Sarasota offers several great opportunities for off the beaten path travel experiences. That moment when you realize you will be hooking up your own harness hardware (sans supervision) to the 650-foot TreeUmphant! zip line. Or when you realize that despite all training, you are coming into the landing backwards.
Which is most terrifying?
The canopy courses at the new TreeUmph! Adventure Course east of Bradenton aim to empower and exercise guests. So terrified or not, you are in charge of your own safety and enjoyment as you maneuver one of several continuums of impossible sky-high swing and monkey bridges, hanging barrels, steep vertical ladders, tight ropes, net walkways, suspended climbing walls, bungee swings, Tarzan ropes, zip lines and other means of torture.
It’s one of the Sarasota area’s newest outlying and somewhat secret attractions. Another, Hunsader’s Farm, you should plan to visit while you’re in the TreeUmph! vicinity. Besides its U-Pick farm and marketplace, the delightful property encompasses a playground, petting zoo, antiques store, and gift shop with yummy ice cream.
Avoid the Sarasota headliners for the offbeat by skipping the circus museums at the Ringling and instead live the circus in nearby Venice, where the Ringling Circus once headquartered. At Tito Gaona’s Academy & Flying Fantasy Circus, you can even take trapeze lessons.
Forget the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art with its stuffy religious paintings. Head instead to Towles Court Artist Colony, a ramble of restored bungalows near downtown Sarasota that hold studios, galleries, and specialty boutiques. You can often find the artists at work there.
And whereas many visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens with its new elevated Children’s Rainforest Garden, few know about the Sarasota Children’s Garden, a fantasyland tucked away off-downtown.
Another spinoff of Sarasota’s circus reputation, Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary is operated by the Rosaire family of performers. Wednesday through Sunday the sanctuary opens to visitors in the afternoon, and a guided tour includes a big cat demonstration that is both entertaining and educational in respect to habitat preservation.
Sarasota is known for its haute cuisine and global fare. But for my money, the best eating can be found in a quiet little neighborhood known as Pinecraft, home to an Amish-Mennonite community and its delicious home-cooking restaurants famous for their pies.
While in the neighborhood, stop at Alma Sue’s Quilts. Besides selling a diverse selection of quilts hand-stitched on the premises, it stocks quilting supplies and provides opportunity to watch the “plain people,” as the Amish and Mennonites refer to themselves, at work.
Stroll the park and mingle with the people with their long beards, bonnets and bicycles. Locals say it’s okay to take pictures respectfully. (If you get a scowl, turn your camera away, they advise.)
Traveling Interstate 75 south of Sarasota, swing off on exit 191 and find your way to backwoods secret Snook Haven on the Myakka River. It has been operating as an old Florida restaurant and paddlecraft launch for ages, but recently changed hands and focus. Its new smoked barbecue menu is the real thing.
In east Sarasota, the new Nathan Benderson rowing park is a one-of-a-kind facility – the “Rose Bowl of rowing centers,” Bob Whitford, who manages operations, calls it. It’s the first to employ a wave attenuation system to soften choppiness, and teams and clubs from around the nation come here to practice and compete. The public comes to spectate, paddle their own crafts, fish and walk, bike or run the paved pathways around the linear lake.