Away from the commercial marine traffic and urban bustle of Florida’s Tampa Bay is the easygoing amble of Sarasota, just a few nautical miles south along the state’s central west coast. But in and around Sarasota is as much about her barrier islands as it is the city proper. And when you talk about the “Sister Keys” as they’re called, then you’re really talking laid back.
The Gulf of Mexico offers normally placid waters near shore and the keys provide easy line-of-sight navigation. But beware your draft as many of these areas are shallow and shoal easily. Also keep in mind that this region marks the southern end of the world’s largest manatee population. At certain times of the year sea cows are everywhere and there are posted speed zones enforced year round.
Sarasota proper is a booming area with incredible population growth, but its most famous resident — John Ringling — is long gone. His legacy, however, lives on in Sarasota. The circus magnate’s 66-acres estate now houses the Florida’s official state art museum and the Circus museum. The Ringling School of Art and Design is one of the best in the world. (There’s also Ringling Boulevard, John Ringling Boulevard and John Ringling Parkway.)
For things on more of a marine theme, the non-profit Mote Marine Laboratory is a must. Once focused only on sharks, Mote now studies all facets of the marine environment, educates and operates a world-class aquarium that is open to the public. When you need to eat try Zorias, the Bijou Café or Selva Grill.
To see the sites, boaters can moor at Marina Jacks, right in the heart of downtown. It offers a full-service fuel dock, berths to 200 feet, good food and complete amenities. For a bit more exclusivity, try the Sarasota Yacht Club, which can accommodate transient yachts up to 120 feet.
Much of what’s happening around Sarasota is actually on the keys just offshore. The area’s tony shopping district, Armand Circle, is actually its own key. It’s adjacent to Lido Key, which offers great beaches.
Stretching for 11 miles, Longboat Key is actually only half in Sarasota County. Nonetheless, its Longboat Key Club and Resort is one of the country’s finest upscale escapes. For the local delicacy, eat at Moore's Stone Crab. Visiting captains can port into Cannons Marina, Florida’s oldest Grady-White dealer. Cannons has a complete ships store including bait, tackle, fuel, oil, beach and boating supplies. There’s also Longboat Key Moorings at ICW Marker 15.
Siesta Key is eight miles of beach and bay front property, with canals honeycombing through many neighborhoods, and some excellent shops.
The Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota Bay and Anna Maria Bay surround the seven-mile long Anna Maria Island. Anna Maria Bayfront Park on the north end offers no facilities but a serene beach to experience. Holmes Beach is excellent for walking. Bradenton Beach and Coquina Beach on the south end have lifeguards, restrooms, showers, picnic areas with grills, lots of shady pine trees and concessions.