By Charlene S. Mixa
“A shining sophisticated city on Sarasota Bay”
Tucked on the Gulf coast of Southwest Florida is the vibrant city of Sarasota, abundant with cultural amenities, an exciting downtown, rich history, and islands of pristine white sandy beaches. Traditionally known for its world-renowned beaches, Sarasota is so much more. A mecca for the arts, exquisite dining and leisure activities are all found in this elegant city on the shimmering waters of Sarasota Bay.
We are excited to focus this article on Sarasota. Many visitors take the I-75 Sarasota exits heading directly to one of its famous beaches, missing the opportunity to experience a dynamic and diverse city. As we take the Fruitville Road Exit, our first stop is the village of Pinecraft and Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Restaurant.
A unique little village, Pinecraft has a large population of Amish and Mennonites where the lifestyle is simple and the faith strong with a commitment to community and service. Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Restaurant brings the traditional home-style cooking of the Amish Mennonite, Ohio recipes to Sarasota. The large dazzling white building, encircled by a huge veranda and deep green roof gives a warm welcome as does the spacious dining area. The buffet is the specialty and I thoroughly enjoy the fresh salad bar with its extensive array plus the buffet’s variety of meats and vegetables. Golden chicken, a specialty, and creamy mashed potatoes are delicious! Richard opts to order from the menu, selecting the blackened grouper with sweet potato soufflé and for only 99 cents more the salad bar. Our sweet tooth is satisfied from the in-house bakery’s Dutch apple pie and strawberry rhubarb pie with soft serve vanilla ice cream. Excellent service! Afterward we stroll upstairs to the gift shop which features an assortment of fine gift items.
Checking in early, the Hotel Indigo is conveniently located on the edge of downtown Sarasota. This boutique hotel features an intriguing design of a tropical beach feel with its oversized beach chairs in the lobby and the casual Phi Café. The beach theme is carried through the comfy guest rooms with bright white furnishings, ocean blue accessories and wall sized murals of colorful beach glass or shells. The king size bed with blue and white striped bedding and quality linens is most inviting. Free wireless internet and the modern glass door refrigerator are perfect for any traveler. We especially love the huge glassed in shower! The staff is excellent always greeting us as we enter and quickly answering any questions. For our visit the Hotel Indigo is terrific!
A few blocks away is Historic Downtown Sarasota with many of the buildings added to the National Register of Historic Places in April, 2009. “The Downtown Sarasota City Guide” is ideal for locating specialty shops, dining establishments plus the several fine art and antiques galleries. Parking on Main Street we stroll this historic downtown noting the numerous and varied restaurants and eateries from casual to fine dining. In the mid-1920’s John Ringling of Ringling Brothers circus fame and his wife Mable decided to build their winter home in Sarasota. Ringling’s dream was to transform Sarasota into a fashionable metropolitan resort area. Ringling’s influence on Sarasota’s culture is phenomenal! Sarasota is recognized as Florida’s “Cultural Coast”. Roaming the shops, we see Ringling’s impact with the many art galleries and fine art shops plus the numerous statues and artwork around the city.
Beautiful Sarasota Bay sits at the end of Main Street with its picturesque marina and City Park. A two-hour LeBarge sightseeing tour is next on the schedule. Funky mermaids, live palm trees and a tiki bar create a fun atmosphere on the upper deck. As we board, everyone quickly moves to the canopied section of the upper deck for this scenic tour in Sarasota Bay. Funny stories, fascinating history and charming folklore are shared by our narrator giving excellent information and insight into Sarasota. Panoramic views of the city and islands from the bay are magnificent! Oo’s and ahs are frequent as we pass spectacular multi-million dollar, waterfront homes. Wildlife of numerous birds is abundant in the rookeries and mangroves along Lido Key and Siesta Key. Thrills erupt with everyone rushing to the port side, as bottlenose dolphins and a manatee are spotted. Relaxing, refreshing, and informative with terrific views, we leave with an even greater appreciation of this stunning city.
For dinner we are off to infamous Michael’s on East. Upon opening the door, we are greeted with the rich décor of this high-fashion dining room. Seated in the plush booth we sense the opulence of a huge ocean liner of the past. Romantic music from the intimate Piano Bar floats through the air adding another touch of a graceful era. Our server, Mike, immediately welcomes us, taking care of our every need. The menu has an inspired cuisine with plenty of exciting choices. “Savor Sarasota” a dining promotion during June, encourages visitors and locals to experience Sarasota’s numerous restaurants multi-course meals for $15 per person for lunch and $25 per person for dinner. Michael’s on East features epicurean adventures at these prices year round!
Relaxing over our drinks with the soft music we begin a leisure and romantic dining adventure. We start with an appetizer of salmon on sliced avocado topped with a fried quail egg. Delicious! The raw oysters from Washington State are sweet and tender and we love Michael’s Special Seasonal Salad featuring figs, grapes and candied pecans. Richard chooses the Italy Epicurean Adventure with a first course of Carne Crudo all Piedmontese (chopped filet mignon with extra virgin olive oil, artichokes, asparagus ribbons and crustini). The service and hospitality is superb with all the touches and finesse of a true “fine dining” experience. My Pan-Roasted Halibut is terrific as is Richard’s Vitello Marengo- veal medallions. Sharing the Torta Pignolata dessert is the perfect ending for our dinner. Our evening is a gastronomic delight!
Up early the next morning we slip into our sneakers to walk the Ringling Causeway Bridge. The hotel staff gives perfect instructions for locating the parking area under the bridge. The sky is clear with a cool breeze. A spectacular sunrise over the Sarasota downtown skyline rewards us as we start our walk over this sleek 3,300 foot long bridge. It is all uphill to the crest of the bridge at 70 feet above Sarasota Bay. Wow! The view is magnificent! High above Sarasota Bay, the bridge is a wonderful vantage point for viewing this elegant city, Bird Key, and Longboat Key with glimpses of the Gulf of Mexico.
Today is seeing the sights! The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the former grounds of the historic Selby estate,is located on the edge of downtown and Sarasota Bay. Starting with the short movie, we learn that Selby Gardens specializes in tropical plants, especially epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants). The Gardens boasts a living collection of more than 6,000 orchids! Comprised of 9.5-acre prime Bayfront property the gardens is a walking, open-air and under-glass museum of over 20,000 colorful plants. Taking our handy map we begin our walk through the many distinct garden areas starting with the Tropical Display House. Gorgeous orchids and unique tropical plants such as the “pitcher plant” are found in a lush rain forest atmosphere. We wander through the Bamboo Pavilion, Banyan Grove, Cactus and Succulent Garden and Cycad Collection fascinated by this remarkable tropical garden. As the path winds along the edge of Sarasota Bay we delight in the intriguing vistas of the glimmering bay. Strolling through the former Christy Payne Mansion we admire the Southern Colonial architecture and the botanical art and photography exhibits. Visitors must allow ample time to wander the gardens to enjoy the essence of all it offers.
Taking advantage of Savor Sarasota we enjoy a great lunch at Mattison’s City Grille in downtown. Our salads and sandwiches are ample and delicious. The slice of homemade key lime pie is huge! Now for an afternoon of exploring the Ringling Museums! Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, I have fond memories of visits to the Circus Museum and the Ringling Museum of Art. I am excited to finally tour the Ringling Mansion, Cà d’Zan.
For our visit, Scott Gardiner, the Public Relations Manager, is giving us a quick initial tour of the museums. Starting at the new Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center we are awed by The Howard Bros. Circus Model, a replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919-1938. Amazing! The size, scope, magnitude and fine details of this 3/4 –inch-to-the-foot scale is phenomenal! Created in over 50 years by master model builder and philanthropist Howard Tibbals the replica has eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 circus performers and workers, over 800 animals and a 59-car train.
Walking the tree shaded path to the grounds of the Cà d’Zan Mansion we have our initial glimpse of this elegant home with its five stories including a full basement. As Ron McCarty, Keeper of the Ca d’Zan, greets us, he begins to enchant and fascinate us with the details of this palatial mansion, its structure, setting and the extraordinary lives of John and Mable Ringling. While Cà d’Zan translates from Venetian Dialect to “The House of John”, Ron explains it is really “The House of Mable”. She was totally involved and immersed in the building of this home often having work torn out and replaced when it didn’t meet her specifications or taste. Completed in 1926, Cà d’Zan is the “last castle of the Gilded Age mansions!” From its gorgeous exterior of Venetian Gothic architecture sitting elegantly on Sarasota Bay to the 56 incredible rooms filled with art and original furnishings, it truly reflects the splendor and romance of Italy. So much to see!
Touring the rooms, we are captivated by this grand home and the lives of John and Mable. Remarking on the color glass panes in the windows, Ron explains that Mable carried this theme throughout the home and has a bedroom decorated for each color of glass. A massive pipe organ is on one wall and we imagine the gilded age with the sound wafting through the open doors to the Bayfront terrace for a gala event. The many details shared in the tour bring us closer to understanding Mable and John. Whether it is the rooms that were actually in former buildings that were removed, transported and resized to fit the house or to the various symbols of the Freemason’s incorporated into the mansion. There are whimsical aspects too. In Mable’s bedroom, as a “spoof” the architect painted symbols depicting Mable’s every changing instructions such as “?”, “!”. We reach the pinnacle of the structure an 81-foot Belvedere tower high above Sarasota Bay. The view is “Magnifico!” Our tour is wonderful and exhilarating!
We walk to the Museum of Art with its elegant courtyard and extensive artworks. First stop is the Special Exhibit HEYDAY: Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier. These photos offer us a glimpse into the most dynamic period of the American circus through the rarely seen photographs of Frederick W. Glasier (1866-1950). We take a walk through a few of the rooms admiring the baroque art. Time is running short, so we are off to the Circus Museum which Celebrates American circus history and its relationship to Sarasota. Everyone loves a circus and the museum brings back the child in us. Viewing the colossal parade wagons, the sequined costumes, memorabilia and artifacts of the circus, we recall circuses we attended as youngsters. I remember seeing the “man shot out of the cannon” as we pass a “cannon”. The Wisconsin, the private Rail car of John and Mable Ringling is also on display at the Circus Museum. Ah, yes a tribute to the golden age of the splendid travel accommodations enjoyed by the Ringling’s as they traveled around the country on business and with the circus. Just before closing, we end at the Museums gift shop. It has been a full day of sightseeing with a lot of walking. Now for a light dinner and to relax!
The Ringling Admission tickets include entry to all estate venues, The Museum of Art, Cà d’Zan Mansion, Aslo Theatre and the fabulous grounds and gardens of the estate. We spent an entire afternoon and needed more time. We recommend preplanning the visit allowing for a full day. Be sure to schedule docent tours as possible or the audio tours. A must for Cà d’Zan Mansion is the Private Places tour.
Our venue today is golf! We arrive late morning at the University Park Country Club located on the northern border of Sarasota. Driving into this private peaceful residential community, we admire the well kept grounds and country club buildings with their aquamarine roofs. Before golf we enjoy a tasty lunch at the Park Grille and Café. The Pro Shop has an excellent selection of clothing so we do some shopping before heading out for golf. With 27 holes, University Park has plenty of golf for its residents and visitors. Designed by world-renowned golf course architect, Ron Garl, the course maximizes and enhances the land’s natural characteristics. Playing as a twosome, we are off onto holes 10 -18 and 19-27. The course is in excellent shape and we have a terrific day of golf. Lot’s of challenges! Water comes into play on some holes and bunkers are ready to snatch errant shots. I especially love it! Playing from the back ladies tees of this championship course, I shoot my best round ever! An 83!
Shine on Sarasota! A truly magnificent city on the west coast of Florida has much to offer. Be sure on any visit to its fabulous beaches to include trips to town to see its many fascinating sites.
If you go:
Hotel Indigo Sarasota, 1223 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, FL 34236; 941.487.3800; www.hotelindigo.com
LeBarge Tropical Cruises; 2 Marina Plaza; Sarasota, FL; 941.366.6116; www.lebargetropicalcruises.com
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens; 811 South Palm Avenue, Sarasota, FL 34236; 941-366-5731811; www.selby.org
Michael’s on East, 1212 East Ave. S., Midtown Plaza, Sarasota, FL 34239; 941-366-0007; www.michaelsoneast.com
Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail Sarasota, FL 34236; (800) 800-3906; www.sarasotafl.org
The John and Mable Ringling Museum 5401 Bay Shore Road Sarasota, Florida 34243; 941.359.5700; www.ringling.org
Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Restaurant, 3713 Bahia Vista Street Sarasota, FL 34232; 941.955.8007; www.troyercorp.com
University Park, 7671 The Park Boulevard, University Park, FL 34201; 941.355.3888; www.universitypark-fl.com