Most Canadians who visit the Gulf Coast area near Sarasota stick to Sarasota proper. Or maybe Siesta Key or another off-shore island.
Not so many folks have ventured south to Venice. Which is a shame of the highest order, as it’s one of the most charming places I’ve visited in Florida. There’s a ton of history, including unorthodox developers, feisty women pioneers and major league baseball stars such as Babe Ruth. You’ll also find charming architecture, broad-leafy streets, fun shops, a fantastic beach complete with shark’s teeth and a three-storey height limit in the downtown area that keeps things from feeling too built up.
There are a number of hotel options, including Inn at the Beach , which is just across the road from the sand. I stayed recently at the Hampton Suites a few minutes from the water. It has huge rooms and a kitchen and an enormous bathrooms that road warriors really appreciate. Not to mention a nice, free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free parking, cookies in the afternoon, free coffee all day long in the lobby and a small pool.
Here are six great ways to spend time in Venice on your next trip to the Gulf Coast.
- TAKE A DRIVE Venice is filled with lovely neighborhoods sporting Italian-looking homes, massive banyan trees with multiple trunks and thick, hanging vines and wide-open parks. The former Hotel Venice is now a retirement home downtown, but it used to attract such names as Babe Ruth and Henry Ford back in the day. “After the war the whole south grew, mostly because of the Interstate Highway system, air conditioning and mosquito control,” local tour guide Bob Cushings told me on a tour. “In the old days, trains would come down from Sarasota and people would be taken to their hotel, where they’d either relax or listen to a real estate pitch.” The real estate sales pitches are now purely optional, of course.
- GET SOME CULTURE Pop your head into the town’s cute museum to learn more about early settlers such as Dr. Fred Albee, a highly regarded surgeon who bought a vast tract of land (about 2,900 acres) in 1925 for roughly $185,000 with the idea of creating a development. He soon sold the land to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers for a million bucks. And then got it back again later. The good doctor taught his skills around the world, hobnobbed with British royalty at Windsor Castle and had tea with Count Zeppelin in Hamburg, Germany. You’ll also read about Bertha Palmer, who came into money and arrived in Florida at age 61. She’s credited with inventing progressive ranching methods and was a vice president of the Florida State Live Stock Association. Great history in a fun town.
- LUNCH TIME There are a ton of inexpensive options for a mid-day meal. Gold Rush is a fantastic BBQ joint that looks like a Log Cabin inside, with super friendly workers and great ribs. Try the ribs with apple butter barbeque sauce; thick and sweet and delicious. The ice tea glass is the size of a garbage bin. Looking for an ocean view? Sharky’s is one of those crazy colourful Florida joints that dot the coast, with plastic sharks on the walls and other goofy bits. It’s not fancy, but they have good seafood at reasonable prices, including macadamia nut-crusted grouper. They also have a fun patio gazing out at the town pier and the beach.
- SHOP BUT DON’T DROP Venice Ave., the main street, has a ton of fun shops, so you don’t have to exhaust yourself traversing a giant mall. Seaside Chic was done up by an interior designer and features lovely home décor items as well as fun Florida bits such as small plaques with a woman exclaiming, “I love the ocean; it makes my a$$ look small” and “If you are lucky enough to live by the sea, you are lucky enough.” The owner runs Seaside Chic Boutique down the street. Stop at Kilwin’s for outstanding ice cream.
- HIT THE BEACH The beach goes on for more than 10 km’s. Much of it near the downtown was developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it’s pretty wide open down near the pier, south of town. The water is warm and shallow; perfect for kids. You might spot a dolphin splashing about. Folks come out in droves to look for sharks’ teeth, a common find in the area. Take a walk on the pier and watch the fishermen and women do their thing as gulls whir in the sky and pelicans beg for handouts.
- ANSWER THE DINNER BELL The Crow’s Nest is an old standby in town, but in a good way. There’s a nice indoor room but I recommend the patio, which overlooks a pretty harbour with great views of gaudy sunsets. They make a nice bouillabaisse with tons of lobster, shrimp, scallops, juicy clams and a saffron broth. They might let you sample a couple of types of wine before ordering. Watch the gleaming white boats and fishermen come and go, and think about the weather back home.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FLORIDA GETAWAY SPOT?