Here is the latest installment of my series of Wiki Vacation posts, from a short stay last week in Sarasota, Florida. The timing could not have been better – daytime temperature was around 85˚F. Not too hot – a quick application of sunscreen was good enough for walking on the beach all day long. And not chilly – Gulf water was warm enough for swimming.
The range of day trips covered Siesta Key, Lido Key, Longboat Key, Ana Maria Island, and Sarasota City itself. Activities included paddleboarding by the beach, tunneling through red mangrove trees on kayaks, looking at manatees at the aquarium, and marveling at the world’s largest miniature circus at the Ringling museum. It’s amazing that we managed to visit 7 beaches in just a few days: Coquina Beach, Cortez Beach, Lido Beach, Siesta Beach, Crescent Beach and Turtle Beach. In addition, we also packed fine dinning into this busy schedule. For lazy people who woke up every morning to look at tourist maps gotten at the airport before figuring out where to go, this trip was a resounding success.
Unlike previous Wiki Vacations, I did not bring a full-frame camera. Heck, I did not even bring the Fujifilm X10 along. All pictures on this trip were taken on an iPhone. In retrospect, I would have gotten very few useful pictures, had I relied on a real camera. Sunscreen, silky sand, salty water, sweat, paddleboarding and snorkeling did not really go well with fiddling of dials and lens on a camera.
Some of these pictures have been uploaded to Wikimedia and used on Wikipedia articles. Wherever applicable hyperlinks are embedded here pointing to full-resolution images on Wikimedia. For instance, the full resolution picture of the lifeguard station shown earlier can be found here. This post has grown so long that it is more like a 90-page booklet than a blog post. I added a Table of Contents to make navigating this beast a little bit easier.
Table of Contents
- Home Base
- Mar Vista
- Coquina Beach
- The Ringling
- En route to Cortez Beach
- Cortez Beach
- Unnamed public beach by Siesta Drive
- Paddleboarding at Crescent Beach
- Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar
- Guided kayak tour launched from Lido Key
- Mote Marine Aquarium
- Turtle Beach
- Ophelia’s on the Bay
- Sunset at Siesta Beach
We had a place to stay at, near downtown Sarasota. Driving from this home base to various points of interest was relatively painless. We never had trouble finding parking spaces. And there was free access to all beaches.
We would wake up in the morning, and eat a simple breakfast, while looking at various tourist maps offered by the car rental company at the airport. We have learned from past experiences to rely on local people to tells us the best places to visit. We pick a spot on the map, and drive to it to try our luck. By talking to local folks, we often get great recommendations on where to go next.
We arrived at Sarasota in the afternoon. After unpacking, we drove around to see what this city was about. Then we came back and took a leisure walk around the neighborhood.
Before we knew, we had walked all the way to the Indian Beach overlooking the Sarasota Bay. This turned out to be a “historic” neighborhood, with distinct and grand homes.
We enjoyed the sunset at the modest Indian Beach. And that was a good first day.
Being lazy folks, we didn’t wake up the next day until after 10am. Incidentally this explain why I seldom have sunrise pictures in my Wiki Vacation series. By the time we sifted through the ocean of ad brochures and junk maps to arrive at useful info, it was almost lunch time. We decided to take a drive through Longboat Key, to eat at the dockside restaurant Mar Vista which a friend had highly recommended.
Patrons came by boats and dock at the pier. Some came in jet skis. We drove to Mar Vista. Yet others just walked in.
We gorged on the famed Florida stone crab. It was so good that we actually came back the day after to have the same again. We were told that stone crabs were declawed and returned to the sea to regrow their claws. And that’s why only claws are served.
Some new folks sat down at the empty table next to us, shown in the picture above. And one of them handed his credit card to the waiter to forestall his friends from paying for the lunch. I heard him, and yelled, “hey, put our lunch on his tap, too, please.” An adjacent table called out the same joking request. It turned out that our good guy James the retired-physician now-cowboy had then instructed the waiter to do exactly that. We were most surprised and humbled when I asked our waitress for our bill.
We then moved our chairs over and crashed their lunch. We had a jovial conversation about us liberal Yankees and the rural conservative cowboys. I did not know being cowboy was a thing still, in Florida. I’d been now learned. Had our trip been longer we would have taken up James’ invitation to corral his cows with him, on horses. Maybe one day.
It seemed like James’ friends managed to pay for his lunch after all, in the midst of the confusion about our bill, and us crashing their lunch and engaging him in a long conversation. I guess we will just have to “pay it forward” like these good folks did.
We drove over the short Longboat Pass bridge to Anna Maria Island. To our left we found the under-appreciated Coquina Beach. This one doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia article. But it sported the same super-fine, silky white sand we found at the world-famous Siesta Beach when we stopped by Siesta the day before, during our quick touring of the Sarasota area.
Have I mentioned the birds? Birds were everywhere. One couldn’t take a picture with water in view without also capturing at least one bird in the picture.
We visited the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art the next day. I don’t know that its long official name is useful. This place is so much more than a “museum”. For sure, it’s got a world-class fine art museum with several buildings housing 10,000 paintings and objects from ancient times through modern days, spanning European, African and Asian arts. But its huge 66-acre campus includes ponds, a playground, a stone gnome garden, Rose Garden, Secret Garden (burial site), Promenade, tree trail, tea house, art library, education center, the historical Ringling mansion (Cà d’Zan), a circus museum complete with Ringling’s personal railroad passenger car (The Wisconsin), and the world’s largest miniature circus at 1:16 scale. Perhaps that’s why the place recently rebranded itself as “The Ringling“. Check out the PDF map of the campus.
A huge mural greeting visitors to the Tibbals Learning Center recalls the glorious days of the traveling circus in a time when local schools and all businesses closed shop the moment the circus rolled into town.
World’s Largest Miniature Circus
I am a sucker for all things miniature. Naturally I lingered in the Tibbals Learning Center. Inside this building one finds a breathtaking 1:16 scale model display of the most powerful Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus (in its days) that gave us The Greatest Shown on Earth. The display houses 42,143 items, 8 large tents, 152 circus wagons, 1,500 workers and performers, 7,000 folding chairs, and more than 500 animals.
The display began with the circus train arriving at a town, and various exotic animals being unloaded from the train cars.
Folks started streaming in.
People milled around vending carts and trucks.
Performers and workers alike have got to be fed. We were told that diners were actually waited on, and food were made to individual orders.
Large areas of the site were devoted to performance preparations.
Finally, there was the big show. I was surprised to find the flag of Taiwan atop the tent. But perhaps it makes sense, as ROC was China during the time Tibbals built these models.
Patrons walked through a zoo tent. For many people in the past, this was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see exotic animals.
A special, designated area allowed ladies to do last minute cosmetic touch-ups, and for men to fix their neckties, before the main event started.
The big tent showcased all sorts of circus acrobatics at the same time.
Stable tents secluded from the main tents kept workhorses content and fed.
All lumber needed for the show were harvested onsite.
The second floor of building housed more scale models. In the reflection, the phone responsible for almost all pictures on this post could be seen.
The scale model display continues to be expanded.
A artist is currently working on a new exhibit, based on a poster from bygone days.
Gardens and tree trails
Walking around the Ringling campus was a pleasant experience. There were surprises around every corner.
There were plenty of places for great snapshots.
Gnomes. Gnomes were everywhere in the Dwarf Garden.
Cà d’Zan means House of John in Venetian. We didn’t have time to partake in the house tour, unfortunately.
Fine Art Museum
We took a cursory walk through a few art museum exhibits. We shall come back again.
En route to Cortez Beach
We drove back to Mar Vista to chow down on those delicious stone crab claws again. Then we headed back to Anna Maria Island to look at the Sunset from the beach.
On our way we saw for the first-time the multi-story boat storage locals told us about. This was apparently the norm here, but we were amazed when told. On the other hand, locals recounted their dropped jaws when visiting Manhattan and seeing elevators moving cars from ground level to a parking lot 20 stories high, which to us was the norm.
After passing through the Longboat Pass bridge, we ran into a traffic jam. It seemed like the only road to Cortez Bridge was in a grid lock. So we decided to park at the Coquina Beach, like we did the day before, and walk along the shore line to Cortez Beach instead.
So we walked to Cortez Beach. Have I mentioned that birds were everywhere?
A local just caught a couple of fish by net, standing on the long groin (sea wall).
The art of cast-net fishing
Our local fisherman made net casting look so effortless. But I am sure it requires years of practice. Here is a full sequence of this graceful move of casting the net and making it land right on top of your intended victims, trapping them with a nice circular wall of death.
Angling at the end of the sea wall
Other locals caught their dinner by fishing rods, at the end of the groin. With the sun setting on the West, nice pictures were had.
Sunset at Cortez Beach
Certain person couldn’t help but pose before the setting sun.
Unnamed public beach by Siesta Drive
Another day. Another problem to resolve over breakfast, namely, “where are we going today?” We decided to spend the day on Siesta Key which was in fact the main attraction in this trip.
On our way to the Key, we passed by an unnamed public beach, just before the Siesta Drive took us onto the bridge connecting the main land to the Key. We imagined this place to be a popular lunch-in-your-car beach for nearby office workers. There were even newspaper racks under the trees.
All travel brochures tell you that you could snorkel everywhere around the Keys. That is completely true, but is also like saying, “you could do your fishnet casting anywhere around this swimming pool.” Apparently there is no colorful fish to be seen anywhere in the Sarasota Keys without diving, or taking a boat trip, with one exception. I was told there was a stretch of rocks at Point of Rocks on Siesta Key that was accessible from the beach, with just snorkeling equipment.
I wasn’t going to bring my snorkeling gear all the way to Sarasota, only to leave without seeing at least one colorful fish. So I dragged my gear to the beach, but realized belatedly that the wind had picked up, causing choppy waves that churned the water into a soup with zero visibility.
Paddleboarding at Crescent Beach
So, this trip to the beach, on day three, turned into a paddleboarding (stand up paddle surfing) trip at the Crescent Beach which borders the Point of Rocks from the North.
The Crescent Beach is another under-appreciated beach. It is physically the southern part of the world-renowned Siesta Beach, with the same silky Quartz-based white sand, and feels cools underfoot even on the hottest days. But unlike the Siesta Beach which is accessible from almost everywhere along the beach, Crescent Beach appears to be almost completely blocked off from the road, by hotels, resorts and time-sharing condos, with one exception. There is a narrow road called “Beach Access 12” just south of the Stickney Point Bridge which leads to the Crescent Beach. This road comes complete with 20 precious parking spaces, as a bonus. But driving out of this dead-end, narrow road from one of the 20 parking lots requires skills, or a car with both front and rear parking cameras.
I rented a standup paddleboard from a store only a block away from the beach, across the Midnight Pass Road. Why? Because I saw a few chaps standing tall and looking cool paddling on what looked like a big surfboard. I figured that it couldn’t be too hard. After all, I had kayaked for years. And I had been ice skating lately so I probably had good balance.
Looking a the picture below, after the trip, I can’t help but realize that I certainly didn’t look cool to other beachgoers the way I imagined I had.
I was already having second thoughts, seeing how the board wasn’t really as wide and therefore as stable as I thought. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Paddleboarding turned out to be quite difficult, with the waves coming in one after another. Pointing the board perpendicular to the waves made it possible to stay on the board for more than a minute without falling. But one couldn’t keep paddling out to the ocean. Signs everywhere warned of rip currents.
So, yeah, I had to learn to balance well on the board, rocking it left to right as I paddled in parallel to wave fronts. It took about 15 cycles of falling and climbing back before I got in harmony with the ocean.
Now was time I terrorized these merrymakers in the water, by zigzagging among them with my newfound paddleboarding skills.
Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Seeing how the northern exit from Siesta Key via Siesta Drive appeared to be completely jammed up, on Google Map, we decided to take the southern exit via Stickney Point Road. This led nicely to another restaurant our friend recommended, Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar.
While waiting for a table at the bar, we asked the bartender what to order. He unconditionally recommended the Creek Combo Pot for 2 people.
Years of shucking raw oysters at home paid off. I honestly did not think I would have to shuck these steamed oysters, before they brought that pot to me. After all, steamed clams opened up as they screamed bloody hell and got cooked alive. But these steamed oysters were determined to make life difficult for gourmet dinners. I happened to know how to shuck oysters without stabbing my own hand, but I was sure that this place saw its fair share of tourists that ordered steamed pots, and then looked at these dead but recalcitrant oysters in shock.
I thought the waitress was exaggerating when she brought us a big plastic bucket earlier.
But she knew what she was doing.
Guided kayak tour launched from Lido Key
We didn’t have to agonize over itinerary on day four. We signed up online, for a guided kayak ecotour the day before, with Adventure Kayak Outfitters. We launched from the South Lido Park at Lido Key, with a crew of a dozen kayaks, some singles and others tandems.
Our fearless leader, Dan, stood up to look for signs of manatees and dolphins in the Sarasota Bay. In fact, he paddled standing up throughout the whole segment of the tour where the fleet was on the bay.
Dan did spot a dolphin soon, and we all oohed and aahed as we watched the dolphin breach. It never did swim close to us, however. But we watched it zigzag from one side of the bay to the other and back. Then it headed off towards John Ringling Causeway, and was gone for good.
Dan also spotted a manatee far away. The most we got to see of the manatee was its nose which surfaced a few times. But its huge body under the surface was unmistakeable. Sadly, I was too focused looking at that giant shadow of a manatee to take pictures.
We tunneled through the red mangrove trees, or rather their roots.
Lobster rolls at the Lido Beach Pavilion
The kayak guide Dan told us that Lido Beach Pavilion made mean lobster rolls. They were of bigly value given their high quality against the low price. He was completely right. The brioche-like bread was sauteed with butter. The lobster roll was fresh and delicious.
Lido Key Beach
We walked around Lido Key Beach after our lunch.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
We make a point of visiting all local aquariums wherever we go. This trip was no exception. The Mote Marine was an excellent aquarium. The ticket covers entry to both the aquarium and the Marine Mammal Research Center, across the street, where one could find marine mammals such as Manatees.
We headed back to Siesta Key to return the beach umbrella I rented yesterday. But more importantly we wanted to check out Turtle Beach known for being an active sea turtles nesting place. As locals informed us, we found this beach to be much less crowded. And there was a reason for it. The quality of the sand on this beach was subpar, when compared to the rest of Sarasota beaches. Even though this was still a great beach, compared to those around the US, clearly its sand grains were much coarser, relative to Siesta Beach, for instance.
Ophelia’s on the Bay
It was dinner time. We found a popular restaurant near Turtle Beach with a great menu and an excellent view of the sheltered Little Sarasota Bay between the Key and main land: Ophelia’s on the Bay. This place sports a newly-printed menu with different courses every day.
As we were dinning, something in the far distance caught my eye. It was an osprey returning to its nest to feed its young. I grabbed the phone and fortunately got a few usable shots.
Sunset at Siesta Beach
I saved the best for last. After the dinner we drove back north to Siesta Beach, just in time to catch the sun setting on the western horizon.
The enormity of this beach is difficult to describe in words. It is not only extremely long, but also unusually wide – so wide that the city had to install walking mats to help beachgoers get to the shore, where they could then walk on firmer wet sand.
Perhaps a few panoramic images will help illustrate the enormity. Control click on each to see it in a new web browser tab.
Just about everyone was looking at the setting sun.
I am also a sucker for sunset. You probably figured that out already by now. Here are a few more pictures of this bigly sunset. These have been uploaded to Wikimedia as well.
We lingered a bit longer after sunset.