East, west coasts of Florida offer variety of attractions
“East, west coasts of Florida offer variety of attractions”, May 5 2016,
Over the winter, we returned to Florida’s west and east coasts. Our major reasons were to replace our Northeastern winter with warm weather and to satisfy a lifelong love of the ocean fostered in my Long Island boyhood and my wife Marcia’s San Francisco Bay Area girlhood. We decided to sample major locations on both coasts: the west coast’s Sarasota and Bradenton on the Gulf of Mexico, and the east coast’s Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the Atlantic Ocean.
Another reason was more personal. I wanted to make a sentimental journey to the Sarasota-Bradenton area, where my parents, now deceased 10 years, had enjoyed retirement for almost 30 years beginning in the mid-1970s. Well before that, my grandparents had wintered in the St. Armand’s Circle area of Sarasota. Both my uncles also retired to Florida, one living on the waterfront at Longboat Key which connects Sarasota to Bradenton. We visited some of the venues that had been an important part of my family’s lives as well as my and my children’s memories.
Another aspect of the sentimental journey was, for a few days, visiting a close friend who had recently lost his wife and who himself was coping with some health challenges. My friend had retired more than a decade ago to a relatively new section of Bradenton known as Greyhawk Landing.
We flew Christmas day, a good flying day, from New York City’s LaGuardia to the Sarasota-Bradenton airport. We were fortunate that the weather during our Florida West Coast visit was ideal, in the mid-80s most days and breaking some records for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The downside was that some of the beaches were crowded and parking was very difficult (especially at Siesta Key). Moreover, traffic often slowed to a crawl in the areas approaching and leaving the beaches.
I recommend renting a car unless you drive your own car down to Florida. Hotwire is an excellent site for finding good rental car values, and we found a good rate ($372 for two weeks, picking up at the Sarasota airport and dropping off at the Miami airport) at Dollar Rent-a-Car. Our Ultima had 36,000 miles and a few scratches -- more wear than you will find on a Hertz car -- but it was fine and, because of the car’s condition, Dollar took $30 off the quoted $372.
Lido Beach, Sarasota; one of the many white sand Gulf beaches (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
With warm weather all year round (although it does rain), the Florida areas we visited attracts golfers, tennis players, swimmers, and joggers as well as those who enjoy walking.Bird-watching and fishing are important activities on both coasts. Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota and Birds Of Paradise Sanctuary & Rescue, Inc. in Bradenton are worth visits.
“Keys” are the term for the islands that separate Sarasota Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. St. Armand’s Key — featuring St. Armond’s Circle -- is one of the tourist centerpieces of Sarasota and is located a few blocks from beautiful Lido beach, where for decades I have enjoyed swimming and walking. The Circle offers many upscale shops and many touristy restaurants with different dining possibilities. The only downside is the traffic, which often turns the area into a parking lot while you sit in your car and wait and wait.
With its spectacular sunsets, manageable waves, impeccably clean and soft white sand, and clear warm water, is there a U.S. beach nicer than Lido adjacent to St. Armand Circle? With our feet in the water, we took substantive walks along the shore of the more sparsely populated Lido North beach a number of times.
Other splendid public beaches include Siesta Key (often listed among the best U.S. beaches), Coquina , Manatee, Holmes, Anna Maria and Bradenton. None of these beaches, including the aforementioned Lido, charges for parking. However, if you go to Siesta Key, go early, or you may not get a parking place.
One of the pre-eminent sites is the Ringling Museum, which has a fine art collection and excellent exhibitions, although some of John Ringlng’s purchases turned out to be from the workshops of the masters rather than by their actual hand. In the permanent collections are works by Titian, Veronese, Bassano and Rubens, as well as a stunning world-class Velazquez (“Philip IV”). During our visit we also saw a fine special exhibit on the Ming Dynasty.
As befitting the Ringling family’s sponsorship of the Ringling Circus, the museum houses in an adjacent building a circus collection that presents the history of the U.S. circus, with a stress on the Ringling Brothers’ various circuses. John Ringling’s restored mansion Ca’ d’Zan is also on the premises and open to visitors.The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens feature tropical plants and is worth a visit.
Demonstration at DeSoto Memorial, Bradenton (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
I recommend a visit to the De Soto National Monument in Bradenton. The site not only includes historical exhibitions as well as presentations by Monument staff, but also walking trails. After landing in Florida in 1539, the Spanish Hernando de Soto led the first European expedition deep into the modern-day U.S. In fact, he was a ruthless megalomaniac who put the pursuit of his goals ahead of the lives of his followers and the Indians he encountered.
While Florida was settled original by the Spanish, in 1763 Spain traded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for control of Cuba but received Florida back in 1783 and then ceded the land to the U.S. in 1821. Florida became the 27th state in 1845.
Cut-Out on nature trail at DeSoto Memorial, Bradenton (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
Cut-Out on nature trail at DeSoto Memorial, Bradenton Cut-Out on nature trail at DeSoto Memorial, Bradenton (Photo: Marcia Jacobson) The Van Wexel Performing Arts Hall hosts ballet, classical music and popular performers. During our visit the Moscow Ballet was offering “The Nutcracker” ballet.
The Asolo Repertory Theatre presents an array of mostly classical and Broadway plays, including this past holiday season a well-received “West Side Story.”
After a week on the west coast (which also includes Tampa, Naples, Sanibel, and Fort Myers), we drove across Florida— a peninsula and the third most populous state after California and Texas -- to the east coast (which includes Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Palm Beach). From Sarasota to our destination, the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa, our trip took about 3½ hours.
The water taxis that navigate the canals offer the best way to see Fort Lauderdale. The taxi ticket is about $20 and lets you get on and off whenever you wish for one full day. The canals are part of the U.S. inland waterway system and the reason the city is sometimes called America’s Venice. We spent a full 6½ hours on the taxis, with one stop of about an hour at Hollywood Beach, another of Florida’s famous sandy beaches; we walked the famous boardwalk there.
Water taxi, Fort Lauderdale (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
The water taxi will enable you to see huge lavish waterfront houses and sumptuous yachts. Fort Lauderdale is home to some ostentatious great wealth, much of it new money. The city is also home to Port Everglades, a major cruise port and one of the ten busiest container ports in the U.S., and the water taxi will give you a fine view of the busy port.
An excellent venue is the NSU Art Museum, which when we visited had exhibitions of Picasso ceramics and Lee Miller's photography as well as the featured exhibit on the relationship between modern art and the birth of television. A feature of the permanent collection is the museum’s sizeable holdings of the paintings of William Glackens who was an important realist and founder of the influential Ashcan movement.
With the rise of Airbnb and other brief home rentals, four- and even some five-star hotels in resort areas are evolving to provide more entertainment for families and perhaps fewer luxury features such as fine dining, turndown service, fresh sheet and towels daily, complimentary fresh juice for breakfast and evening music on the premises.
The Hyatt Regency has a good location, although it is not on the beach but rather on a lagoon. We had a nice room on the ninth floor with a balcony and a good view. The hotel adds a $15 daily resort fee to its charges; the fee includes use of kayaks, fishing gear and bait (pan fish can be caught off the dock) as well as a shuttle to Lido beach a few miles away for those who don’t rent a car.
There are countless small hotels in the area in various price ranges. An upscale hotel is the elegant Ritz-Carleton.
Port, Fort Lauderdale (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
The Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa is located on a beautiful sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean and provides a nice venue for a family or foe a romantic vacation. We enjoyed our ocean view room and swimming in the ocean.
The hotel has a large outdoor pool, but for a place calling itself a resort hotel, it could use an indoor pool for non-beach days. On rainy, cool and windy days -- which covered about half of our stay -- there isn’t much to do on the hotel premises except go to the nice gym. Thus, a rental car is essential.
The hotel charges a daily resort fee which covers wi-fi charges (already free for Marriott gold or platinum members) and two chairs and an umbrella on the beach as well as kayaking every day for an hour on the rare days when the lack of wind permits it. The hotel advertises snorkeling, but in fact they infrequently organize it and participants need to swim 150 to 200 yards in an ocean that is often fairly rough. The resort -- or the rather indifferent company they hire for water sports -- lacks a snorkeling boat. The hotel does provide a program for children.
The hotel often cancels the fitness classes included in the resort fee and does little to amuse its guests when there isn’t beach weather. On such days, the hotel might show films or give guests free access to the pay-for- view films or bring in some live music.
The hotel needs a bit of sprucing up. The safe was broken and needed to be replaced; the wi-fi in rooms is glacially slow, and the beach chairs could be newer. The hotel seemed a tad spiffier when we visited a handful of years ago and it is pricey, but we still found the staff anxious to please and would recommend it despite my caveats and my feeling it needs to evolve into a resort with sufficient activities in all weather.
Courtyard Miami Airport West (in the small city of Doral) where we overnighted and from which we flew to Montego Bay, Jamaica, is serviceable and has a heated outdoor pool and a basic fitness room.
Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant and Oyster Bar, an informal, casual place overlooking a creek, is one of our favorites in the area but it does not take reservations and is very busy in season. It is best to arrive early, certainly before 6 p.m. This time we had delicious soft-shelled crabs as our main course; in the past we have enjoyed grouper and fresh oysters. This restaurant is fun and a terrific value.
The funky, informal Blue Rooster in Sarasota has a blues band on some nights. The moderately priced Southern cuisine — gumbo, fried chicken, cold slaw, biscuits — is nothing to get excited about. But the excellent blues band—TC Carr (vocal and harmonica) and Bolts of Blue with Josh Neims, a fine guitarist—was well worth the visit.
Columbia on St. Armand’s Circle, has a Spanish motif and is part of a small local chain dating to 1905. The restaurant has expanded a great deal since my first visit in the 1970s and now seats several hundred people. We spilt a huge serviceable paella preceded by soup, mediocre gazpacho for me and Spanish bean for Marcia. No one would confuse this with a gourmet venue. For the area, the prices are fair and the service a bit spasmodic.
Sand Pipers on Lido Beach, Sarasota (Photo: Marcia Jacobson)
While not elegant high-end dining, Currents at the Sarasota’s Hyatt has fine fresh fish, notably grouper, tasty conch chowder, generous salad, and fine service. The bread was hardly NYC standard and needs be improved. We also had lunch at the Hurricane Hut by the pool where the simple menu is resort-priced and the hamburger and fish tacos were more than adequate. The breakfast — included in our package -- was respectable; the berries, which we had to ask for since they were not on the buffet, were quite good, notably the wonderful strawberries.
The Sandbar Restaurant located on the water at the north end of Anna Maria Island is worth a visit for the sunset. Over the years, the food has been reasonably good at this casual restaurant, but the stress is on the seaside atmosphere.
Crab and Fin is among the best and most professional of the St. Armand’s Circle restaurants, and their early bird from 5 to 5:45 pm is an excellent value. Marcia had the half-pound stone crab and I the gumbo, and we had appetizers in the form of eggplant crepes and gazpacho and concluded by sharing key lime pie. The food is regional rather than gourmet, but this is an establishment that respects food and prepares it with care.
Tyler’s Homemade Ice Cream (Cortez Rd W. Bradenton) I have been eating their wonderful ice cream on and off since 1984 and recommend a visit.
Kilwin’s Chocolates (St. Armand’s Circle and part of a chain mostly in Florida but also in other states) has wonderful (if somewhat pricey) home-made candy and ice cream.
Fort Lauderdale and Miami Restaurants
Moderately priced for its quality, Casablanca Café is always reliable for fresh fish such as grouper, swordfish, salmon and snapper. On one visit, I had seafood linguini in red sauce with lobster base. We had been there on a prior visit, and find it lively with a nice atmosphere. If you don’t have a reservation, look for a table near the bar.
Thasos Taverna (3330 E. Oakland Street) is a polished, upscale Greek calamari restaurant, beautifully appointed. We shared small portions of superbly prepared calamari, large lamb meatballs and chicken souvlaki. But the highlight was the black grouper served with squash puree, and black rice.
3030 at the Marriott, where we had dined a few times on a prior visit to the area, has a new chef Adrienne Grenier. It is still one of Fort Lauderdale’s better restaurants and worth a visit, even if you are staying elsewhere. One night, we had the sautéed Florida flounder and local swordfish as entrees; both were imaginatively prepared. Another night, we had the grilled black grouper, served with sweet potatoes, trumpet mushrooms and green coconut curry sauce. As a starter, the squid ink linguine with peekytoe crab was wonderful. The charred octopus starter was beautifully prepared. For desert, we split a fresh fruit tart that was quite good. The oysters were disappointingly small — indeed tiny -- although fresh and nicely presented.
At the Marriott hotel’s informal pool restaurant, we had a hamburger and mahi-mahi sandwich, and both were quite respectable.
Reasonably priced, Paracon Pisao in the Doral area near the Miami airport, is an informal Columbian restaurant with a local following. It is an area with quite a few ethnic restaurants, especially Latin-American. We had tasty, carefully seasoned fish dishes with interesting sauces. Don’t miss the fresh lemonade.
Sand Hill Crane, Bradenton (Photo: Picasa)
Pleasures of our Florida visit: warm sunny weather, white sandy beaches, long beach walks in our bare feet, ocean swimming and wading, museums, sightseeing and dining on splendid fresh sea food.
Author of numerous travel articles and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition).), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.