florida-bradenton-sarasota

Unwinding on Florida's Gulf Coast

Foody Traveller Irene Campbell stopped off at Bradenton, Florida to sample the local food and culture.

Just a 20 minute drive south of Sarasota on Florida's Gulf Coast is Bradenton. It is mainly a retirement area: a popular choice for the winter influx of 'snowbirds' - the term for Americans and Canadians who head south during the winter months. The main activities of this gentle community are long lunches and good value retail therapy. It's a pleasant place to visit and the welcome is warm.

This part of Florida is not on the main tourist trail, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to do. A relaxed afternoon will take you the whole length of Anna Maria Island from the north down through Longboat Key, which stretches offshore from Bradenton to Sarasota. Drive leisurely down this narrow Key and watch the sea and beach just yards away on the right or catch glimpses of the luxury beachfront houses and upmarket blocks of condominiums on the left.

With food prices in the supermarkets surprisingly high by English standards, we found it more economical to eat out. The choice and range of food outlets is huge – from tasty Italian cuisine with the atmosphere to go with it at Carraba's, to chicken wings and impossibly big steak portions at Applebees. But for choice the Oyster Bar, with fresh seafood and delightful waiters nudged itself ahead of the competition. Here you can eat alligator (see the panel to the right), a wide range of seafood and fresh fish at great value prices.

The Beachhouse (200 Gulf Drive) will fill you up on a $9 pork sandwich or a seafood pasta for $13. Ed Chiles bought the Old Harbour House in 1993 and remodelled it so you can sit on the spacious covered deck by Bradenton beach and take in the spectacular view of the Sarasota Bay and Bradenton beyond.

Horse surfing

Walk past the fishermen on the boardwalk of Anna Maria Pier to the City Pier restaurant. With its bare floorboards, welcoming unpretentious feel of this traditional eaterie and its spectacular views over the sea this was my favourite. Despite not being a seafood lover, I just couldn't resist the choice of crab, lobster, shrimp, tuna, squid, clam chowder, lobster bisque, tilapia –each for less than $10 and imaginatively prepared.

The crown though on Anna Maria Island is the Sandbar (also owned by Ed Chiles) at 100 Spring Avenue. Here the Szechuan Tilapia (white fish flakes coated in Japanese breadcrumbs) is a classic. Diners can also take part in the daily betting to guess the exact time the sun sets over the bay. Opened in 1911 when the only way to the island was by boat it was a favourite for visitors from Tampa.

Sandbar Restaurant

Sarasota is the centre of culture in this part of Florida. It houses the marble Venetian style palace of the Ringling family, the Ca' de Zan. John Ringling was a circus entrepreneur and financier, who often travelled round Europe with his wife Mable where they came to appreciate the finer pleasures of the continent's dazzling architecture and design. In 1924 he commissioned New York architect Dwight James Baum to build their dream home. Completed in 1926 this ostentatious, breathtaking mansion became the epicentre of Sarasota cultural life. It is worth paying for the extra tour to look at the private apartments upstairs, which are slightly less formal than the lavish excesses on the ground floor. Don't be put off by the bossy stewards who have an acute herding instinct.

Ringling also built a separate art gallery to house his collection of art. The paintings, which include works of famous artists like Klimt, Burne Jones, Gainsborough, Rubens, Titian, Velazquez and Hals are well worth seeing.

To complete the trio of attractions there is the circus museum, established in 1948. It was the first museum to document the rich history of the American circus and contains a fine collection of rare handbills, performing props and circus equipment.

Bequeathed on Ringling's death to the state of Florida in 1936, the complex can be found on the campus of the Florida State University on 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota.

For plant lovers there is the Marie Selby Botanical Garden located just a few miles away at 900 S Palm Avenue. Its conservatories are filled with lush rainforest plants such as orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytes (plants that grow on trees). There are bamboo, mangrove and banyan groves, and an impressive, peaceful Koi pond. Specialist gardens, following on one into another, feature ferns, hibiscus, succulents and wildflowers.

Marie Selby Botanical

William and Marie Selby can best be described as low key millionaires who are remembered for their down to earth attitudes and frugal lifestyles. She was an accomplished pianist and he owned an oil and gas company. They built their house in the 1920s on the five acre tract of land on Sarasota Bay which is now the Botanical Garden. Great philanthropists, they left their huge fortune in a charitable trust to help young people.

Between the good value meals, the glorious climate, the beautiful Sarasota Bay and the legacies of the wealthy early Floridians it is easy to see why the area is so popular with the snowbirds, and younger visitors too, for whom theme parks have little appeal.

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