Disclosure: A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here. As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield. When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here.
In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report. In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.
I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.
I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.
Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day. Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place. My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot. But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.
When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach. The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.
I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome…
ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…
sculptures in Athens and Florence…
palatial architecture in Marrakesh, Venice, and Rome.
Sarasota County offers all of these experiences.
Sometimes the free spirit in me just wants a dozen raw oysters and live music, a transcendent sunset, days spent gathering seashells and crashing on powdered sugar sand.
Siesta Key Beach, voted #1 in the US, is that place, too.
If you enjoy walking or biking to patios of locally-owned coffee shops and cafes …
checking out craft beer breweries …
…or having a cocktail on a rooftop looking down on city lights and an ocean bay…
Sarasota County is your place.
Family members have different interests and priorities… shopping vs golfing, playing beach volleyball vs working out, eating vegan vs grilling steak or seafood, exploring nature vs hopping beaches, watching dolphins vs watching the Braves. Here everybody gets to do his or her thing.
Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.
Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN.
Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below.
The Pineapple Drop was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
(Those I recorded in video removed masks for interviews only).
Arrive in Sarasota County at SRQ Airport
Check In Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection
Art Ovation Hotel is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine. Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Opera House , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout. I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu, and the playlist.
Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.
The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.
The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.
9 pm Dinner at Columbia Restaurant
Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater. It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar– Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.
After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I miss favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult. My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.
I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to all safety measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”
NYE Party for Guests on Art Ovation Rooftop–See story on Instagram Highlight.
11:00-12:00 AM Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio
(In this outdoor cycling/yoga class we wore masks unless on our mats or bikes, and class size was restricted to follow social distancing guidelines. More about Yoga and Lila in Part 2.)
1:00 Lunch at Lila
Afternoon on Lido Beach
Dinner at Element. Steak. Seafood. Pasta.
Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic. I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series.
Check in at Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club
My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters. (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.
8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key
Ok, this is a Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in 2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains a loyal following of locals and of tourists who always come back.
I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
Depart from SRQ Airport
MORE PlACES TO STAY AND PLAY
See the Official Visitors Guide containing a a map, activities for younger children, and MUCH more: digital version and additional guides to download here.
First, FESTIVALS, My Favorite Thing
See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…
4th Annual Taste of New Orleans
Thunder by the Bay–Music and Motorcycles Fest for Local Charities
Sarasota Ski-A-Rees–Ski Show normally every weekend February-May. On hold but check back for reopening.
More Places to Stay
Luxury, Boutique and More here.
The Resort at Longboat Key, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards
Zota Beach Resort, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards
Lido Beach Resort
Don’t forget the fur babies…
Other Places to Learn and Play
Mangrove Tunnels at Lido Beach
Sarasota Farmer’s Market
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Other possibilities for beauty, adventure, Education and fun include Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, MOTE Marine LABROTORY & AQUARIUM, Civil Rights Tour, and Siesta Key Water Sports.
More Places to Eat
Places to Shop—St. Armands Circle & Beyond
L. Boutique–See all of their designers. I fell in love with kaftans in Morocco so no surprise I LOVE Camilla’s Kaftans and her story.
The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime
Read on to Part 2 where I focus on Health and Wellness Getaways and Part 3 on the Biggest Attraction in Town:
Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1