Sarasota by Segway

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2004

Eight inches off the ground, and with a helmet perched atop my head, I am taller than any of the people who stop to gawk at me gliding by the chic shops of Sarasota, Fla. With a twitch of my body, I speed up to about 8 mph when I reach the broad promenade along the shores of Sarasota Bay.

I bend my head forward and my feet follow, yet without moving. I am powered, yet exert no power. I do not feel that I am on a machine. I feel a part of the machine; the machine feels part of me.

I am at one with my Segway Human Transporter. Shortly after a 15-minute lesson in the parking lot of Florida Ever-Glides, I am ready to take on the city of Sarasota, and feel like I could take on the world.

The Segway, created by "inventrepreneur" Dean Kamen, has fallen far short of its ballyhooed promise to transform human transport. The two-wheeled, electric-powered scooter filled with gyroscopes and computer chips poses no threat to the car or family minivan. But if I sold tours by trolley, bus or foot, I'd be shaking in my boots. Quite simply, the Segway is an awesome means of locomotion for tourists seeking a quick grasp of an area new to them.

It offers the kind of intimacy you get from walking, and the comfort and ease of a bus or trolley tour. As an added bonus, the Segway gives you a sense of power. It mentally transports you to a science-fiction world in which humans with robotic parts become bionic men and women.

A husband-wife team from Idaho began offering Segway tours of Sarasota last month. Their choice of location was a studied one: Sarasota has great weather year-round and offers both a wide blue bay and interesting streets lined with galleries and shops selling enticing goods you won't find in a mall. Its roads and bayside promenade are flat. It's also an upscale destination, with an ambiance that's more affluent California than retirement Florida, so tourists won't likely flinch at the $58 price tag for a 21/2-hour tour. Given that each machine costs about $5,000, the price didn't seem unreasonable, although it was just enough to keep us from begging for a second round once the first tour was over.

Tom and Janey Jacobson say they were the first in the United States to offer guided Segway tours. But the idea is hot. Segway tours of Paris are already getting glowing reviews and are being extended to Nice. You can rent a Segway to glide around London. In Hawaii, an entrepreneur recently began giving historic guided tours of Waikiki.

You also can take a backroads tour of Bangkok by Segway. You can rent Segways by the hour, day or week in Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and New Orleans. This spring and summer they'll be available in Minneapolis/St. Paul; Grand Lake, Colo., at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park; and in six Alaskan cities and towns.

A friend and I begin our three-day tour of Sarasota by car and foot -- which we'll only later discover is a far inferior way. On the other hand, you need a car to explore the white-sand keys attached to downtown Sarasota by bridge.

As we drive through Lido Key north to our cottage on Longboat Key, just minutes from downtown, we agree that it would be hard to make a mistake in choosing lodgings here. There are no rundown properties apparent. The area reeks of money, but most of it falls short of being ostentatious. In fact, our cottage turns out to be one of a half-dozen 1950s-style cottages along a sandy dirt road just off the two-lane highway that runs through Longboat Key. Each cottage is brightly painted a combination of blue, pink and yellow. An empty white-sand beach stretches along the Gulf of Mexico as far as the eye can see. Shells crunch under our feet, and within minutes, we've found two perfect sand dollars.

We find lunch in an equally low-key, Old Florida-style restaurant. From a rustic wooden patio overlooking the water, we watch pelicans dive for fish. I envy the people who arrive at the restaurant by boat and tie up at the pier in front of Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant. I decide I'll try to buy some Docksider shoes and rent a boat the next day, so I too can arrive at lunch with panache.

But alas, not every Florida day is filled with sunshine. But it's just as well that our second day in Sarasota is rainy. Otherwise, I might have missed the amazing collection of Ringling brother John and his wife, Mable.

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