Sarasota - poetry in the sunshine
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THE very name Sarasota sounds exotic . . . even poetic, given a somewhat fanciful story that it was named after Sara, the daughter of conquistador and explorer Hernando de Soto.
It could also stem from a Native American word in the indigenous Calusa language for Point of Rocks, or Place of the Dance.
Either way, poetry - and dance, for that matter - is woven into the fabric of this Florida city on the Gulf of Mexico, famous for its love of the arts and a place that really does live up to its billing as a jewel of the 'Cultural Coast'.
It only scratches the surface to list 'arty' highlights like the astonishing Venetian Gothic mansion built for circus king John Ringling, the Ringling Museum of Art, a recently-renovated opera house, performing arts hall, a ballet company, theatre companies and groups, an orchestra, galleries of all kinds and more festivals and concerts than you could physically get to.
Not all that long ago, people could get a bit sniffy and wouldn't mention 'Florida' and 'culture' in the same sentence, making snap judgements that the whole Sunshine State must be tacky and geared to a frenetic, theme park idea of 'fun', with little else but alligators and orange juice.
That was slightly counterbalanced by TV impressions of slick, edgy Miami and the steamy, Hemmingway appeal of the Keys, but there's whole lot more just crying out to be explored and savoured - especially if Disney disnae do it for you.
After several trips to Sarasota over the past few years, I reckon I would be hard pressed to think of a place that ticks so many boxes for Silver Travellers who want to de-stress and relax in a warm, laid-back, easy-to-get-around environment with no hills to contend with, with stunning, spotless white beaches, with lots to see and do and where the language is English - and where just being English means an extra-welcoming smile and extra courtesy, if that's possible in what is such a polite place to begin with.
Trying not to cause offence used to trouble me to begin with, for the words 'no thanks' are in constant use . . . turning down mountains of great food from attentive staff, whether grabbing a snack in a fast food outlet or when relishing the finest of fine dining.
There are smaller portions available as early bird specials, along with all manner of other deals like two-for-one offers at times seemingly deemed suitable for us dodderers, from 4.00pm, say, to around 6pm, but outside that time slot, you have to shop around or negotiate to find a minimum-sized steak under 10 or 12oz, or a fish portion that isn't the size of a whale's behind, both with enough 'sides' to sink a ship.
On the plus side, unlike here in Britain, no-one turns a hair if you ask to share a main course between two of you - although you do run the risk of an extra-large helping to compensate.
I got into the habit of often just having a starter, but still ran into trouble at places like the popular British-heritage Salty Dog watering holes, near the Mote Aquarium or in Siesta Key Village, where a 'lite bite' starter turned out to be no less than 15 coconut shrimp, which, to you and me, are big, butterflied king prawns. As a main course, it seems, you get about 32 . . .
It's a similar tale at most other quality eating places in and around Sarasota, and there's certainly no shortage of them, with the Ivy Steak House, Bonefish Grill and Stonewood looking after the carnivore in particular; and Red Lobster, Captain Brian's and the splendid Barnacle Bill's more than taking care of the fishy side, especially if you're angling for a helping of delicious king crab legs.
Don't ignore the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar, either, in Siesta Key Village or on St Armands Circle, for as well as hitting the spot with signature daiquiris (and seductive, happy hour frozen margueritas), these casual, cool meeting places - where you can often find a bride and groom and full entourage calling in for a refresher - also have a surprisingly varied food menu, from oysters, lobster and crab to 'gator tail chunks, pork, chicken, 16oz strip steak and, oh yes . . . coconut shrimp.
For an up-market mingle with medics and city movers and shakers in late afternoon, try Libby's Café and Bar and its smiling, liveried staff in the Southside Village area, right next to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, or pop over the road to Sam Snead's Tavern to natter about golf, perhaps weighing up the relative merits of more than 100 courses (golf, not grub!) in the immediate area.
Last mention of food, after a detour for a teatime beer with the after-work crowd at O'Leary's tiki bar on Sarasota waterfront, goes to Crabby Bill's, a handy stop-off if you're flying in and out of Tampa, where the service is anything but crabby. It's part of the spectacularly-sited Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel, only a few minute from the airport terminals and ideal for a supper after you land, and a breakfast before you leave, with personable staff like Danny to bargain with over how many blueberry pancakes constitute a 'stack' with bacon and maple syrup.
Service is paramount and there is really no problem in justifying the expected tip level of around 15 per cent (20pc if you're well impressed) for the mainly-student workforce, because even with that on top, you're paying a lot less than you'd have to fork out back home for anything near a similar quality of food or experience.
Just how genuinely 'nice' people can be was captured in a little cameo at the Siesta Key Daiquiri Deck, where ever-cheerful college girl Tina - pretty, 5ft-nothing, stunning figure and wearing the obligatory skimpy singlet and shorts in the sunshine - was given a playful pat on the backside by a passing girl colleague as she brought me a beer. 'Oh I had to touch you,' trilled her pal, 'you're just so cuuuute!'
Sound trite, but she meant it and she was quite right - and my wife agreed with me, too.
There's always a great effort to make you feel welcome wherever you go and you soon feel at ease and fit in well. Concessions and help for the not-so-young-in-years are everywhere as a matter of course, with shops, malls and attractions joining restaurants in taking care of all age groups, making sure that no-one is made to feel a nuisance or at a disadvantage if they can't get around as well as they used to.
It's the same on the roads, too, with drivers making allowances for out-of-state tourists and retirees, and helping to make it a pleasure to go out and about, at speeds a tad more sedate than here.
If the weather is humid and on the 'claggy' side and you don't fancy the great outdoors, it's easy to join the locals by taking a few steps from the cool of your room to your air-conditioned car, then another few steps to the cool of a luxurious mall for a spot of retail or restaurant therapy.
Tourist experts say top of the must-see list when it come to the 'great indoors' is Ellenton Premium Outlets, just 20 miles north of Sarasota on the way to Tampa or St Petersburg.
The place is so enormous that the map comes in more than handy, with covered walkways and fountains set in lush landscaping adding to the attraction of no fewer than 130 stores in four 'courts', featuring top names from Adidas to Zales and everything in between.
Naturally, there's no shortage of food outlets, either, so you could spend all day there without starving while you stock up on clothes, shoes and other essentials, with great savings for us poor Europeans.
So don't forget your credit card.
David Graham (aka SilverCoyote) and his wife travelled with United Airlines from Manchester to Tampa, via Newark. They stayed at the Best Western Midtown in Sarasota and overnighted at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel in Tampa. Visit www.bestwestern.co.uk or call 08457660418.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier America
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