It is true that, just like the tourism brochures say, it is possible to loaf on the beaches of Sarasota during the day and take in a world-class production of a Puccini opera at night.
Not that high culture is terribly high on my list when I hang around Sarasota. Given a choice between a Bach recital in the salon of a grand old mansion and a sack of boiled peanuts on the front porch, I'd reach for the brown bag and the rocking chair every time. But the addition of Serious Culture provides a sort of highbrow cover for those who visit this comfortable Gulf Coast beach town, a chance to at least appear more virtuous than the rest of the vacationers who flock to Florida, usually to other cities and beaches, each winter.
I began coming to Sarasota a decade ago, not long after I moved from Washington to Tampa with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Gail. While I'm fond of my adopted home town, I'm fonder still of Sarasota, with its small-town feel and slender constellation of white-sand beaches.
With only about 50,000 souls living there year-round, Sarasota is puny compared with Tampa and St. Petersburg, which are about an hour up the Gulf Coast. Blessed with fantastic weather and beaches, and forged from the formidable wills (and wallets) of such early transplants as circus magnate John Ringling, Sarasota is artsy and cosmopolitan, yet oddly Old Florida. Several dozen semi-wild peacocks, whose presence here is explained by two contradictory legends, strut through the neighborhoods, adding a strange bit of regal color and quirky vitality to the landscape.
While the area draws its share of celebrities and globe-trotting tourists, it exudes little of the carnal chic you find in such subtropical resort towns as Miami and even Boca Raton. Some young and frisky Sarasotans grouse that the place is knee-deep in wealthy blue rinses, and head to Tampa for some real action.
We breathe an almost audible sigh and resist the urge to speed (tickets cost a bundle) as we cross the bridge past Beer Can Island, an idyllic dot of sand and trees just short of Longboat Key. The pass beneath the bridge is a favorite spot for fishing, and is host every afternoon to the yachts and snazzy speedboats that drop anchor there in a kind of floating cocktail party.
For worse or better, Sarasota's no time capsule. Even during the handful of summers I've spent there, the off-season months have grown ever more crowded. Each year, new condos and houses spring up along the Gulf of Mexico beaches. Gaudy new mansions line Sarasota Bay, and a clutch of great new restaurants has appeared. Europeans and well-heeled folks from neighboring landlocked counties increasingly flock to the area.
A ban on most types of commercial netting of fish a few years back has helped once-scarce sport fishes such as pompano, snook and spotted sea trout make a dramatic return. The fishermen have followed. As we shuffle our feet in the Longboat Key surf, hoping to scare off the stingrays, the waters shimmer with sea life.
You can, in the area, take in the sort of professionally produced wildlife experiences for which Florida is increasingly well known--there's Mote Marine Aquarium, a world-class marine life lab and showplace, and, near downtown, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which features one of the world's largest collections of orchids. But, truth told, my in-laws' condo porch and nearby beach offer all the nature we usually need. We often spot dolphins swimming down the beach, and occasionally see a poky, gentle manatee in the water. I once mistook the writhings of a pair of amorous manatees for the flounderings of animals in trouble and called Mote Marine's hot line, to the howling laughter of my in-laws.
I'll never forget when Gail and I once chanced upon a manhole-size indentation in the sand suggesting a sea turtle nest. The sand suddenly began to shift nearby, and within hours dozens of Lilliputian loggerheads scampered down to the surf in the moonlight. It was like watching some strange reverse invasion of the shore. Scientists from Mote Marine soon arrived to chaperone as we and other spectators cheered the turtles along on their moonlit route.
Sarasota blends its natural wonders with its unusual modern history. It wears its heritage proudly, if persistently--one can hardly pass a building or park that doesn't bear John Ringling's name. A man as famous for his all-night poker games and back-room business deals as for his circus empire, Ringling was one of five brother-owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Ringling's 66-acre estate once served as party central for a parade of wintering celebrities, plutocrats and politicians, including vaudeville and movie impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and his actress wife, Billie Burke (of Ziegfeld Follies fame), and good-time pol and alleged mob pal New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker. At least once a year, we visit the palatial home-turned-attraction, completed in 1926.
The first time I walked into Ca' d'Zan, or "House of John" in Venetian dialect, I was bowled over by the sumptuous surreality of the place. That was a decade ago, and every time I visit I feel as if I've stumbled into a bizarre, 31-room movie set that was never struck (though the house is closed for renovation until 2001). But this glitz is not just nouveau veneer. The nearby John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is packed with truckloads of important art, including paintings by such baroque masters as Pietro da Cortona and Rubens.
Sarasota's glittery circus and society-page days have faded, replaced by a mix of contemporary urban refugees. Strike up a conversation at a restaurant or grocery store, and your gab partner may turn out to be a retired orthodontist or a former intelligence officer. Many seem to hail from the Midwest, a phenomenon local armchair anthropologists attribute to Interstate 75, which connects Sarasota with that region.
Sarasota's arts and culture scene has flourished since its glamour days, thanks in part to the dollars of the affluent people who have settled there. The area is peppered with performing artists and commercial art galleries. The local paper is filled with listings for theatrical and music performances at such venues as the improbably purple-hued Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (now under renovation, it's scheduled to reopen in October 2000; concerts and other performances are currently being held in a nearby tent and at other area venues). Sarasota supports a hometown symphony, a world-class opera house and a ballet troupe, and an annual summer music festival that draws guest musicians and listeners from around the globe.
At the more accessible end of the arts spectrum, there's Burn's Court Cinema, a tiny, old family-owned movie theater with springy seats, which offers foreign and arty American flicks to the area's urbane crowd.
Main Street in Sarasota's business district offers a funky palette--trendy Euro-style cafes and beauty salons, antiques shops and moldering men's stores with sherbet-colored beltless slacks in the windows. We often stop by the four-story Main Bookshop and linger for hours over stacks of dog-eared castoffs of summer beach readings and dusty hardbacks on local lore.
From there, we might drive three miles to circular St. Armands Key, a shopping and dining hub. Developed by Ringling in the 1920s (his circus elephants helped build the first bridge from the mainland to the island), St. Armands is ideal for people-watching. Grab a scoop of homemade peppermint ice cream in a waffle cone at Big Olaf Creamery and pretend not to gawk at the parade of lame-encrusted Long Islanders, ruddy bikers and doughy Midwestern families. When my nieces and nephews were little, we often got roped into hour-long post-dinner carriage rides around St. Armands, the sway-backed horse hauling us past lighted shop fronts as we waved goofily to diners and window shoppers.
I often wonder if we'd be so keen on Sarasota if it weren't for the food. We may hole up on the front porch with books or loll in the surf by day, but come mealtimes, a growing number of world-class restaurants tear us from our torpor. That's one of the definite benefits to Sarasota's reputation for attracting a tonier crowd than most beach towns.
New places pop up every year--like Noah, a converted two-story house near the downtown that manages to be both cozy and reminiscent of Miami's trend-driven South Beach. Waiters dash up and down narrow stairs, toting inventive seafood dishes and soups made from regional ingredients like sugar snap peas.
Noah tends to attract an oddball late-night crowd. We recently found ourselves seated between a couple of New York City art dealers just in for the weekend and a pair of transvestites from who-knows-where poured into too-tight miniskirts. Noah is also one of our two favorite places in town for outdoor dining, with a covered terrace on the ground floor and a spectacularly romantic rooftop nook with just one table.
Another of our favorite haunts is Euphemia Haye, one of many house-turned-restaurants on Longboat Key. Cool, dark and international, Euphemia Haye makes us feel as if we could be in New York or Vienna. Our season at the beach hasn't officially opened until one of my brothers-in-law devours a zesty pepper-encrusted Euphemia Haye strip steak.
And then there are places like the Scenic Rod and Reel Pier Restaurant on Anna Maria Island, a slice of authentic Florida charm at the northern tip of Sarasota's keys. A two-story shack at the end of the pier is a perfect place to settle down with plastic pitchers of icy draft beer and bigger-than-the-bun grilled grouper sandwiches. Check out old-timers, tanned to the color of tar, fishing for their dinner a few feet outside the window. Follow the slow orbit of the bikini-clad girl dozing in the inner tube floating nearby.
Or gaze off at the massive, spinelike Sunshine Skyway bridge, the structure that links this small, strange and wonderful town to the bigger, invisible cities up north.
Paul Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa.
GETTING THERE: Numerous airlines offer connecting service into Sarasota Bradenton International Airport; round-trip fares start at about $200, with restrictions. For a nonstop flight and somewhat cheaper fares, consider flying US Airways, United and Southwest into Tampa, about an hour north; fares start at $175.
WHERE TO STAY:
* Tennis buffs will like the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-6464), a sprawling yet surprisingly cozy campuslike complex. Luxurious rooms, pool with patio bar and plenty of stuff for kids. Private gulf-front beach houses for those wanting extra exclusivity. Doubles start at $270.
* Crescent House Bed & Breakfast (459 Beach Rd., Siesta Key, 941-346-0857), across the street from the beach, is one of the oldest homes on the island. A screened porch with louvered windows adds to its old Florida feel. Doubles start at $100.
* You'll find cottages with a quintessential 1950s Florida charm at the Sun 'n Sea (4651 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-5588). Rates start at $85.
WHERE TO EAT:
* At Noah (1213 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-906-1747), chef-owner Christian Hershman dazzles with inventive dishes in a converted two-story house near downtown; dinner for one starts at $15.
* Pattigeorge's (4120 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-5111 a former beer, burger and pinball machine joint, was recast several years ago as an upscale, though casual, waterfront restaurant. Melt-in-your-mouth Chilean sea bass and steamed mussels are among the menu's highlights; dinner starts at $16.
* Alley Cats (1558 Fourth St., Sarasota, 941-954-1228)is, along with Noah, one of the best places in town for outdoor dining and is especially good for lunch, which starts at $6.
* Euphemia Haye (5540 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-3633), a house-turned-restaurant, has been serving eclectic concoctions in a cozy, classy setting since 1980. Pepper-encrusted New York strip steak and salads are stellar; dinner starts at $17.
* The sunsets and inventive American-Mediterranean cuisine of the Gulf-front Beach Bistro (6600 Gulf Dr., Holmes Beach, 941-778-6444) are hard to beat. Dinner starts at $20.
* The Colony Restaurant (1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-5558) is among the best places for Sunday brunch ($24.95).
WHAT TO SEE:
* The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art (5401 Bayshore Blvd., Sarasota, 941-359-5700) showcases the circus magnate's rich and varied collection of art. Admission: $9.
* Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-5731), a horticultural showplace and research facility on 8 1/2 acres of bayfront property, features one of the world's largest collections of orchids. Admission: $8.
* Mote Marine Aquarium (1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy., Sarasota, 941-388-2451) is a world-class marine life lab and showplace. Admission: $8.
* Historic Spanish Point (337 North Tamiami Trail, Osprey, 941-966-5214) features 30 acres of exhibits showcasing 4,000 years of Florida history. Admission: $5.
INFORMATION: Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-800-800-3906, www.cvb.sarasota.fl.us); Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-800-822-2017; www.floridaislandbeaches.org); Visit Florida (850-224-5607, www.flausa.com).