LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. -- In a story we published on top retirement spots for golfers, I listed the Bradenton/Sarasota, Florida area, just west of Tampa/St. Petersburg, as my top choice. So I always look forward to visiting the area for its golf, tennis, great beaches, shopping and terrific restaurants.
But my most recent trip was a bit of an eye opener.
Next door to Sarasota is the Resort at Longboat Key Club. I had driven through it before but never stayed there or even played the golf courses. Not surprisingly, the views of the Gulf of Mexico are great, and as I just found out on my recent trip, so is the dining, hospitality and all the other things to do, including the world-class tennis center.
But in my previous visit in the spring of 2015, when I checked out the golf, I wasn't overly impressed. Some nice views to be sure, especially on the Harbourside Course, but the courses looked worn and dated. That all changed this summer with a massive renovation that included new grass on all 45 holes and a complete redesign of the Links Course (formerly Islandside). As part of a press trip, I got to check out the new-look golf courses and much more.
Ron Garl makeover puts Longboat Key golf on the must-play list
There are two courses at Longboat Key -- the Links Course, which is just a few hundred yards away from the beach and next to the main lodging, and the 27-hole Harbourside Course a couple of miles away but still on the massive property of the resort.
The big news -- besides Ron Garl's re-design of the Links Course -- is that both courses were resurfaced with Platinum Paspalum, a stunning, warm-season grass that's salt-water tolerant and very playable. All 45 holes at the resort now have the grass on the greens as well, and it putts way better than you might expect and looks terrific. (Driving ranges and the fairways on the White Egret Nine at Harbourside are scheduled to get paspalum in 2016).
The new paspalum grass allows Longboat Key to use an irrigation source that's 7,000 parts per million salt. It's also less susceptible to disease than Bermuda, and the ball sits up nicely on top of it, which means for most golfers, it's a preferred lie. The bottom line is that with the paspalum fairways, greens and light rough, these courses are more playable.
According to Garl, the renovation also gave the course an "island feel" that it did not previously have. With new bunkers featuring pure white sand and 21 added acres of natural coquina shell between both to help lower maintenance and the carbon footprint, both courses take on a whole new look. Invasive Australian Pine trees also were removed and replaced with small palms to open the courses up. There's still water on more than half the holes, so you definitely get that island feel.
The result is a stunning contrast between colors. Combined with the sea breeze, wildlife (there's a family of bald eagles living on Harbourside) and late fall temperatures, golfers get a premium experience at Longboat Key.
As for which course is preferable, that all depends on your mood, ability and preferences. If the Links Course had views of the Gulf, it would probably be my favorite, since it's a little more playable with its wide fairways, more open look and lack of homes. The Harbourside Course actually has better views of the Gulf, though it's of the marina, not open sea. It also has several interesting holes, including a mammoth par 5 that plays around water. The solution is simple: Play all 45 holes, which is what I did.
And now the rest of the story at Longboat Key
So now the golf is up to par with the rest of the 410-acre resort, which is saying something. Because right away, when I checked into my modern room on the sixth floor of this wonderful hotel, I spied the private beach, pool and other amenities below. Inside, there were all the comforts of a luxury condo -- large screen TV, work desk, kitchen, plenty of closet space and expansive bathroom.
But as nice as the room was, that's not where you wanted to stay. Down below is where all the action is. The first activity was a little tennis at the Tennis Garden, where I not only got a little help from my game on Longboat's superb Har-Tru clay courts (they have an underground watering system for perfect conditions), but we also got our day off to a healthy start with smoothies at Court 21.
For lunch, it was back over to Harbourside and the Tavern & Whiskey Bar, where you can get an authentic farm-to-table dining experience that changes with the seasons, showcasing the Gulf Coast's freshest produce, dairy products, Florida-raised meats, and local seafood. In addition, the restaurant boasts an exceptional collection of spirits in its Whiskey Bar.
If that wasn't enough, close by is another wonderful culinary experience -- Portofino, a high-end eatery that features fresh seafood, handmade pastas, wood-fired brick oven pizzas and one heck of a wine list.
And for good measure, when playing the Links Course, it was back to healthy eating at Spike N Tees, an open-air restaurant with fresh fare perfect for golf, working out at the fitness center or after a treatment in the spa, which is in the same complex. The spa offers a variety of services, including massages specifically targeted for golfers and tennis players, which was right up my alley.
This is also where John Olander hangs out. Olander is the only TPI Level III personal trainer in the Sarasota area. Before I departed, he helped me work out a hip flexor strain before I boarded my flight home. More importantly, he gave me some exercises and stretches to prevent the injury in the future. As we get older, this stuff becomes more and more important.
Lido Beach Resort also a great option
At Longboat Key Club & Resort, spending some time walking the beaches is a must. But even more impressive is Lido Beach in Sarasota, which is among the best in the United States, if not the world. The reason is the plentiful, pure, white sand contrasting the clear, warm, turquoise-blue water.
Lido Beach -- or, more specifically, Lido Beach Resort -- was also my next stop on this five-day trip. The resort, which just underwent a complete renovation, is operated and owned by Opal, the same company that owns Longboat Key Club. The rooms are simply stunning, with incredible views of the Gulf. As impressive as Longboat Key but a bit more modern, the layout features a separate bedroom, two baths, a living area with a kitchenette, and a tasteful combination of warm colors on the walls and seaworthy artwork.
Although golf wasn't in the cards on the last couple of days, there's no reason you can't base your stay at nearby Lido Beach Resort, which is convenient to Saraosota's array of shopping and dining opportunities. Although the dining at the Lido Beach Grill overlooking the ocean, as well the Sarasota skyline, is outstanding in its own right. Specializing in modern American cuisine with an emphasis on fresh seafood, executive chef Carl Murphy prepares a wide variety of eclectic entree selections and inspired house specialty desserts.
It was also from Lido Beach Resort that my group also took part in a couple of memorable coastal experiences. First, we took a guided kayak tour off the waters of South Lido Park through shallow inlets of salt water and beneath a cluster of canopied mangroves. The highlight of this two-hour workout was a chance encounter with dolphins that swam in between us, then took off in flurry.
The other cool activity was a tour and tasting at Sarasota's Drum Circle Distilling, which makes outstanding Siesta Key Rum, aged in charred American oak barrels. These hand-crafted rums have won all kinds of awards, including its flavored rums, which are unlike anything I had ever tried before. I highly recommend the Toasted Coconut, made with real coconut.
More dining and activities in Sarasota
Again, this is a little city that impresses me more with every visit.
This time around, I got to take a tour of The Ringling, which includes a priceless art museum, the Ca d'Zan Mansion and one of the most unique exhibits in the world, the miniature circus. You'll want to spend at least a half day here, and if you're coming to Sarasota, you should definitely plan for it.
Another great place to hang out is The Circle on St. Armand's Key, which has sort of a European ambiance with its sidewalk cafes, upscale shopping, bars and statues. Our experience there included eating at Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen, which specializes in coastal delights such as gourmet lobster, crab and shrimp ceviche tacos.
And, finally, while there's an endless variety of great dining in Sarasota and its surrounding areas, if you're looking for something really memorable, check out Micheal's On East in downtown Sarasota. This family-owned upscale eatery is known for its sophisticated New American cuisine served in a modern setting that includes a piano lounge. The steaks and seafood are of the finest quality, but you'll love the sides, including an indulgent and unique truffled macaroni & cheese.