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Culture in the Sunshine

Sarasota is a circus town. One of the titans of the American big top, John Ringling of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, settled in Sarasota early in the 20th century and bequeathed a taste for “The Greatest Show on Earth” and luminous treasures to the city. Although all the Ringling brothers were active in the enterprise, it was basically “Mr. John” who led the parade. He moved the circus’s winter quarters to Sarasota in 1927 where it remained until 1958.

Having purchased an island with an eye toward development, the big top impresario constructed a causeway to link Longboat Key to the town of Sarasota.

Ringling’s legacy lives on in his elegant Sarasota Bay Venetian-inspired estate, Ca d’Zan, which is open to the public and home to the John and Mable Ringling Art Museum, which was built to hold his burgeoning collection. The Museum of the Circus (on the same grounds) features parade wagons and other memorabilia related to the circus arts. The annual Circus Festival, which draws 65,000 visitors to the 31-acre estate, and Circus Sarasota, the city’s resident one-ring circus, showcase circus arts in the town’s resplendent tradition.

Museum of the Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

But Sarasota is more than high-wire acts and elephants. The city gracefully balances vibrant cultural attractions with luxurious beach resorts. Average temperatures range from the 70s to the 80s. Not only is this glittering, tropical town a place to physically relax, but it is a setting that stimulates the intellect.

Not many cities this size (pop. 50,000) can claim a resident symphony orchestra and opera and ballet companies, as well as first-class museums and art galleries. And there’s an endless circuit of festivals devoted to film, circus arts, jazz, chamber music and wine.

Although the first European explorers came to the Gulf Coast in the 1500s, the area was not developed until the 1880s when Scottish families emigrated to farm the land. However, it took another 50 years for Sarasota to gain an aura of luxe and affluence when wealthy Americans were drawn to the city in the 1930s. Seventy years later, the city is a Mecca to the pampered, but retains a down-to-earth feeling that tempers the glitz.


As mentioned above, visitors will enjoy the art museum housing 10,000 objects. It focuses on 17th-century Baroque painting, boasts a prominent collection of Old Master canvases and drawings, including some of Peter Paul Rubens most important work.

Art Galleries line Main Street in downtown Sarasota and are clustered in historic Towles Court and in St. Armand’s Circle.

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is devoted to the conservation and display of tropical plants. The tropical display house features orchids as luxurious as silk while the Baywalk Sanctuary along the shoreline is crowded with red and black mangroves—a good place for bird watchers to spot waterfowl in the marshy breeding grounds. The banyan grove, hibiscus garden and, my favorite, the bamboo pavilion offer maximum Zen pleasure.

For shopping at upscale and mid-range boutiques try St. Armand’s Circle, where the streets are charming and the parking is plentiful. Burns Court Historic District offers antiques, collectibles and tools for gardeners.

Swimming, fishing, sailing, kayaking and sitting at the beach are the principal activities at the resorts along Longboat Key, the gold coast of the area.


Longboat Key with its 11 miles of luxurious white sand between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay is only minutes from town, but feels like a true escape. The bestt resort on the Key is the AAA Four-Diamond Resort at Longboat Key Club, a 1,410-acre resort and private membership golf and tennis club. The palatial suites, including living room, dining area, full kitchen, washer and dryer, feel homey. The lovely, oceanfront balconies are enjoyable places to eat a light breakfast or to sip wine while watching the sunset.

Two golf courses with a total of 45 holes—one an 18-hole championship and three nine-hole courses—are PGA approved with driving ranges, pro shops and the Golf School, offering computerized swing analysis. In addition to a world-class tennis clinic with over 38 courts, there are a fitness center, pool, Jacuzzi, and many biking and jogging paths. The resort can charter fishing boats or leisurely cruises.

There are four restaurants, including the excellent Sands Point serving new American cuisine with a mild Asian touch. You can dine by candlelight on a terrace overlooking the pool.

The Resort at Longboat Key Club, 301 Gulf of Mexico Drive, P.O. Box 15000 Longboat Key, FL 34228. Tel. 941-383-8821. Rates begin at $ 175. www.longboatkeyclub.com

Emily Fancher

Spring 2002