A thin sliver of land nestled between the turquoise waters of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Longboat Key (LBK) is both simple and opulent offering a scenic and delightful destination. Less than 11 miles in length, it boasts the rare combination of beautiful beaches and a bevy of cultural gems in Sarasota just to the south. One of the more refreshing finds is LBK's natural side.
My wife and I arrived on the barrier island for a holiday stay at the Zota Beach Resort. Uber-modern and sleek, it's surrounded by tropical blooms, lush foliage and swaying palm trees. Great egrets and great blue herons fish at the water's edge, while cormorants, ospreys and pelicans wheel overhead then swoop down into the Gulf in search of a meal.
A five minute drive south brings visitors to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. From its humble beginnings in a tiny one-room building in 1955, Mote has evolved into a world-class research center that conducts ocean research on six of the world's seven continents.
All the exhibits are beautifully executed to reflect the natural habitat of its inhabitants. First up you see a fresh water stingray, a scary 27-foot Moray Eel, and the black and white striped Convict Fish who spend their adult lives hidden in coral tunnels. Then you enter the area called "Grass Flats, Reef Fish & Jellies," a bonanza of all sorts of beautiful reef dwellers. A favorite are the upside down jellyfish that produce algae with their tentacles.
Moving outdoors to the 30-foot Touch Tank and 135,000 gallon Shark Tank, guests can observe species of sharks both above and below the water. You can witness the sharks' regular feeding by the aquarium's biologists and in a special narrated session learn about the training methods employed to keep its bonnethead sharks healthy. It also features the world's largest grouper species (the goliath grouper) and other popular Florida game fish. At the Ray Tray touch pool you can actually finger touch shark cousins, the stingrays.
Don’t miss the delicate seahorses. Mote helps support populations by breeding seahorses and reducing the number that need to be collected from the wild. Seahorses change color, grab things (and each other) with their prehensile tails, and male seahorses actually give birth to the young, the only species on Earth to do so. They are part of Mote's wildly successful "Adopt an Animal" program that also includes jellyfish, stingrays, manatees, turtles, otters and sharks.
Meet Hugh and Buffett. These half-brother manatees have lived at Mote's marine mammal center since 1996. They love to play and eat lettuce-- up to five dozen heads a day. More importantly, marine biologists study the behavior of the docile creatures and learn how to better protect manatees in the wild since they often fall victim to boating accidents. The manatees show off their friendly nature swimming against their very own "Endless Pools" swim current. Loggerhead, green and Kemp's ridley turtles teach the trials sea turtles face today and what visitors can do to help.
Try not to smile at the river otters' antics, equally at home in the water and on land. Careening down the waterslide, performing flips into the water or munching on bits of carrots, Mote's three furry-faced river otters play non-stop. Orphaned too young to survive on their own, they were rescued and raised by humans. Huck was found near Melbourne, while Pippi and Jane hail from South Carolina. The exhibit provides a 360-degree view of the otters' inquisitive nature in their vital watershed environment.
Biologist Amanda Foltz oversees the care for the go-go, charismatic animals. She target trains the otters to eat fish and high protein meats at plush eight ball, soccer ball and basketball tags on the glass enclosure. The individual targets separate them at feeding time.
"The otters steal the show," said Foltz, who feeds the creatures five times day while eliciting a batch of tricks for spectators. "There's no competition for food so it allows them to get their allotted diet and vitamins. Because they're so active, otters have a very high metabolism. They come right up to the visitors and interact with them. Each has its own distinctive personality. I've learned so much about them."
Back at Zota we head to a 24/7 impressive fitness center for a workout, adjacent to the elegantly tiled spa. From the cabana lined infinity-edge pool, you're just steps away from the white as sugar beach. A sea of blue-striped umbrellas stretch out across the soft sand that meets the shallow Gulf. Look closely at the beach cabanas and you'll spy cleverly sculpted sea turtles and swans fashioned from the resort's beach towels.
Try kayaking or paddle boarding on the Gulf with pelican and great egrets accompanying your voyage. Each evening of our stay we reveled the dazzling sunsets. When twilight arrives higher banks of clouds morph from pink to deep blue and light purple.
The resort's restaurant/wine bar scene shimmers nightly. At Viento Kitchen & Bar, Executive Chef Jason Pellett is cooking Floribbean by way of whatever global influence catches his fancy. Our first evening we chose the espresso rubbed bone-in rib eye and the herb grilled lamb chops, both cooked perfectly and which delivered a lovely punch of the flavors of Italy. Meanwhile, at the cabana-lined Cascade Pool Bar the menu is more casual. Try the crispy Beer Can Island Tacos or Luau Grouper while camped out under a palm.
A short ride north is the Joan M. Durante Park. Residing on 32 acres of hammock forest, man-made lagoons, and wetlands, hike the shaded boardwalks and crushed shell trails that bring you down to the mangrove-fringed shores of Sarasota Bay. Listen for the noisy high pitched “meow” sound of the brightly colored, wandering peacocks. Another slice of the natural beauty and wonder of Longboat Key.