Aug 12, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 32

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by Andrew Collins

There's so much in Florida for Gay and Lesbian travelers, and so many communities famous for their wealth of Gay nightclubs and resorts, that some of the most enchanting and sophisticated parts of the state occasionally get overlooked by the queer market. Diverse in age, style, and politics, Sarasota is just such a place. It's a cultural powerhouse with superb museums and theaters, some of the loveliest beaches in the country, lush wildlife and garden preserves, and a pleasing selection of shops, restaurants, and hotels.

This isn't necessarily a place to go if you're single and on the make - there's just one Gay bar in the county, although you'll find more than two dozen nightlife options in St. Petersburg and Tampa, about an hour's drive north up I-75. But as a romantic getaway for a long weekend, this urbane community on Florida's Gulf Coast has plenty going for it.

Sarasota proper has a population of only about 55,000, but the city anchors a much larger region that includes several narrow, scenic keys dotted with tony resort communities. Must-sees include Siesta Key, famous for some of the whitest and most powdery beaches in the world, and tiny St. Armands Key, which abounds with great shopping and restaurants.

There are few museums in Florida of greater renown than Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art, which occupies the 66-acre summer estate of Sarasota's most illustrious resident, circus magnate John Ringling. The museum contains a priceless collection of mostly European masterworks, including originals by Rubens, Van Dyck, Velazquez, and Hals, as well as exquisite classical antiquities. The Venetian-Gothic mansion in which the Ringlings lived, Ca D'Zan, is open for tours. The complex is also home to the Circus Museum, which traces the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Sarasota is much acclaimed for its theater and music scene, its most famous venue being the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a dramatic purple building that's shaped a bit like a giant seashell and that hosts everything from touring Broadway musicals to major orchestra recitals.

The Van Wezel is a short drive from the city's formerly prosaic downtown, which has boomed in the past few years, especially along Main Street and surrounding blocks, with cool restaurants and an engaging mix of shops and galleries. Several residential loft and condo developments have also sprung up, turning what was once a corporate district devoid of life at night and on weekends into a dynamic mixed-use neighborhood.

The area abounds with outdoorsy attractions, too. Right on the outskirts of downtown Sarasota, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens blooms with thousands of orchids and bromeliads as well as a cactus garden and banyan grove. On Lido Key, the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary rehabilitates birds and other animals that have been rescued and require care - it's one of the area's top attractions. Just across the parking lot, you can continue learning about local animal life at the Mote Aquarium, which houses everything from manatees to dolphins.

For more encounters with the great outdoors, head inland to Myakka River State Park, a huge 58-square-mile preserve with miles of hiking and biking trails and kayaking and canoeing watercourses. Right on the Myakka River, the Crowley Museum and Nature Center consists of a 2,000-foot boardwalk trail and exhibits detailing the flora and fauna of five of Florida's natural habitats.

Sarasota has really come of age in recent years when it comes to restaurants, with a number of notable, innovative chefs helping to put the region on the culinary map. Downtown dining favorites include hip Selva Grill, a boisterous place where acclaimed chef Darwin Santa Maria turns out such dazzling Latin American dishes as octopus ceviche with Peruvian black-olive sauce, and guava-glazed mahimahi with black-bean jicama salad. Sangria Tapas Bar is another downtown delight, serving fabulous Spanish treats, from paella to cheese plates to shellfish salads. There's a great wine selection here, too.

On St. Armands Key, try the Crab & Fin, an upscale seafood bistro with heavenly crab cakes and seating overlooking the busy sidewalk. The neighborhood also has a branch of Tampa's famous (and Gay-popular) Columbia Restaurant, which serves up delicious, home-style Cuban fare. After a meal, wander the neighborhood exploring the dozens of boutiques and galleries, or grabbing dessert at the seemingly endless supply of ice cream and gelato shops. Also close by is Lido Beach, a terrific spot to dip your toes in the Gulf of Mexico and watch the sun set.

Arguably Siesta Key's most famous restaurant, the Broken Egg Cafe serves delicious breakfasts - try the Portobello Benedict, consisting of English muffins topped with grilled mushrooms, poached eggs, tomatoes, and hollandaise sauce, or the banana-nut-bread French toast. Other great options are the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, known for fresh and reasonably priced seafood, and Maximo's, which specializes in South African cuisine, from grilled ostrich to a variety of hearty stews.

Overlooking the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and with its own private marina, the swank Hyatt Sarasota offers some of the comfiest accommodations in the area; many rooms have balconies affording fine views across Sarasota Bay. You can relax by the pool or watch the boats sail in and out of the marina from the Hyatt's Boathouse Restaurant and Bar. Just up the street, the ultra-plush Ritz-Carlton Sarasota has 266 warmly furnished rooms - nice touches include featherbeds and duvets, marble-trim bathrooms, and free high-speed Internet. The hotel's Verona restaurant serves such creative standouts as roasted local sturgeon with green-curry beurre blanc, and pan-roasted lamb loin with orange-scented eggplant puree, green lentils, and red wine-calamata olive sauce. If you're celebrating a special occasion, this is the perfect setting.

A more intimate option that's on the mainland but close to one of the bridges to Siesta Key, the 27-unit Hibiscus Suites Inn offers a great value and highly personalized service. All of the suites come with full eat-in kitchens and plenty of room to spread out; the hotel also has a pool, guest laundry, free Wi-Fi, and satellite TV with 15 free movie channels. On Siesta Key itself, Siesta Key Suites offers 20 individually furnished efficiency, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units, some of them inside a beautifully restored 1920s Spanish-style hacienda. Stunning Siesta Key Beach is just across the street, and several restaurants are within walking distance.

One of the top full-service properties with frontage right on the Gulf of Mexico, Longboat Key's posh Colony Beach & Tennis Resort has long been famous as one of the world's foremost destinations for tennis, but it's an enticing place to stay no matter what your interests: spa treatments, sailing, swimming, or just lazing on the beach. The resort's Monkey Room serves imaginative Caribbean-inspired fare, and the all-suite accommodations are immaculate and well-decorated.

If you do have a yearning to check out a Gay club and don't feel like driving too far, stop by Club Tri-Angles, a small but festive entertainment complex about a 10-minute drive north of downtown Sarasota. There's a main room with a large central bar and a small dance floor; out back a tree-shaded deck makes for a relaxing spot to chat with friends. As it's the only game in town, Club Tri-Angles draws a pretty mixed bunch - women and men of all ages and backgrounds. This low-keyed club might not compare with the famous nightspots of South Beach or Orlando, but it's a great place to meet genuine locals.

The Little Black Book

Broken Egg Cafe (210 Avenida Madera, 941-346-2750). Club Tri-Angles (1330 Martin Luther King Way, 941-953-5945). Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., 941-383-6464 or 800-282-1138, Columbia Restaurant (411 St. Armands Circle, 941-388-3987). Crab & Fin (420 St. Armands Circle, 941-388-3964). Hibiscus Suites Inn (1735 Stickney Point Rd., 800-822-5247, Hyatt Sarasota (1000 Blvd. of the Arts, 941-953-1234 or 888-591-1234, Maximo's (149 Avenida Messina, 941-346-7865). Ritz-Carlton Sarasota (1111 Ritz-Carlton Dr., 941-309-2000 or 800-241-3333, Sangria Tapas Bar (1532 Main St., 941-955-TAPA). Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau (941-957-1877 or 800-522-9799, Selva Grill (1345 Main St., 941-362-4427). Siesta Key Oyster Bar (5238 Ocean Blvd., 941-346-5443). Siesta Key Suites (523 Beach Rd., 941-349-1236 or 888-897-9919,

Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA and nine additional travel guides. He can be reached care of this publication or at
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