By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright GLOBE CORRESPONDENTS
What is it about places named Venice, and why are they so cool? There’s the one in Italy, famous for its gondolas and grand palaces, and the one in Southern California, with its funky, anything-goes, “tattoo this” beach vibe. Then there’s the other, other Venice, the one in Florida. Recently named one of Coastal Living magazine’s happiest seaside towns, this is the mysterious Venice, the one you probably don’t know unless you’ve spent some time in Sarasota County, on Florida’s southwest coast.
So what’s cool about this Venice? Does it deserve a moment in the sun and is it, in fact, worthy of its name? We headed south to find out.
“Would you like to borrow a shark’s tooth sifter?” asked the woman at the front desk at the Inn at the Beach, where we were staying. Say what? It seems that Venice is, or claims to be, the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. Venice, an island along the aquamarine Gulf of Mexico, sits atop a fossil layer that’s estimated to be 18 to 35 feet deep, a souvenir dating 10,000 years, to when Florida was underwater. Gulf beaches hold a cache of fossilized sharks’ teeth, pointy triangles of black, gray, and brown that run about one-eighth to three-quarters of an inch long.
Beachgoers collect them using a “Venice snow shovel,” a screened basket with a handle, scooping up sand at the water’s edge where the waves break and sifting it.
Sadly, re-nourishment of the beach (when sand from several miles out is scooped up and deposited on the shoreline to replenish the beach after storms) has made sharks’ teeth less plentiful. Still, those little prizes are out there; we saw folks with bottles full of sharks’ teeth, not to mention, a display of sharks’ teeth jewelry at a shop called Sea Pleasures & Treasures on Venice Avenue. (Pieces not nearly as creepy as the alligator claw necklaces for sale alongside them!) If you’re really into this, and are a diver, find a local dive shop with a captain who specializes in fossils. Some super-lucky shark’s tooth hunters find giant, megalodon teeth, the size of a fist, on those trips. Or come in April, for the annual Shark’s Tooth Festival.
But you might not want to wait: From Nov. 9-16, Venice will be adorned in fabulous chalk art, as the site of the 8th annual Sarasota Chalk Festival (www.chalkfestival.org). Heralded by CNN as one of the best events of its kind in the world, the event draws 300-plus artists who create sprawling works in pastel on a decommissioned runway at the Venice Airport Fairgrounds. Visitors can participate themselves, watch the process, and see the glorious (if temporary) results.
This year’s theme is “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.” “We anticipate 200,000 visitors over the eight days of festivities,” says founder Denise Kowal, formerly of Cohasset. “We host 90 percent of the world’s most renowned pavement artists in one location at one time — nobody else does this,” she adds.
The art is so amazing that it would knock your socks off if you were wearing any. This is flip-flop territory, where the temperature averages around 73 degrees — perfect for hanging out at one of the frequent festivals, hitting the Venice Farmers Market on Saturday morning, or meandering the inviting stretch of little shops along West Venice and Tampa avenues, the city’s pink-stucco downtown area. Thanks to stringent zoning, downtown Venice is remarkably lacking in chain stores and restaurants, making it an anomaly in the Sunshine State.
But the biggest surprise we found in Venice — bigger even than the shark’s tooth on the sign at Caspersen Beach — was this: We could get around almost entirely by bicycle. In our travels around car-centric Florida, we’d given up on finding a bike-friendly city. In Venice, Mayor John Holic himself gets up at 3:30 a.m. to hit the road with his pals, in the dark on his bike before the workday begins. While we don’t recommend that strategy for visitors (Beach Bikes & Trikes, a local bike rental agency, doesn’t open that early anyway), we discovered that this city of 21,000 souls is easy to explore on two wheels.
Venice is a silver-rated bicycle-friendly community, according to the League of American Bicyclists. And, although there are numerous on-street bike lanes, you can avoid cars altogether by sticking to bike paths like the Venetian Waterway Park and the Legacy Trail, a 10.8-mile path that goes all the way to the southern edge of Sarasota, and eventually will connect Venice with Sarasota’s downtown.
“Biking has really taken off here, especially since the Legacy Trail opened up in 2008,” says Mike Brown of Beach Bikes & Trikes. “We get people who come up here to house hunt, and do it all on a bike,” he adds.
We were skeptical, until we hit the paved Venetian Waterway trail, and pedaled to Sharky’s on the Pier for lunch (a must-do here), to Caspersen Beach (shark tooth central) and along both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway, veering off the trail to the bike lane on Harbor Drive to admire the city’s collection of 1920s-era Spanish Revival-style homes. We also encountered Mayor Holic on his bike; he gave us a mini-tour of Venice’s 30-some parks, and steered us toward other sights to see on our DIY Tour de Venice.
One of those “parks” is actually the Legacy Trail, a multiuse former rail trail that runs from the Historic Venice Train Depot, downtown, to Sarasota. So, of course we had to rent bikes for yet another day!
The morning we set out, it was 94 degrees. Were we crazy? Weren’t all the sane people at the beach, sprawled on the tawny sands of Venice’s 14-mile coastline, or bobbing in the surf? Quickly, though, we realized we were onto something, creating our own breeze as we pedaled through neighborhoods, over bridges, and into cool foliage, stopping only to guzzle water and admire views of electric-blue bays alongside the path.
We had hoped to get as far as Oscar Scherer State Park, but alas, we were flying back to Boston and running out of time. Instead, we ended our ride back at Venice Beach, where we promptly locked up our bikes, doffed our helmets, and plunged into the bathtub-warm-but-still-refreshing Gulf of Mexico.
As Venices go, this one isn’t bad at all.
Venice is located just south of Sarasota. Bradenton-Sarasota International Airport is about 30 miles away.
Where to stay: Located right across from Venice Beach, the Inn at the Beach is the one to book thanks to its easy access to the Gulf. Rooms are quiet (the property abuts a residential area) with modern amenities. There’s also a heated pool and spa tub. Guest rooms and suites are done up in casual-tropical style, and many rooms have full kitchens. Continental breakfast is complimentary. Rates from $149. www.innatthebeach.com
Where to eat: You’ll be glad you biked a lot. Like neighboring Sarasota, Venice offers plenty of good food. Some of our favorites: For lunch, try the Soda Fountain & Vinnie’s Pizzeria(www.sodafountainofvenice.com), a real soda fountain, and Sharky’s on the Pier for good food and a Margaritaville-esque vibe (www.sharkysonthepier.com). For dinner, Sharky’s upscale sibling, Fins(www.finsatsharkys.com), offers dazzling sunset views and some of the best food we’ve ever had in the Sunshine State (steaks, sushi — it’s all awesome here). Another waterfront spot we enjoyed: Marker 4 (www.marker4.com), where they make fish tacos with seared red grouper, and top their steamed mussels with tasty things like cherry-smoked bacon.
Renting bicycles: Beach Bikes & Trikes (www.venicebikesandtrikes.com) will deliver and pick up bikes as part of the rental fee; helmets, baskets, and locks are included.