As dusk gathers over the barrier islands, tourists and residents stop what they are doing and head for the beaches to watch one of the great natural wonders of the area, the setting of the sun into the Gulf of Mexico.
Each evening the show is different. Sometimes, if the sky is clear, the sun is a blazing ball that looks like it is burning its way into the Gulf. You almost expect to see steam rising as it sinks over the horizon. On other evenings, the display can last for an hour as clouds turn into coral-colored puffs.
The sunsets are only one of the things that keep bringing my wife, Pat, and me back to Sarasota. Unlike other winter vacation destinations that specialize in seashell stores and T-shirt shops, this is a place where art and culture mix with sun and surf.
You can wander under the banyans and live oaks of an urban botanical garden, see manatees, sea turtles, and sharks at a working marine laboratory, and stand in awe before a Dutch master's painting in a world-class art museum.
"It all stems from John Ringling," says Erin Thomas Duggan, public relations director for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. She says the late circus magnate's passion for collecting art and donating it to the state attracted other like-minded artists and patrons to the area.
The city has a symphony orchestra, an opera house, ballet, and an entertainment venue that brings in big-name talent that ranges from Willie Nelson to Emanuel Ax. Plus, it has spring-training baseball.
Pat and I have vacationed in Sarasota several times over the years and we have always stayed on Lido Key, one of Sarasota's barrier islands.
We walk the beach to St. Armands Circle, a traffic rotary ringed with shops and restaurants. The complex, dating from the 1920s, was one of John Ringling's early developments to entice buyers for his vast real estate holdings. The circle, named for a French pioneer, is also the site of several community events including concerts and art and auto shows.
Over the years, we learned that late January can serve up cool mornings, so we take day trips early in the day while the beach warms up. This time we put the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the Mote Marine Laboratory, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on our list of places to visit.
Selby Gardens, like so many of the large gardens now open to the public, including Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, started out as the private retreat of the wealthy. William and Marie Selby came from Ohio families who were pioneers in the oil business. William Selby was one of the founders of Texaco. The couple, who had no children, established a foundation to give scholarships to local high school students headed to college. After Marie Selby died in 1971, her wishes to preserve her home and gardens and establish a botanical research facility were followed, and the gardens opened to the public in 1975.
We started our tour in the conservatory, a greenhouse full of orchids and other tropical foliage. Intricate blooms are everywhere. A docent with an encyclopedic knowledge of the plants describes their native habitats and rattles off their genus and species names in rapid fire, leading us from epiphyte to bromeliad.
Outside, the gardens cover a 14-acre wedge of Florida's natural past in the heart of this modern city. A flock of white ibis, hunting for insects in the shade of an old banyan tree, walk by on stick legs. In a pool along the path, dappled koi the size of footballs rise to the surface, begging to be fed. A long-legged shorebird works the mud flats. Ducks kick up a ruckus in a palm-fringed tidal pond.
The few rays of sun that sneak through the thick canopy light up the Spanish moss like holiday lace. We are in a tropical time warp, suddenly transported into a Gulf Coast bound by mangroves with only a few glimpses of the green-blue waters of Sarasota Bay peeking through the thick foliage.
The white stucco house that was home to the Selbys is now a tearoom. It is a sizable house, but by the local standards of the very rich, it is a mere cottage.
Near the end of the tour stands the imposing Christy Payne Mansion with its columned portico. Payne was another oilman and fishing pal of William Selby's. His mansion was not part of the Selby estate and was purchased by the gardens in 1973. It is something of a Florida wonder in its own right.
As we enter the front door and pass through a hallway, we find ourselves in a two-story room with a breathtaking view of gardens, ponds, and palms. Two grand staircases sweep up to a second-floor balcony.
A docent explains that Payne combined a variety of styles when he built his mansion in 1934. She says that Sarasota had just been hit head-on by a hurricane and Payne wanted to make sure his house would stand. He built it on a foundation of train rails and used poured concrete in the walls.
February 03, 2013|By Dick Cooper, For The Inquirer