The closest beaches to downtown Sarasota are the beaches on Lido Key. Lido Beach (400 Ben Franklin Dr.) and North Lido Beach (1 John Ringling Blvd.) are both close to the St. Armand’s Circle shopping district, which means parking can sometimes be difficult to find. Of the two, North Lido Beach is the more isolated—in fact, it used to be a topless beach—but it can still get rather crowded.
South Lido Beach Park (100 Taft Dr.) is a much quieter option, although the rip currents mean swimmers should use all due caution in the water.
Also close to central Sarasota are the very popular beaches of Siesta Key, and on summer weekends the traffic on the Stickney Point Bridge leading onto the key can be a nightmare. There are many stretches of sand that are private beaches maintained by hotels and condos along the water, and public beach parking is limited to lots at Siesta Beach (948 Beach Rd.) and Turtle Beach (8918 Midnight Pass Rd.).
Turtle Beach is a good option for those looking for some relative peace and quiet; the beach isn’t as wide as it is at other places on Siesta Key, and there are no lifeguards, but parking is free and it’s far easier to find a parking space than at Siesta Beach.
The beach park at Siesta Beach is often quite crowded, but intrepid beachgoers should avail themselves of the parking facilities there and head south to the gently curving coastline of Crescent Beach; it’s only a few minutes walk down the beach, and although several resorts have their own private beaches in this area, there are large stretches that are open to the public. The soft white sand at Crescent Beach is legendary, and in some places the beach itself is remarkably wide.
Most of the oceanfront on Longboat Key is the domain of condos and resorts along the beach, but there are a few public access points. Look for blue and white “Beach Access” signs along Gulf of Mexico Drive at Neptune Avenue and Mayfield Street; there you can find a few free parking spots. While the bad news is that it’s tough to get to the beach, the good news is that the beaches are generally not crowded.
Anna Maria Island
The channel that separates the northern tip of Longboat Key from the southern end of Anna Maria Island is often populated by flocks of pelicans grabbing a meal. Just past the channel, you’ll arrive at Coquina Beach, where you’ll find plenty of parking spaces, picnic tables, restrooms, and barbecue grills, in contrast to the limited availability on Longboat. This beach park can get pretty crowded, but heading north along Gulf Drive there are numerous public beach access points where you can pull off and park in a small lot.
The beaches on Anna Maria Island are a bit narrower than, say, the ones on Siesta Key, but the tall pine trees and small crowds make them well worth exploring. You can choose from the spacious well-outfitted parks at Cortez Beach and Manatee Beach, or for something quieter, the facility-free sands at Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Beach are good options.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition