Ask me for the best place to go kayaking in Sarasota County, and my honest answer would be North Port, a land-locked city a few miles north of Charlotte Harbor.
North Port has a grid of canals, adding up to almost 80 miles, eventually linking with the ‘wild and scenic’ Myakka River.
In the last few years, the city has become the spring training base for the Atlanta Braves, which relocated to the state-of-the-art CoolToday Park in 2019.
North Port is fringed by big expanses of public nature, at places like Myakka River State Park, where you can get a taste of Old Florida in oak hammocks, cypress swamps, and pine flatwoods.
1. Myakka River State Park
One of the state’s largest and oldest parks is ready to be discovered on the north side of the city.
Myakka River State Park has a wealth of natural environments like wetlands, marshes, and cypress swamps. One feature you have to track down is the Deep Hole, a karst sinkhole up to 100 feet deep.
With campgrounds and an acclaimed trail system, the park is a hotspot for amateur bird enthusiasts, who come to catch a glimpse of some of the seldom seen species that call the area home.
One of these is the roseate spoonbill, and I had the privilege of seeing this magnificent and reclusive species foraging on the muddy banks of the river.
The park opened in 1942, following almost a decade of work by the Civilian Conservation Corps, leaving it with beautiful parkitecture still in use today.
2. CoolToday Park
In 2019 North Port became the new spring training home for Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
The crowning glory of this $140 million complex is the CoolToday Park, seating 8,000 people.
I’ve watched a game here, and the best feature for me was the concourse walkway, which runs along the entire grandstand, and is something I normally associate with larger stadiums.
It means you can hang out a little, and chat with a few friends without missing any of the action.
During these warm-up games, taking place late February to late March, you’ll see some of baseball’s biggest names in action, and will get a glimpse of the next generation of stars.
Later in the year, CoolToday Park is the venue for North Port’s Freedom Festival, with live music and fireworks on July 4.
Not many people know it, but North Port might be the best place in the Sarasota area for some kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.
The city is on a lattice of canals, adding up to almost 80 miles, to go with the lower Myakkahatchee Creek and the connecting Myakka River.
To help you navigate this system, there’s a network of ‘Blueways’ that has been developed since the 2010s.
I took a stand-up paddleboard trip here, gliding through residential neighborhoods, and was never more than a few minutes from the nearest public park.
On my little voyage I saw a lot of birdlife, and plenty of alligators, all from a safe distance.
If you need to rent equipment, check out Glass Bottom Rentals, which also offers guided tours launching from McKibben Park.
4. Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park
On North Port’s northern edge, the residential subdivisions suddenly break off at the boundary of the Myakka River State Park.
A special place to go for a hike here is the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, 160 acres of oak hammocks, marshes and flatwoods along the creek’s inky waters.
If you aren’t ready for a trek into the Myakka River State Park, this much smaller property is my recommendation for a shorter escape.
There’s just under four miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, and you stand a good chance of spotting a lot of gators, deer, ibises and egrets.
5. Deer Creek Prairie Preserve
If you want to spend more time in the wilderness around North Port then look no further than Deer Prairie Creek Preserve.
Almost 6,500 acres, this property encompasses a tributary of the Myakka River, and can be accessed from the edge of town at 10201 South Tamiami Trail (southern entrance).
For solitude, the Deer Prairie Creek Preserve is up there with the Myakka River State Park, with more than 60 miles of primitive, natural surface trails.
The preserve’s habitats range from wetlands to Florida dry prairie, oak hammock and scrubby flatwoods. There’s a diversity of wildlife to match, including bobcats, river otters and deer.
One species to look out for is the Florida scrub jay, which has been native to the region for more than two million years, but is now listed as ‘vulnerable’.
6. North Port Aquatic Center
If you’re like me and come from a colder region, you might be jealous to learn that outdoor pools in Florida have spring, summer, fall and winter seasons.
That is a lot better than the usual season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To go with its extended opening dates, the North Port Aquatic Center has some great attractions and amenities.
There’s a heated competition pool, the exhilarating Barracuda Blast drop slide, and the bliss of the Relaxahatchee Lazy River.
Smaller members of the gang will have a fine time at the Pelican Splashground, while the Sand Dollar Snack Shack has comfort food classics like burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, along with cold beverages and frozen treats.
7. Atwater Community Park
Come summer, the heat and humidity in much of the Sunshine State can be oppressive. For those traveling with children, splash parks are perfect cool-off destinations.
North Port’s Atwater Community Park is just such a place, and features all the water-related activities you’d expect. I guarantee that kids will stay all day if you let them.
For parents who’d rather stay dry, there are seating areas nearby. I do recommend bringing a pair of sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and some sunblock though.
8. North Port Performing Arts Center
I don’t mind what’s on, I just love sampling the cultural scene in any community I visit. It’s a great way to support the local economy, give a boost to creators, and broaden your horizons.
Open for just over two decades, the North Port Performing Arts Center is just the place to do this. This venue features state-of-the-art lighting and sound, is fully accessible, and has nearly 1,000 seats.
On the schedule is a wide variety of concerts and recitals, from traveling bands to the North symphony to the North Port Symphony, which has been around for more than 40 years.
9. West Coast Auction Company
If you’re up for something different and want to purchase something unique, take a look at the region’s most popular auction house.
West Coast Auction Company specializes in business and estate liquidations, and holds regular auctions for dealers, collectors, and the public.
The company runs a 10,000-square-foot facility, just off I-75 (Toledo Blade Exit #179), but began life in 2004 working out of the family’s garage.
Estate auction items may include art, jewelry, housewares, electronics, and sports equipment. Like shopping at antique stores and flea markets, you may just find find a rare treasure or two.
10. Warm Mineral Springs
Florida is a state that is riddled with springs. There are around 900 in fact, but only one of them is classed as a warm mineral spring, and you can find it right here in North Port.
What appeals to me about Warm Mineral Springs is the natural setting, best described as a circular pool descending 250 feet.
This is in fact a sinkhole that formed around 30,000 years ago, and has evidence of Native American burials from about 10,000 years ago.
As well as human archeology, the springs have also preserved the fossils of prehistoric animals like giant sloths and saber-toothed cats.
The waters have long been claimed to have healing properties, all relating to their elevated levels of potassium, magnesium and sulfates, which can be beneficial in the right quantities.
11. Blue Ridge Park
For me, the joy of this little neighborhood park in North Port is its quiet residential location, right on one of the city’s many canals.
Part of the Blueways system, Blue Ridge Park is another great place to launch a kayak, and before long the waterway connects with the Myakka River.
There’s also a boat ramp and a fishing dock, while this is a place that will also suit people who just want to linger by the water for a while.
You’ll find a rentable pavilion, and a playground that was updated in the last couple of years. There’s now a cool mini-zipline that my little one enjoyed.
12. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Historic Spanish Point Campus
In 2020, Sarasota’s prestigious Marie Selby Botanical Gardens acquired a 30-acre museum and environmental complex close to North Port in Osprey.
A former coastal estate, this is a captivating place with archeology dating back five millennia.
On the campus is an assortment of preserved structures from the early 20th century, including a homestead, a chapel, a boatyard, and a citrus packing house.
I spent a very rewarding few hours rambling around these gardens and coastal woods, coming across old buildings and prehistoric middens.
Be sure to catch the boat to the gardens’ main campus in downtown Sarasota, spotting dolphins in the bay.
13. Caspersen Beach
If you can’t resist the call of the Gulf Coast, there’s a whole string of beaches about 20 minutes by car from North Port.
My go-to here is Caspersen Beach in Venice, which is one of the best spots for beachcombing in Florida.
There’s some excellent shelling to be done along the shore, but you also stand a good chance of turning up a prehistoric shark tooth.
The beach has a natural feel, with a nature trail threading through undeveloped coastal hammock and dune restoration.
If you want some privacy, all you have to do is walk south along the barrier island and the crowds soon disappear.
14. King Fisher Fleet
A few miles south of North Port is the huge Charlotte Harbor, the second-largest bay on Florida’s coast.
At the mouth of the Peace, Caloosahatchee, and Myakka rivers, this is an estuary of amazing proportions, covering almost 5,000 square miles.
Charlotte Harbor is a natural wonder, containing a variety of habitats, from oyster flats to mangroves. This is all home to emblematic Florida species like the manatee, alligator and loggerhead sea turtle.
To gauge the sheer size of the bay and learn about its wildlife and human history, I’d recommend a cruise with the King Fisher Fleet, based in Punta Gorda.
There’s a wide choice of experiences, like day trips to the islands of Cabbage Key, or romantic evening cruises to watch the sun setting over the bay.
15. Heron Creek Golf & Country Club
As far as I’m concerned, you will not find a golf facility with better value between Sarasota and Naples than Heron Creek.
This is a 27-hole facility, one of more than 120 to be laid out by the leading course designer, Arthur Hills (1930-2021).
Hills was known for adapting the existing landscape into his designs, and that is true for the Oaks Course, Creek Course and Marsh Course.
I played Heron Creek last year, and consider it worthy of a championship facility, with surprising natural elevation changes and picture-perfect scenery along the creek.
Heron Creek offers expert instruction for every aspect of your game, and has a full practice facility, with pitching and chipping greens, and putting greens.