Siesta fiesta

Siesta Key, an eight-mile-long island off Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast offers a peaceful place to relax and unwind – or take advantage of the nearby attractions and nightlife.

If you live in the Cayman Islands, chances are you’ve taken a trip or two to Florida to get off the rock. Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale are all popular destinations but it’s worthwhile to check out spots that are just slightly off the beaten path.

Siesta Key in Sarasota – known as the hub of Florida’s arts and culture community – is one of those locales. About an hour away Tampa, the bedroom community of around 24,000 (about half are full-time residents) has a lot to offer.

The charming beach community on Florida’s Gulf Coast is relaxed, laid back and friendly, offering all the modern conveniences without any of the big-city hassles.

Siesta Key is an eight-mile-long barrier island linked to Sarasota by two bridges – the North Bridge leading to the downtown’s culture and nightlife and the South Bridge at Stickney Point Road connecting to a variety of discount shopping.

It’s easy to get around, with most shops and attractions within walking distance, but I’d recommend renting a car. My travel companion and I chose to not to rent a vehicle – neither of us like driving – but we missed out on a few interesting area attractions such as nearby St. Petersburg (home to the Salvador Dali museum).

But we managed fine by bus and taxi – though be warned the bus stops running at 6:45pm. For the budget-minded, it’s great value: just 50 cents per trip.

One bus driver we met – who visited Siesta Key 25 years ago and never left – is typical of the area’s friendly atmosphere. He not only mapped out our destinations, but gave us tips on where to shop. (‘Make sure you say hi to my daughter April at Crazy T’s. She’ll help you out.’)

Another helpful soul who assisted with carrying our ever-expanding luggage worked at the Hyatt in Grand Cayman for most of the ’90s. Now at Tropical Breeze Resort & Spa – a cosy resort nestled throughout a residential area – he also fell in love with Siesta Key’s easygoing lifestyle and natural beauty.

It’s easy to see why. Just steps from the resort is one of Florida’s most breathtaking beaches – an expanse of sugary-fine white sand that rivals our own Seven Mile Beach. The sunsets are spectacular and it’s common to see cyclists taking evening spins along the shoreline. It’s also common to spot a variety of wildlife such as sandpipers and herons.

Fishing, sailing, sunset cruises, dolphin and manatee watch tours, kayaking, and other watersports are all available.

Shopping and dining

Shopping is varied and plentiful. The village in Siesta Key offers a terrific selection of one-a-kind shops, all within easy walking distance. There are several shopping plazas in downtown Sarasota but a unique experience can be found in nearby Lido Key at St. Armand’s Circle.

Purchased by circus magnate John Ringling, the area features a circle that’s lined with original, elegant shops and restaurants – it’s mostly upscale but there are reasonable-priced shops as well plus the beach is just minutes away.

Sarasota also boasts a great variety of dining experiences – from Italian to Peruvian – but sampling fresh seafood is a must. The Siesta Key Oyster Bar in the village is a great casual spot that features a raw bar and delicious seafood and live music nightly.

Old Salty Dog, also in the village, is another casual spot that even has its own mascot – a heron named Stretch that makes a daily visit.

The homemade ice cream at Big Olaf’s was so popular that the line-up stretched out onto the street.

Downtown delights

In downtown Sarasota, check out Marina Jack. We only had time to dine dockside – a casual eatery/pub that seemed popular with the locals – but upstairs offers fine dining with theatre seating for a panoramic view of the marina. There’s also some great shops in the downtown core along with theatres, cinemas, coffee shops and restaurants.

Sarasota attractions are plentiful – the Ringling Musuem of Art, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the Mote Aquarium, Asolo Theatre and West Coast Symphony, to name a few. But we spent the majority of our time in Siesta Key, which has a draw of its own.

For one, it’s nearly impossible not to shift gears and relax. It has a nostalgic, carefree feel that’s hard to beat.

There are plenty of lodgings, including high-rise condos by the beach, but I’d recommend staying at one of the more quaint resorts such as Tropical Breeze. It’s spread out in a residential area, and offers a variety of options – from standard rooms to three-bedroom suites and cottages. Ours had a full kitchen along with a gas grill nearby, and three heated pools in the complex, all surrounded by lush greenery. It also offers a free continental breakfast

I’d recommend booking via the Internet. With Expedia.com, we reserved our suite (one-bedroom, living room and full-kitchen) for just US$57.20. The resort lists its standard room starting at US$108 (this is in low season. High season is $155. There are also weekly and monthly rates). The Best Western, where we stayed for one night, cost US$94 and though nice, was simply a bed/bathroom.

Also, a great service is a bus/limousine shuttle that takes you direct to the Tampa airport. For $30 each, we had a town car pick us up at our doorstep and take us direct to the airport. (Call Luxury Limousines, (941) 926-4876, 24-hours in advance).

If You Go

Siesta Key, Sarasota: located about 55 miles south of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Claim to Fame: Renowned for its sugar-fine white sand; rated the ‘Best Sand Beach in America’ by the Travel Channel

Helpful Guides:

Sunny Day Guide to Sarasota and Siesta Key, including downloadable maps and discount coupons: http://www.sunnydayguide.com/sarasota/index.html

Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce – a comprehensive guide to accommodations, shopping, dining, attractions and more: http://www.siestakeychamber.com/

Tropical Breeze Resort & Spa

Includes online booking and information on area attractions and upcoming events: www.tropicalbreezeinn.com

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