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Sunny salve for our endless winters

Posted by: Bill Ward under U.S. travel Updated: March 6, 2012 - 8:04 AM

This season really brings home what I dislike most about Minnesota winters: not the severity, but the length. That’s why many of us head somewhere warmer in March, to get a dose of greenery and relative warmth, even though we know we’ll almost certainly be returning to a dank, dismal landscape.

A longtime favorite destination has been spring training, in either Arizona or Florida. The former is ideal for those of us who flat-out love baseball, since there are so many teams playing in the Phoenix area that we can pull off day-night doubleheaders with ease. Not to mention that the ridiculously swell Tex-Mex restaurant Los Dos Molinos is worth several stops (especially at the South Phoenix location).

Florida’s biggest advantages are beaches and seafood, but the teams are spread so far apart that baseball fans must either settle for seeing mostly one or two ballparks/home teams or deal with hellish traffic en route to other venues.

Most Minnesotans, of course, opt for Fort Myers because the Twins train there, as do the Boston Red Sox. But both teams’ games are always sold out, and demand is so high that ticket prices border on outrageous.

I’m a Twins fan, but mostly I’m a baseball fan, so for me there’s a decidedly better option 100 or so miles to the north: the Bradenton-Sarasota area. Tickets for Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles games are much easier to come by – and afford – unless they’re playing the Yankees or Red Sox, in which case you don’t want to go anyway because the visiting fans are so obnoxious..

Making that area your home base (sorry, couldn’t resist) also means getting to spend a lot of time on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, which have tons of affordable condos for rent, expansive beaches and great eateries, plus a more laidback feel than most Gulf Coast destinations.

Some favorite stops in or near Longboat Key: Mar Vista, which feels like a Hemingway hangout on the inside and a Jimmy Buffett one outdoors, and is so popular that going at AARP hours is recommended, plus the Columbia, an offshoot of a justly fabled Cuban restaurant in Tampa.

But I've spent more time haning out on Anna Maria Island to the north, where I love the dune- and grass-laden Bean Point beach and the Rod & Reel Pier bar/restaurant at the top of the isle; the delightfully funky Mr. Bones Cajun/Caribbean/barbecue joint on the main road, and the deck at the Sandbar, my favorite place this side of Capri to watch the sun dip into the sea.

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