Florida Travel

Sarasota’s new & unknown

Free spirits fly at Sunday’s Siesta Key Drum Circle.
Free spirits fly at Sunday’s Siesta Key Drum Circle. Chelle Koster Walton

That moment when you realize you will be hooking up your own harness hardware (sans supervision) to the 650-foot TreeUmphant! zip line. Or when you realize that despite all training, you are coming into the landing backwards.

Which is more terrifying?

The canopy courses at TreeUmph! Adventure Course aim to empower and exercise guests. So terrified or not, you are in charge of your own safety and enjoyment as you maneuver one of several continuums of impossible sky-high swing and monkey bridges, hanging barrels, steep vertical ladders, tight ropes, net walkways, suspended climbing walls, bungee swings, Tarzan ropes, zip lines and other means of torture.

It’s designed for all ages, and of course the kids make it look easy. You pick your level of challenge after a bit of training, and you’re off on a new adventure.

New adventure seemed to be the theme of my latest visit to the Sarasota-Bradenton area as I discovered what’s new and what’s little-known.

Sarasota is known for its circus ties and its arts, but off the beaten path are things to do in the outdoors, children’s activities, different arts venues and a zip line.

The latter is the case of Hunsader’s Farm, to which you should plan a visit while you’re in the TreeUmph! vicinity. Besides its U-Pick farm and marketplace, the delightful property encompasses a playground, petting zoo, antiques store, and gift shop with yummy ice cream.


I have visited Sarasota countless times, but it seems I find something new-to-me every stay. I did not know, for instance, that in nearby Venice, where the Ringling Circus once headquartered, you can take trapeze lessons. I couldn’t fit it into my schedule, but Tito Gaona’s Academy & Flying Fantasy Circus is at the top of my bucket list for my next visit.

I did, however, get to meet Tito, a former Ringling performer of 20 years. He offers classes Wednesday and Friday evenings and for groups of three to seven by appointment. At his kids day camps (minimum age 5), attendees learn all of the circus arts including clowning, juggling, tight rope-walking and the flying trapeze. Campers come from all over the country, Gaona says.

So whereas most people who come to Sarasota visit the Ringling complex and its circus museums, you can, as Gaona says, “be the circus” instead.

If you’re looking to avoid the headliners for the offbeat in the Sarasota area, skip the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Head instead to Towles Court Artist Colony, a ramble of restored bungalows that hold studios, galleries and specialty boutiques. You can often find the artists at work there.

And whereas many visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens with its new elevated Children’s Rainforest Garden, few know about the Sarasota Children’s Garden, a fantasyland tucked away off-downtown. Kids have just plain old-fashioned fun in this park, where pirate ships, dragons and an octopus lurk.

Another spinoff of Sarasota’s circus reputation, Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary is operated by the Rosaire family of performers. The late animal trainer Derrick Rosaire, Sr., performed on The Lawrence Welk Show and Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His daughter, Kay, founded the sanctuary for rescued show tigers, lions and other animals.

Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, the sanctuary opens to visitors. A guided tour includes a big cat demonstration that is both entertaining and educational in respect to habitat preservation.

If you’re more about seeing animals in the wilds, visit nearby, off-the-beaten-path Celery Fields, a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail with an observation mound, trails, and boardwalks to accommodate visitors.


Sarasota is known for its haute cuisine and global fare. But for my money, the best eating can be found in a quiet little neighborhood known as Pinecraft, home to an Amish-Mennonite community and its delicious home-cooking restaurants famous for their pies. Yoder’s is the clear favorite for such specialties as fried chicken, meatloaf and coconut cream pie.

While in the neighborhood, stop at Alma Sue’s Quilts. Besides selling a diverse selection of quilts hand-stitched on the premises, it stocks quilting supplies and provides opportunity to watch the “plain people,” as the Amish and Mennonites refer to themselves, at work.

Stroll the park and mingle with the people with their long beards, bonnets and bicycles. Locals say it’s OK to take pictures respectfully. (If you get a scowl, turn your camera away, they advise.)

While traveling Interstate 75 to or from Sarasota, swing off on exit 191 and find your way to backwoods secret Snook Haven on the Myakka River. It has been operating as an old Florida restaurant and paddlecraft launch for ages but recently changed hands and focus. Its new smoked barbecue menu is the real thing: Try the pulled pork taco and yummy homemade chips while you watch kayakers and gators pass by in the river.

Another new dining spot won’t stay a secret for long. Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen at St. Armands Circle promises to become a legend by virtue of its skillet cornbread alone. It touts its “gourmet tacos” — grouper cheeks, filet mignon, orange-chili pork and such — but you won’t want to miss the S’mac & Cheese dishes.


Thousands of visitors flock to Siesta Key Beach, named best beach by experts and just regular old beach bums for its fine, white composition. Within the past few years, they are starting to come for another reason — a rather crazy drum circle that happens around sunset every Sunday. Let your freak flag fly and dance, drum and celebrate with the rest.

In east Sarasota, the new Nathan Benderson rowing park is a one-of-a-kind facility — the “Rose Bowl of rowing centers,” Bob Whitford, who manages operations, calls it. It’s the first to employ a wave attenuation system to soften choppiness, and teams and clubs from around the nation come here to practice and compete, including clubs from Miami, Whitford says.

The public comes to watch, fish, paddle their own crafts, and walk, bike or run the paved pathways around the linear lake. The park will be the Olympic rowing trials venue in April; in 2017 it hosts the World Rowing Championships. In the meantime, a new kayak rental facility, boathouse and judges tower are in the works.

Just next door to the park, the new Mall at University Town Center has opened. It boasts the first in-store Saks Fifth Avenue restaurant in Florida — Sophie’s at Saks, with craft cocktails and live entertainment.

New in the attractions department, The Center for Architecture opened this year, celebrating the Sarasota School of Architecture design principals and the progressive city’s other distinct styles. In 2016, the Ringling will debut its new Asian Art Wing.

In 2014, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index named Sarasota as America’s Top City for Wellbeing. A brand new Journey to Wellness program at The Resort at Longboat Key Club demonstrates the town’s commitment to wellbeing with packages that include unlimited fitness classes farm-to-table breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; a daily 50-minute massage; personal training sessions; consults with the on-site nutritionist; and the choice of one daily activity — golf, tennis, kayaking or paddle boarding.

And speaking of accommodations, Aloft Sarasota, a Starwood brand, is scheduled to open a 139-room hotel downtown in January. Westin also plans to debut a 255-room, full-service hotel overlooking Sarasota Bay next year.


Going to Sarasota

Alma Sue’s Quilts, 941-330-0993, www.almasue.com

Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, 941-371-6377, http://bigcathabitat.org

Celery Fields, 941-861-5000, www.scgov.net/parks

Hunsader’s Farm, 941-322-2168, www.hunsaderfarms.com

Nathan Benderson Park, 941-358-7275, www.worldclassrowing.com

The Resort at Longboat Key Club, 941-383-8821, www.longboatkeyclub.com

Sarasota Children’s Garden, 941-330-1711, www.sarasotachildrensgarden.com

Snook Haven, 941-485-7221, www.snookhaven.com (closed until Oct. 7)

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen, 941-960-1122, www.surfshackkitchen.com

Tito Gaona’s Academy & Flying Fantasy Circus, 941-412-9305, www.titogaona.com

Towles Court Artist Colony, www.towlescourt.com

TreeUmph! Adventure Course, 941-322-2130, http://treeumph.com

Yoder’s Restaurant, 941-955-7771, www.yodersrestaurant.com