On the Gulf Coast of Florida, take your group on a trolley tour, a kayaking trip through the mangroves or a shopping spree at unique salvage stores
Sarasota’s visitor tagline reads “Beaches and Beyond,” and there’s a lot of truth in that catchphrase. Groups looking for mostly sunny skies, warm weather and a long list of outdoor activities can find copious lodging in Sarasota as well as a wide choice of meeting space and a variety of leisure and sports activities.
The eight-mile-long island of Siesta Key, accessible by two bridges from the mainland, features spacious Siesta Beach, said to be one of the best beaches in the world and voted #1 in a 2020 TripAdvisor survey. “A pristine beach that never seems to end,” says TripAdvisor. Families and sunbathers by day and party-goers by night are attracted to local Crescent and Turtle beaches, both pristine as well.
Other Sarasota-area beaches include North Lido (with 3,000 feet of sugary sand and a nature trail), Lido and South Lido beaches, Nokomis (with a boardwalk and covered picnic areas) and laid-back Manasota Beach. On Sundays at Siesta Beach an hour before sunset, your group can sway to the beat of tribal drummers and colorful dancers with everyone welcome to join in.
Throughout the year festivals highlight the Sarasota calendar such as the Shark’s Tooth Festival, Florida Winefest, Sarasota Music Festival, a sand-sculpting classic and a powerboat racing competition.
COLORFUL CIRCUS ATTRACTION
Among Sarasota’s most notable highlights are the Ringling Museum of Art, one of the preeminent art and cultural collections in the U. S.; the Circus Museum; Bayfront Gardens, with its majestic banyan trees; and Ca’ d’Zan, John Ringling’s palatial Venetian Gothic-style Roaring Twenties mansion.
Ringling was one of five brothers who owned and operated “The Greatest Show on Earth.” One of the wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, he began acquiring art and built a significant collection and a 21-gallery museum modeled after Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery to house his treasure trove. The 10,000 objects include paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative arts.
The colorful Circus Museum features full-size parade wagons, vibrant circus posters, glittering costumes, Ringling’s fully restored private Pullman observation railcar and a cannon that shot daring performers through the air. There is also the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus, a replica scale model three-ring circus with 55 train cars, 154 wagons, tents, 925 circus animals, side shows and performers. The model exhibit covers 38,000 square feet.
Historic Asolo Theater on the Ringling property, Sarasota’s most storied theater, is an architectural gem providing a unique sense of intimacy between the audience and performers. Groups of 20 or more to the Ringling complex receive a discount, and groups can be led by a docent.
DISCOVER SARASOTA BY TROLLEY
One of the fastest ways to become acquainted with Sarasota is for your group to take a Discover Sarasota Trolley Tour. The air-conditioned trolleys, each manned by a knowledgeable guide, help groups explore the history, monuments, museums, major attractions, people and stories of Sarasota. The daily tours, which run at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., as well as at 3 p.m. in season, take passengers past the Rowe Boat House, Ringling College of Art, Rosemary Cemetery, Bidwell-Wood House, Pioneer Park, Jungle Gardens, Sarasota Opera House, Gallery of Patriots, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the 25-foot-tall aluminum Unconditional Surrender WWII statue, Sarasota Symphony, West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, the historic 1902 Georgian Colonial-style First Baptist Church, Five Points Park and more.
Other trolley tours include a public arts tour, a sports history tour, circus history tour and an Amish experience tour.
A popular Sarasota group activity and meeting event venue is the Circus Arts Conservatory, which presents world-class performances in a one-ring, European-style Big Top. The performances are acclaimed around the globe for artistry and entertainment, in addition to preserving Sarasota’s circus legacy. The Summer Circus Spectacular showcases circus artists from around the world.
For a relaxing break, groups will find the 15-acre Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, originally the home of philanthropists William and Marie Selby, a bayfront oasis. The gardens feature a living collection of rare tropical plants, particularly epiphytes plants adapted to live in the tree canopy, including orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns.
This horticultural showplace with seven greenhouses attracts more than 230,000 visitors annually. Individuals and groups come to relax, learn, explore and experience the living collection of tropical plants and programs 364 days a year. Ann Goldstein Rainforest Garden is one of the only outdoor, elevated rainforest displays in the world.
For an inside group activity, Sarasota’s Axe & Bull is a great way to build team spirit. You can bring your own food and limited drinks to the sports center, and you can hold parties and group activities around the sport of axe-throwing.
KAYAKING: POPULAR GROUP ACTIVITY
Another popular activity in Sarasota is kayaking through the mangroves; you can do this separately or as a group, and with or without a guide. During the experience you can search for manatees and dolphins, exotic birds, fish and other wildlife in the shallow-water mangroves. Kayaking SRQ Tours and Rentals offers kayaking and stand-up kayaking through Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach. Sip-N-Cycle Cruises offers a 16-person cycle boat for groups.
Few neighborhoods in Sarasota have seen a rapid overhaul the likes of the Rosemary District. Once a small, quiet offshoot of downtown, the Rosemary District has seen huge growth over the past five years, bringing in a vibrant food and art scene.
Groups can visit one of Sarasota’s unique salvage stores – Sarasota Architectural Salvage or Circus City Architectural Salvage. Even if you have no intention of lugging home a souvenir, it’s worth checking out these vintage emporiums chock full of refurbished furniture, nautical novelties and memorabilia from Sarasota’s historic circus past.
UPSCALE LIDO KEY
Once home to the architecturally-renowned Lido Beach Casino, nearby Lido Key’s reputation for combining cosmopolitan life with seaside paradise continues today. Within a short radius lies St. Armands Circle, a sophisticated outdoor dining and shopping area with distinct European flair, iconic examples of mid-century modern architecture and the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The 130 stores sell everything from vintage memorabilia to locally-flavored upscale clothing, to vivid pieces of aesthetic inspiration such as the nature panorama paintings at Wyland Galleries. Cafes, with fare ranging from pizza to fine dining, and confectionery shops also attract visitors.
Your group can check out the diversity of marine specimens at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, where the collection of sea creatures includes dolphins, sharks, otters, stingrays, squids and other aquatic species.
Interpretive bay walks/talks, estuary exploration walks, eco-boat tours, kayaking and aquarium venue rentals are all available to groups, with discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more.
The Baltimore Orioles keep the spring training tradition alive in Sarasota as they take to the field in early spring at Ed Smith Stadium for Grapefruit League play. Teams have had Sarasota as their spring training headquarters since 1924. Groups of 15 or more can receive discounted tickets and opportunities for special picnic and upper deck areas.
For a special night-out dinner, award-winning Duval’s is an eclectic eatery with a passion for great seafood, service, wines and cocktails. The Catch of the Day comes from local fishermen, and fresh foods are straight from local farmers. While you’re waiting to be seated, huddle at the cozy bar and watch the bartender create dazzling cocktail concoctions.
For overnight accommodations and group functions, Embassy Suites, located in the culture hub of Sarasota’s downtown, with views of the waterfront, offers 180 all-suite rooms and many amenities. The bright and spacious 9th-floor meeting spaces provide 3,262 sq. ft. that can be divided into five separate rooms, including a large banquet hall.
For more information, go to visitsarasota.com.
By Don Heimburger
Don Heimburger, with a journalism degree from the University of Illinois, is a well-versed travel writer and photographer who has reported on numerous domestic and European destinations for many years.