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Seaside Stops in Sarasota

Bordering two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, America has no shortage of beach destinations. And although all travelers have their own favorites, many seem partial to Siesta Key, a barrier island just off Sarasota, Florida.

“We have been voted the No. 1 beach in the country by Dr. Beach and Trip Advisor three or four times in the last 10 years,” said Kelli Funkhouser, group sales manager at Visit Sarasota County.

The beauty of the white-sand beach and the year-round warmth make Sarasota a popular vacation destination. For groups that travel to the area, though, there’s much more to do than just sunbathing. Sarasota has diverse historic, cultural and ecological attractions to complement its sun and scenery.

“One of our main claims to fame is the Ringling Museum of Art,” Funkhouser said. “It was founded by John Ringling from the Ringling Brothers circus. He had a winter home here, with an extensive collection of artwork. So the museum has a lot of galleries dedicated to his art collection.”

Ringling willed the property to the state of Florida, so the museum is now the state’s official museum of art, with a collection of more than 10,000 objects. Visitors will find 21 galleries showcasing hundreds of European paintings in addition to antiquities from Cyprus. The museum also has sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative art from Asia and the Americas.

In addition to the art galleries, the museum complex includes a number of other experiences for groups.

“Ringling’s house is there, so you can tour his winter home,” Funkhouser said. “And there’s a circus museum, which talks about the heritage of the circus. There’s also a miniature replica circus. Every piece was made by hand. It’s pretty amazing.”

While at the Ringling, groups should plan some free time to take in bay front views and 1,000-year-old banyan trees in the rose garden, which was planted by Ringling’s wife.

After walking the beach and exploring the art museum, groups can choose from several other exciting activities for the rest of their time in Sarasota.

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary

In 1987, a local Sarasota woman opened a sanctuary to care for exotic animals. Today, her small labor of love has grown into the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, which is home to more than 150 animals. The habitat is open to the public, giving visitors the opportunity to see lions, bears, tortoises and a variety of primates and tropical birds.

In addition to seeing the animal habitats, groups can arrange for some special programming and experiences. These can include the “Parrots in Paradise” show or “Big Cat Encounters,” in which animal experts educate visitors about the lives of lions and other large animals.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.