It's Labor Day weekend, and much of the country is bemoaning the official, if not meteorological, end of summer. The days are getting shorter and a long, frigid winter is only weeks away.
In west-central Florida it's time to start thinking about the best time of year. The daily downpours are already petering out. The first hints of autumn are in the air. (You have to really want to find them, but they're there.) It won't be long before you can sleep with the A/C off and the windows open.
Barring any run-ins with Category 4 hurricanes, the coming weeks should bring pleasant weather. And most of the tourists and seasonal visitors haven't arrived yet, so it's a prefect time to get out and enjoy this area.
Living here, we can get pretty jaded about beaches, and forget we have some of the world's best. Four of the beaches listed by the Travel Channel among Florida's Top 10 are within an easy day trip of Bradenton.
Siesta Key's in Sarasota County, of course, and Sanibel, Captiva and Clearwater are easy to get to. They're not too crowded this time of year, especially if you can go on a weekday. Granted, the Travel Channel list is suspect because it talks about "wide stretches of sugary sand" on Key West, but still, it's pretty cool to have four of the top 10 within easy reach. And you've probably got your own favorites -- Bradenton Beach is one obvious example -- even closer.
If you're looking for outdoor activities but you're not a sun-and-sand kind of person, it's a great time for early morning walks through any of the parks in the area.
Myakka River State Park (13208 S.R. 72, Sarasota; 941-361-6511) is one of the oldest and largest in the state; Lake Manatee State Park (20007 State Road 64 E., Bradenton; 941-741-3028) is lovely but smaller, ide
al for a brisk walk.
For a bit more adventure, check out the free Discover Duette Wagon Tour that takes about 20 passengers on an hours-long guided tour through the Duette Preserve.
Rangers who know every inch of the preserve, and every plant and animal, teach you about the importance of the area, which is the headlands of the Manatee River, where our drinking water comes from. The preserve is an important habitat for endangered scrub jays and other plants and critters you probably don't get to see too often.
The wagon tours are only conducted four times a year, but two are slated for October. The next one's Oct. 5. Reservations are required. Call 941-792-8314.
If the daytime is still too hot for your tastes, you can try an evening stroll through the Village of the Arts.
The village hosts monthly art walks -- the next one is slated for 6 to 9:30 p.m. Sept. 6 -- with galleries and eateries welcoming visitors to one of the area's most distinctive neighborhoods.
Various performing arts venues are cranking up their 2013-14 seasons over the next few weeks. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-953-3368; www.vanwezel.org) starts its season a little earlier this year, with Diana Ross in concert Sept. 11.
Manatee Players (502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-749-1111; www.manateeplayers.org) has "Grease" opening Sept. 12.
"Steel Magnolias" opens the Broadway season at Players Theatre (838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-365-2494; www.theplayers.org) on Sept. 18.
There are lots of reasons besides the weather why so many people come to this area from all over the world, starting right after the summer ends.
The next few weeks offer a perfect chance to experience the area before the crowds arrive.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.