By: Mary Fran Bontempo

Paddle boarding in Sarasota with Laura. (I'm the one NOT in the bikini.)

Paddle boarding in Sarasota with Laura. (I’m the one NOT in the bikini.)

I’m a Disney princess.

At least, I’d like to be. So as far as Florida vacations go, Disney World has always been my Mecca. Until now.

Enter Lido Key Beach and St. Armand, part of the city of Sarasota, on Florida’s west coast.

While visiting our daughter, Laura, a recent Florida transplant, Dave and I enjoyed five delightful days on this small, distinctly un-touristy island, with its gorgeous tropical beach and fabulous shopping, dining and play options.

A few minutes drive over a bridge crossing the Sarasota Bay, Lido Beach is simply lovely. The sand–powdery, cool, white. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico–bath-water warm, blue-green and crystal clear. The crowds–few and far between. (And the sand doesn’t get hot. Ever. If you’ve ever burned your tootsies at the Jersey Shore, you’ll appreciate the cool touch.)

Our room at the Holiday Inn directly across from the beach (and I mean directly across–we crossed the street and were on the flour-like sand), was modern, clean and nicely decorated. Nothing fancy, but with our gulf view, the fancy was well-provided by Mother Nature. The hotel offered beach chairs and towels and a local at the beach rented lounge chairs and umbrellas for cheap daily rates. Like many folks we encountered, he once visited the isle and just couldn’t leave.

After a day swimming in the gulf’s soothing waters, I couldn’t blame him. The water, unlike our sometimes dark and moody Atlantic from the Jersey Shore, was mesmerizing, as the colors changed from turquoise to crystal blue to beach-glass green. Fish jumped around us as pelicans flew overhead, their giant wingspan cutting quite an impressive figure when they swooped down to skim the sea.

When the sun became a bit too much (do load up on the 50+ sunblock) we retreated to the hotel’s small but serviceable pool, complimented by a poolside bar serving refreshments. Just the thing for getting out of the sun and still enjoying the view.

After a day of sunning, St. Armands Circle, a three block walk from our hotel, is a showcase for over 130 shops and restaurants, with options ranging from upscale dining (the Crab and Fin) to the fun and funky island-vibed Daiquiri Deck. To satisfy your sweet tooth? Ice cream, frozen yogurt and the candy-ice cream palace Kilwins.

The shops? Whatever you want. Clothing, jewelry, beach decor–the circle has it all. And the entire area is blooming with lush foliage–and statuary. Glowing, white marble statues surround the shopping district, adding a classic air to the neighborhood.

St. Armand circle
is the come-to-life vision of circus founder John Ringling, who imagined the bustle of St. Armand and would be thrilled to see what the area has evolved into–a beautiful compliment to Mother Nature’s glory with a distinctly international flair.

And should you tire of the pleasures of Lido Key and St. Armand, (don’t know how you could) Siesta Key and Longboat Key are both short drives away, with Siesta Key providing excitement and Longboat Key a more laid-back feel. Throughout the area, there are water sports (yes, I tried paddle-boarding and loved it), cruises, fishing and again, all the dining options you could imagine.

I’m still a Disney princess, but I think I’ll choose Lido Beach and St. Armand as my kingdom. Both treat guests like royalty.