The Sarasota region is a downtown area protected by some barrier islands, including Longboat Key and City Island. I had been to Sarasota several times, but never to the third and southernmost of the islands, Siesta Key.
I had no idea what I was missing.
I couldn’t have chosen a better time to show up to Siesta Key. It was the weekend of the Siesta Key Crystal Classic, the annual international sand sculpture festival. Held around the same time each year in mid-November, the festival takes place on the wide, white sand beach of Siesta Key and features four days of live music, food and drink, market stalls with products to buy and beautiful sand sculptures.
And these sculpturesâ¦ I mean, I had no idea. In all my years in Florida, I had never taken the opportunity to attend a sand sculpture competition. The artwork was beyond my modest expectations.
The sand sculptures at the Crystal Classic Sand Sculpting Festival in Siesta Key are illuminated at night. This piece, A Rose Without Thorns, won first prize in the Solo competition. Photo credit: Tom Stieghorst
Oversized sand castles
I met Greg Grady Jr. and his father, Greg Sr., who were working hard on their entry, “Building Bridges,” around halfway through the contest. On one side, the 15-ton sculpture featured a set of sand cubes of varying sizes, stacked at odd angles in a pile. On the other side was a similar set of sand spheres. Between the two, still semi-formed, was the bridge that connected the two.
When I asked how the father-son team came up with such a noble concept, Greg Jr. shrugged. âWe did some sketches and let it evolve,â he said, adding that the judges would look for originality in the awarding of prizes.
I was impressed with the way the sculptures held together. Grady said no adhesive was used except as a fixer at the end. âWater is your glue,â he said. âIt’s all about the quality of the sand, the compaction and the water.
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Nearby, Rick Mungeam was reviewing his entry “Let the Light In”, which featured split penetrations that hadn’t held up. The sculpture now included a detailed cross with abstract circles and tiny cracks in some places. An architect from Florida’s Panhandle, Mungeam and his wife also have a business that offers sandcastle building classes.
Matt Deibert is working on his sculpture Hand Me Down Genes, which won third place in the Tandem category at the 2021 Crystal Classic Sand Sculpting Festival on Siesta Key. Photo credit: Tom Stieghorst
Historically, around 40,000 people pay the $ 10 fee to be admitted at any given time during the four-day event. In addition to the eight solo and eight team registrations in the professional categories, around twenty amateurs are registered in a separate competition.
Amateur attendees this year included retired Cleveland Police Officer Tom Bloom and his wife, Judy, who worked on a three-story castle with a high-rise tower and curved stairs to the sides. Bloom said he came from Cleveland several times for the contest. âIt’s worth every penny,â he said.
We were encouraged to come back after dark to see the illuminations on the sculptures, and I was glad we did. Colored lights added a whole new dimension to the sculptures, like the giant rose bathed in cardinal red.
Siesta Key, beyond the beach
As for Siesta Key beyond the beach, I really liked that too. There is plenty of interesting accommodation. My wife and I stayed at the Siesta Key Beachside Villas, a one-story concrete building complex with a pool, hammocks, large tiki hut, and grills. Our 1-BR villa had a full kitchen and plenty of beach amenities – chairs, towels, cooler, and carts to haul gear a block or two across the sand.
We were a 30 second walk to Siesta Key’s main drag, Ocean Boulevard, which runs through four or five blocks of shops, restaurants, and bars known as Siesta Village. My wife looked for an old friend from high school who owns a pizza place along the street, and we enjoyed sitting at the sidewalk bar, munching on slices and watching the parade passing by.
Long and narrow in shape, Siesta Key has only a few main roads, so traffic can slow to a breakneck pace on weekends. There is a free shuttle cart, however, which serves the length of the key.