The whole wild world: from art to zoo, Sarasota spells "attractions".
But the variety of our recreational outlets extends beyond the animal kingdom, from science (G.WIZ) to art (Ringling Museum), from past (Historic Spanish Point) to ways to fight the future (Warm Mineral Springs' "fountain of youth"). In a single day, you could visit a plantation or a pioneer cabin, check out a horseless carriage and a DeLorean, learn about rare epiphytes and see the stars from inside a planetarium--all without leaving the Sarasota/Manatee area.
Many of the attractions offer discount web coupons; be sure to check each organization's site before you go.
De Soto National Memorial | 3000 75th St. NW, Bradenton. (941) 792-0458. In May 1539, explorer Hernando de Soto set foot on "La Florida" close to the mouth of the Manatee River in Bradenton. That site is now a 25-acre park with 3,000 feet of shoreline and plenty of natural beauty, as well as exhibits dedicated to the Spanish and Native American history of the area. Kids and adults will appreciate the exhibit about the Conquistadors and the "living history" reenactments at select times during the winter and spring. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Free. nps.gov/deso
South Florida Museum/ Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium | 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131. This little gem of a museum has a number of attractions, chief among them Snooty, the 62-year-old manatee. You can also stargaze at Bishop Planetarium's all-digital, full-dome planetarium/theater or learn more about the region's history and native peoples at the South Florida Museum. January-April and July, Monday-Saturday open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.; May, June, August-December, closed Mondays. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Adults $15.95, seniors 65 and up $13.95, children four-12 $11, free for children under four (with a paying adult), southfloridamuseum.org.
Gamble Plantation and Mansion | 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton. (941) 723-4536. The only surviving plantation in South Florida, this once extensive sugar plantation is also where Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin hid until he could make his escape to England after the fall of the Confederacy. Guided tours ($6, children $4] are offered six times a day, Thursday through Monday. Open daily 8 a.m. until sundown. Free. floridastateparks.org/gambleplantation
Historic Spanish Point | 337 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 966-5214. A 30-acre bayfront enclave once home to Chicago socialite Mrs. Bertha Palmer, Historic Spanish Point features archaeological, historical and environmental wonders, including a prehistoric shell midden, pioneer-era buildings and Mrs. Palmer's own extensive gardens (the butterfly garden is the largest on the Gulf coast). Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. except for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Adults $10, children 5-12 $5, seniors 65 and up $9. historicspanishpoint.org.
Oscar Scherer State Park | 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956. A famous bird-watching spot for threatened (but famously friendly) scrub jays, the park has 15 miles of trails for hiking and bicycling--plus kayaking and canoeing on calm South Creek, with guides and rental boats (motors prohibited) available. Visitors can fish, swim or picnic and camp in select areas. Open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset. $5 per vehicle for up to eight people $26 (plus tax) per night to camp. floridastateparks. org/oscarscherer
Ringling Museum of Art/ Ca d'Zan Mansion/Ringling Circus Museum/Historic Asolo Theater | 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. One of the 20 largest museums in North America, featuring a distinct collection of cultural and architectural treasures. The Museum of Art, best known for its cache of Baroque paintings, also hosts a variety of exhibitions annually. Sarasota's circus heritage is honored in the ever-expanding Tibbals Learning Center. John and Mable Ringling's bayfront Venetian mansion, the Ca d'Zan, honors their lavish social lifestyle. The Historic Asolo Theater, an 18th-century Italian jewel box, hosts performances and film viewings. Two good restaurants, too--the chic, Italian-themed Treviso and the more casual Banyan Cafe. Open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Adults $25, seniors over 65 $20, active U.S. military, children ages six-17, students with ID and Florida teachers, $10. Free for all museum members and children under six. On Mondays, admission to the Museum of Art is free. ringling.org
Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary | 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 371-6377. An eighth-generation animal trainer, Kay Rosaire began rescuing neglected and abused big cats in 1987. Today, Big Cat Habitat is home to dozens of lions and tigers--not to mention bears, birds, a chimpanzee and more. You're welcome to see the animals up close during regular educational demonstrations and private tours. Adults $20, children 12 and under, $10. See website for a calendar of events, tours and demonstrations. bigcathabitat.org
Crowley Museum and Nature Center | 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000. Crowley features several 19th-century structures as well as a number of everyday pioneer tools, furnishings and items from the Old Miakka General Store. All those artifacts are nestled within acres of Old Florida pine forest and Myakka River marsh and connected by trails and a half-mile boardwalk with a two-story observation tower. Hours: October-May, Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; June-September, Friday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. Adults $8, children five-12 $3, children under five are free. crowleymuseumnaturectr.org
G.WIZ: The Hands-On Science Museum | 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. (941) 309-4949. The Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ) offers kids of all ages novel opportunities to explore nature, technology, art and more through hands-on exhibits like Mindball, Critter Habitat and the Illusion Room (to name but a few). The museum also hosts traveling exhibitions. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. Adults $10, seniors $9, children three-16 $7. Group discounts available. gwiz.org
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens | 811 5. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. This internationally renowned, 9.5-acre bayfront property hosts one of the world's best collections of rare orchids (more than 6,000) and is home to some 20,000 plants. The Tropical Display House is dazzling, and you can also tour the grounds, seeing banyan, bamboo and mangrove collections--as well as a butterfly garden. Save some time for the gift shop, a favorite for items from fabulous orchids to tropical-themed art. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. except Christmas. Adults $17, children six-11 $6, children under six are free. selby.org
Mote Aquarium | 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441. The aquarium displays more than 100 species of live marine animals, from sharks and dolphins to sea turtles and manatees to eels, seahorses and more. This is not a Sea World-type attraction but a working lab with exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of marine life. There are even hands-on activities, like the always-popular stingray touch tank. Visitors can also peek into the working labs. Adults $17, seniors over 65 $16, children four-12 $12. Free for children under four. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., including holidays. For a discount Web coupon, visit mote.org.
Myakka River State Park | nine miles east of 1-75, 13208 S.R. 72. (941) 351-5511. This vast expanse of scenic Florida--38,000 acres--offers outdoor activities for everyone. You can hike 39 miles of trails, canoe or kayak on the Myakka River, ride a bike, fish, take an air boat tour, ride a horse on a wilderness trail and much more. And yes, you will see alligators--and you could spot deer, wild hogs, even an occasional bobcat. The Canopy Walk high up in the trees is a must-do. Open 8 a.m. to sunset daily. $6 per vehicle of two to eight people, ($4 for a single occupant vehicle); $26 (plus tax) per night for a campsite with water and electricity outlets. floridastateparks.org/ myakkariver
Sarasota Classic Car Museum | 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-6228. The Sarasota Classic Car Museum features more than 100 automobiles, including Ferraris, DeLoreans and even John Lennon's Bentley; there's an antique game arcade and a camera exhibit, too. Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. except Christmas Day. Adults $8.50, seniors over 62 $7.50, children six-12 $6.50, free for children under six. Group rates and annual passes available. For a discount web coupon, visit sarasotacarmuseum.org.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens | 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305. One of the last of the great Old Florida tourist attractions, Jungle Gardens is an oasis of low-key charm and natural beauty. You can spend a few hours or a day wandering through the 10 acres of tropical vegetation and taking in the bird and reptile shows. Get your picture taken with a parrot on your arm and hand-feed the big pink flamingos that crowd around you asking for a treat. Adults $15, seniors over 60 $14, children three-12 $10, free for children under three. For a discount web coupon, visit sarasotajunglegardens.com.
Warm Mineral Springs | 12200 San Servano, North Port. (941) 426-1692. This South County attraction, which some claim is the original Fountain of Youth, is home to mineralized waters that are believed to ease back pain, skin conditions, sinusitis and other ailments as well as a spa. Open daily (weather permitting) from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adults $20, students $14, children 12 and under $8. warmmineralsprings.com