Lido Key Rent a cabana at the snack bar by the main entrance. North Lido is less developed and less crowded; South Lido Park is surrounded by water on all sides—the Gulf, the bay, Big Pass, and Bushy Bayou.
Siesta Key For privacy, skip Siesta's busy Crescent Beach and hunt for shells on the south end of the key at Turtle Beach. Even more secluded is dune-backed Palmer Point Beach, which extends from the southern tip of Siesta to the very remote Casey Key.
Longboat Key The powdery beach stretches for 10 miles, but access is limited unless you're staying at one of the resorts or condos along its expanse.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Orchids—6,000 of them—are the big draw, but some 20,000 other varieties of tropical plants are on display at this 81/2-acre bayfront reserve. A hibiscus garden features enormous blossoms in colors ranging from the palest yellows and pinks to rare browns and blacks. On December 6 and 7, visitors can wander through the gardens by candlelight. Admission $10 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 941/366-5731 www.selby.org
Myakka River State Park A seven-mile scenic drive, 38 miles of hiking trails, and boat excursions let you observe shorebirds, hawks, eagles, and lots of alligators up close. The new canopy walkway and tower put you up in the treetops in this 29,000-acre park of swampy wetlands, grass prairies, pine forests, and lakes. $4 per car State Rd. 72, 17 miles east of U.S. 41 941/361-6511
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium On a 101/2-acre stretch of Sarasota Bay, the lab and aquarium houses a 135,000-gallon shark tank, two touch pools for interacting with the marine life, and manatee, turtle, and mollusk exhibits. $12 per person 1600 Ken Thompson pkwy., Sarasota 941/388-4441; www.mote.org
WHERE TO EAT
Michael's on East A pianist tickles the ivories every night at what has been Sarasota's most popular dining institution for more than a decade. The inventive contemporary American menu is always excellent: grilled breast of duck with shiitake fondue and fig-and-pecan risotto; Zinfandel-braised short ribs with porcini mushrooms and white-truffle-oil mashed potatoes. 1212 East Ave. S., Sarasota; 941/366-0007; dinner for two $100.
Colony Dining Room Many of Sarasota's best chefs were trained at this beachfront restaurant where waves crash just outside the windows. Grilled rack of Colorado lamb is one of chef Roger Hopkins's trademarks, along with "red snapper Colony," prepared with wild-mushroom risotto, lump crabmeat, and sun-dried tomatoes and served in a French basil beurre blanc. The Colony's Monkey Room, with palm trees and a deck out back, is a more casual and less costly option. 1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-5558; dinner for two $90.
Maison Blanche When José and Victoria Martínez transplanted their restaurant here from Paris earlier this year, French cuisine in Sarasota reached a new high. In the orchid-filled 50-seat dining room, everything is made from scratch, including the bread and the ice cream. The $60 tasting menu is worth the splurge. 2605 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-8088; dinner for two $120.
Vernona Named for the 1920's hotel that once stood on the property, the Vernona has old-world class without the haughtiness. Chef Frederic Morineau creates Mediterranean dishes with local ingredients. Try his grilled ahi tuna steak with Key lime butter and Parmesan polenta. The Sunday brunch—with a sushi bar and caviar station—merits the $50-a-person tab. Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; 941/309-2000; dinner for two $100.
Summerhouse In a former life, the tropical-themed restaurant was a nursery, and greenery still surrounds much of the patio. The macadamia-nut shrimp appetizer and char-grilled meat and fish are served in the main room. The Treetop Lounge offers snacks and weekend brunch, as well as live music nightly. 6101 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key; 941/349-1100; dinner for two $80.
Silver Cricket The sleek and sophisticated space has garnered an equally trendy clientele. The real reason they keep coming back, though, is the French-Asian fusion dishes, like the ginger-lime chicken skewers, rock shrimp with lobster-lemongrass broth, and sweet scallops in jasmine-infused coconut milk. For a digestif, hit the bar, which hums right up until the 2 a.m. closing. 1923 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; 941/955-9179; dinner for two $90.
Ophelia's on the Bay On a balmy night, when the moon is high over the water, Ophelia's waterfront terrace is the most romantic place in town. Chef Mitch Rosenbaum infuses fruit flavors into many of his dishes, such as the roast duckling with dark rum, pineapple, and banana compote, or the coconut-and-cashew-crusted grouper with papaya jam. Don't leave without tasting the macadamia nut torte. 9105 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key; 941/349-2212; dinner for two $85.
Pattigeorge's Chef Tommy Klauber spices up his menu with the unexpected: shrimp-and-lemongrass-chicken pizza; upside-down mango-polenta cake. If all you want is a snack, order a small plate of tangy-sweet ribs or a sizzling bowl of stir-fried chicken and settle into a seat overlooking the bay. 4120 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-5111; dinner for two $60.
Fred's On Friday and Saturday nights, Sarasota's hipsters head for Fred's, where the bar is always standing-room-only and the dining room gets as loud as a rock concert. The menu lists comfort-food classics such as chicken pot pie and thick slices of meat loaf. Late-night tapas, pizzas, and salads are available at the bar. 1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota; 941/364-5811; dinner for two $60.
Citrus Café Shoppers on Pineapple Avenue and theatergoers from the Film Society across the street grab lunch on the café's sunny patio. House specialties are grilled balsamic chicken on focaccia bread with a goat-cheese spread, and poached salmon salad. 543 S. Pineapple Ave.; 941/957-0432; lunch for two $20.