I came in search of sea, sand, and sunshine. These three items are manufactured on Lido Key, a 15-acre island located 4.4 miles from Sarasota, Florida. There’s really nothing else to do here but be a shell seeker.
But the lack of distractions—no art museums, botanical gardens, or theaters—was exactly what I wanted to find on Lido Key. When I needed food or shopping, I had only a half-hour walk through a quasi-residential neighborhood to reach St. Armand Circle.
Main Beach Highway
Lido Beach is reached via Ben Franklin Highway, which is lined with condos. These concrete canyons stand shoulder to shoulder blocking panoramic vistas of the blue-green Gulf of Mexico. But the little slits of shimmering sapphire and jade waters between the pathways make me know that I am at the beach.
Lido Key is expensive so don’t expect hotel deals after Labor Day. You also risk hurricane season so you might be spending your vacation stuck inside your hotel.
Lido Key Weather
I arrive on a Friday from rainy Washington DC to start a rainy vacation on Lido Key. I am crushed. Spending my first 24 hours in a so-so beach motel watching the rain pour off the rooftop is not my idea of fun. I also learn that obsessively checking the weather app on your iPhone will not make the rain stop sooner. Finally, I give up, lay down on my bed, and begin researching what I can do on Lido Key when the rain showers stop.
Six hours crawl by before I see a cheerful sun appear on my Lido weather forecast. I race out to the shell-white beach which is empty of people, recliners, and umbrellas. But the shore is lined with fishermen.
Knowing that my hotel lies on the south end of Lido Key, I choose to investigate South Lido Park. Within minutes I pass my last hulking beach condo. Palm trees, seagrasses, and sand dunes now dominate the scenery.
My first Lido acquaintance is the Great White Egret that dangles her black webbed feet in the sea. She is an elegant bird that stands three feet tall with a wingspan of almost five feet. Her yellow beak contrasts with her white and black body. The egret stares into the late afternoon sun, which soon will begin to dip down in the sky. The blue sky unfurls before me like a Monet painting, smudged grey and black by an approaching storm.
I stop in my tracks to watch her, hypnotized by her languorous movements. A black heron hovers nearby. Slightly agitated, he hops back and forth on the sand before taking flight.
“When it comes down to it, Audubon Florida is for the birds!”Audubon Florida
Transported to a different side of Florida, I revel in my natural amusement park for birders. There is no reason to hurry anywhere. Visit the website for Audubon Florida to learn more about birding.
Three Island Parks
The North and South Lido public parks (really nature reserves) wouldn’t exist if not for some crafty negotiations with developers. Arvida Corporation purchased the barrier islands (including Lido Key) for $13.5 million in 1959. Apparently, they planned to pave over paradise and build hotels and condos on this ravishing beach.
“Nine years later , the public protested when Arvida proposed enlarging part of Lido Key as it had Bird Island.”LBK Chamber of Commerce
Arvida sold the northern and southern tips of Lido Key to Sarasota County, which turned them into county parks. This egalitarian outlook resulted in all Floridians (as well as visitors) being permitted to explore the Old Florida trees, mangroves, and bushes nestled in a forest setting.
In addition, the Ted Sperling Nature Park was spun off as a launch for guided and self-guided kayak tours of the Gulf of Mexico and mangroves. (You can also rent surfboards and paddleboards from multiple vendors. Here is a list to contact for information.)
A group of benches partially hidden in a shady tree-lined beach lures me past the egret. This is the perfect place to “dock” while I listen to the waves lap on the shore. Across the bay looms Sarasota, a cosmopolitan West Florida city boasting bayfront highrise condos, hotels, and quirky neighborhoods.
But my Sarasota vacation will not begin for three more days as I want to revel in seashore solitude. I think of myself as a canoe that will lob and float in the water. I can’t find the calmness without slowing down and pattering softly over the sand and broken shell paths.
“One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach.”Anne Morrow Lindbergh
But I plan to try!
The next morning I wake up by 6 am, eager to re-explore the beach and park at sunrise. Since it is the weekend, I am not alone. The shell seekers already roam the circular tip of Lido Key. Rounding the corner I see an angler throwing his line out into the bay. He embodies the Old Florida that seeks sustenance from the sea instead of caters to tourists. I stand and watch him work his fishing rod, just like the egret at play mesmerized me yesterday.
I will not see the sunrise until 7:26 am so the beach world seems grey and mysterious. As early morning walkers, we roam silently, trying not to startle the wild birds cavorting in the waves. I follow around the egret who I saw yesterday trying to videotape her actions. Again she bewitches me with her airy ballet, her large black webbed feet seeming to dance—her version of bird ballet on the beach.
It is so easy to roam at daybreak on the beach. I pluck a seashell that glimmers on the beach. Then I walk far down the beach until I come to a dead end. A dense patch of plants covers the sandy path. If I wore sea shoes, I could push beyond without the risk of cutting my feet.
Turning around, I now have nearly a half-mile to walk back past South Park, the heron family, and the angler. The city of Sarasota is waking up across the bay. The white highrise condos glimmer. I watch the sun begin to climb the staircase into the sky.
The colors that erupt represent a visual symphony—bright rust, orange, and red streaks explode in the sky. The bay is silent except for the occasional gasoline-powered motorboat that roars past. I prefer the boater who slips into his kayak and quietly paddles around Lido Key.
By 7:45 a.m. the sunrise pyrokinetic show ends so I can now look down at the seashells instead of up at the sky. These beach jewels are often broken or chipped yet the search for a perfect specimen will entertain me for hours.
Soon though my caffeine-deprived brain turns my thought to finding the Starbucks on St. Armand Circle. I pocket a couple of shells which I will wash and polish back in my hotel room. Then I head back out the door to buy my cafe latte. I will come to know this path along the Boulevard of the Presidents extremely well as I must walk into “town” whenever I want to eat. The brisk two-mile round trip walk helps build an appetite.
Lido Key is an odd bird—part nature, part Italian-inspired design. Circus magnate John Ringling originally purchased the island and built the causeway from Sarasota. His John Ringling Estate on Bird Key was nicknamed the Winter White House. But he was forced to sell off Lido Key during the Depression when his financial empire crumbled. The island eventually went to weed until it was purchased in the late ’50s.
Ringling wanted Lido to become the Winter White House for then-President Warren Harding. He even named streets after American presidents. According to Visit Sarasota, Avenue of the Presidents “branches into Washington, Adams, Madison, and Monroe Drives. There are also streets named after U.S. Presidents Polk, Grant, Van Buren, Jackson, Garfield, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Taft, and more.”
“St. Armands was Ringling’s grand attempt to build a resort district filled with shops and luxury residences on the oval-shaped island — and President Harding happened to land in the Oval Office just as Ringling’s vision at St. Armands was taking root.”Visit Sarasota
I wander down multiple “presidential” streets during my zig-zag routes between my hotel and St. Armand Square.
Soon I reach the first of the Roman statues that stood guard on Lido Key. Again the statues were Ringling’s invention. In addition to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, he brought Italian-inspired sculptures to Lido Key. A plaque in the circle recognizes the dozens of donors who contributed in 2007 and 2008 to the statues’ maintenance.
Organized by the St. Armands Residents Association, the campaign recognized Founding Supporters of the “Save Our Statues” fundraising campaign.
“This project was undertaken during 2007 and 2008 with the goal of preserving the Ringling-era statues dating to the 1920s . . . “St. Armands Residents Association
I follow the circle past an array of clothing shops, souvenir stores, personal care salons, restaurants, and cafes. At 8:30 am, most are closed. The Starbucks store is buzzing.
After I purchase my cafe latte and cinnamon raisin bagel, I find a table outside to people watch. I won’t see any solitary wild birds or overgrown mangroves. But I will watch the parade of humans with their dogs saunter past while I count all the Roman statues watching me.
Lido Key is such a study in contrasts. Choose your entertainment. For my money, I prefer to race back to the beach. I want to roam where the wild birds play in the bay.