Plus the best restaurants to visit along the way in Sarasota and Bradenton area
With summer here and snowbirds gone, it’s more fun to drive around Sarasota. Less traffic means more joy. It feels good to jump in the car and cruise down the Gulf Coast for the side view of yet another glorious sunset.
Now’s the time to savor what we usually take for granted.
For a change of pace on a lazy weekend, think about a morning drive through central Florida. Cow pastures, rivers bends and orange groves. There’s nothing like the curve of a country road to please the eye and ease your mood.
Even today, more than 30 years after it was built, the Sunshine Skyway remains one of the great bridges in the world and one of the best views in Florida.
The yellow cables of the Skyway look like colorful sails crossing Tampa Bay. The geometry changes as you cross the span. It looks great during the day and even better at night.
For a little different perspective, pull over at the rest stop on the north side of the bridge. There’s a beach and shallow water. When it’s windy, kitesurfers put on a show.
Looking for a hidden dining gem on your way to or from the bridge? Check out Demi's Noodle House, specializing in Vietnamese cuisine, at 1318 10th St. W. in Palmetto. 941-301-1212; demisnoodlehouse.com
Myakka River Park Road
Hikers, bikers and birders love Myakka River State Park. It’s great for drivers, too. The main Park Road follows the river and winds through the woods.
There are shady stretches where it’s a true canopy road.
All of this is why you need to slow down. Park speed limits are 25 and 15 mph, anyway. Keep your eyes open for a glimpse of deer, gators and wild hogs.
The Myakka Outpost offers a lake view for those enjoying burgers, sandwiches and wraps, along with sodas, wine and craft beer. 941-923-1120; myakkaoutpost.com
Casey Key Road
The quietest key near Sarasota offers a short drive that makes you wish it was longer. When Casey Key Road slants to the west, Australian pines frame a view of the Gulf of Mexico. When it angles east, mangroves line the shore of Blackburn Bay.
On both sides, island cottages give way to new mansions.
Fans of mid-century Americana might want to stop at Casey Key’s quarter-mile stretch of beach-to-bay motels. They have names like The Beachcomber, Casa Cay and Russell’s Retreat. It’s a thing.
At the north entrance to the island, the Casey Key Fish House welcomes newcomers and old-timers. It’s hard to pass up a grouper sandwich and a view of the bay. 941-966-1901; caseykeyfishhouse.com
Bay Shore Road
When people talk about the charm of old Sarasota, this is a pretty good look at what they mean. Bay Shore Road hugs the water, except for a curve around Sarasota Jungle Gardens. Ringling College and Indian Beach Road in the south lead to the Ringling Museum of Art and New College of Florida in the north.
It’s not quite time travel. More like a quick postcard.
Near the north end of Bay Shore, you can grab a tasty slice of pizza at Rico’s — 941-358-9958; ricospizzapie — or treat yourself to the beautiful setting of Muse at The Ringling, 941-360-7290, tableseide.com/muse.
U.S. 17, Arcadia
Driving around Arcadia is half the fun of a jaunt to DeSoto County. Take a lonely side road and you might wind up in an orange grove, with rows of trees stretching into the distance. Take another turn and you might reach Canoe Outpost, the Peace River Campground and the ruins of the old Chautauqua Theatre.
U.S. 17 follows the Peace River north from Punta Gorda to Arcadia and small towns such as Zolfo Springs, Wauchula and Bowling Green.
If you like Mexican food, this route is lined with tiendas and taquerias. In downtown Arcadia, Wheeler’s Café is famous for its homemade pie. 863-993-1554; wheelerscafeinc.com
Beach Road, Manasota Key
The best drive around Englewood is a loop through Manasota Key. The canopy road opens to a wide-open view at Blind Pass Beach in the middle of the island. There's often very little traffic, especially on weekdays.
For a long walk at the end of a drive, try Stump Pass Beach State Park.
Lots of locals like the informal French menu at Mango Bistro, which includes Normandy crepes and lobster bisque. 941-681-3500; mangobistro.com
Riverview Boulevard, Bradenton
This isn’t a long drive or a famous one, but the road curves along the Manatee River. You can trace Bradenton history from Fogarty Point and Warner’s Bayou to the DeSoto National Memorial and the Robinson Preserve.
Nearby Manatee Avenue offers dozens of local restaurants and chain places. For ice cream and shakes, local favorites include The Shake Pit (941-748-4016) and Sweetberries (941-750-6771; sweetberries.com/Bradenton).
Gasparilla Road, Boca Grande
It’s an hour’s drive south to Gasparilla Island, one of the best day trips on the Gulf Coast. Blue water, quiet beaches and colorful history. What’s not to like?
The Gasparilla Inn, built in 1911, is worth a look. So is the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. The most sublime scene on Gasparilla, though, has to be the two blocks of perfect shade that is Banyan Street.
In Boca Grande, some swear by the Temptation Restaurant, or the pricey Pink Elephant, while others prefer the casual charm of The Loose Caboose in the heart of downtown. 941-964-0440; loosecaboose.biz
River Road, Venice
If you take the River Road exit off I-75, you can reach Snook Haven on the Myakka River in five minutes.
River Road continues south to the Jelks Preserve and the Ramblers Rest RV Resort. Cross the river, and you’re in Warm Mineral Springs. Keep going, and the road turns into Dearborn Street in downtown Englewood.
Snook Haven has been an Old Florida haunt for decades. These days, the restaurant is more professional with a smokehouse-style menu including pulled pork and pulled chicken plus plenty of fish or shrimp dishes; with beer and wine. 941-485-7221; snookhaven.com
Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Traffic backs up during the winter tourist season, so this is more of a summer drive.
You don’t have to play golf to admire the scenery and you don’t have to buy a condo to appreciate the million-dollar views. The prettiest section of beach, ironically enough, is across from the Twin Shores Mobile Home Park.
There’s a lot of fine dining on Longboat Key, but more than a few island visitors stop on the way at the New Pass Grill & Bait Shop. Nothing fancy, but a great spot for burgers, a cold one and a view. 941-388-3050; newpassgrill.com