by ANNE BRALY
SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. – Men in their bathing trunks with bellies hanging slightly south; older women in their one-piece suits, their skin showing years of worshiping the sun god; young children carrying their slender pool noodles ready to jump right in — their moms and dads just trying to keep up. It’s all part of the daily, multi-generational scene at Warm Mineral Springs, located in the town of North Port, a 30-minute drive south of the city of Sarasota.
In the mid-20th century, the springs fell into private hands and opened as a roadside attraction with a claim to be the long-sought Fountain of Youth. Proof of said claim can be found in the water’s makeup — containing more than 50 minerals, the highest of any springs in the U.S., and bathers believe a good soaking will cure everything from arthritis to bursitis and beyond. The only off-putting issue may be a distinct smell of sulfur, but that doesn’t stop the nearly 100,000 bathers who visit each year for its curative powers.
The springs maintain a pleasant, relaxing 85-degree temperature most of the year, just the right temperature to warm your bones on cooler days and just cool enough to ward off the summer’s extreme heat. There are two factors determining the near-constant temperature — blazing hot springs cooled by cold springs to create the perfect degree to cure whatever ails you. And it’s said that the best time to visit is in the spring months when the mineral content is at its peak.
Step Into the Past
Sinkholes in Florida are nothing new, and that’s how this attraction was formed a millennia ago. Divers who have ventured into the depths of the springs — at its deepest point, the sinkhole is 250 feet deep — have discovered remains of a prehistoric hunter and seven other humans in a well-preserved state. Evidence of several creatures have been extracted from the spring, as well, including saber-tooth tigers, giant sloths, tortoises — even camels that once roamed this part of the South. Warm Mineral Springs was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
There are three main buildings at the springs designed by noted Sarasota architect Jack West and completed in 1959 to celebrate the Sunshine State’s quadricentennial. Now more than 60 years old, they are still used today as a gift shop; spa — massages and other spa-related experiences can be had by appointment; and a cyclorama with murals on its walls. The cyclorama is currently closed but believed to be one of only three remaining in the United States.
Peek Into the Future
“You’ll notice that the buildings need some love,” says Laura Ansel, marketing and outreach coordinator for the City of North Port, as she walks along the corridor leading to the springs. “It’s almost magical here. You walk down the hallway and suddenly it opens up before you — beautiful old trees, plants and this great big wonderful spring. Wow.”
“But, the buildings — they’re older Florida buildings and have been through the Florida humidity. Rehabilitating them and updating the infrastructure is something we are working on right now as part of the Warm Mineral Springs Park Master Plan.”
When Sarasota County and North Port bought the property a master plan was already in place and, when complete, will make Warm Mineral Springs into a destination for nature lovers as well as history buffs and mineral soakers.
In addition to shoring up the buildings, a new cafe will be opened; passive trails will be established surrounding preserved quiet areas for people to enjoy around the 80 acres. It will become an even greater haven for wildlife and an ideal spot for birdwatchers.
“All of this work has been broken down into multiple phases, so it will take a while, but we do have a plan,” Ansel adds.
Dining After Your Dip
The towns of North Port and Venice are just a few miles down the road from Warm Mineral Springs and offer an international buffet of choices due to the attraction of the springs by a diverse European audience. There’s Greek, Ukrainian, Italian, Mexican, French — any number of cuisines to suit most every palate.
One not-to-be-missed purely American experience, though, is Snook Haven. A meal here is nothing short of an event that begins as you turn off a busy highway on to a dirt road. You haven’t made a wrong turn, just keep going and let the rich, smoky smell of barbecue draw you down a well-worn path lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The road ends with a park on one side and an old wooden, one-story structure on the other. That’s Snook Haven, with its catbird seat on the Myakka River, the first to be designated a Wild and Scenic River by the State of Florida.
The property has gone through several incarnations, beginning as a bar during Prohibition when bootleggers would bring booze downriver. It’s been a gentleman’s club and a fish camp, too. Sarasota County bought the acreage about 13 years ago, and in 2013, Snook Haven opened and the barbecue and brews began flowing again, along with gator bites, po’ boys, fish ‘n chips and more favorites.
Come for a meal and stay for a day. The Gulf Coast Banjo Society plays every Thursday afternoon and draws a crowd around an outdoor stage. Canoe and kayak rentals are available, or take a boat tour along the Myakka from Logan River Tours.