SARASOTA, F LORI DA
COASTAL CULTURE IN THE FLORIDA SUN
Northern snowbirds have flocked to Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than a century. Those wealthy pioneers wanted to escape cold winters without giving up cultural pursuits and good food. Today their legacy draws visitors looking for a side of theater and fine dining to go with their beach time.
1 Sarasota’s wealthiest snowbirds were John and Mabel Ringling, whose eponymous museum is an unmissable attraction. The Circus Museum celebrates the art form that made them their fortune (the highlight is a huge diorama depicting a circus in its heyday). Nearby you can see how they spent that fortune, first in Cà d’Zan (House of John), their glorious waterfront home built in Venetian Gothic style, and then in the State Art Museum of Florida, where the Rubens and Rembrandts inside, collected by the Ringlings on their European trips,
vie for attention with the sculptures, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David, in the garden courtyard outside (admission from $25; ringling.org).
2 The natural world’s beauty in the form of orchids is just one of the delights at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens ($20; selby.org). A world center for the study of epiphytes (tree-dwelling plants that absorb moisture and nutrients from the air and rainwater, such as some orchids), the gardens also have an impressive array of landscapes in a bay setting, offering welcome shade when the sun’s blazing down, along with botanicalthemed art exhibitions.
3 For more tropical plants and a glimpse into a Florida that predates Europeans, head to
Historic Spanish Point ($12; historicspanishpoint.org). Step inside a prehistoric shell midden, created by the discarded debris of the area’s earliest inhabitants, take a stroll along one of the many trails, and see how New Yorker John Greene Webb and his family lived when they built a house here in 1867.
4 Sarasota’s thriving, year-round cultural scene is in large part thanks to its many performance venues, and none is more popular – or provides a better excuse for dressing up – than the Sarasota Opera House.
The company presents performances in a restored, 1926 theater; the season runs through the winter, and this year’s includes ever-popular favorites La Traviata and Carmen, along with lesser-known pieces to tempt established opera fans (tickets from $19; sarasotaopera.org).
5 In theory just a traffic roundabout, in practice St. Armands Circle
( starmandscircleassoc.com) is one of the centers of Sarasota’s social life. Lined with restaurants and shops, and with a pretty park in the middle, it’s best explored in the coolness of the late afternoon, when locals and visitors take their time meandering the sidewalks, looking for a new pair of sunglasses, stopping for a drink at an outdoor café, and choosing where to go for dinner.
6 Food is also top of the agenda at the Forks & Corks Festival, held each January ( eatlikealocal.com /forksandcorks). Dozens of local restaurants and bars take part, serving a range of eating options that reflect Sarasota’s eclectic dining scene. It’s a hugely popular event, so book tickets in advance, especially if you’re interested in attending the Grand Tasting, held in the spectacular setting of the Ringling Museum.
7 You can’t visit Florida without visiting a great beach, and Sarasota doesn’t fall short there either. The beach on
Siesta Key, to the south, grabs the headlines (it’s regularly named America’s best beach) but it can get uncomfortably busy. Much quieter, partly because you need a boat to get there, is Beer Can Island, to the north. Unromantic name aside, this wonderful stretch of sand is perfect for picnicking, lazing and swimming. Come midweek and you might even have it to yourself.
– Clifton Wilkinson
Sunset at Siesta Key
Small (just nine rooms) but perfectly located (in the heart of downtown Sarasota) Hotel Ranola is a great boutique sleeping option. Decor has a Princely purple accent and all rooms have full kitchens (from $99; hotelranola.com).
The Ringling Underground, a music event series at The Ringling’s Museum of Art
A vintage Ringling Bros. poster at the Circus Museum