February is right about the time the winter blahs become unbearable. So a quick escape to a sunny clime is just the thing to pull you through until spring. Why not take a cue from the birds (both real and otherwise) and fly south to the Florida Gulf Coast?
Since 2010, the Orioles have been playing spring training games in Sarasota, and faithful fans have been flocking to town to enjoy its pristine white beaches, impressive food and drink scene, and waterfront attractions—and, of course, to catch a few ballgames.
The city of Sarasota almost feels like an oasis in the strip mall sameness of Florida. There’s an undeniably upscale vibe to a lot of its shopping districts, and it is starting to cultivate a culinary and cocktail scene all its own. In fact, last April, Condé Nast Traveler ranked it in the top 15 food cities in the country, recognizing its farm-to-table cuisine and quaint Main Street cafes. Plus, Sarasota has all the perks of warm weather and beautiful vistas. So, how lucky are we to have an excuse to make the trek every winter (this year Feb. 26-March 30) to watch the Orioles prepare for the regular season?
To get to Sarasota from Baltimore is easy enough, since Southwest flies direct to Tampa and Sarasota is just over an hour’s drive from there—made even more scenic if you loop through St. Petersburg and the barrier island towns of Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach, Anna Maria, and Bradenton Beach.
Start in St. Petersburg at its world-class Dalí museum and then visit The Brass Monkey, in neighboring St. Pete Beach, an honest-to-God Baltimore-themed sports bar, complete with Ravens, Orioles, and Terps gear! Anna Maria Island has some of the best fresh grouper around and Clearwater Beach, miraculously, has 361 days of sunshine. We made a pit stop at Gulf Drive Café (900 Gulf Dr. N., Bradenton, 941-778-1919) for margaritas and live acoustic music at its beachfront tiki bar.
Why not take a cue from the birds (real and otherwise) and fly south to the Florida Gulf Coast?
Once in Sarasota, there are a number of places to rest your head, including the brand new Aloft Hotel (1401 Ringling Blvd., 941-870-0900), which is right downtown and conveniently near the ballpark and the shopping haven of St. Armands Circle. Aloft features an outdoor pool, a live music bar, a fitness center, and hip and modern rooms. It also accepts pooches under 40 pounds, so Fido doesn’t have to miss the fun.
Our first priority upon arrival was to get to an Orioles game. But, just like back home, we wanted to find a place to pregame. Mere blocks away from the stadium (and offering free parking) is Jdub’s Brewing Company (1215 Mango Ave., 941-955-2739). Opened in 2014, the brewery has a taproom with 14 drafts, an outside area that is dog-friendly, and frequent food trucks. Before the game, we recommend sipping on some Passion Wheat beer, flavored with mango and passion fruit, or their milk chocolate porter Bell Cow.
Once you’re sufficiently lubricated, head over to Ed Smith Stadium (2700 12th St., 941-893-6300), which truly feels like a mini, tropical Camden Yards. From its green seats (refurbished from the Yard itself) to crab cake sandwiches sold at the concession stands, you just might think you’re back on Eutaw Street. But other details, like palm trees and Spanish roof tiles, give away its Florida address.
Though the games were of little consequence, we enjoyed watching the players in a more relaxed atmosphere and couldn’t help but make predictions for what we presumed—incorrectly, alas—would be our World Series-winning season to come. (It didn’t hurt that we got to see an Orioles win, either.) If you go this year, be sure to pay attention to the ever-budding bromance between Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, catch a home run ball from Chris Davis, and check out the Orioles’ brand new catcher, Welington Castillo, who has the awesome nickname “Beef.”
While the Birds are certainly a draw for Sarasota, there are plenty of other attractions to visit, including the grand and beautiful John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art (5401 Bay Shore Road, 941-359-5700), which is the official state art museum of Florida. This massive museum showcases nearly 6,000 objects inside a sprawling complex that combines the art museum with a circus museum, gardens, gallery spaces, and the stunning Ca’ d’Zan—a waterfront Venetian Gothic palazzo-style residence that is a true marvel to behold. Consider it the Ca’ D’Oro of the Gulf.