by ANNE BRALY
SARASOTA, Fla. – When people think of Sarasota, they may imagine white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, beachside bars and restaurants. There’s all that — plenty of it. But there’s more to this lovely town if you’ll just take a few steps off the beach and take in the beauty and all there is to offer in the city of Sarasota.
The Ringling Connection
No one can argue the Ringling family’s place in Sarasota’s history. Just take a drive and you’ll find Ringling Boulevard, the Charles Ringling Building, the Ringling Bridge, and, oh yes, the Ringling Museum with all its history. Does the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ring any bells?
The brothers chose Sarasota as its winter quarters, and put the city on the map at an age when The Big Top was once the biggest thing to come to town.
Though there were five brothers who all had a role in the circus business and added to the growth of Sarasota, John Ringling was the most well-known. He and wife, Mable, built their magnificent home on Sarasota Bay and, as an over-the-top art collector who traveled the world and brought home their treasures, the couple also built a museum. Upon their deaths, both properties were gifted to the City of Sarasota, and today, they are open for tours.
The Ringling Museum and the mansion, Ca’ D’Zan (Pictured Above), are part of a 66-acre complex that also features the Circus Museum with pieces of circus history – you can almost hear the lions roar from their cages or see the clowns as they frolic through the crowds. It’s an experience that takes you back to your childhood. The building next door features the Tibbals Learning Center with its incredible full-scale replica of the circus, from loading circus performers and other workers, animals, food, tents to putting it up in one town and tearing it down before moving on to the next city. Its creator, Howard Tibbals shows what happened behind the scenes in miniature.
The art gallery is nothing short of jaw-dropping with collections donated by the Ringlings, among them magnificent oils by Peter Paul Rubens and Paolo Veronese. The museum has several wings that house collections of modern art, Asian art and more.
Admission to tour the Ringling’s Gothic-style mansion requires a separate ticket, but it’s worth the extra money to see how John Ringling and his wife lived when they were home in Sarasota and get a glimpse at what guests would experience when invited to their lavish parties.
A Secret Garden
Surrounded by the busyness of life in Sarasota — the traffic, businesses and daily happenings — there’s a place of solitude and beauty that beckons guests to reflect on the wonders of nature. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a 15-acre garden on Sarasota Bay that is the only botanical garden in the world to focus on tropical plants, primarily ferns, epiphytic orchids and bromeliads.
As you drive down the old brick-lined street approaching the gardens, the sense of calm is overwhelming. The entrance is guarded by ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, big green ferns and numerous varieties of palms, flowering bushes, Birds of Paradise and untold numbers of flowers and other fauna.
The botanical gardens was named after Marie Selby, a woman who, with husband Bill, built their home on the property in the early 1900s. She was interested in horticulture and prior to her death in 1971, created a trust that would create and maintain a public botanical garden on her property.
Today, the gardens offer shows year round, including its ever-popular annual orchid show happening now through November 29 and honoring Selby herself. The show’s theme is “Women Breaking the Glasshouse Ceiling.” But there’s more to the gardens than flowers. During the orchid show, the North Gallery will feature rare books and prints of some of the best female botanical artists, and the South Gallery will emphasize the many female contributors to the botanical sciences.
Walk through the gardens, picnic on the lawn by the bay – spread out a blanket or choose one of the picnic tables — and enjoy the water, maybe you’ll see dolphins or other creatures of the sea at play, and enjoy the beauty of this lovely garden by the bay.
Sarasota’s Black History
Sarasota marks the southernmost point of the Civil Rights Trail, and in the heart of the city lies Newtown, a neighborhood that became home to the city’s African-American population in 1914. Overton was the first black neighborhood, but as segregation rampaged throughout the South, blacks were forced to move their homes to Newtown, a piece of land just a little farther from the downtown area populated by whites.
Today, Newtown’s history comes alive with the creation of Newtown Alive, an organization that celebrates the history of the community — its people and places.
Newtown boasted homes, businesses, churches, and a school at a time when Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from patronizing white-owned stores, says Newtown Alive’s founder and director, Vicki Oldham. There are now 15 historic roadside markers that document the paths taken by Newtown leaders and bring awareness to Newtown and its place in the history of Sarasota.
* Learn about Rosemary Cemetery and how it spearheaded the movement to move blacks out of Overton.
“The whites had to travel through Overtown to bury their people in the cemetery and they didn’t want to go through a black community in order to get there,” Oldham explains, pointing to one of the markers along the road detailing this series of events. “So they made them move and that created Newtown.”
* Learn about Rev. Lewis Colson who, in 1885, was the man to drive the first stake into the ground when Florida Mortgage and Investment began platting the ground for the town that would become Sarasota. He and his wife, Irene, are the only African-Americans buried in Rosemary Cemetery.
* Learn about the “wade-ins” held at Lido Beach during the 1950s that helped to desegregate the beaches of Sarasota.
“It’s interesting to learn how the young people back then were so fierce, so bold and courageous,” Oldham notes. “They had no power, no help, but they opened the beaches.”
As Americans rediscover their roots, cultural heritage tourism is changing the way we vacation. It’s not all about fun. It’s about education, too. For information on booking a tour or get directions to chart your own tour of Newtown and its place on the Civil Rights Trail, log onto newtownalive.org.
Where to stay
There are so many hotels and motels available, as well as short-term rentals, directly on the waterfront or within easy distance, as well as others in historic areas as well as near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
High-rise hotels, such as Grand Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton are on the water; The Westin is set back somewhat, but has balconies offering water views or downtown. All offer spa experiences, room service, and fine dining. But The Westin has one thing the other high-rise hotels do not: An incredible roof-top bar on the 19th floor with pool, comfortable seating and dazzling views of both the city and the water. Watching a storm roll in from far away or enjoy stunning sunsets while sipping an afternoon cocktail is a thing of wonder. The Roof Bar and Eats is open to non-Westin guests, as well.
Get your fill
Sarasota has a taste for every palate. Want Italian? Head to Salute! (salutesarasota.com) — pronounced in true Italian fashion, “sal-u-tay” — and get a seat outside on a patio twinkling with little white lights after the sun goes down. For a light dish, the grilled Atlantic salmon with a local orange-blossom honey citrus sauce paired with a nice glass of sauvignon blanc is a good bet. Heavier appeties might opt for one of several pasta dishes or the go all out with the 48-ounce Florentine steak for two carved tableside.
Indigenous (indigenoussarasota.com) has been voted Sarasota’s best restaurant for years, thanks for its partnership with local fishermen and farmers that brings the freshest ingredients to the table. Chef Steve Phelps can do amazing things with critters from the sea while keeping watch on sustainability through the restaurant’s partnership with the Monterey Seafood Watch Program.
If you wake up and your stomach is growling, head over to Station 400 (station400.com) where tables are filled during breakfast and brunch – lunch, too. As with many restaurants in Sarasota, outdoor seating is offered and in many, outdoor tables are the only ones as long as the pandemic presents dining dilemmas. Station 400 has a large covered patio to ward of the hot Florida, passing showers and COVID-19. The fried green tomato Benedict is a creative twist on tradition. But Station 400 also does fun things with local seafood, such as the Crabby Patty with lump crab meat and spinach in aioli sauce topped with a fried egg.
Even the hotels have some remarkable restaurants, such as EVOQ at The Westin; Jack Dusty at the Ritz-Carlton; Bridges Restaurant at Embassy Suites; and Currents, the restaurant at Grand Hyatt with tables overlooking the harbor.
You will not go hungry in Sarasota. For more choices, log onto visitsarasota.com and follow the link. You’ll find choices ranging from fine dining to farmer’s markets.