With a February house guest, we were daunted to brave the traffic on Tamiami Trail and long waits for tables in restaurants so full, they don’t need to accept reservations. The challenge was writ large: to find seclusion and enjoyment in this slice of (finally red tide-free) paradise when about 90,000 snowbirds have come to roost. Here’s what we discovered during our mini staycation.
Get off the beach and into a boat. Yup, just you, your closest friends and some of the most beautiful waters on the U.S. shoreline. Avoid the world-famous beaches in season where it takes a wizard to find a parking spot and you can hardly see the sand between bumper-to-bumper umbrellas. Although the intracoastal can sometimes boast as many vessels as the Trail, there are hidden spots to be discovered that are not accessible by car or foot. Here are three ringers:
- Midnight Pass between Siesta Key and Casey Key was once an open inlet for boat traffic. With the shifting currents (and efforts of neighboring property owners confronted with beach erosion), the waterway was filled with sand, creating a remote land bridge accessible by boat. Only a few miles away, Siesta, Nokomis and Venice beaches are bursting at the seams. Not here. Midnight Pass Beach is a tropical oasis with room to shore only about 10 boats and a sprinkling of kayaks on the intracoastal side.
A short walk to the Gulf and you’ve found the most pristine, quiet beach in the County. There’s no snack bar in this private utopia. Bring your own nibbles and libations and let the sun and relaxation soak in. Keep your eye out for celebrities — you might bump into Stephen King walking his dog. You guessed it: He’s one of the property owners who lives adjacent to Midnight Pass.
Where to find your day boat? CB’s Saltwater Outfitters and Siesta Key Marina have a full selection of rentals. A pontoon boat is a popular choice for lazy rides on the intracoastal. If you don’t have a valid boating license or just want to kick up your feet and enjoy the ride, rent a boat AND request a licensed captain to take the helm.
- Sandbars emerge at low tide. Find one and you own it … at least until high tide surges. They’re great to approach by sailboat. Many sandbars can be found near Sarasota Bay inlets, especially to the east where the channel meets the Gulf. Sandbars host a plethora of sea life hoisted from the sea floor for your discovery – live mollusks, sand dollars, starfish. Wander and wonder at the natural beauty of your private, albeit temporary, island.
Plan a late afternoon sandbar adventure to see the sun sink into the Gulf as your island slips underneath the waters. You’ll be only a few miles from Siesta Key, one of Florida’s sunset hotspots. Take in an unimpeded view of a Gulf Coast sunset from the water — it’s a near-religious experience. Without ever seeing the sun go down over the Gulf, perhaps Emily Dickinson described it best in her poem Sunset, “A sloop of amber slips away upon an ether sea, and wrecks in peace a purple tar, the son of ecstasy.”
- Fishing Charters will whisk you out into the great blue, beyond the water traffic of Sarasota Bay and the intracoastal. Although red snapper season doesn’t start until June, there are plenty of 20+-inch red grouper to be caught year ‘round. Game fish, too. Captain Charlie has local knowledge to catch the baitfish and the keepers! Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins at play and the occasional loggerhead turtle sighting.
Reap the rewards of your sunny day on the water. A sprinkle of seasoning, a little few minutes on the grill and voilà! Your fish dinner is served. You won’t get a fresher catch of the day at a local restaurant. No fish in the box? Nothing beats a cheeseburger in paradise. Whatever your choice, eat in to avoid the hour-and-a-half wait we experienced this February at a Sarasota-area seafood restaurant.