BY DAVE KELLY
Everywhere you look, Florida is growing. Vehicles scurry about on our overstuffed streets and highways. Concrete towers sprout up along our beachfronts. New shopping centers break ground daily.
Is there anywhere in this state that is addressing the situation and growing in a responsible eco-friendly manner, offering us a greener outlook for current and future generations?
Enter the city of Sarasota.
While many metropolitan areas in the state focus their tourism and outdoor activities on man-made rides and overcrowded beaches, this southwest coast Florida town of around 55,000 people shows off her outdoor friendly chops with green community grounds, pristine public parks, lush botanical gardens, and nature-driven attractions and activities, all while enveloping you in a gentle artistic vibe.
WHERE TO START
Exploring the area is achieved easily by using Art Ovation Hotel in quaint downtown Sarasota as a home base. Just steps from the shores of Sarasota Bay yet central to boutique shops and restaurants, this art-inspired hotel nods to the rich cultural history that the city is known for.
Art Ovation Hotel’s expansive lobby features rotating art exhibits and live musical performances, occasionally hosting creative workshops. Its colorful on-site restaurant, Tzeva, offers locally inspired dishes, and the eclectic Perspective Rooftop Pool Bar provides not only the chance for a dip but also stunning views of downtown and the nearby marina.
It is an easy walk to the Bay Park Conservancy, a lush 53-acre parcel owned by the city and known simply as The Bay. This public park, cozied up to Sarasota Bay and accessible to everyone, includes walking tours, fitness and yoga classes, monthly movie nights and more, all free.
With Phase One of its extensive reshaping nearing completion, The Bay’s award-winning design has expanded to include more than 14 acres of revitalized greenspace, including The Ibis kids’ playground, the sweeping Mangrove Bayou Walkway, an outdoor reading room, an ADA-accessible paddle launch, as well as restored and preserved mangrove-lined shorelines with spectacular sunset views.
In addition to such programs as the family-friendly Walking in Wonder guided nature tour, there is a free kayak excursion on Saturday mornings that offers the area’s flora and fauna with an expert guide who helps to educate on The Bay’s conservation efforts.
The Bay Park Conservancy is committed to their “One Park for All” concept, providing open and accessible green spaces for free, showcasing the full and rich diversity of the community and transforming these 53 acres of city owned land into a blue and green oasis, now and for generations to come.
Photo by Dave Kelly
MARIE SELBY BOTANICAL GARDENS
Just south of Art Ovation Hotel lies another swath of lush coastal greenery – the downtown Sarasota campus of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Founded almost a half century ago by philanthropist Marie Selby “for the enjoyment of the general public”, the Gardens celebrates its 50th anniversary in October with a $100 million expansion to showcase everything from the property’s collection of air plants to a cutting-edge research lab to a new Welcome Center.
This world-class destination for plant research and conservation occupies 15 acres of land that also serves as a cool retreat from the Florida heat. The park features one of the world’s largest and most scientifically-documented collections of epiphytes, a type of flora which includes air-plants such as orchids and bromeliads, leading it to come to be recognized internationally for its research and scope.
Phase One of the new project will include the multi-purpose Living Energy Access Facility, or LEAF, a hurricane-resistant structure housing an expanded gift and plant shop, parking, and a 50,000 square-foot solar array, generating one megawatt of power. This regenerative design approach allows the LEAF to be the only building at any botanical garden that can claim a net-positive energy rating.
It will also feature a new garden-to-table restaurant, The Selby House Café by Michael’s on East, with many of its menu items prepared from plants grown on site. A new library is also in the works to showcase the world’s most comprehensive collection of rare books and illustrations that feature epiphytes.
In 2020, Selby Gardens adopted Historic Spanish Point as a second campus, increasing their green footprint to 45 acres of bayfront sanctuary. Both locations feature events regularly that are open to the public, such as the upcoming Lights at Spooky Point event at the Historic Spanish Point campus, October 13th through 31st.
SEEING SEA LIFE
If all that time spent next to Sarasota Bay has you yearning to get out on the water, then check out Sarasota Bay Explorers. Located on the campus of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on City Island, this family-friendly enterprise offers up eco-boat tours and bay cruises to experience and understand the delicate balance of sea life in Sarasota Bay and Roberts Bay.
Sarasota Bay Explorers features sunset cruises and private charters, but we were interested in the Sea Life Encounter Eco Tour, an informative and hands-on excursion to observe Florida manatees and bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat while learning about the area’s ecology, history, and folklore. The trip ran two hours.
We set out from the dock at Mote and were immediately immersed in the marine landscape surrounding us. Despite being just offshore of a big city, we observed herons, ibis, and pelicans roosting in native island habitats, reminding us of how seriously Sarasota takes its commitment to preserving and understanding the natural environment. During our trip, we watched in amazement as numerous dolphin pods swam up to and around our boat, playfully joining us on our journey.
As we headed back in to the dock, the Sarasota Bay Explorers staff tossed out a large trawl net, procuring dozens of sea creatures. They brought them onto the boat, handled them with care while passing them around, then releasing them humanely back into the bay. During the experience we had a first-hand glimpse of puffer fish, sea horses, crabs, angel fish, and more.
If you have kids, do not miss this fascinating trip. Mote members receive a discounted ticket rate.
Photo by Dave Kelly
MYAKKA ELEPHANT RANCH
In keeping with the ecological theme of our trip, we visited the Myakka Elephant Ranch just outside of town.
Founder Lou Barreda visited South Africa in 2018 to attend the International Elephant Conservation and Research Symposium, and he was so moved by what he learned there that he came back to the area and opened the Myakka Elephant Ranch in 2019. Since then, visitors from around the world have come to the ranch to learn and explore.
The Myakka Elephant Ranch educates the public and raises money for research and upkeep by providing intimate elephant encounters hosted and guided by professional caregivers. On-site resident elephants Lou, who is an African savannah elephant, and Carol and Patty, who are Asian elephants, receive baths assisted by ranch guests at least once a day as the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires.
Elephants are highly dependent on water, and these baths – plus an 80,000 gallon watering hole – keep them healthy and happy. The bath and feeding experiences provide unforgettable memories for guests visiting the shaded 30 acre ranch.
Your visit and donations help support the Ranch and the International Elephant Foundation.
So next trip, get away from the concrete jungle and explore nature and the outdoors in Sarasota.
While you are in Sarasota, enhance your stay by visiting these amazing restaurants whose core values align with the green nature of a trip like this.
Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood. – Just blocks from Art Ovation Hotel in the heart of downtown, this local favorite features dishes sourced from the finest ingredients that Sarasota’s local fishermen and farmers have to offer. Delicious fresh-caught menu items created with unique local recipes have ensured their top spot as Sarasota’s Best Seafood for eight years running.
Café L’Europe - Inspired by the world’s finest bistros, this landmark eatery is located at the heart of St. Armands Circle, the cool shopping/entertainment district. For almost 50 years, this iconic restaurant has featured European culinary tradition and an inspired menu of scratch-made dishes using local, sustainable ingredients. An extensive classic wine list, craft beers, and live piano music welcome guests to their old-world charm. Entrees such as potato-encrusted grouper and orecchiette primavera showcase a classic yet local touch.
99 Bottles Taproom and Bottle Shop - Named Best Beer Shop in U.S. last year by Wine Enthusiast, this quirky sidewalk café is a craft beer experience unlike any other. From breakfast to last call in the evening, beers from a world-class tap list are available for your enjoyment. Over two dozen draft beers and the famed “99 bottles of beer” on their wall make choosing your beverage a challenge that you somehow never get wrong. The firm features a Weekend New York Bagel Brunch that includes scratch bagels from New York City as well as pop-up kitchens nightly that specialize in rotating menus.
Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection
The Bay Park Conservancy
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Sarasota Bay Explorers
Myakka Elephant Ranch
Duval’s Fresh Seafood
99 Bottles Taproom and Bottle Shop