Sarasota has natural charm, thanks to the series of barrier islands along the coast known as the keys. Lido Key, St Armands Key and Siesta Key are famous for their white quartz beaches awash with shells. They get plenty of admirers, with people returning year on year to enjoy another slice of life on the coast.
But Sarasota is more than just a pretty face. This area of Florida is known as the ‘cultural coast’ – a legacy that started when John Ringling established his circus here during the 19th century. As well as building the magnificent Ringling Estate, his money enriched the town – including the picturesque St Armands Circle. The cultural coast is now a playground for holidaymakers and shoppers seeking quirky souvenirs, shell-based decorations, or just a place to dine out on balmy evenings.
The beaches continue next door at Anna Marie island by the city of Bradenton, whilst a local art community maintains the area’s cultural credentials.
On one side of the hotel there’s a beach as wide as a smile. On the other side, there’s a sheltered lagoon for watercraft.
Not only can you enjoy a near-perfect beach at Longboat Key, but there's beach service, too.Book a stay
For the best beach: The Resort at Longboat Key Club
This beautiful resort offers plenty of activities – and a stunning key setting.
The lowdown… Longboat Key Club is a popular beach resort on the end of the key, just two miles from St Armands Circle. It’s beautifully situated on the point of a long, narrow peninsula: on one side of the hotel there’s a beach as wide as a smile. On the other side, there’s a sheltered lagoon for watercraft. Longboat Key Club attracts heaps of return visitors – many of them looking to play tennis; with 20 courts, the area is a player’s dream. Book a coaching session to fine-tune your service. If you’ve come for golf, just look behind you – there’s 45 holes of golf in your back yard. For a more relaxed stay, sink into a massage-induced oblivion at the hotel spa, order a special ‘smokey’ Old Fashioned at the bar, then wake up early to use the hotel’s meditation labyrinth (providing you’re New Age enough to know what one is).
Insider’s tip…Get your kids ready for complimentary beach games on Fridays and Saturdays from 4pm.
For lovely luxury: The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota
Relax – you’re at the Ritz. This imposing hotel near Sarasota’s cultural quarter looks good from all angles.
The lowdown…The Ritz-Carlton has three locations: the hotel proper, the Beach Club and the Golf Club – and free shuttle buses whizz you between the three. Start at the hotel, a magnificent building sitting on the Sarasota waterfront. The water is lovely and calm, perfect for paddle boarding (pick up a board at the hotel.) Rooms have marble bathrooms and private balconies, and there's an onsite spa. Nab an outdoor seat at Jack Dusty for your evening dinner – starting with the oysters – or join the nightly sunset celebrations at the beach club.
The impeccable beach club facilities are situated three miles away, on serene Lido Key. Here you can pick up a body board or a fishing pole, or sit at the beach bar, keeping your eyes peeled for emerging baby turtles down on the sand. The Golf Club is a half-hour shuttle ride away and features a stupendous 18-hole course. The course is accessible for all players – and your caddie might pass on some helpful hints about each hole. A handy shuttle service also takes you to St Armands circle, so you can have a night on the town and get home safe.
Insider’s tip…Make a day of it at the Golf Club – your caddie can call ahead from 9th tee to make a reservation for your party at the Golf Club Grille.
Right this way
The sea really is just steps away when you stay at The Sandcastle Resort. Just follow the sand all the way to the beach.£989 ppBook a stay
Enjoy the rooms at The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. All rooms have balconies and comfy king-sized beds.£1122 ppBook a stay
Did you know…
John Ringling was once one of the richest men in Sarasota, building an amazing mansion that would have cost $21 million today. He died nearly penniless after the Great Depression and you can now explore his Italian-inspired house, which once had its own gondola. Ca' d'Zan simply means 'House of John' in Venetian dialect.£299 returnBook flights
For families: Sandcastle Resort
Fab, fun and affordable, Sandcastle Resort is a three-star hotel right on the edge of beautiful Lido Beach.
The lowdown…Staying in the Sandcastle Resort is like revisiting Old Florida. Set in a mid-century two-storey building on the beach, if this hotel is a little dated inside, it makes up for it with its lovely Gulf location. There’s no misnomer: Sandcastle Resort really is right on the sand, and its beach is a classic Gulf Coast beauty. Shells wash up on the shoreline and you might spot a dolphin pod passing by. Kids can have fun playing corn hole (a bean bag toss game), shuffleboard or table tennis. On movie night, your whole family can hunker down by the pool for the screening and the hotel staff will provide the popcorn. Book a gulf-front room for balcony views and enjoy the slightly hokey interior design. For evenings out, St Armands Circle, with its independent eateries and convivial atmosphere, is just a five-minute drive away.
Insider’s tip…Try taking an aqua cycle for a spin – it’s a huge, floating plastic tricycle. Ride it over the waves like a pedalo.
For a budget stay: Shorewalk Vacation Villas
Set in Bradenton, Shorewalk Vacation Villas make self-catering easy.
The lowdown…With leafy tropical grounds, fountains, and tennis court, the Shorewalk Vacation Villas are an attractive prospect if you want to stay in Bradenton – especially if you’re on a longer stay, or want to save money on food. The villas are equipped with kitchens and washing machines; and if you’re planning to self-cater, there’s a Publix grocery store within walking distance. There are restaurants and bars nearby, too, on Cortez Road. You’ll need a car to drive the 8km to Anna Maria Island and Bradenton Beach, but you’ll be rewarded by a fantastic strip of sand on the Gulf.
Insider’s tip…Take a morning walk along Bean Point at the top of Anna Maria Island. Come early enough to this secluded beach and you’ll have the pick of the best washed up shells.
For exploring Sarasota’s cultural district: Hyatt Regency Sarasota
A sleek city-centre hotel that’s well-equipped for both business and leisure travellers.
The lowdown…The Hyatt Regency may look business-like – and in fact it has 20,000 square feet of event space ready for professional events – but its location and lovely facilities make it great for any traveller. Set on the waterfront with its own marina, it’s just a few minutes from Sarasota’s cultural district and you can use the hotel’s free shuttle to reach the beach. Just a little inland from the hotel is Sarasota’s up-and-coming Rosemary District, where there are new restaurants to try. Sniff them out before the rest of the tourists catch on. Within the hotel there’s a long, wiggly swimming pool surrounded by pink deck chairs and waterfalls, plus a well-equipped gym. Rooms are bright and modern. Swim, sunbathe or let off steam on the running machine – it’s up to you.
Insider’s tip…The marina is a good, calm place to set off on a paddle board or kayak expedition – rent yours at the hotel.