Florida's Venice has warm springs, shark teeth and more
By PATRICK CONNOLLY | Orlando Sentinel | Published: February 25, 2020
There's an oasis where people from around the world come to soak in warm mineral springs, where locals and tourists alike search for shark teeth on the beach and perhaps kayak into the sunset alongside friendly dolphins.
The sunshine is usually abundant for visitors, snowbirds and residents of Venice - Florida, not Italy - looking to enjoy any number of the city's nature-based recreation opportunities. Nestled on the Sunshine State's Gulf Coast, the town of slightly more than 20,000 draws people in with its Italian-style charm and peaceful ambiance.
And while the area offers countless opportunities for taking it slow through golfing, sunbathing or dining out, Venice also caters to more active travelers with shark tooth hunting, fishing and boating opportunities.
Whether you're going for an extended day trip or a weekend, here's a glance of what Venice has to offer.
Spring as old as time
Warm Mineral Springs, located about 30 minutes east of Venice, is the only one of its kind out of Florida's 1,000-plus springs. With up to 51 minerals and a year-round temperature of 85 degrees, the large pond has attracted visitors from every corner of the world who seek its alleged healing properties.
The spring is even rumored to be the famous "Fountain of Youth" Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sought. And that's just the beginning of this minerally history.
During the last ice age, the spring was actually a dry cave, as proved by stalactites and stalagmites discovered well below the current water line. Warm Mineral Springs is actually a sinkhole believed to have opened about 30,000 years ago. In archaeological dives, human remains dating back 10,000 years have been discovered, along with evidence of saber-toothed cats and sloths.
Modern-day visitors might first balk at the sulfury smell of the spring's water, but it doesn't take long for most to warm up to the idea of getting in and soaking up some of the mineral-rich water. Eight million gallons per day flow from deep underground as visitors sunbathe and wade in the waters.
English-speaking guests may be surprised to hear Russian, Ukrainian and other Eastern European languages spoken at the spring, but this is a testament to the culturally diverse population of nearby North Port. Warm Mineral Springs is a large part of what first brought these settlers to the area.
And while the spring provides a natural sort of spa, there are also spa services available onsite - anything from a Swedish or deep tissue massage to a facial and body scrub.
If you go: Warm Mineral Springs (12200 San Servando Ave. in North Port) is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (except Dec. 25). Admission for Sarasota County residents is $15, while a day pass for all other guests costs $20. Discounts are available for students and children. Food and nonalcoholic drinks can be brought into the park as long as they're not in a cooler. Chairs are available at the facility on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, visit cityofnorthport.com.
Playing the role of the (shark) tooth fairy
Venice is known as the "Shark Tooth Capital of the World" for the sheer number of sharp, black specimens that can be found along its sandy shores. Sure, shark tooth hunters can find buried treasure near Jacksonville, Arcadia or Boca Raton, but no expertise is required while looking on the Gulf Coast beaches of Venice.
How did these teeth end up on the Gulf Coast?
Tens of millions of years ago, Florida was submerged and sharks, including the extinct megalodon, reigned in the waters flowing around our modern-day Sunshine State. The mouths of these ancient sea predators had as many as 15 rows of teeth, and some could have upward of 50,000 teeth in their lifetime. That's a lot of missing teeth.
As the waters receded and the dry land of Florida emerged, time left behind a fossil layer that runs 18-35 feet deep. As storms and waves erode that layer, shark teeth and other ancient specimens are washed ashore.
It's a pastime appealing to locals and visitors alike.
"I've been finding teeth on these beaches for 60 years," said one experienced shark tooth hunter I encountered while asking for tips. He said that for his trained eye, it became easy to crouch down and pluck a tooth out of a swirling wave or from the sand beneath his toes.
For most visitors, it's helpful to come with a shovel or a device meant for sifting or straining. Papa's Bait Shop on Venice Fishing Pier rents sturdy sifters for less than $10, a good investment for novice shark tooth hunters.
The best way to begin is to dig into the ledge of sand close to where waves roll in. Spend a few hours walking the beach and see what hidden treasures you'll find.
If you go: Gulf beaches in and around Venice are good for shark tooth hunting, but areas farther south - such as Casey Key or Manasota Key - may prove to be especially rich in shark teeth. A helpful guide comes from fossilguy.com, or books can be purchased from Venice shops.
Kayaking into the sunset (with dolphins)
Some Floridians or vacationers prefer to enjoy waterways by motorized boat or while fishing from the shore. Then there are travelers like me, always seeking opportunities for paddling while visiting a new destination.
A channel sandwiched between two manmade jetties leads into the Venice Inlet, which features miles of peaceful water for boating. Paddlers can maneuver around Bird Island and Turner Key while catching views of lakefront houses and Gulf Coast wildlife.
On the North Jetty, a small business called Jetty Rentals charges by the hour for visitors wishing to use a paddleboard, a single kayak or a double kayak.
Hopping in my $30, two-hour, single kayak rental, I see the business owner excitedly gesturing toward a pod of dolphins that couldn't have been more than 30 feet away.
I waste no time paddling out but lose sight of them. I take in the sights, capturing silhouetted fishermen and people strolling as the sun began to set, shimmering on the water. I made my way back to the inlet and suddenly saw a fin - the dolphins!
While chasing the pod of about five aquatic mammals around islands, I sometimes struggled to keep up. But the dolphins were friendly, playful and seemingly social. Other boaters craned their necks to watch, hoping to catch a quick cellphone snap or video.
Behind one house, a man on his deck cast curious glances my way until he, too, saw what I was chasing. I relished these moments where I could closely encounter nature.
On one or two occasions, I worried the dolphins might flip my small watercraft as they passed under me. But the moments were magical.
If you go: Jetty Rentals (1000 S. Casey Key Road in Nokomis) rents kayaks and paddleboards daily. Rates may vary; text or call 941-525-0117 to reserve. For more information, visit venicejetty.com.