The Circus and Sarasota
By Eleanor Berman
Headlines about cold in Florida remind of my own frigid vacation a few years ago. Here I was in Sarasota, with some of Florida's finest beaches just across a causeway, and I had to don a ski jacket to take a walk on the sand. It could have been a real disaster, but instead, I had a great time getting to know one of Florida's artiest and most appealing towns.
It takes at least a full day for Sarasota's biggest attraction, the Ringling estate, now overseen by Florida State University. It was circus impresario and art collector John Ringling who put Sarasota on the map when he made it winter headquarters for his circus in the 1920s.
Ringling's love of the baroque and of all things Italian shows in the fabulous 66-acre estate of he and his wife Mable created on Sarasota Bay. The Ringling Museum of Art holds his collection of over 600 paintings, including the enormous canvases of Rubens' Triumph of the Eucharist series. The museum continues to grow in size, adding contemporary art and worthwhile changing exhibits. Ca d'Zan, the Ringling's 32-room Venetian palazzo completed in 1926, features exquisite terra cotta decoration inside and out, a two-and-a-half-story great room, lavish furnishings and tinted glass windows that diffuse the house with soft color.
Ringling Circus poster.
Colorful circus parade wagons, props, costumes and vintage posters are on display at the Museum of the American Circus, created after Ringling's death to honor his heritage. Even more delightful is the Tibbals Learning Center, boasting the world's largest miniature circus, an amazingly detailed creation that fills an entire large room.
The Ringling complex stays busy at night. The recently restored Historic Asolo Theater, America's only actual 18th-century European theater, is a charming setting for intimate stage performances and concerts. The Asolo Repertory Company, (800-361-8388), operating in a larger theater on the estate, is Sarasota's long-established professional troupe, performing from November to June. The building includes the Cook Theatre. A 161-seat space where versions of off-Broadway's recent best are often on view.
When John Ringling completed development of the shopping and dining complex known as St. Armand's Circle he reputedly announced, "Now Mable won't have to go to Palm Beach to shop." A graceful bridge across the causeway leads to this beautifully landscaped circle lined with dozens of stores, galleries and cafes.
Ringling may be the greatest but isn't the whole show in Sarasota. Even when the beach is brisk, you can enjoy a walk at the more sheltered Marie Selby Botanical Garden. Orchids are the big draw, 6,000 of them, but some 20,000 varieties of tropical plants and bromeliads are on display in an open-air wonderland on 8 1/2 bay-front acres.
Tropical fish, a giant shark tank, close-up looks at the endangered manatee, and viewing areas for hospitals rehabilitating wounded sea turtles, dolphins and whales are among the features at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. If weather permits, their best adventure is boarding a sea life encounter cruise to see manatees and bottlenose dolphins in their element.
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
By night the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall ,rising like a lavender sea shell on the bay, presents everyone from Pattie LuPone to Itzhak Perlman. The excellent Sarasota Opera performing in February and March celebrates its 50th season this year.
Film buffs will find current indie films year round at the Burns Court Cinema, and interesting boutiques and antiques nearby in the historic buildings of Burns Square. Sarasota's Main Street also makes for interesting browsing among small local shops and some fine dining at establishments like the Peruvian Selva Grill. Many of Zagat's top dining choice on Florida's West Coast are in Sarasota.
Rooms at the small Hotel Ranola downtown begin at $179 or you can stay at the posh Ritz-Carlton, located in town but with access to their private golf course and beach club starting at $264 per night for two including breakfast and a $50 resort credit, package good through April 30.
If Florida sunshine is abundant and you prefer more modest lodgings directly on the beach, the no-frills Gulf Beach Resort Motel, directly on Lido Beach offers a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen for as little as $989 per week in high season. Another good value on Siesta Key beach is the Banana Bay Club, again no frills but basic one-bedroom suites with kitchens start at $150 in season.
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies' Home Journal; Bridal Guide, Diversion, Washingtonian, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, New York Post, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.