Once the winter home of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” performed by the Ringling Brothers Circus, the city of Sarasota and surrounding Sarasota County claim 35 miles of pristine beaches. In 2015, the white-quartz sand of Siesta Beach ranked as the top U.S. beach by Trip Advisor reviewers and among the world’s top 15 beaches. Located between Tampa and Fort Myers, Sarasota County and its necklace of islands — Longboat Key, Lido Key, Manasota Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key — boast not only dazzling sand and sun, but also abundant culture and ecotourism.
“We consider ourselves Florida’s Cultural Coast, and in addition to our abundance of arts and culture, we have a unique circus heritage influenced by the Ringling Brothers,” said Shelby Connett, meeting and group sales manager for Visit Sarasota County. “Sarasota also has the highest concentration of Zagat-rated restaurants in the state of Florida.”
Offering more than 10 theaters and 100 galleries, Sarasota County puts a priority on the arts. It supports a professional symphony, an opera company and a ballet company. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall hosts Broadway shows and world-renowned performers. In addition, the ornate Venice Theatre and Asolo Repertory Theatre feature primarily local performances. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art showcases old masters and modern art through their permanent collection and rotating exhibits. Also on-site at the Ringling, the Tibbals Circus Museum and lavish Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling’s 56-room winter home, offer a glimpse into circus life.
Along the central Gulf Coast, ecotourism ranges from deep-sea fishing to more than 35 golf courses. Kayaking, canoeing, hiking, biking and bird-watching can be enjoyed year-round. Sunset cruises and wildlife boat tours depart from Marina Jack. Offshore charters give the chance to reel in large fish, and the famous tarpon arrive mid-May through early July.
“We’re known for our bicycling,” said Connett. “Venice is consistently ranked as a bicycle-friendly city, and our variety of trails includes the paved Legacy Trail, which starts at the historic train depot.”
Sarasota County is home to 30 hotels featuring meeting spaces of 600 to 22,000 square feet. A short walk away from the chic boutiques of St. Armand’s Circle, the 294-room Hyatt Regency Sarasota overlooks a marina and Sarasota Bay. The hotel’s 20,000 square feet of meeting space includes classroom capacity for 700. A luxury landmark, the newly renovated 266-room Ritz-Carlton offers championship golf, private beachfront facilities and a well-appointed spa. Its 18,000 square feet of meeting space includes classroom and banquet capacity for 800. The 219-room Resort at Longboat Key Club offers multiple restaurants, a premier beachfront and 12,000 square feet of meeting space.
The open-air Sarasota Trolley has been transporting guests for 25 years and offers special packages. Three trolleys seat 34 passengers each. Decorated with polished brass, etched glass and burnished wood, they’re outfitted with an iPod-compatible sound system. Gulf Coast Destinations and SRQ Services can arrange for a dine-around as well as transport guests to area activities. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, five miles from downtown Sarasota, services direct flights on most major airlines from key Northeast and Southeast destinations. In addition, Sarasota is just under an hour’s driving distance from Tampa International Airport.