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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

Area claims title of 'Florida's Cultural Coast'

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE TRAVEL WRITER

SARASOTA, Fla. - As interesting as a Segway tour of the city is, it can't do much more than scratch the surface of all that the area has to offer for visitors.

Located about an hour south of Tampa on the state's Gulf Coast, residents refer to the Sarasota area as "Florida's Cultural Coast," and there's more than tourist-baiting braggadocio to that claim. For a city of only about 50,000 year-round residents, Sarasota has a surprising and impressive array of professional theaters, as well as a symphony, ballet, opera, several museums, and dozens upon dozens of art galleries, some sophisticated and others pretty pedestrian.

The first Europeans to venture into the area were treasure-seeking explorers and conquistadors in the 1500s, including Hernando de Soto - and legend has it that Sarasota was named after his daughter Sara. (Sara-Soto. Get it?)

In the 1800s, settlement of the area began, and shortly after the turn of the century, wealthy socialites discovered Sarasota. With its temperate climate and cooling gulf breezes, it became a "paradise for the pampered," attracting some of America's wealthiest residents, who helped to define its development.

Today's Historic Spanish Point was once the posh waterfront winter estate and gardens of Bertha Palmer, widow of Chicago developer Potter Palmer. And what is now Myakka River State Park was once Palmer's 30,000-acre ranch in eastern Sarasota, called Meadowsweet Pastures.

Today the area's peak tourist season runs from February until about Easter, when daytime temperatures are in the 70s and 80s. The "value" season, during which prices drop, is June through September, when daytime highs frequently top 90.

The name Ringling has been linked to Sarasota for generations, and with good reason. In the 1920s, John Ringling, of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, built his wife Mable a dazzling 32-room Venetian-style mansion on Sarasota Bay named Ca d' Zan ("House of John" in the Venetian dialect).

They also built an art museum to hold their collection of masterpieces by Reubens and other 17th-century Italian and Flemish artists, as well as a circus museum with artifacts from the Ringling Brothers Circus.

All are now open to the public.

Ringling used his circus elephants to help build the first bridge from the mainland to Lido Key, an island in Sarasota Bay whose center, St. Armand's Circle, is today is full of upscale shops and gourmet restaurants that cater to the area's wealthy residents and free-spending visitors.

The Ringling name is also associated with one of the most prestigious visual arts colleges in the country, the private Ringling School of Art and Design, where more than 1,000 students from 42 states and 47 countries now study. Graduates of the four-year school have gone on to work at Hollywood studios, where they've contributed to such films as Shrek, Spider-man, Monsters, Inc., and Men in Black.

Another of the city's main cultural landmarks is the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, designed with an eye - and an ear - toward great acoustics by a member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. As the story goes, the building's shape, as well as its lavender and purple color scheme, was inspired by a seashell found near the Sea of Japan by Wright's widow Olgivanna. The 1,700-seat Van Wezel is a prime venue for visiting theater, music, and dance troupes from around the world, and it also hosts several local organizations, including the Jazz Club of Sarasota.

Mote Aquarium is a working marine lab where visitors can study everything from sea urchins to artificial reefs to manatees. Underwater microphones allow eavesdropping on the resident manatees, Hugh and Buffett.

One of the city's more unusual cultural attractions is so small that you could easily miss it - the Museum of Asian Art, located in a storefront on Washington Boulevard. The museum's limited collection includes works in jade, stone, bronze, and wood.

Even with all its culture, though, Sarasota remains first and foremost a seaside resort community, and if you need a reminder of that, its 35 miles of beachfront should do the trick.

Siesta Key, an eight-mile-long barrier island off the Sarasota coast, is famous for having some of the purest, finest sand in the world. The powdery beach is made up almost entirely of fine-grained quartz, with no coral, shell, or other fragments in it. Even on the hottest days, you can walk on it without scorching your feet.

Other nearby beaches include Longboat Key, St. Armands, Siesta Key, Venice, Manasota Key, and Lido Beach.



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