Without the gondolas
Relaxing in Venice with a breakfast cappuccino, going on to eat great Italian food, sipping an excellent, refreshing summer wine, and taking a trip to the water without a gondola in sight.
For this is the ‘other’ Venice on Florida’s glorious Gulf Coast, just south of Sarasota and deserving to get much more visitor attention than it does already.
Well known to locals for its quiet, laid-back charm, it’s another up-and-coming ‘arty’ spot with something for everyone, with all the extra touches that make this part of the Sunshine State so appealing and user-friendly for all visitors who have been alive for three decades or more.
For a start, getting around is a lot easier and more civilised than you might expect, even after a short time driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the mostly dead-straight roads, although it’s best to avoid rush hour traffic, as anywhere else in the world.
It pays to be careful, of course, but there are so many home-grown and visiting ‘seniors’ around that everyone seems happy to make allowances if you are sometimes unsure about lanes or if you take your time at junctions. And once you are out of the car and having a wander, there are virtually no taxing hills to trek up and down and every attraction, even well off the beaten track, invariably has the sort of free, accessible and always-clean restroom facilities. You would need a sat-nav and a prayer to find in Great Britain or Europe.
That’s not to say that Venice and the area lives up to Florida’s one-time cruel nickname of ‘God’s waiting room’, with droves of the dodderly from all over the States packed into budget trailer parks. There are indeed a good few dedicated retirement communities around the whole area, but there’s a healthy mix of all ages here. It’s just that there’s also much more awareness and consideration for those of us who aren’t quite in the first flush of youth!
That means that you can get pretty well anywhere you want, and there is no shortage of places to go, starting in the historic, walking and cycle-friendly town of Venice itself, set on an island created by the Intracoastal Waterway, and full of boutique and specialist shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants and relaxing parks.
Tampa Avenue is the home of the original San Marco Hotel, built in 1926 and now the Venice Centre Mall, as well as the Venice Theatre, both overlooking the popular and pleasant meeting spot of Centennial Park, scene of a thriving ‘Farmers Market and More’ every Saturday and the striking Intergenerational Children’s Fountain.
Next along on the town’s handy guide map is the broad, dual-lane boulevard of W Venice Avenue, the verdant, gently-beating heart of the town, where the cafe culture is alive and well and there are enough of those special shops and stopping-off spots to satisfy all the cravings you might have for caffeine, calories or retail therapy, along with a generous helping of quaint charm. Generous helpings, too, at Trattoria Da Mino, a small, unpretentious and unfussy little place with a basic cafe interior and a few sidewalk tables, which quietly tells the world that it provides rustic Italian cuisine. Rustic it may have been, but delicious it certainly was, with a tasty, simple caprese starter drizzled with olive oil and balsamic reduction followed by a superb, crisp pizza with a half-and-half topping to suit two of us, helped along with a couple of glasses of chilled, low-voltage Italian wine. This paved the way for a ridiculously-indulgent home-made tiramisu, and there was all the excuse you needed then to sit back and relax with a coffee and chat to Mino himself, as well as Sofia and Luigi, as they took the air and shared the laid-back ambience.
The pleasure doesn’t stop there. For the next street in line, Miami Avenue, is a historic, almost-hidden gem of a street, with more of the same eclectic mix of businesses and shops, along with organic spas and the delightful Fountain Park near its junction with Ponce de Leon, another natural meeting spot where you can just sit and have a quiet contemplate.
From these Downtown hubs, take a stroll along Heritage Park to popular Venice Beach and adjoining stretches of pristine, white quartz sand (all 14 miles of it!) which is always cool and always a joy to walk on.
Turn right and you head towards Venice Inlet, with South Jetty-Higel Marine Park on the town side, and North Jetty Park over on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway at the bottom of Casey Key, both great places for boat and people watching, as well as casting a line and having a chinwag with some of the Old Boys who’ve been fishing there for years and landing some great catches. The pelicans have a lot more success than I ever do, but it’s always worth it to get some fresh air and to look out for playful dolphins and the occasional manatee cruising sedately along just under the surface.
Turn left to go south along Venice Beach, alongside the airport and Lake Venice Golf Club, and you reach the Venice Municipal Fishing Pier, built in 1966 and stretching out more than 700 ft into the Gulf of Mexico. This is a another popular local hot spot, for as well as being able to fish from here without needing the usually compulsory licence. There’s everything you might need for a full day out by the sea, from casual fishing or building sand castles to grabbing a beer and burger, and maybe sampling some rather more-dressed-up dining before watching an amazing sunset.
For a start, you can hire a rod and reel and get lots of valuable free advice from Papa’s Bait and Snack Shop on the pier itself; others might want to buy all they can carry from the beach boutique; while everyone might eventually make a day of it with fun and food at Sharky’s On The Pier, and maybe change into something less casual before finishing off the night above Sharky’s at their upstairs, and upmarket, Fins restaurant.
While on this side of town, you can also try out the mysterious ‘Florida snow shovels’, which have a long handle and a square metal sieve in place of a digging blade, a reminder that the other big shoreline sport, especially on nearby unspoilt Caspersen Beach, is fishing around in the sand for fossil shark teeth, with an almost certain guarantee of success.
So far, success guaranteed on our stay in Venice, but this was only the start, with much, much more in store in Part 2.
David Graham visited Venice on an extended trip to Florida, flying into Tampa with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta, before spending time in the Tampa Bay area, including Clearwater and St Petersburg, before heading south via Bradenton and Sarasota; staying in various hotels, notably Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway and Best Western Plus Ambassador Suites Venice.