Sarasota, Florida: Where culture, nature share the stage

Ringlings of circus fame, brought culture, art to Sarasota, Florida.

A 16-foot bronze copy of David

A 16-foot bronze copy of David

SARASOTA, Fla.—It is a still, hot day on Sarasota Bay as we slide our kayaks into the water. Too lazy to use our oars, we drift a little and watch the mullet jump while we wait for the last members of our tour to arrive. Suddenly a pelican swoops down and grabs a silvery fish, startling us.

We set off a few minutes later, seven of us with little or no kayaking experience. Kelly, our guide, points his oar in the direction he wants us to go, then stays in the middle of our disorganized pack, showing us how to paddle, how to turn and stop, calling out encouragement to whoever is trailing.

Kelly talks about the bay’s wildlife—the cormorants that are diving under our kayaks for fish, the sea urchins that would prick our feet if we tried to walk in the shallow water, the manatees that come and go with the seasons. As we pass bayfront mansions, Kelly also tells us about some of the famous people who live—or once lived—in them: Lucille Ball; Jerry Springer; Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/ DC.

And he talks about John Ringling, who in 1927 moved the winter quarters of the circus that he and his four brothers founded to Sarasota. He had already been spending winters in Sarasota and buying real estate, wanting to turn this city on the bay into a fashionable resort town. At one point, he owned 25 percent of the land in Sarasota.

He and his wife Mable built a winter home here, a Venetian Gothic mansion they called Ca D’Zan—House of John—where they displayed part of their art collection. As the collection grew, the Ringlings built an art museum, inspired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, on their waterfront property. In his will, Ringling left the estate, including more than 600 works of art, to the state of Florida.

I listen attentively because I’ll be at the Ringling—now part of Florida State University—later to view an installation piece, SkySpace, in a building created just for that purpose.

On my trips to Sarasota, I sample what I find most interesting: nature and the arts. So I kayak the bay, take a boat ride with a marine biologist, explore Myakka State Park, spend a day browsing the Ringling’s various art and circus exhibits and return on another trip to see the sunset transformation of James Turrell’s SkySpace, wander through the historic Towles Court artists colony. And of course watch the sunset from Siesta Key.

Woven throughout is the story of Ringling and how he contributed to Sarasota, a city with a rich cultural life that attracts affluent snowbirds and retirees, as he envisioned, but also visitors and residents who are drawn to its bay, rivers, parks, mangrove islands and wildlife.

It is Sarasota Bay that drawn me on this day. We look for manatees as we make a leisurely circle around a tiny island. Cormorants dive and surface around us, unperturbed by the humans jerking at our oars. Occasionally a light breeze ruffles the water, and I enjoy the peace of being on the bay.

The first part of our tour is just a warm-up. Our destination is the tunnels through the mangroves that carve a protected section of the bay into small enclaves. It is shady in the tunnels, the water illuminated by the sunlight that filters through mangroves.

Maneuvering is difficult in these narrow passages, and it’s easy to see why we learned to paddle on open water first. Kelly cautions against correcting our course by grabbing for low branches. He points out tiny tree crabs and large spiders crawling along those branches. After that warning, I avoid reaching for the branches, instead jabbing my oar at thick clusters of roots to try to change direction.

Another day finds me out on the water again, this time on a “Sea Life Encounter” cruise from the Mote Aquarium, a quasi-educational outing with Stephanie, a marine biologist.

We see dolphins within a few minutes after leaving the dock, but it’s Stephanie who spots the tiny fin of a baby dolphin. The little children love that there’s a baby swimming next to us, and there is much oohing and aahing every time the baby surfaces.

“I love dolphins,” one little boy pronounces. “I love dolphins, too,” another boy adds fiercely, as if only a limited number of people can love dolphins and he’s competing to be one of them.

Our boat circles rookeries in the bay, densely populated with about 900 pairs of nesting birds—roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, cormorants, egrets and more. The islands are natural but have been diminished by erosion, so now they are protected by rock breakwaters. There is no connection to land, keeping the birds safe from predators like raccoons that would raid the nests.

On our way back in, Stephanie throws out a fish net that drags the bottom of the bay, then dumps its contents into an aquarium for our last lesson of the day. She puts some of the tiny creatures she caught—brittle starfish, sea anemone, conch, tiny silvery fish—in water in plastic containers and we pass them around, looking for the features that she told us about, gently touching the ones she told us we could. At the end, she throws everything back into the bay.

The view of nature is completely different at Myakka River State Park, which has North America’s first public treetop trail, a walkway suspended 25 feet above the ground. Only a few other people are on the Boylston Nature Trail, which leads to the canopy walk, and I walk long stretches without encountering anyone.

Sometimes it is as if no one else is in the park, and at every rustle of leaves, every snap of a twig, I wonder who or what is keeping me company. The park has more than two dozen varieties of snakes, as well as animals I’d rather not meet alone in the woods: coyotes; feral pigs; bobcats. There have even been recent Florida panther sightings. But I see nothing other than lizards and squirrels.

The wooden walkway is a sturdy hanging bridge that crosses through the trees to a 74-foot-tall tower. Visitors who climb to the top of the tower get a panoramic view of the park. From this spot high above the treetops, a mass of a thousand shades of green, gray and brown, I can see across the hammock and beyond. I know the trees are full of birds, but I can’t distinguish them through the foliage.

Instead, I am introduced to the park’s population of birds on the Myakka Maiden, an airboat that tours the park’s larger lake. Birds are everywhere. In addition to the usual herons, egrets, cormorants, ibises, anhingas, wood storks, hawks and more, we see rare sandhill cranes as we motor along the lake’s far shore.

We also meet the park’s alligators. At first, the gators are hard to spot, but before long before we realize that they are everywhere around us—dozens of them, floating motionlessly, swimming, sunning themselves on the shore. They are watching us, too.

That evening, I drive into Sarasota’s old downtown for dinner. Every space on the street is taken. The place is hopping, diners spread among restaurants featuring Peruvian, Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish and Mexican food, plus seafood, sushi and American cuisine.

I have set aside the entire next day for the Ringling Estate, which has more to see in 2012 than it did in John Ringling’s day. The Circus Museum, Historic Asolo Theater, James Turrell’s Joseph’s Coat Skyspace and other features were added after his death in 1936.

The art museum has some modern and contemporary art, but most of it is Renaissance art, represented by the 16-foot statue of David, a bronze copy of the original by Michelangelo, that towers over the museum’s courtyard. Just inside the front entrance are enormous tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens. The Ringlings collected much of this art on their trips to Europe, where they scouted circus acts.

The Circus Museum, added in 1948, features a splendid miniature circus, which was created by Howard Tibbals, a master model builder, over 50 years. More than 700 animals and 1,500 acrobats, drivers, animal handlers, cooks, clowns and everyone else associated with the Big Top, all in miniature vignettes.

If you go

Information: Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-800-3906 or

Where to stay:

Hyatt Regency, 1000 Boulevard of the Arts; 941-953-1234; AAA four-diamond hotel on Sarasota Bay.

Hotel Indigo, 1233 Boulevard of the Arts; 877-270-1392;

Captiva Beach Resort, 6772 Sara Sea Circle on Siesta Key; 800-349-4131;

Where to eat:

Selva Grill, 1345 Main St.; 941-362-4427; .

Blu Que Island Grill, 149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key; 941-346-0738;

Crab & Fin, 420 St. Armands Circle; 941-388-3964; .

Treviso Restaurant, 5401 Bay Shore Rd. (in the Ringling Visitors’ Center); 941-360-7390;

What to do:

Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy.; 941-388-4441;

Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72; 941-361-6511;

Towles Court Arts District, Art walk third Friday of the month.

Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures, 941-504-6296;

Marjie Lambert is a Capital News contributor.

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