Sarasota: An Hour's Drive Worth a Lifetime of Super Bowl XLIII Memories

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Savvy Super Bowl Week travelers are learning quickly that the real value - in monetary savings and a big step up in amenities - awaits those willing to venture beyond the host city and head an hour southwest, to the state's finest beaches, nationally rated restaurants, golf, fishing and Florida's cultural epicenter -- to Sarasota and Her Islands.

Not only can those who make Sarasota the base for their Gulf Coast stay avoid Tampa traffic and the crush of fans and families, Sarasota's hospitality industry is making an all-out effort to lure them here with special Super Bowl event rates - special as in lower than normal seasonal rates.

One beach hotel, the Holiday Inn Sarasota on Lido Key is offering city-view rooms starting at $199 a night (with two- and three-night minimum stays) 941-388-5555.
The Hampton Inn at Bee Ridge Road and Interstate-75 - straight shots north to Tampa and west to Sarasota's sugary-sand beaches and other amenities - is offering rates starting at $195 a night (three-night minimum) and a $10 gas card to ease that drive, plus free hot breakfasts 941-371-1900.

The posh, private Wicker Inn on Longboat Key's beach is even offering seven night stays for the price of five, four night stays for the price of three. Call: 800-285-3481.

The secluded Banana Bay Club, a Frisbee toss from Siesta Key's finest beaches, has rooms starting at $129 and three-night packages from $349 plus tax, 941-346-0113.

And of course there's the uncompromising Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, with its private Tom Fazio-designed members- and guests-only golf course, Lido Key beach club, spa and the Tampa Bay area's only Mobil four-star restaurant, Vernona. The Ritz has a special package starting at $399 a night with a 3-night minimum stay, including two breakfasts each morning and a $150 resort credit. 941-309-2000.

And there are many other specials and packages; see below and check out the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site at http://www.sarasotafl.org/cms/d/gobeyondthestadium.php.

But availability and saving money are, of course, just bonuses. It's the vacation opportunities that are uniquely Sarasota's that merit the upgrade in destination.

There is world-class shopping in abundance, on exclusive St. Armands Circle for example, or for bargain-hunters at the sprawling Prime Outlets Mall in Ellenton just north on Interstate-75. (Think: Saks, Coach, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, Nike - and 130 more stores - all at deep discounts!)

And the seasons of the Sarasota Ballet, Opera and Orchestra are all in full swing, as is professional and community theater with a wide choice of comedy, drama and musicals on more than a dozen area stages. The Venice Theater's presentation of Jeff Daniels' comedy "Escanaba in da Moonlight," tracks the efforts of Reuben Soady, 35, to shed his ignoble distinction as the oldest member of his hunting-mad Upper Peninsula family never to have bagged a buck. (941-488-1115)

The Sarasota Ballet features "The Rake's Progress" and "Façade" Jan 30-Feb. 1, at 2 and 8 p.m., at the FSU Perform Arts Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, (941 359-0099).

If blue jeans feel more comfortable after dark, consider the venerable 5 O'clock Club, for decades Sarasota's home to live blues and much more. See who's playing by calling 941-366-5555. Or venture downtown to the historic Gator Club, for hot bands in a cool, two-floor speakeasy-like setting, Call 941-366-5969 for more information.

During the day, the choices are staggering. Some are inevitably high brow, such as the impressive John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Florida's official state art museum - think Rubens, Titian, El Greco, Velazquez, Gainsborough -- as well as the circus magnate's palatial residence and the Circus Museums, all on the family's former bay front estate just north of downtown. Call 941-359-5700. And Downtown Sarasota's South Palm Avenue features a broad array of art galleries and antique dealers, if you long to bring something beautiful home.

Besides an impressive collection of championship golf courses, most of them available for public play, many Sarasota vacationers will try their hands at deep-sea or near-shore fishing. Consider chartering a fishing boat and a knowledgeable captain, or rent a boat and tackle -- and ask for pointers - from CB's Saltwater Outfitters, 1249 Stickney Point Road, Siesta Key. Call 941-349-4400.

Oh, and presuming you land a nice snook, grouper, king mackerel or redfish, you might consider taking it to Currents Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota that night. The kitchen staff will gladly prepare it however you like it. Call the Hyatt at 941-953-1234.

Florida's largest state park, Myakka River, in eastern Sarasota County, offers a back country experience like none other north of the subtropics. Hike or rent canoes in the vast park - see alligators, wild boar and deer with just a little luck -- or drive downstream to Venice's Snook Haven Retreat, a generations-old fish camp featuring casual dining, live music, cold beer and rent a kayak or take a tour boat ride to experience river life as it was decades, even eons ago. Call 941-485-7221.

What, no tickets to the big game? Try the Sports Page Bar and Grille downtown, 1319 Main St. 941-365-0469, local hangout, friendly folks, good food, cold beer and cocktails - and many TVs.

Accommodation specials:
American, due east of downtown Sarasota, rooms starting at $159. 941-342-8778

Best Western Midtown, near downtown, 2 nights or more, 15 percent off. 941-955-9841

Courtyard by Marriott, northeast of downtown, $179 with weekday arrival, 941-355-3337

Hilton Longboat Key Beachfront Resort, from $199, 941-383-2451

Events:

Asolo Repertory Theater, four plays in rotation: The Imaginary Invalid, Blur, A Winter's Tale and Inventing Van Gogh. Call the box office at 941-361-8388.

Circus Sarasota, major stars perform under the big top, 30 performances Jan. 30 - Feb. 22, 12th Street and Tuttle Ave., adjacent to Ed Smith Stadium. 941-355-9335.

Titanic, the Artifacts Exhibition, G.WIZ Museum, 1001 Blvd. of the Arts, 309-4949.

Charter fishing boats:
Wolfmouth Charters captained by Wayne Genthner, 941-228-7802.

Rodbender Fishing Charters, Scott K. Green, 941-376-8669.

Three restaurants of note:
Derek's Culinary Casual, a hidden gem, masterful cuisine. 514 N. Central Ave., 941-366-6565.

Mattison's City Grille, alfresco rain or shine, live music, fine food, always abuzz, 1 N. Lemon Ave., 941-330-0440.

The Hob-Nob, a real '50s drive-in. Shakes, serious burgers, dogs and more. 17th Street at N. Washington Blvd. 941-955-5001; and it's sister haunt, The Hob Nob 57 Tavern, at 17th and Lockwood Ridge Road, a high-energy sports bar, big screen TVs, smoking allowed. 941-953-4111.

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