Watching the waves from my towel on the blindingly white powder-fine sand of Sarasota’s Siesta Beach, I can easily see why it’s ranked among the top beaches in the United States. And the sunsets from nearby Lido Key Beach are as luminous in person as they appear both in photos and in my memories from the last time I visited Sarasota—it was the mid-’90s, and I was a surly teenager on a very long family road trip.
While the 13 kilometres of pristine Siesta Key shoreline haven’t changed much, and I am still semi-recognizable as that fresh-faced girl in Dr. Martens and sporty CMX knits, Sarasota—located on the Gulf Coast an hour south of Tampa—has undergone a creative transformation over the past two decades. In place of the somewhat sleepy, snowbird-friendly town I remember wishing was Miami or somewhere more brag-worthy, there’s now a vibrant, culture-rich city where Ai Weiwei sculptures, ceviche and art-themed boutique hotels abound in the bustling downtown. And tourists seem to be acknowledging the area’s new appeal: Sarasota County now receives over 2.7 million visitors a year. “A lot of people think of Sarasota as an older town,” says Lexi Huelsman, a local I meet while trying on Manolos at Designing Women Boutique, a must-visit consignment shop full of designer goodies like Chanel ballet flats and vintage Givenchy jewellery. “But it’s definitely getting younger, and now there are some really cool places to hang out in the city.” Huelsman is definitely right, as I discover over the next few days of exploring.
Never mind the rental that barely fit my extended family when we stayed nearby two decades ago; today you’ll find the city’s most luxurious lodgings at the new Westin and the nearby bayside Hyatt Regency. (The Regency offers activities such as kayaking and paddle boarding should you wish to get up from your lounger.) For design aficionados, there’s the brand-new Art Ovation (the rooftop bar is a must-visit) and the architecturally focused Sarasota Modern. The latter, scheduled to open in late 2018, is located near the buzzy Rosemary district, which is close to many of the city’s best restos and performing-arts spaces.
HAVE MORE TIME? No chill-out holiday is complete without a visit to a spa. I try the “Westin Wellness Journey,” which starts with an algae and Tahitian-black-sand scrub and finishes with a ridiculously relaxing essential-oil massage performed as you lie on an energizing crystal mat.
The Westin Sarasota
Because of its geography, Florida has access to both great seafood and local fruits and vegetables. (Produce is plentiful because of the region’s long growing season.) So come hungry. Head to Indigenous for innovative takes on local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients, such as wild-caught Gulf shrimp, from James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Steve Phelps. Selva has the best ceviche in the city (my favourite was the Hawaiian Wahoo), and if you’re looking for comfort food, Duval’s for a fancy dinner of lobster mac ’n’ cheese is a must.
HAVE MORE TIME? Save room for the guava-hibiscus ice pops at The Hyppo in St. Armands Circle and iced coffee made from craft-roasted beans downtown at Buddy Brew.
An ice pop from The Hyppo
The sandy beaches and warm Gulf water remain the top draws in Sarasota, but I manage to pull myself away for a few hours each day to explore more cerebral attractions. First stop is the charming Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which runs annual floral-themed art shows. (The most recent was a killer collection of Warhols that sets his famous Flowers-series silkscreens alongside lesser-known works.) Other top draws include James Turrell’s Joseph’s Coat Skyspace, an open-air chamber designed for sky-watching and reflection, and the intricate Ca’ d’Zan mansion, former home of John Ringling (of the Ringling circus family, some of the biggest benefactors to the arts in the city), both at the Ringling complex.
HAVE MORE TIME? I’m a home- decor enthusiast, so my favourite cultural adventure in the city was an eye-opening tour of Sarasota’s most iconic buildings and Cribs-worthy mansions. Must-sees include Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House, an award-winning mid-century home with a unique wood canopy, and the Philip Hiss studio next door, both located in modern-architecture mecca Lido Shores.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
I wasn’t planning on doing much shopping (ha!), but the city’s eclectic mix of posh boutiques, architectural salvage stores and consignment shops quickly won me over. The popular St. Armands Circle is still the place to run up the credit card if you’re looking for new designer frocks or fine jewellery, while the suburban University Town Center area has everything from Louis Vuitton to Nordstrom Rack.
HAVE MORE TIME? If there’s room in your suitcase, the 1,200-square-metre Woman’s Exchange is heaven for ikebana enthusiasts and milk-glass collectors.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.