(Long Island, N.Y.) Looking for a fabulous Florida destination for the family that doesn’t involve a very famous mouse? Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s great, but there is another highly desirable destination in the sunshine state that’s surprisingly family friendly-and it might be a bit off your radar.
Sarasota & Her Islands is hidden gem. Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast and home to Siesta Beach (rated number one in the country) there’s no better spot for a family fun vacation. There’s plenty to explore: experiential and educational attractions beyond the pristine sandy beaches.
One big selling point for parents: you can fly right into Sarasota. You can get one-way flights directly into SRQ, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, from many locations. It’s a quiet, low-key, sparking clean airport and many of the hotels are an easy, breezy drive away.
Where to go, what to do to keep the kids and the adults happy? Here’s the ultimate kid-tested, kid-approved guide.
Where to Stay
Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel: Situated on Lido Beach in Sarasota, Florida, this colorful hotel offers two outdoor pools and 600 feet of private beach. The staff is warm and friendly-not once will you feel like the kids aren’t welcome. Nothing is more frustrating than checking in to a family friendly hotel and learning after you get there it’s anything but! (The breakfast is delish so make sure you schedule in a family sit down for scrambled eggs before the day’s activities begin.) Each room is equipped with free Wi-Fi and cable TV.
What to Do
Shopping & Ice Cream at St. Armands Circle: St. Armands Key – an island shopping center removed from the bustle of the mainland by two bridges over magnificent Sarasota Bay. Unique in concept, history, and beauty, St. Armands provides an unforgettable experience for visitors from all over the world.
Bob’s Train: Bob’s Train is an actual train… a circus train. In fact, it’s the only circus train in the world owned by an individual. (Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus is a corporation.)It is also a restaurant and has opened its doors for lunch now from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday .You can enjoy the vintage circus photographs and posters and Bob Horne, the owner and cook, who is a walking history book with expert detailed knowledge of Sarasota and it’s circus past.
Ringling Museum, John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Florida State University, is one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation. It preserves the legacy of John and Mable Ringling, educating and enabling a large and diverse audience to experience and take delight in a world-renowned collection of fine art; Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling historic mansion; the Circus Museums; the Original Asolo Theater; and historic architecture, courtyard, gardens and grounds overlooking Sarasota Bay
Circus Sarasota is truly awe-inspiring and entertaining, As Florida’s only not-for profit resident circus, the mission of Circus Sarasota is to pay homage to an extraordinary community legacy by broadening the artistic contribution of the circus through education and human service outreach programming; it fulfills its mission by enriching, educating and entertaining audiences of all ages.
G.WIZ Science Museum: This place is just too cool for school. There’s world-class exhibits, top-notch educational programs, unique events, and more this is a great way to spend the day with your inquisitive little scientists. It’s hours of hands-on/do-touch fun.
Where to Eat
Nancy’s BBQ: Pulled pork, chicken, ribs, sensational sides and sweet, this BBQ picnic palace is a must-stop. You and the kids will feel cool fueling up in this casual Sarasota hotspot. Ask if Nancy’s there-she as sweet as can be!
Old Salty Dog Restaurant: This spot, voted best outdoor dining in Sarasota offers the most fabulous fish and chips available in the free world but the big draw is the famous Salty Dog: 1/4lb dog dipped in beer batter and deep fried. Indulgence to the extreme but well worth it. Welcome to the doghouse!
Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar: With more Frozen Daiquiri Flavors than you can ever dream of, the adults can treat themselves and they’ll even whip up some non-alcoholic treats for the kids. Psst: Get the Siesta Burger: A half-pound of ground chuck grilled to perfection and smothered with guacamole and melted pepper jack cheese
Must Not Miss
Sarasota Jungle Gardens: One of the oldest continuously operating attractions in the State of Florida, Sarasota Jungle Gardens features 10 acres of lush tropical vegetation, winding jungle trails and entertaining, educational bird and reptile shows throughout the day. The “Kiddie Jungle” features a fun playground and the Flamingo Café serves delicious sandwiches, ice cream and snacks and is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium: Has seven centers for scientific research focusing on sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals, coral reefs, the study of toxins in the environment and their effect on human health, aquaculture, coastal ecology and fisheries enhancement. Showcasing this research is Mote Aquarium, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year.
Paddle Boarding on Sarasota Bay: What’s “SUP”? Well, it’s short for Stand Up Paddleboards and it’s a blast. Not only is it a fun way to cool off–it’s a great way to tone up because done right, paddling on this stand up surf board really works your core and upper body. Or you can just coast along with a guided tour with “I Kayak Sarasota”-the owners, Sarasota natives, are friendly, patient and fun and they are devoted to making your time in the water safe and entertaining. Your best bet for family bonding while soaking in Sarasota’s natural beauty.
Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary: Lions and tigers and bears-and a whole lot more! Get up-close and personal with the world’s most exotic animals. Founder Kay Rosaire is an eighth generation animal trainer from one of England’s most respected families of animal trainers. The Rosaires are known worldwide for their gifted animal training ability, for their work within the entertainment and film industry, and as animal educators. You and your family will stand in awe of these amazing animals and the organizations pledge to creating a true sanctuary, with love and respect.