Known for its fine beaches, Sarasota, Florida, also offers plenty of indoor and outdoor attractions.
By Virginia Felts
South of the busy Tampa-St. Petersburg area, Interstate 75 leads travelers toward a region along the Gulf of Mexico with great beaches but fewer crowds. Sarasota’s sandy shores provide the perfect backdrop for a vacation of swimming, sunbathing, and shelling. Or, perhaps you enjoy jet skiing, water skiing, surfing, or sailing. For a beautiful view of Sarasota Bay, try a parasail ride that elevates you above the waves.
Beginners and professionals enjoy fishing from several piers throughout the area. Charters, guides, and deep-sea fishing excursions are fun ways to reel in the fine catches that abound in the waters near Sarasota.
But the shoreline and the ocean represent only the beginning of attractions in the Sarasota area. Following is an overview of many other ways to enjoy a getaway on the Gulf.
Thanks to Sarasota’s history as a popular spot for well-to-do Northerners, the town is home to one of Florida’s largest state parks. The land for the 30,000-acre Myakka River State Park once was a ranch owned by Bertha Palmer, the wealthy widow of a Chicago developer. The property now harbors diverse ecosystems, with wetlands, prairies, and pinelands. The Myakka River bisects the park and broadens to form two lakes — the Upper Myakka and the Lower Myakka — before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely boat trip on the river, which yields close-up views of birds and alligators. More than 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to this wilderness. A 7-mile scenic drive winds along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. Facilities for canoes and campgrounds provide a variety of activities for RVers. For more information, call (941) 361-6511.
Approximately 6 miles south of Sarasota in the town of Osprey is Oscar Scherer State Park, a 1,384-acre pine and scrub woodland. The scrub environment once thrived throughout Sarasota County, but little of it remains. As for the pines, many of them were tapped to produce turpentine in the early 1900s and can still be identified by the slash marks left on their trunks. Visitors can explore the nature center, hike among the pines, swim or fish in Lake Osprey, canoe on South Creek, and pedal bicycles along the miles of paths.
Camping also is available at Oscar Scherer; for more information, call (941) 483-5956.
Reservations at Florida state parks can be made through the toll-free reservation line at (800) 326-3521, and more information is available at www.dep.state.fl.us/parks.
Sarasota’s circus roots
The little Florida town caught the attention of John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame. John and his wife, Mable, built a magnificent Venetian-style mansion on Sarasota Bay. Yet it was not adequate for displaying their fine art collection, resulting in construction of the Ringling Museum of Art. So, estate visitors enjoy a three-ring attraction for their entry fee: a fine art museum; a tour of the couple’s mansion, named
Cá d’Zan (Venetian for “house of John”); as well as the Ringling Museum of the Circus.
Art lovers and circus buffs will enjoy meandering about the landscaped grounds where the circus magnate and his wife lived during the 1920s. John Ringling (1866-1936) was one of the great business tycoons and culture barons of his day. These three buildings occupy prime Gulf of Mexico waterfront property. Upon Ringling’s death in 1936, the art museum and its contents were assigned to the state of Florida. In July 2000, Florida legislation appointed Florida State University as the guardian of the estate.
The art museum building is a pink Italian renaissance villa that opened in 1929. Its 21 recently reinstalled galleries display more than 500 items, consisting of European and American paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts. Ringling’s Old Master collection of approximately 750 paintings reflects his astute and comprehensive collecting during the 1920s. Six large tapestries depicting Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Triumph of the Eucharist” are among the masterpieces.
The museum’s courtyard is arcaded on three sides by loggias and features statues of Greek and Roman gods and copies of ancient sculptures, forming an American version of a European formal garden. The copy of Michelangelo’s “David” is one of only three casts from the original sculpture and the only one in the Western hemisphere.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved its winter quarters to Sarasota in 1927, and with it came famous circus performers and their families. The Cristianis; the Concellos; Merle Evans; Lou Jacobs; Emmett Kelly; LaNorma; Unus; the Wallendas; and the Zacchinis all became involved in the community. The circus’ winter quarters moved a few miles south to Venice in 1960, but Sarasota and the circus remained tightly linked.
The Museum of the Circus, added to the property in the late 1940s, is the second-oldest circus museum in the world. Its centerpiece is an animated scale model that depicts a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the mid-1930s. Other display highlights include “Circus Winter Quarters 1946” photography by Loomis Dean, former staff photographer for Life magazine; the Emmett Kelly Celebrity Exhibit; and the cannon used by the Flying Zacchinis. Elaborately carved circus parade wagons; calliopes; sequined costumes; rare handbills; performance props; photographs; and much more are displayed, including a ticket wagon, utility wagons, circus tent poles, and bail rings.
Ca d’Zan is a massive “Venetian Gothic” mansion that was constructed using bricks, poured concrete, and terra cotta “T” blocks. Its roof consists of tiles shipped from Barcelona, Spain. Topped by a 60-foot tower, the house is 200 feet long with 32 rooms and 15 baths. Thirteen marble steps lead from the 8,000-square-foot marble terrace — where the view is spectacular — to a dock where Mrs. Ringling moored her Venetian gondola. The Ringlings moved into the home in late 1926.
As the years passed the home required extensive remodeling. A meticulous, six-year renovation of the structure and many of its contents, as well as exterior art, has recently been completed. The mansion was reopened to the public in April of 2002.
Admission to all three points of interest on the grounds — the Ringling Museum of Art, the mansion, and the Circus Museum — is included in the price of one ticket. Tickets also may be reserved in advance (for a small handling fee) by calling (941) 358-3180. For recorded information, call (941) 351-1660. Information also is available by visiting www.ringling.org.
Anyone who delights in nature’s miraculous wonders must visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a horticultural showplace and research garden overlooking Sarasota Bay. A spectacular tropical greenhouse showcases exquisite orchids, colorful bromeliads, ferns, and other exotic tropical plants in a rain forest atmosphere. For 28 years, orchids, the world’s largest family of flowering plants, have been the focus of research by the scientists at Selby. More than 6,000 orchids are in the collection, and they are a sight to behold.
In all, the garden has seven greenhouses that are used to conduct research and plant identification. Outside, visitors will find a waterfall garden, a banyan tree grove, a cactus and succulent garden, and more. The public garden also includes a plant shop, where visitors may purchase quality orchids and other tropical plants.
Follow the garden’s winding boardwalk through the greenhouse and outdoor gardens for an intimate view of exotic plants. Then, be sure to explore the Christy Payne Mansion, now open to the public. Inside is a museum, where a variety of flower-related exhibitions are offered throughout the year.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is open daily; an admission fee is charged. For more information, call (941) 366-5731 or visit www.selby.org.
Botanical and animal species intermingle at Sarasota Jungle Gardens. This 10-acre park once was nothing but a swamp, but in the 1930s it was developed into a botanical garden. Streams, lakes, and usable land were formed, and tropical trees and flowers from all over the world were planted. Today the jungle trail winds through gardens that pass the squirrel and spider monkeys; the Flamingo Lagoon, where children were feeding beautiful pink flamingos when we visited; and on to the Koi Pond and the children’s jungle playground.
Five different shows are offered each day at the gardens, so you must plan your visit carefully to maximize the fun. The “Critters and Things” program is an audience-interactive show that features all types of creatures, from the world’s tiniest marsupial (sugar gliders) to prickly hedgehogs and hissing cockroaches from Madagascar.
The sport of falconry dates from medieval times and is demonstrated in another show called “Birds of Prey.” A falconer on staff explains the sport and then has a bird of prey on a tether that runs a gamut or flies a pattern to hunt food.
The “Reptile Encounter” features the rare and beautiful Florida Indigo snake. The audience is invited to touch a snake and learn the facts about snakes, alligators, and crocodiles.
The “Meet the Keeper” program enables visitors to hear animal handlers talk about the different species at Jungle Gardens, and then take part in a question-and-answer session.
Finally, don’t forget Frosty, a 66-year-old sulphur-crested cockatoo who appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show. This resident clown rides his own bike on a high wire at the “Birds of the Rainforest” show. He and other cockatoos and parrots delight the audience by riding roller skates across their platform and playing the shell game with a child from the audience. After this program, you can pose for a picture with a parrot.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens is open daily, and an admission fee is charged. For more information, call the recorded information line at (941) 355-5305, or (941) 355-1112, or visit www.sarasotajunglegardens.com.
Another local critter-related spot is the Pelican Man’s Bird Sanctuary. This nonprofit facility houses more than 200 permanently injured birds in the safety of the sanctuary’s tropical setting. Staff and hundreds of volunteers rescue, rehabilitate, and release thousands of pelicans and other birds each year. Admission is free (a donation is requested), and visitors can stroll a boardwalk past pens housing 55 bird species, including blue jays, a talking crow, parrots, pelicans, and even a vulture named Vinnie.
The sanctuary is open daily. For more information, call (941) 388-4444 or visit www.pelicanman.org.
The Gulf Coast islands
No visit to Sarasota would be complete without exploring the islands — Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key, and Siesta Key. Longboat Key is located between the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay and stretches 10-1/2 miles northward from Lido Key. You may want to tour the island by bicycle. A 10-mile bike path winds along Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Lido Key and St. Armands Key are world-class destinations. Lido Key boasts stunning beaches and glorious sunsets. John Ringling purchased St. Armands Key and planned a development that included a circular-shaped shopping center. But the Depression brought a halt to any prosperity there. In the 1950s business resumed, and Ringling’s dream eventually came to life. It’s now known as St. Armands Circle — a place with sophisticated restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, and galleries surrounding a verdant park.
The powdery white-sand beaches of Siesta Key are rated among the finest in the world. Sample them all. Begin at the public beach, the widest in all of Sarasota County, and then head south to Crescent Beach, Turtle Beach, and Palmer Point Beach. You can play volleyball, picnic, snorkel, or fish . . . each beach offers different amenities, yet all share natural beauty. Access is easy, because between November and September, the Siesta Key Trolley travels up and down this 8-mile island.
Make sure to spend some time beyond the ocean when you make your getaway on the Gulf.
The Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau provides travel material that includes a list of area campgrounds, as well as attractions information. Contact:
Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau
655 N. Tamiami Trail
Sarasota, FL 34236