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Siesta Key has the right recipe for relaxation

SIESTA KEY

They say the sand is like sugar, white and sparkling, stretching for miles. Some believe that long ago an Indian princess blessed the curved beach. Others swear the sand itself has healing powers.

This summer, Dr. Beach named Siesta Beach the second best beach in the United States. (No. 1 was Coopers Beach in New York.) Stephen Leatherman, co-director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, has been ranking the nation's best beaches for 20 years.

After studying currents and waves, he said Siesta Key should be safe from the oil spill. By the end of October, snowbirds will be flocking there.

So on a warm Friday in mid September, we set out to investigate. Was what they said about the sand true?

During the hottest part of the hottest day, the woman at the chamber of commerce promised, you can walk the beach barefoot — and not burn your feet.

They didn't tell us about the birds. Or the bars. Or the manatee.

We have both lived in Florida for years. But neither my friend nor I had ever been to the moon-shaped barrier island off Sarasota. From St. Petersburg, it's only an hour's drive south. A cup-of-coffee road trip across two picturesque bridges.

You can enter the island from either end. We followed the north bridge across Bay Island Pass. Curve at the elbow, look to your right, and the first of 14 public beach accesses appears.

Siesta Beach is 3 miles long; the entire key stretches 8. At its widest, the island is a mere mile across. All the beach accesses offer free parking; some for four cars, some for 800. No need for quarters or credit cards here.

To get to most of the beach accesses you have to go through the little village. About a half-mile long, all small shops and local eateries, with covered decks and shady palms and hand-chalked signs hawking daily specials.

There's a bead shop. A bathing suit boutique. An oyster bar and all-day breakfast cafe. A wine shop. A used bookstore. A dress store that sells $245 jeans. All shoulder to shoulder, with a half-dozen outdoor bars full of people sipping frozen drinks.

We got distracted by the Daiquiri Deck, with its wall of wonder: 16 round windows, each filled with a vibrant froth, like mini washing machines mixing magic elixirs. You can get a Gazoo here: "The Great One! Electric lemonade & purple haze. Topped with citrus vodka." Or a Grateful Deck: "Alive & kickin' with razz, red raspberry liqueur, grain alcohol & sour. Topped with razz. Topped with Raspberry liqueur." Bottoms up!

The drinks cost $7 to $9.50 each and tasted as good as they looked, with chunks of pineapple speared on pirate sword toothpicks. One cocktail was enough to wash down a plate of Blue Point oysters ($11.95 for six) and two meaty crab cakes ($10.50) served with mango salsa.

We checked out the town, vowing to come back after dark, then strolled west to wait for sunset.

• • •

The beach is a block from the village. Across a quiet street, down a thin path, between head-high sprigs of golden sea oats.

The sand doesn't slope. For the width of two football fields, it fans flat out from the filmy grass to the gray-green Gulf of Mexico. No seaweed marks the tide line, no shells wash up with the waves. This stretch has never been renourished.

Just smooth, snowy, local sand, unmarred for as far as you can see. It's so fine and hard-packed you can ride a bike for miles along the water's edge. It's so soft beneath your feet it feels like you're walking on sifted flour.

"It's stunning, isn't it?" asked Val Yates, 60, who had slid her striped chair to the edge of the surf. She had come from Maine to visit her friend, Jane Davenport, 61, who was thinking of moving from Atlanta to Siesta Key.

"This place is the definition of peace and beauty," declared Yates, sweeping her arm along the almost-deserted shoreline. "And I have never seen so many birds."

Pelicans dived in the waves before them, scooping fish. Seagulls squawked behind.

The two friends fell silent. Slowly, the salmon sun sank into the sea.

• • •

We found our accommodations online, a historic cottage just 371 steps from the beach access. A white picket fence fronted the flowered yard.

Beach Palms offers a new two-story suite overlooking the gulf, plus three antique cottages out back. We rented the sunshine yellow middle one: two bedrooms, plus a couch and daybed, a full kitchen, small bathroom, outdoor grill, plus a hot tub — for $200 a night.

Each cottage has a faucet out front to wash your feet, a porch out back to dry your bathing suit. Free Internet. A TV in every room. Beach chairs, an umbrella and a hammock in case you want a siesta.

We showered, pulled on sundresses, then walked back "downtown" for dinner.

Someone had suggested the Blasé Café.

• • •

Picture the dining room of a Victorian brothel: red velvet tablecloths, portraits of naked women, tassels and chandeliers and a carved walnut bar.

The Blasé Café opened in 1997, an eclectic hangout for the locals, just a block from the shore. But nothing beachy here. Walking in, you get the feeling that you've been let into some speakeasy. The lights are low. Strangers nod at you knowingly.

I ordered a cup of crab bisque ($6) — the best I have had in a decade. My friend tried tuna sashimi, with a sesame seaweed salad ($14).

We were just finishing our meal, trying to decide about dessert, when the vibe shifted. Suddenly, at 10 p.m., some unseen disc jockey started blasting Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. Two dozen 40-somethings started gyrating in their seats. We threaded our way through the dining room-turned-dance floor and sauntered into the street.

A few doors down, people were sharing a pitcher on a porch. Inside Gilligan's bar, a bride and her bridesmaids were shimmying to Miley Cyrus. "There's a party in the USA!"

Every block, a new bar. Every bar, a new band. An acoustic guitarist strumming a Van Morrison song on the deck of the Siesta Key Oyster Bar. The Rolling Stones blaring from a cover group on the porch of the Hub. From the dark Beach Club, where girls in stilettos and short skirts waited in line to get in, Kanye West spilled onto the sidewalk.

Only a block away, back at our cottage, we could hear the cicadas singing.

• • •

You can explore all of Siesta Beach on foot: the sand, the shops, the restaurants. But if you want to go kayaking you have to drive to the south end of the island. Past the big public beach with its lifeguard stands and snack bar, past Crescent Beach where vendors rent sailboats, past an access called Point of Rocks known for snorkeling, and a campground for tents and RVs.

At the paved boat ramp on Turtle Beach, a guide from Siesta Sports Rentals was waiting on the Saturday morning we were there. We had booked a tour with another family, so he had lined up six kayaks. He showed us how to hold the paddle. Most people he takes out have never been in a kayak.

The two-hour trip was easy. Without wind to blow us, or tide to pull against, we drifted a lot and just looked. Our guide, Mike Lewis, showed us Spanish Point, where the area's first settlers built homes. Then he showed us a mansion, huddled inside metal hurricane shutters, that he said was novelist Stephen King's sometime house.

He pointed out two dolphins playing in a cove. He shushed us and showed us big bubbles rising from underwater. Then the round snout of a manatee broke the surface. The sea cow blinked its dark eyes at us, snorted and sank away.

• • •

Sunday, 2 p.m. Time to test the sand.

This was by far the hottest day of the weekend. Just walking across the parking lot at the main public access, sweat soaked our backs. A white board on the lifeguard stand said the gulf water was 86 degrees; the air was 92, with no breeze.

Scientists say Siesta Beach's sand is quartz — 99 percent. Ultimately washed down from the Appalachian Mountains, broken against an offshore reef. Free from coral or shell fragments. White and pure.

"This place is just a giant healing mecca," a tall, tanned lifeguard told us. Rick Hinkson has been watching over Siesta Key for a decade. "This whole beach is made of fine crystals. It's magical," he said. "You can't come here and be unhappy."

We kicked off our flip-flops, tentatively touched down our toes.

The sand was cool.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Visiting
Siesta Key

Getting there: It's about an hour's drive south of St. Petersburg.

Go south on Interstate 75 past Bradenton. Take the Bee Ridge Road exit, heading west, until you cross S Tamiami Trail. The road bends sharply to the right and turns into S Osprey Avenue. Take the first left onto Siesta Drive and cross the bridge onto the island.

The road bends left and becomes Higel Avenue. Follow the right fork as it turns into Ocean Boulevard. This picturesque street leads through the center of the village, and beach accesses are on both sides at the end of the road. Parking is free on the streets and in the public lots.

Where to stay: There are all sorts of accommodations on Siesta Key, from quaint cottages to condos to chain hotels.

We rented a two-bedroom cottage just a block off the beach from Beach Palms. It included a daybed, full kitchen, gas grill and hot tub and could sleep up to five people for $200 a night. beachpalms.com or
e-mail info@beachpalms.com

Other visitors recommended Siesta Sands, one-bedroom condos right on the shore, for $165 a night. siestasands.com/home

Where to eat: Seafood and fruity drinks seem to be the mainstays on this island, where even the coffee shops serve alcoholic concoctions. You can slurp oysters from an al fresco raw bar or sample shrimp and grits at an upscale grill. Pub crawls are easy, with a half-dozen bars squeezed into a couple of blocks.

• The Daiquiri Deck: 16 flavors of frozen libations — some topped with a splash of grain alcohol. The menu includes scallop skewers and Cajun creole pasta — plus five varieties of oysters served five different ways. Try Blue Point oysters done casino style for starters. daiquiridecksiestakey.com

• The Blasé Café: Steak, sushi and homemade crepes with thick cream sauce. A full bar and martini menu with nightly specials. The crab bisque is incredible. theblasecafe.com

• Patisserie Café Continental: Much less stuffy than it sounds. Tucked in the corner of a small strip shopping center, it is owned by a lovely English couple who pour Earl Grey from painted teapots. The blueberry scones French toast is big enough for two, but you won't want to share. (941) 346-3171

What to do: Start with the beaches. All public accesses include free parking. And the main lot at 948 Beach Road includes lifeguard stands, a playground, picnic tables and a concession stand. For information on renting picnic shelters and gazebos, call (941) 316-1172.

• Kayak the lagoon between the beach and the mainland. Siesta Sports Rentals offers guided tours all day, in sit-on-top or sit-inside models, for individuals or groups. No experience necessary. $40 per person. siestasportsrentals.com/

• Bike for miles along the flat white sand. The same outfit rents beach bikes, and even delivers to your hotel or cottage. $10 a day. siestasportsrentals.com/

• Stroll the farmers market on Sunday morning. Vendors pitch tents in the parking lot outside the chamber of commerce, 5124 Ocean Blvd. Buy fresh corn, tomatoes and potatoes, bromeliads, chemical-free insect spray or sculptures made from local shells. siestafarmersmarket.com/

• Bring your own drum and join the sprawling circle that sets up on the sand every Sunday, an hour before sunset. At the public access, 948 Beach Road. Or just watch hundreds of twirling people dancing in the twilight. drumcircles.net/sarasota.html

Siesta Key has the right recipe for relaxation 09/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 6:26pm]

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