Psst--now's the best time to score a great deal in Sarasota, Florida.

Secret Beach Vacation
Credit: Meg McKinney

Summer is not complete without a trip to the beach. Sarasota boasts interesting restaurants, eclectic shops, and some of the prettiest beaches in The Sunshine State. Plus, rates drop significantly in the summer. It's a vacation spot you can actually afford. So pack your sunscreen, and get ready for three days of fun.

Sleep Tight
Do this vacation the right way, and stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. You can get a room for $199 a night. While still a bit pricey, it's a steal in comparison to the $499 you'll pay in high season. This 5-year-old, 266-room hotel offers the best of everything. From the ultra-smooth bed linens to the sumptuous pastries at Boutique Chocolat, you'll find luxury at its best here. And when you stay at this hotel, you won't have to lift a finger.

While the hotel isn't situated directly on the water, nearby there's an exclusive beach retreat with a pool, restaurant, tiki bar, and beach access reserved for guests. Frequent shuttles will take you back and forth from the hotel to The Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club. As a special treat, take one of the morning sea turtle walks offered by the hotel this time of year.

If you're not up for puttin' on the ritz, consider La Quinta Inn & Suites Sarasota (rates from $99) or Sarasota Bradenton Courtyard by Marriott at the airport (rates from $129). If you prefer to stay on the beach, the 135-room Holiday Inn Lido Beach offers $139 rates, and the 222-room Lido Beach Resort features $162 rates.

Dining Details
Chef Yves Vacheresse of Vernona restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton resort first recommends the food at his hotel. Beyond that, he rattled off a list of good spots.

The Peruvian Selva Grill, with funky outdoor seating, is known for its extensive array of seviche offerings (octopus for $11 and shrimp for $12) and mojitos. For noodle dishes as well as a full sushi bar, try Thai and Japanese at Pacific Rim. If you want to splurge, opt for dinner at The Table. Here you'll find lobster gazpacho ($6) and Annatto Coriander Crusted Lamb Chops ($29).

At The Old Salty Dog, you won't find frills (plastic chairs as seating and bottles of ketchup on the tables), but you will feast on killer grouper sandwiches ($11.95 with fries). I also like the lobster Benedict (market price, currently around $18) at Broken Egg.

The Shopping List
St. Armands Circle, a retail mecca, waits just steps away from the beach. With 130 stores, it's a shopper's heaven. Visit Fanta Sea, a magnificent seashell and home accessories shop, and Garden Argosy, a gift boutique with everything from baby items to fun jewelry. If you forgot a good beach read, stop by Sarasota News & Books, located on quaint Main Street.

Beach Report
If you stay at The Ritz-Carlton hotel, you're set when it comes to ideal beach access. For folks who stay elsewhere, we recommend the public Lido Beach. Although you won't find someone to bring you tropical drinks here, you will enjoy sugar-white sand, crystal-blue water, free parking, and easy-to-access restrooms.

You may discover that after a trip to Sarasota, you've found a new summer tradition.

For more information: Contact the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-522-9799 or

Sarasota Musts
Don't leave Sarasota without visiting Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. You'll feel as if you've uncovered your own personal paradise.

This lush tropical garden holds some of the world's rarest plants including orchids, bromeliads, and epiphytes (also known as air plants). Covering 81⁄2 acres, the space was once the bayfront estate of philanthropists Marie and William Selby. Now, in addition to a thriving garden, it contains a research center. Admission is $12 adults and $6 ages 6-11.

If it rains while you're in town, which it tends to do on July afternoons, swing by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Admission is free on Monday if you can arrange to stay in town an extra day; otherwise it costs $15 adults.

Down to Details

"Secret Beach Vacation" is from the July 2006 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.