Honored by the U.S. Commerce Association with 2011’s Best of Friday Harbor Award, the Blue Dolphin Cafe boasts Culinary Institute alumni who concoct fresh breakfasts and lunches throughout the day. The eatery obtains provisions from Sarasota’s Sutter Egg Farm to craft three-egg omelets and eggs benedict, and fruit-sprinkled pancakes are topped with Vermont maple syrup or folded neatly into the lab-coat pockets of on-the-go surgeons. Patrons can top salads with their choice of chicken, shrimp, or tilapia, pairing them with burgers, wraps, sandwiches, and fried eats prepared in trans-fat-free oil. A kids’ menu accommodates youthful palates, and Friday-night dinners served November–April brighten the colder months.
Just about a 12-mile drive from Sarasota, the quaint Longboat Key is sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay; as such, the water becomes the main stage for experiences and activities. When not taking in rays on the beach, travelers can embark with various charter companies for a fishing trip, or skip the labor and sit down on a beachside seafood restaurant to nosh ahi tuna or parmesan-crusted flounder.The Beach on Longboat Key rents out bikes for free, which can be used to coast along the scenic roads and then stop under the shady trees of Bicentennial Park to prevent the bike from getting a sunburn. Just a short trip down Gulf of Mexico Drive resides Sarasota, which features more than 30 golf courses in its area and the Mote Aquarium, where families can catch a glimpse of manatees and sea turtles.
When a family of five wanted to go on a kayak tour, they assumed their daughter with Down's syndrome couldn't come along. But Shan-T co-owner Michelle Thorpe assured them she could, and invited her along in her own tandem kayak. Once on the water, the girl immediately took charge, joyfully taking over paddling. Michelle and her husband Mark had always searched for a way to conduct fun, physical, outdoor activities that would accommodate people with special needs, including their daughter with Asperger's and their niece who is autistic. Taking advantage of the therapeutic nature of the area's calm waters, Shan-T provides a way for just about everyone to commune with nature. The couple operates their tours intimately, using no more than 15 boats per group so that wilderness smells and the sounds of lapping waves are prevalent throughout their adventures.
The pair leads their tours through secluded, often shallow waterways and wildlife-rich areas aboard ocean-style kayaks with open tops for easy boarding and egress. They sometimes allow participants to use the boats as standup paddleboards on which participants can stretch their legs or reach up to scratch head itches with overhanging branches. On each tour, guides stress the fragility of the local ecosystem, highlighting issues such as baby fish growing up inside discarded soda cans and dolphins consuming floating plastic bags. In response, participants often pick up any refuse they see, with tours in the past becoming scavenger hunts to help clean the secluded waterways and to see who can find the most Gene Simmons solo albums. On many of these trips, kayakers have encountered manatees up close, sometimes when they brush up against the boats to scratch their backs and bellies.
The StarLite Majesty, a 115-foot dining yacht, and the StarLite Sapphire, a 113-foot dining yacht cruise Florida's coast under the emblem of StarLite Dining Cruises. Throughout the year, these vessels embark from various ports around Tampa for dining cruises in the warm Florida sunshine or under a starry sky. Passengers board the ships and are escorted to their reserved tables by the dining staff. After ordering entrees such as filet mignon and fresh-from-the-wharf seafood, guests explore the ships as onboard chefs prepare the fresh entrees in an hour. Passengers gaze at the StarLite Majesty yacht, or at the custom Club Lounge and their impressive appointments on the StarLite Sapphire.
• For $25, you get a 90-minute sunset cruise for two (a $50 value). • For $30, you get a two-hour sightseeing cruise for two (a $60 value). Captain Mark’s Water Taxi glides along the glittering coasts of Cortez, Anna Maria Island, and Longboat Key, slipping past notable sights ranging from the arcs of leaping dolphins to the City Pier’s commerce-laden shores. Both tours shove off from Cortez Kitchen, where explorers can snag a bite before boarding the 26-foot Red Skyy, which ferries small groups of wayfarers through a backdrop etched with fishing boats, pelicans, and aquamarine waters. Ninety-minute sunset cruises slip past pods of feeding dolphins, staging ideal opportunities for photos and pitch-tuning vintage porpoise whistles. Cut a watery path toward Longboat Key during two-hour sightseeing tours, stopping intermittently for optional snacks at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub, shopping excursions at Bradenton Beach City Pier, and searches for sand dollars with which to bribe crabby bartenders. All trips return explorers to the docks at Cortez Kitchen with their eyes full of seaworthy sights and their brains full of plans for flipper implants.