While you're not going to realize a lot of
housing bargains in this Gulf Coast spot, you will discover some of
the most splendid architecture anywhere in the Sunshine State. It
also boasts pure white sands, exotic birds and plants, boating,
water skiing, opera, ballets.
A palazzo fit for a circus king is restored to its former glory THE HISTORIC HOME of JOHN AND MABLE
here for full story)
Len Kaufman for The New York Times
White-sand beach at Sarasota seen from
the Radisson Lido Beach Resort.
Len Kaufman for The New York Times
Produce, an Amish market.
Len Kaufman for The New York Times
TOPRingling Museum of Art.
BOTTOM At the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens on the waterfront.
SARASOTA -- Money
magazine named Sarasota as one of the "Best Places to Retire Young."
Money lauded the city of 53,000 for its architecture, beaches and
culture, though it took a mild shot at Sarasota's house prices.
Sarasota was the seventh city on the list of 10.
"While you're not
going to realize a lot of housing bargains in this Gulf Coast spot,
you will discover some of the most splendid architecture anywhere in
the Sunshine State," Money writers said. "It also boasts pure white
sands, exotic birds and plants, boating, water skiing, opera,
among nine other cities around the nation that were praised for
being a good spot to hang up your work hat while you still walk
without a cane. No other Florida cities made the list, but four
other Sunshine State communities were finalists for the top 100 on
Money's spots to retire young: Boca Raton, Coral Springs, Miramar
and Pembroke Pines. Only one state -- Virginia -- claimed more than
one spot on the list.
The other nine
cities among the top 10 were -- in the order of the list: Coeur
d'Alene, Idaho; Charlottesville, Va.; Logan, Utah; Blacksburg, Va.;
Burlington, Vt.; Anacortes, Wash.; Hanover, N.H.; Manhattan, Kan.;
and Ames, Iowa.
Sarasota with a population of 53,477, a 15-year population growth of
2.6 percent, a median house price of $423,400, and a home price
forecast for the next two years of a 6.3 percent increase.
How did Money
make the call for what communities would be on the list?
writers figured that young retired people were still active and
would have a need for travel and recreation. They also are not
likely to want to fight major-city congestion.
Each city chosen
for the list had to be near a major city or "urban cluster" to
provide a major airport, shopping and dining and other amenities. In
cases where a metropolitan area was not within 100 miles, the
magazine "looked for an outdoor lifestyle compelling enough to
overcome the relative isolation."
writers also looked for places with healthy economies -- they looked
for low unemployment and long-term job growth -- and a cost of
living measured by home prices that were near the average in the
United States. Unemployment in Sarasota County during February was
3 percent, down from 3.1 percent in January and slightly higher than
the same month last year. Sarasota, obviously, had some
difficulties in the latter housing category given its $400,000-plus
"In some cases,
we were willing to include those places that are worth their higher
price tag through their unique mix of resources," the magazine
I suggest a Sarasota vacation to my friends in New York, I get very little
the idea. They still think of the city as some sort of retirement
center for Republicans, and I grant you, it certainly has that side. But
things have changed dramatically since I moved here in 1985. Sarasota has
become younger, richer and infinitely more stylish. Hip people can
successfully vacation here.
If you're unable to place Sarasota geographically — and don't worry,
most people can't — it's on the gulf coast of Florida, about 50 miles
south of Tampa Bay. This is the very northern edge of what is generally
considered south Florida. The hills have flattened out and the vegetation
is starting to look tropical and, frankly, a little scruffy. But all is
forgiven when you see the beaches. There are 35 miles of them, many with
pure white sand. These are Caribbean-style beaches, with languid
blue-green water set against palm trees. They are Sarasota's pot of gold.
But unlike many beach destinations, Sarasota feels like a real city. It
has a colorful past, a busy downtown with sidewalk cafes, impressive
residential neighborhoods, lots of concerned citizens. There's another
side, of course; keep in mind this is where John D. MacDonald, the creator
of the Florida roman noir, lived. This is also where Pee-wee Herman was
arrested and where Ralf Panitz was charged with shooting his ex-wife after
they appeared on "The Jerry Springer Show." Mr. Panitz is now in the
county jail, awaiting trial. But the weirdest part is that Jerry Springer
lives here, too, out on Bird Key.
Bird Key is one of several barrier islands off the mainland, nearly all
reachable by bridges, and the largest of these function both as places for
Sarasotans to live — the wealthier ones, anyway — and as places for the
tourists to stay. The southernmost is Siesta Key. It has famous powdery
white sand and is the most family-friendly. Lido Key and St. Armands (the
two are separated by a canal but most locals consider them as one) are
marginally more formal, and Lido has particularly lovely beaches at each
end. Longboat Key, the largest and northernmost, is the most manicured and
upscale. I suspect it has nice beaches, too, although I can't remember
ever having been on one. The Longboat residents have arranged it so that
there is virtually no public parking.
The classic Sarasota vacation consists of two weeks in a rented condo,
preferably right on the beach. There are hundreds of such places, from
high-rises to villas to cottages. Refreshingly, most of them are not brand
new but date back to the 60's and 70's. They have been impeccably
maintained and are finally starting to cross over that line from "dated"
to "picturesque." And by all means, bring Grandma and the kids. Sarasota's
specialty is the multigenerational family get-together. While much of
Florida saw a big slump this fall, Sarasota came through just fine, with
its offering of quality time for families suddenly a big plus.
Sarasota would also make a good choice for couples, particularly those
who don't need constant distraction from the angst of being alone
together. For these a hotel might be better than a condo; there's no
housekeeping involved, the pools are fancier, and you don't have to get in
your car to find a bar. Sarasota has two luxury beach resorts that fill
this bill perfectly, the Resort on Longboat Key Club and the Colony Beach
and Tennis Resort. The Resort is spacious and sedate, the Colony livelier
and famous for its food; the Colony, by the way, recently earned a
footnote in American history as the last place President Bush got a good
night's sleep. He spent the night of Sept. 10 there, in town to make a
But the big hotel news in Sarasota is the brand-new Ritz-Carlton, not
on the beach at all. It's the centerpiece of a flurry of downtown
development that is adding nine new luxury high-rises to the skyline in a
three-year period. The Ritz, which opened Nov. 16, has become an object of
intense curiosity in the city; the latest thing is to go over and check it
out. There has been criticism over how far the restrooms are from the
dining room, but in general people are enchanted with this new and exotic
creature set down in their midst. Every night the elegant wood-paneled bar
hums with local residents delivering their opinions.
My New York friends worry that there won't be enough to do in Sarasota,
and while it's true that we don't have the attractions of, say, Orlando,
that can be a blessing in disguise. There is one must-see: the John and
Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The Italian Mediterranean-style palazzo
houses a collection put together by the circus king, who, back in 1927,
moved his winter headquarters here and began to develop modern Sarasota.
The collection has a strong and showy personality — a gorgeous set of five
Rubenses, each about 20 feet wide; one of the best Velázquez works in the
country, the portrait of Philip IV, King of Spain; even the music room and
dining room of Mrs. William B. Astor. Ringling bought the rooms when the
Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue was scheduled to be demolished, in 1926.
Sarasota's other attractions tend to relax rather than stimulate, and
all function in some way to improve the local quality of life. There's
Marie Selby Gardens, the botanical garden that graces the downtown
waterfront, and Mote Marine Aquarium, a working research aquarium, with
its shark tanks and sea life exhibits. Next door to Mote is my own
favorite — the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary. Injured seabirds are brought
here and nursed back to health, then released into the wild. The ones that
are permanently disabled get to stay, and there is something about the
sight of all these one- legged pelicans and ducks and herons living in
pampered retirement that warms the heart.
I'm almost afraid to bring up Sarasota's famous cultural scene. To
outline it in even the sketchiest detail invites disbelief; it sounds like
the inflated résumé of a desperate job seeker. Let's see. The city has its
own ballet company, its own symphony orchestra, four professional theaters
and its own opera company, not to mention galleries, chorales, concert
bands and a city-owned performing arts hall that brings in everyone from
the Warsaw Philharmonic to Wayne Newton. Sarasota's arts groups have had
some shaky moments in the past, but they are finally maturing into major
cultural institutions that can hold their own with any in the Southeast.
And this year's season looks terrific. The Florida West Coast Symphony
will perform the world premiere of the full orchestral version of Ravel's
"Miroirs," the Asolo Theater Company is doing Georges Feydeau, Agatha
Christie and Charles Busch, and the Sarasota Opera will open Feb. 2 with
"Le Trouvère," the French version of "Il Trovatore." During certain
weekends in March you can see four operas in three days, and people fly in
from everywhere just for this. I've seen some of them afterward, and I can
say that is one exhausted group of opera goers.
Sarasota has many festivals and special events offering the visitor the
perfect opportunity to observe the natives close up. The fourth annual
Sarasota Film Festival starts Jan. 19; it has grown by leaps and bounds
and if it's sometimes hard to detect a theme, the stars do appear and the
parties are great. Then there is Circus Sarasota, a European-style
one-ring circus that begins performing Feb. 1. It's produced by members of
several of the great old Sarasota circus families, most notably the
aerialist Dolly Jacobs, whose father, Lou, was the famous clown who
invented — right in Sarasota — the immortal gag in which all the clowns
pile out of the tiny car.
And Sarasota is restaurant crazy. Many residents have only the most
cursory knowledge of their kitchens; it's much more fun to go out and get
caught up in the whirl of the restaurant scene. You'll certainly want to
try one of the classics — Michael's on East, the Colony Dining Room or the
Café l'Europe. But keep in mind the more informal places, like Fred's (the
new hangout) or Pattigeorge's on Longboat Key.
And don't forget the indigenous cuisine. Surprisingly, Sarasota is also
a big Amish resort. Hundreds of Amish — along with their Mennonite cousins
— come down from Pennsylvania and the Midwest on chartered buses each
winter. And it turns out that the Amish do have a weakness: food. My
favorite Amish restaurant is the incomparable Yoder's. After lunch there,
you might drive around neighboring Pinecraft, with its tiny handmade
bungalows and old Amish men playing shuffleboard. It may well be the most
charming corner of Sarasota.
If Sarasota has one minor flaw as a destination, it is a lack of
something in the air, that thrilling frisson that permeates Cancún and Key
West, promising that right around the next corner is a mad romantic
fling. No, what's more likely to be around the next corner in Sarasota
is your grandparents, and they need a ride back to the condo because
they no longer drive after dark.
ROBERT PLUNKET lives in Sarasota
The circus may have left town
(sort of), but the culture just keeps coming--and then there are those
beaches . . .
By Alan Solomon
Tribune staff reporter
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Sarasota has
always been a little bit different. That's what happens when for
30-plus years, you mix grand old money with elephants, aerialists,
clowns-and, of course, sand, early-bird specials, palm trees, spring
training and elderly drivers who, especially in high season, make
right turns from left lanes just to get our attention. Even when the circus leaves town,
which it did in 1959, it takes a while to settle back into being your
Which it appears Sarasota never will. Folks, this is Florida. No doubt about
it. That's why Jungle Gardens is still in business up Tamiami Trail
after 60 years. But come to Sarasota-as thousands have
been doing for almost a century, since Mrs. Potter Palmer of the
original Chicago Hotel Potter Palmers bought up a third of Sarasota
County as a gift to herself-and you'll know pretty quickly that this
is no ordinary patch of drained swampland.
The following is a true story:
On a warm, crystal clear Saturday
afternoon in November when any sane person in Florida would've been on
either a beach, golf course, boat or their fifth vodka and tonic,
Sarasotans were flocking to (hold on to your 2-for-1 key lime pie
coupon now) the Sarasota Reading Festival. In one of the day's programs, David
McCullogh, author of the much-praised and much-purchased "John Adams"
biography, was to speak in the city's 1,100-seat Sarasota Opera House.
First, there is a Sarasota Opera
House, the nationally historically registered playground of (point No.
2) the home-grown Sarasota Opera.
And third: They had to turn people
away from McCullogh's speech. Turn people away. Again, the opera house
holds 1,100 people. And this wasn't the day's only program.
"Who would've thought," event co-chair
Caren Lobo said in the next day's Sarasota Herald-Tribune, "you'd need
five police officers to handle crowd control for a book on John
Adams?" There's more. At the very moment that was happening,
the 11th Annual Sarasota Blues Fest-Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown,
Delbert McClinton and others-was going strong at the Sarasota County
Fairgrounds. And if all that wasn't enough, the
evening offered local productions of musicals "Cabaret," "The
Fantasticks" and "Always . . . Patsy Cline"; and the resident Asolo
Theatre Company was performing a very funny French farce (in English)
called "A Flea in Her Ear" and probably selling out. None of which, thank goodness,
conflicted with the Sarasota Ballet's debut of "Don Quixote,"
scheduled for the following week. "We have an awful lot of arts," said a
woman handing out leaflets for one of them at a festival booth. "It's
like a little Stratford." Actually, it's bigger than either the
English or Canadian Stratford and lots bigger than Stratford, Texas.
Sarasota population: 51,650. Add another 4,000 for Longboat Key across
the bridge. But still . . . "There is no community in the country
this size that has the opera, the ballet, the symphony [forgot to
mention-the symphony was playing that night], the chorale [they were
off], the art school and nine theater groups," said Carole Kleinberg,
late of Morton Grove, who splits time between teaching and being
education director of the Asolo. "And there are a lot of writers'
Now, before anyone get the idea that
Sarasota is just the University of Chicago with coconuts: This really
is Florida, with all the traditional trappings. There are three major beaches in
greater Sarasota, which for the purposes of this story we'll call
everything from the northern border with Bradenton to the end of
Siesta Key to the south. The beach on Siesta Key is probably
the best for most of us. All Gulf of Mexico beaches hereabouts are
legally public; the ones on Siesta and Lido Keys not only admit it,
but have large parking lots to hammer the point home. Siesta, overseen by Sarasota County,
is broad, long (8 miles) and clean. The sand is so fine that it
crunches like snow when you walk on it; its composition (something to
do with quartz) keeps it cool to the feet even on hot days. It's big
enough to accommodate hordes of partying young folk toward the north
end and leave plenty of room for us to enjoy whatever it is we enjoy
about beaches. The existence of zillions of condos south of the
volleyball nets doesn't spoil anything, which in itself is amazing.
There are just a couple of little motels on either end.
Lido Beach, 2 miles long, is the only
city-run beach. Just about the same quality of sand. Just about the
same quality of everything, plus a few more hotel rooms (including the
especially pleasant Helmsley Sandcastle). The north end, away from the
main parking lot and therefore more isolated, reportedly is favored by
those persons who especially favor isolation, if you catch my drift. I
was too modest to personally confirm or deny, and unfortunately left
the good binocs at home.
Then there's Longboat Key-and before
we get too deep into these waters, understand that if I could afford
to buy a second home there (average condo: $539,000; average house:
$683,000; cost of boat dockominium: $200,000, not counting the boat),
I would, in a heartbeat. OK. Longboat is a 10-mile-long sliver
split by Gulf of Mexico Drive, with condos, two traditional-style
hotels (a Holiday Inn and a Hilton, both understated and shockingly
ordinary), a few smallish malls and some sprawling mixed-use resorts.
The relatively unwide beach, as clean as it is long, is treated by
Longboatp eople as their private domain, even though legally the
riffraff are entitled to their share. And they can take it-if they're
willing to play "Find a Beach Access Point," which, on Longboat Key,
is a little like playing "Find a Great Potato Knish" in Myanmar. There
aren't many. The signs are small, about the same size as the ones that
warn bicyclists there's a $25 fine for failure to jingle at
pedestrians. "That's on purpose," Kristin Heintz of
the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce, said of the un-heartfelt
welcome. "It's to keep the traffic down. There's about eight parking
spaces. That's about it."
Obviously, the illusion of enforced
exclusivity has been good for the real-estate business. Happily for
us, along with the two chain hotels and spiff-heavy resorts, there
also are 60 or so mom-and-pop properties on the island, most of them
cottage clusters or cottage-kitchenette combinations at rates that
don't force us to pawn our Timexes. "People think of Longboat Key as kind
of a snooty place-and there's some of that," said Jim Hayworth, who
left Batavia 41/2 years ago with wife Cindy to buy the six-unit,
50-year-old, very inviting Starfish Motel right on the beach. "But
we're just working shlubs from the Midwest, and this is a piece of
disappearing Old Florida." Along with beaches are the other
familiar realities found along Florida's Gulf Coast: Excellent
fishing, good and better-than-good local restaurants scattered among
the Outbacks and Red Lobsters, plenty of golf courses, lovebugs that
(when it's their time) splatter into windshields, baseball players
(the Cincinnati Reds spring-train here on the former White Sox
campground), nearly tame pelicans and herons (Longboat is said to be
home to wild peacocks, but I didn't see or splatter a one) and gluts
of traffic, especially behind raised bridges and anyone looking for an
And there's the whole Gulf Coast
thing. "The Gulf Coast, it's mostly
Midwesterners and Canadians," said Heidi Becker, a New Jersey yoga
instructor who has been sunning on Lido Beach with family for 30
years. "They're more laid-back than the East Coast. "It's certainly not as snooty as the
East Coast," she said. "Sure, the O.P.s [Floridaspeak for "old
people"] on the Gulf Coast are nosy, but on the East Coast they're
meddlesome." A shopkeeper even broke down the
Canadians: "The Montreal people go to the East Coast. Toronto people
come here." But what really separates Sarasota
from even the rest of the laid-back, generally unsnooty Gulf Coast are
the Ringling legacy and the seemingly ever-present commitment to the
When John Ringling switched the family
business's winter quarters from Connecticut to Sarasota in 1927, he
brought more than tons of raw fertilizer and people in tights: He
brought money, much of it his and Mable's, his wife. Before his death
in 1936, he had built an art museum (called, cleverly, the John and
Mable Ringling Museum of Art) and stuffed it with Baroque and other
paintings and knicknacks, some of them good. Rubens is represented here, along with
a few other familiar names (Velazquez, Gainsborough); in the museum's
courtyard stand replicas of famed statues, including a full-size
casting of Michelangelo's "David" that, in inoffensively positioned
silhouette, has become a Sarasota symbol.
The Sailors Circus, an annual
celebration of flying through the air with the greatest of ease and
other death-defying feats to thrill and chill children of all ages,
has been presented by the young people of Sarasota for half a century.
A professional troupe called Circus Sarasota began operations in 1997;
and the Ringling Museum of the Circus, steps from the art museum,
helps keep the tradition alive as well.
But it's the art museum that put Art
and Sarasota in the same breath. The traditional high-society
patronage launched here by Bertha Palmer's 1910 arrival (her gardens
and estate survive as Spanish Point) carried over into the Ringling
era and on into the present.
Opera, ballet and symphony orchestras
don't bubble up without people with the vision and wherewithal to make
them happen. The Asolo's roots, to name one cultural icon, date to an
18th Century theater imported, brick-by-brick, by the Ringling estate
in 1950; a Florida State University company began regular performances
there 10 years later (moving in 1990 to another imported theater, this
one from Scotland)-and by then another Sarasota passion beyond fried
oysters had begun to develop. Florida's more affluent towns are no
strangers to art galleries, many featuring works by local artists
along with the predictable seascapes and florals found wherever salt
water meets interior decorators. Downtown Sarasota, the malls and some
shops on St. Armands Circle, an upscale shopping and restaurant
enclave on St. Armands Key (between Lido Key and Longboat), had the
standard mix-and then came Towles Court.
Six years ago, this derelict
collection of rotting Old Florida houses near downtown was headed for
condemnation; plans were to raze the houses, built mostly in the
1920s, for county offices. Instead, a local developer, artists,
the city and the county-in a stunning example of public-private
cooperation-turned the district into an artists' colony. Artists
bought the homes for as low as $50,000, sank money into them and
converted them (for the most part) into combination living
quarters-studios-showrooms. The first gallery was opened in October
1995 by Kathleen Carrillo, a Californian. "I knew Carmel really well," she said.
"Santa Fe, with Canyon Road-blighted areas that bounced back, and
artists did it." Artists have done it here. Today in
this former slum pocket, 35 to 40 artists are showing work in 25
galleries, some of that work created onsite. "We're building up reputations as fine
galleries," said Carrillo, between strokes on her latest vividly
colored landscape. "This is fine art, not crafty stuff. Our
destination shoppers are starting to show up." So this is Sarasota: theater and
concerts, ballet and fine art, bread and circuses. And Florida thrown
in. Can't forget Florida.
"I love the beach," said Asolo's
Kleinberg, who had been coming to Sarasota "forever" before finally
moving here two years ago. "I take a coffee down to the beach, read my
paper, take a walk-and then I can face anything. "And we have to watch the sunset. We
plan our days around the sunset." Which, despite all the efforts of all
the Ringlings and Barnums and Baileys, remains the greatest show on