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Destination: Sarasota, Fla.

This west-coast city offers all of the vitality you’d expect from the home of circus magnate John Ringling

This west-coast city offers all of the vitality you’d expect from the home of circus magnate John Ringling

If you’re looking for a destination that offers big-city culture and sophistication with easy boating access, try Sarasota on Florida’s west coast.

The city of 53,000 lives up to its reputation as a major arts center, with a symphony, ballet, opera, theaters, museums and art galleries, in addition to dozens of shops and restaurants. Many are within walking distance of Marina Jack, the extensive facility in downtown Island Park. You can also anchor off the park and dinghy ashore. Island Park — a green, shady crescent of winding paved paths, bay views, picnic areas and a playground — encircles the marina basin, and buffers boaters from the vibrant city.

Just a block inland lies Palm Avenue, Sarasota’s most prestigious neighborhood in the Roaring ’20s. Pastel stucco and wrought iron decorate many buildings now occupied by upscale boutiques, antique shops and art galleries. Wide sidewalks, shady palms and pocket parks make for delightful strolling. Sarasota News and Books and other sidewalk cafés offer respite.


“There are more than 20 restaurants within walking distance besides ours,” says Sam Chavers Jr., Marina Jack dockmaster. “French bistros, Mexican, pizza, coffee shops, wine bars … in all price ranges. But no chain fast foods.” Locals recommend the Sunday and holiday brunches at the Hyatt’s Scalini Restaurant. On Palm Avenue, the 1915 Sarasota Women’s Club — home of Florida Studio Theater — recalls Sarasota’s early days, when the city was a fledgling resort.

It’s easy to get around Sarasota, even to outlying Lido Key’s white sand Gulf beaches. Rental cars, taxis, narrated trolleys and public buses are the usual choices, but the most fun way may be at the helm of a Segway Human Transporter. Tom and Janey Jacobsen teach riders how to operate these futuristic two-wheeled computer-controlled gyroscopic scooters, then lead narrated 2.5-hour tours of Sarasota, through quaint Towles Court Art District, quiet historic neighborhoods, and Island Park.

“Anyone can learn to operate a Segway,” says Tom Jacobsen. He and his wife quit their careers in November 2003 to establish Florida Ever-Glides Inc. “We’ve had folks from 13 to 80 years old on our tours,” he says. The battery-powered Segway HTs speed up when you lean forward, rotate 360 degrees with a flick of the wrist, and slow or stop when you lean back. Jacobsen limits tour speeds to 5 mph, but Segways can zip around at 15 mph. They’re legal on Sarasota sidewalks, and streets with speed limits of 25 mph or less. On a Segway you’ll become a tourist attraction of sorts, as pedestrians and motorists stare, then smile and wave.

Whatever your mode of transportation, the Visitors Information Center at 655 North Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), across from Hyatt Sarasota marina, has maps and schedules. Almost adjoining the Visitors Center are G.Wiz Science Museum ( ) and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall ( ). At G.Wiz, 85 interactive exhibits show that science is fun, says Sarah Lansky, communications manager. “Adults have as much fun as kids playing music on a laser harp, making animated videos, working levers and pulleys, building paper airplanes, and challenging their imaginations in exhibits representing science’s various disciplines,” says Lansky.

At the Van Wezel, top names perform an eclectic year-round schedule of Broadway musicals, dance, opera, pop, country and comedy. Other venues throughout the city host cultural events and performances, particularly during the winter season.

Just south of Island Park, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens ( ) conserves and displays tropical rainforest plants on 12 bayfront acres. Even the casual visitor will be impressed by the 6,000 orchids and the pervasive peacefulness. Horticulturists understand the importance of the collection (20,000 live plants indoors, many more outdoors, and 85,000 dried specimens), the world-renowned botanical research, and plant identification work carried out here. The Tree Lab features educational games and videos for youngsters. The 1920s home of the late philanthropists Marie and William Selby (of Selby/Texaco Oil Co.) contains a café. The gift store and museum occupy the adjoining mansion.

Farther afield on the mainland are Jungle Gardens zoological park ( ), three championship golf courses, and Ed Smith Stadium, spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds.

Across Ringling Causeway from downtown lies Lido Key and its famous white sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico. En route you’ll cross St. Armands Key. Sidewalk banners exhort passersby to “Think out of the box; Get into the Circle,” a ring of 100-plus luxurious, frivolous and fun shops and restaurants. Locals consider the area more lighthearted than Palm Avenue. Circus magnate John Ringling built the circular key in the 1920s, and his statue stands in the center.

Of Ringling’s legacies, the most impressive is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, about five miles north ( ). Here, on 66 landscaped acres along Sarasota Bay, stand the Museum of Art, Cà d’Zan (the Ringlings’ opulent 47-room mansion), Circus Museum and reconstructed 18th-century Venetian Asolo Theater. Given to the state in 1936, all are now part of Florida State University.

Ringling’s flair for showmanship and quality is evident in the art museum, known the world over for its collection of 17th-century European and Italian Baroque art. Ringling purchased many of the works while in Europe auditioning circus acts. From 1926 to ’31 he acquired hundreds of Old Master paintings, diverse sculptures, thousands of Cypriot antiquities, and the furnishings of entire Gilded Age mansion rooms for his museum.

General admission includes tours of the 20-plus museum galleries and two floors of Cà d’Zan. Private tours of the upper floors and tower are available. Ringling’s 1925 dream home is a 22,000-square foot Venetian Gothic palace, boasting 30 types of marble, terra cotta tiles and $8,000 (1920s currency) of gold leaf on the ballroom ceiling alone.

One of the guides at the mansion describes Cà d’Zan as “over the top, just like Ringling himself was.” The recent $15 million restoration of the mansion and original furnishings, including a 2,289-pipe organ, give an accurate glimpse of the Ringlings’ flamboyant lifestyle.

The Circus Museum displays include the Flying Wallendas’ high-flying gear, wildcat trainer Gunther Williams’ props, clown Emmett Kelley’s costume, and the 2-by-3-foot car 6-foot, 2-inch clown Lou Jacob would emerge from. Circus wagons from prerailroad days fill one room, while memorabilia from the 1951 Oscar-winning epic “The Greatest Show on Earth” fills another. Throughout, you’ll follow the history of the circus established by five of the eight Ringling siblings in 1884. A new exhibit — the world’s largest miniature circus — recently opened. Five school buses could fit inside, its circumference equal to 1.5 football fields. Like Cà d’Zan, it too is over the top.

Downtown Sarasota retains Ringling’s sense of quality, if not his flamboyance. It’s worth a visit.

If you decide to go

Sarasota stretches along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on Florida’s west coast. Facilities for boaters center around Marina Jack in downtown Island Park, just south of Ringling Causeway (65-foot clearance) that spans the waterway. The causeway connects the mainland to the barrier islands: Bird, Coon, St. Armand, Lido and Longboat keys.

This season the nearby passes from the Gulf (Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass), which have been dogged by shoaling, are operable, according to Marina Jack dockmaster Sam Chavers Jr. “The Coast Guard removed the markers, then re-marked Big Sarasota Pass, which carries approximate depths of 6 or 7 feet,” he says. However, boaters may prefer to use Longboat Pass — about 12 miles north above Longboat Key — or Venice Pass to the south.

“The best time to visit is November and December,” he says. “There aren’t so many people, and the weather is perfect.” He says it’s best to make reservations in advance — (941) 955-9488, VHF channels 16/71, .

Island Park’s peninsula protects the marina basin, where floating docks accommodate boats to 150 feet in 8-foot depths for $1.75 a foot per night, ($52.50 minimum), including cable TV, phone, water and electricity. Gas, diesel, pumpout, showers, laundry, Internet access, mail delivery, trolley service, ship’s store, fishing charters, dinner cruises, restaurants and a patio bar with live entertainment are on site. O’Leary’s Bar and Grill is across the park. Downtown is across the street.

Hyatt Sarasota, in a dredged basin off Gulf ICW Mile Marker 12 just north of the Ringling Causeway — (941) 812-4063, — offers free dockage to diners and overnight dockage by reservation for boats to 95 feet. Rates are $1.75 a foot per night and include use of the heated pool. Pumpout is $25. Restaurants, lodgings and convenience store are on site. The facility is adjacent to G.Wiz Museum, Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, and the Sarasota Visitors Bureau.

A mile or more north on U.S. 41 are West Marine, smaller marinas and yacht services. Members of the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs may find a berth at Sarasota Yacht Club on Coon Key — (941) 365-4191, — or Bird Key Yacht Club — (941) 953-4455, — both across the Gulf ICW from downtown.

Marine Max, on the northern tip of Lido Key, (941) 388-4411, does full repairs, though engine repairs are limited to MerCruiser models. The on-site restaurant, Salty Dog, has dockage for diners’ dinghies or boats to around 30 feet.

You can anchor in several areas around Sarasota and the islands. Largest is the cove south of Island Park. Boaters there can stay 72 hours and must dinghy in to the beach by O’Leary’s Grill and register (no charge). Downtown is across the street.

A 48-hour anchoring limit exists in other anchorages, include those off New Pass (beyond the northeastern tip of Lido Key), west of Golden Gate Point, between Otter and Lido keys, and off Cà d’Zan mansion, which has no shore access. Sarasota has an extensive bus service and plenty of taxis and rental cars. The city, off Interstate 75 and about four miles from Sarasota/Bradenton Airport, is convenient for crew changes.

NOAA chart 11425, Charlotte Harbor to Tampa Bay, covers Sarasota and approaches.


• Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, (941) 955-0991, .

• Sarasota County Area Transit, (941) 861-1234.


• First Friday Walks — Gallery hopping, shopping and live entertainment along Palm Avenue and lower Main Street, 6-9 p.m., (941) 373-9660.

• Dec. 10: Christmas Boat Parade of Lights — Boats parade on Sarasota Bay, 6-8 p.m., (941) 953-4636, Ext. 2628, .

• Jan. 16: Arts Day — Juried art show of more than 100 artists, art lectures and 40 booths showcasing local art and culture, 80 performances on 12 stages, hands-on activities for kids and adults, downtown, (941) 365-5118.

• Jan. 20-22: West Florida Boat and Fishing Show, Sarasota/Bradenton International Convention Center, (941) 355-9161.

MOTE museum is giving back to the sea

Watch sharks being fed, and listen to manatees chirping and chewing. See endangered sea turtles, and touch sea cucumbers, rays, hermit crabs and other marine creatures. Or participate in a simulated dolphin rescue. MOTE Marine Laboratory offers all this and more at its facility on the northern tip of Lido Key, a short bus or cab ride from downtown Sarasota.

The aquarium’s marine habitats — from rivers to reefs and their resident creatures — aren’t just in glass-faced boxes, but in indoor and outdoor touch tanks, pools and ponds, including a 135,000-gallon shark tank. Watching MOTE-bred seahorse babies cling to their daddies is fascinating.

Through the windows of the biomedical labs, you can also see MOTE scientists at work, part of the aquarium’s self-guided tour. A word of caution: Chats with knowledgeable docents may extend your visit to hours.

The Immersion Theater’s simulated dolphin rescue may raise your adrenaline level. As the rescue unfolds on the full-size movie screen, command center personnel issue directions to staff and you. Time is of the essence, and the choices you make on your seat-front computer may determine whether the dolphins live or perish.

Dolphin research is a major focus at MOTE and has been since the facility was established in 1955. Rescued dolphins are rehabilitated in the Marine Mammal Visitor Center across the parking lot. (The rehab lagoon is off-limits to visitors.) Other endangered animals, unable to survive in the wild, are on permanent display.

Four 6-by-10-foot windows let you into the watery world of the resident manatees, both born in captivity in the 1980s. A microphone captures their sounds. Each day 1,200-pound Hugh and 1,700-pound Buffet munch through 80-some heads of romaine lettuce, plus carrots, beets, apples, kale and monkey biscuits laced with vitamins. In addition to studying the manatees’ sensory biology and behavior, MOTE researchers investigate strandings and take bimonthly aerial surveys of wild manatee herds year-round.

Lido (a blind green turtle) and three loggerheads swim in other tanks. Shelly and Montego, females born in New York City almost 30 years ago, have been studied at MOTE since the 1990s. Edgar was found abandoned in a nest 12 years ago and was nursed back to health. He or she — staff won’t know until Edgar matures in another 20 or so years — can’t be released into the wild because it lacks protective pigment. Other turtles are rehabilitated behind the scenes.

Across from the sea turtle exhibit children can walk through a fishing trawl and out through the TED (turtle exclusion device). Before laws required TEDs, turtles frequently died in fishing nets. Displays also explain MOTE’s aquaculture programs: fish restocking, and growing shrimp and sturgeon (for caviar).

William R. Mote’s philosophy permeates the facility. “For countless ages man has taken from the sea. Now it is time for us to give back to this precious source of all our planet’s life.” MOTE scientists are giving back, and the displays show you why and how you can help.

MOTE Marine Laboratory, Sarasota, Fla. Phone: (941) 388-4441.