Sorry Walt, but right in your backyard there is a place better than Disney World, and no matter how hard you must have tried, you just can’t beat Mother Nature.

Siesta Key Beach, only a scenic hour’s drive from the airport in Tampa, was recently rated 2nd in "America’s Best Beaches of 2009", by Dr. Beach (a well-respected professor of environmental studies who has been featured on ‘Oprah’ and has published his findings since 1991).

Siesta Key takes a back seat only to the Hawaiian Island of Kaui. Wow. I live in Miami only minutes from South Beach, which isn’t too shabby in its own right, so I was interested to see if Siesta Key was really worthy of such an honor. Then I saw the beach, and now I’m a believer, and I couldn’t leave here if I tried (seriously).

White Quartz sand that feels like baby powder, a "sky meets water" expanse of blue/green, and a well-preserved backdrop of native vegetation that seemed almost African to me. This is the best I can describe the beach, but no words nor photos can actually do it justice. There are also cool little tidal-pools and streams where all sorts of fun little marine-life are waiting to be discovered, and if you have kids these can serve as hours of well-deserved, natural baby sitters.

Without doing much research on the area, we started our day driving down Beach Boulevard in search of morning sustenance. A little red sign stating "Breakfast – Lunch – Dinner" caught my eye, and we ended up at Café Continental Patisserie, a hidden gem owned by a couple from England, who after vacationing in Siesta Key for many years bought the place and never looked back.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I had the best breakfast of my life there. We enjoyed fresh handmade scones (still warm from baking) and a perfect café latte followed by Eggs Benedict layered over giant crab cakes, a slice of ripe red tomato and a drizzle of Worcestershire sauce reduction over fresh-made Hollandaise sauce. I was blown away, not only because the food was 5-star, but because the place was so unassuming and quaint that I wouldn’t have expected such gourmet touches. An added benefit is the warm, welcoming vibe that I soon found permeated the whole island (something you won’t find in South Beach or Disney).

There are many water-related sports and activities/lessons like kite-surfing and kayaking available, but at the time we visited I was a little burnt-out from work and just wanted to relax so we went right back to our bungalow at Siesta Key Suites, where everything we needed for our beach day was provided.

I travel often and am used to the "here’s your key – don’t bother us" attitude often experienced at chain hotels, so imagine when I heard "oh you’re here early, let me take you over to your bungalow and show you around the complex and help you get your beach chairs". I looked over my shoulder, expecting Anthony Bourdain to be standing behind me. But no, the white-glove treatment was for plain-old us. Soon we were in our own private CoronaTM commercial.

I’m a pretty antsy guy, and normally a day at the beach with our 3-year old daughter would be anything but tranquil, but this beach is highly entertaining for kids due to the amount of space for kite-flying, fishing, shell-collecting and sand-castle building. The gentle Gulf Coast waves and warm shallow water are like a kid’s "Tubby" dream. After bringing children to some beaches, you need a vacation from your vacation, but not at Siesta Key. "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh" is the word that comes to mind.

While in Siesta Key, a late afternoon beach appetite is best dealt with at S.K.O.B, or Siesta Key Oyster Bar, where a dozen fresh Florida Oysters with all the fixings like horseradish, hot sauce and smoked sea salt await (did I mention the price was $10 for a dozen, and that these are the same giants they serve in South Beach for $4 a piece?). Follow that up with a savory thin-crust pizza topped with lump crab meat, olive-oil and fresh-grated parmesan, while a man with a guitar creates a vibe better than Margaritaville. Better than Disney AND better than Jimmy Buffet? You bet.

On Sundays, from sunset on, there is large gathering on the beach with drumming and dancing, so after S.K.O.B we chilled/regrouped in preparation for the drum circle later that evening in what seemed like our own private pool, where we could sit on the patio of our bungalow and still be within arms reach of the pool (another small detail that makes a world of difference if you are with kids).

Later, with tribal beats gathering intensity with every shrill of happiness from the steadily-growing crowd of well over 100 people, we sat together on the sand and took in the fire-glowing reds and purples of the late-day sun as it dipped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Siesta Key, in my opinion, is a natural beauty that melts away stress like drawn butter, where proprietors take pride in the white-glove care of their customers (while being quite easy on your wallet), and an infectious, happy vibe that leaves you saying over and over, "that really was a perfect day".


What & Where:
Siesta Key Suites
(523 Beach Rd, Sarasota; 941-349-1236;
www.siestakeysuites.com)
S.K.O.B. (Siesta Key Oyster Bar) (5238 Ocean Blvd, Sarasota; 941-346-5443; www.skob.com)
Café Continental Patisserie
(5221 Ocean Blvd; Siesta Key;941-346-3171)