant is highly recommended. Oh yes, before leaving this table talk, there is one more location you might want to learn about.
The Sandpiper Inn has complete kitchen facilities for guests, but part of the fun of traveling is exploring new places and eating in different restaurants. If you like to eat breakfast out, you are in luck.
Across Gulf of Mexico Drive, within walking distance of the Sandpiper Inn, is the Blue Dolphin Café. They serve more food then a person should reasonably be expected to eat at one meal and at very reasonable prices. Try it for breakfast or lunch. I found it a great way to start the day.
So the next time you get the urge to vacation on a tropical island with white sand beaches, warm turquoise waters (at most beaches) and palm trees, forget the planes and cruise ships, just get into your car and go to Florida’s islands. You’ll find your tropical paradise without having to endure the indignities of airport security or be weight limited by your possessions. And, you can bring the kitchen sink, literally.