My family has joked for ages that Siesta Key, Fla., is for the nearly dead or the newly wed because it’s so quiet when we come here during Oldham County schools’ annual fall break.
The hotels are far from full, the already expansive beach is exceedingly roomy and traffic is a bother only when slipping in behind a seersucker-suited snowbird creeping home at 20 mph after happy hour at some posh club.
That’s as stressful as it gets here in October, when the water temp is nearly the same as the air temp — in the low 80s — and seats at restaurants are easy to snag.
Flights are affordable if you fly to Tampa or Orlando and drive the rest of the way (an hour and 15 minutes from Tampa, 2 hours from Orlando); they’re 50 to 75 percent more if your bird takes you all the way to Sarasota.
Long story short, even a family of modest means, such as ours, can do this yearly with some careful savings.
But price is, honestly, a small factor in why we come here. The beach is the big sell.
Touted regularly and fairly as one of the finest shores in the U.S., even the world, the foot-feel of Siesta Key’s sugar-white, powder-fine sand is second only to navigating a plush carpet barefoot.
On keys further north, such as Long Boat, the sand is coarser; head south to Casey Key and its gray. Why the Gulf of Mexico so generously coughs up its pure silica mostly on this modest 4-mile stretch is a mystery to me, but I’m grateful for it.
Siesta Key is as wide and flat as a billiard table, making for great walking and setting up an extensive day camp with friends. When my wife and I first visited here in 1997, I ignorantly imagined every beach in pricier destinations would be as nice. But none of the five Caribbean nations I’ve visited since has beaches that compare, though Cuba’s famed Varadero Beach isn’t far behind.
We also come here for the hospitality. The vast majority of retail workers are exceedingly friendly, always asking where we’re from or where we’re staying and offering insider tips on restaurants or little-known places to visit.
That includes McDonald’s
drive-thru employees, deli personnel at the nearby Publix, the owners at Morton’s Market, a high-end grocery in Sarasota, even the people checking us out at Walgreen’s couldn’t have been more hospitable had they taken our bags to the car — which the septuagenarian grocery bagger at Publix offered to do yesterday.
This southern hospitality at its best, yet without that delicious, delicate drawl.
True, there are some objectionable sorts here, but very few. The perpetually cocky owner of a pizzeria we’ve been to a few times here (shocker alert: New Jersey guy, muscle-bound, giant gold chain and crucifix, tattoos, thick accent, the works) kept insisting last night his pizzas “are the best you’ll ever have. I guarantee it.”
I should have bitten my tongue, but I couldn’t resist shooting back, “They’re good, which is why we’re back, but they’re not the best I’ve ever had,” because they’re not.
(* Lest I be accused of unfairly leaning on just one stereotype, allow me to balance that perspective: The North has its Vinnies, the south its Cletuses. Both have an affinity for ill-fitting jeans, wife-beater T-shirts and over the top jewelry, be it the dope rope described above or a chain wallet embossed with a Bass Pro logo. The most noticeable differences between them are their coiffeurs—carefully crafted curls up north, mullets down south—and their accents.)
No surprise, perhaps, that our one personal and two large pizzas — which cost $56 — took double the promised 15 minutes to cook.
We also come here for rest and family time. Some of our closest friends join us on the annual trip, when we do little other than hang at the beach, cook nightly dinners at each other’s villas, play games and laugh endlessly.
That may sound Rockwellian corny to some, but it’s what we do, what we love.
Sure, we’ll have an excursion or two during the week: one set of parents joining us succumbed to the ceaseless pleading of their kiddos to go to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios today; my family will to venture north to Cortez, a fishing village near Long Boat Key, to scope out a fresh fish market and score some free fishing gear from a client. And that’ll be about it for the driving.
The remaining days, which always pass too quickly with this crowd, will be spent catching up, soaking in the sea and sucking down our fair share of adult beverages—and talking about how much our kids have grown up in the 10 years our group started coming here. Since few family events are more heavily documented than family vacations, it’s easy to see, and wince, at just how much they’ve grown—while Siesta Key has stayed the same.
Which is part of why we love it.