Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit, both for work and pleasure, often gratefully combining the two, and I reckon I’ve found a Key to contentment and real relaxation.
Siesta Key is the place, linked to classy Sarasota on the Gulf Coast of Florida by a couple of causeways; and linked, for me, to the sort of laid-back vibes you might have found in a mellow slice of San Francisco back in the day.
It all hinges on being of a certain age, with echoes of the 60s when you glance around and see just how many of the people around you are contemporaries; and how many longish-haired chaps, just like me, will crowd round a nicely-customised Harley Davidson parked by the kerb and go to the nearest old-school ‘run wot-u-brung’ drag race meeting on a weekend morning!
It’s not just retro charm, although there’s no shortage of that, for the friendly, easy-going vibe seems to be shared by everybody you meet, of all ages, whether they are Siesta Key residents or seasonal student workers or just visiting for a day, a weekend or for a ‘proper’ vacation, taking in what is consistently voted one of the very best beaches in the country, if not the world.
The Key is handy enough to reach for just an hour’s fishing or sunbathing or a picnic lunch from the busy centre of Sarasota via Siesta Drive and the North Bridge, which gives easy access to Siesta Key Village itself, the main settlement and where the action is in terms of shops, restaurants and watering holes, and where being laid back is something of an art form.
The Key is separated from the mainland by Roberts Bay at this ‘top’ end, and then by Little Sarasota Bay stretching south on the way to Venice, which is crossed at its narrowest point about five miles out of town by the second link, South Bridge, on Stickney Point Road. Just inland is Stickney Point Road’s junction with main Highway 41, the famous South Tamiami Trail, and it’s near this major intersection, boasting nigh-on 20 suspended traffic lights, where I found a great base at the Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway.
It’s a long enough name for a hotel, but the ‘Gateway’ is very apt as it’s only a matter of minutes to get from there to Boatyard Village and the drawbridge across to Siesta Key South, at the bottom end of the huge, award-winning expanse of Crescent Beach.
The hotel is a good spot in its own right, across the road from trendier-by-the day Gulf Gate Village, with a splendid long-term staff underlining that popular general manager Mark Petersen knows what he’s about, with all the facilities you learn to expect in this part of the world and a fair helping of care and attention on top.
For a start, the deck-access en-suite rooms are spacious and clean, with essentials like a good-sized fridge and a coffee machine as well as the inevitable large-screen TV and, if you’re fussy on your happy hols, there’s even an iron and ironing board. No on-site restaurant, although there is a well-appointed Sand Dollar Bar by the garden-surrounded pool with a good range of hot and cold snacks, with all transactions charged to your room so there’s no messing about with cash if you just want to chill out poolside or use the hot tub without having the fuss of watching handbags and jackets. Coffee is available round the clock in the hotel lobby, where there’s also a 24-hour hot popcorn machine for those munchie moments and where there are free cookies every afternoon around 4pm if you’re passing through to maybe get changed for an early foray into town, or to plan where to go for the always-gorgeous sunsets.
No in-house restaurant, maybe, but there’s kitchen enough to lay on a help-yourself breakfast with enough goodies on offer to keep you going all day, including pancakes and toast and other varied hot items, as well as the usual ‘continental’ breads, pastries, muffins and fresh fruit, plus endless juice and/or coffee and even tea.
Mealtimes are no problem because there are excellent eateries nearby, like a Carabbas across the car park and a Stonewood Grill only yards further on, both part of major chains, but none the worse for that, and with reputations to maintain and invariably popular. To finish with, there’s always delicious Abel’s ice cream, with a friendly, neighbouring parlour open until late for those muggy nights when only a huge waffle cone under the stars will do, stuffed with what looks like half a gallon of family-made magic (mine’s a pistachio!).
You’re never far away from food in this part of the world and as well as the very active Harry’s Sports Pub and Restaurant on the other side of the car park, there are familiar national restaurants over the road at Gulf Gate Village, or more local fare on Siesta Key itself. If you don’t fancy driving, pop down to reception and summon Johnny’s Free Rides, an on-demand island shuttle working on driver tips only, which will whisk you across to the Key, where the first thing you’re likely to see is Captain Curt’s Crab and Oyster Bar, which almost always has a queue to get in at popular times.
And popular times here are usually very early by our standards, with early-bird dinner specials aimed at us ‘seniors’ often well under way by 4 or 5pm and lasting only an hour or so. If you set your warm weather dining clock to Mediterranean time with the idea of going out to eat Greek or Spanish-style at 9 or 10 o’clock, be warned, for a good many ‘sit down’ restaurants will have finished service before you’ve had chance put your glad rags on, and the chefs will have cleaned down and either be at home or in a tiki bar with their pals. You can find food later on, but it’s more likely to be of the burger and bites variety, so it’s as well to plan ahead for any night you want a dressed-up meal out on the town.
Dressing up for the Key is at your discretion and dependent on temperature and temperament, even in the heart of Siesta Key Village, where you can also pick up a Johnny’s Free Ride home after a day or night doing the beaches and bars like the Daiquiri Deck or Gilligan’s, after a burger at The Old Salty Dog and promenading long after the sun has gone down.
Nightlife isn’t just confined to the Village, either, with music and ‘happenings’ of various sorts near the swish new pavilion on Siesta Public Beach, although the stunning sunsets always take pride of place.
There are nearly dozen access points to Crescent Beach off aptly-named Beach Road, plus a few other access points to the Gulf along the length of the Key, notably at Turtle Beach way off to the south, which is a ride well worth taking for the sunsets, and, naturally enough, the much-loved, protected turtles.
One particular access is my favourite, along a short, dead-end lane with only a very few parking spaces, which means that the small, semi-shaded stretch of snow-white beach bordered by private gardens has an exclusive feel and is never likely to be crowded.
Here, with folding chair deployed next to a sheltering mangrove canopy, I can wade out yards and yards into the shallow, crystal-clear water and catch a tan as well as hopefully catching a fish or two, although the occasional pelican visitor, even more laid back than the other locals, always seems to do far better.
Where is this? I’m keeping this bit of Key locked away!
David Graham visited Siesta Key on an extended trip to Florida, flying from Manchester to user-friendly Tampa with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta; and staying in St Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota and Venice.