Two decades ago a little girl stood on a hot tennis court grumpily swatting at yellow balls, her parents' dreams of a professional tennis career dashed. She counted the minutes until she could get back to the beach with her sisters...
With that sunny stretch of sand still in my mind, I decided to give Sarasota, on the Florida Gulf Coast, another shot with my own family. It was the middle of February and we were desperate for a long weekend of much-needed sun. What we got was a record-breaking freeze. Thankfully, Sarasota has a lot more than beautiful beaches (and there are plenty). Here's what we discovered:
° An amazing aquarium. The Mote Marine Laboratory offers sea turtles, dolphins, and an adorable manatee named Hugh, that my son Miles thought looked like my dad.
° Florida's largest bird sanctuary. The Save Our Birds Wild Bird Learning Center is home to hundreds of injured owls, pelicans, and other seabirds, teaching the kids that animals get boo-boos, too.
° Some damn good restaurants. Yes, we spent a lot of time eating, and I wasn't going to let a little cold ruin my dream of lounging on a terrace with a cocktail. There's Mar Vista, hidden at the end of Long Boat Key (order the fried calamari); the Italian Salute for dinner; the Peruvian Selva Grill, with tangy Pisco Sours; the diner-like Blue Dolphin Cafe for blueberry pancakes; and my sons' favorite, the waterfront, no-frills Old Salty Dog, where all the seafood is fried--and then fried again.
° Beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. We spent an entire afternoon wandering around these 14 acres, which are filled with bamboo and banyan groves, orchids and bromeliads, and a mangrove forest. The best part: the indoor Kids' Corner, an interactive space with plant-themed books, puzzles, activities and crafts.
There's more: The renowned Ringling Art Museum, a downtown with great galleries, and of course, lots of good ice cream parlors (a must-stop for every afternoon).
As for where to stay, the Long Boat Key Club is right on the beach and ideal for families: 2 and 3 bedroom suites with everything you need—dining table, kitchen, a super-friendly staff, and a flat screen TV for movie nights if you decide to stay in.