Mr. Chatterbox's Sarasota Vacation Guide

By staff December 1, 2002

Since this is our annual Visitor's Issue, I was told by the "People Upstairs," i.e., our sales staff, that I had to come up with the town's top 10 tourist attractions, and that they better include a lot of advertisers. Well, you know me. I will not be intimidated. So I've come up with another sort of Sarasota Top 10 list. These are the places, experiences, "tips" if you will, to make your vacation, if not complete, at least a little more well rounded. This is the inside scoop from somebody who's lived here 17 years, or as I think of it on certain hot September days when the mercury hasn't dipped below 90 in five months, 17 looonnnng years.

1. The first challenge facing any visitor to Sarasota might best be summed up by the question, "I'm here for some sun and fun; do I really have to go to the Ringling Museum?" Unfortunately, you do. But don't despair. What may seem like an intellectual chore will turn out to be great fun, due mainly to the newly reopened Cà d'Zan. This is the flamboyant 1926 mansion built by John and Mable Ringling, in the Venetian Gothic style. If you're remotely interested in historic houses don't miss it; it's one of the best in the country. It reeks of the Jazz Age and stole the show in a recent edition of Architectural Digest. For a preview of what you're going to see, check out pages 70 to 75 in this issue.

2. As far as the town's other tourist attractions go, my own personal favorite is the Pelican Man Bird Sanctuary, where injured seabirds are brought to get rehabilitated. Granted, it's nowhere near the size of Mote Marine Laboratory with its famous sharks and manatees, or Selby Botanical Gardens, with its controversial orchids, but there's something very handmade and sweet about the Pelican Man's place. The birds that can't return to the wild are kept in suitable cages and are quite spoiled. I want to emphasize that the place is very low-key; don't go if you're expecting a big theme park kind of place. It's very gentle. Some parents tell me they don't like their kids to see wild animals in cages but I don't buy that-the Pelican Man is really a lesson about being kind to animals and interspecies cooperation. Just one visit will make your child a better person, probably.

3. Sarasota, like any town, is a collection of neighborhoods; and you may want to drive around and check them out, the way people do on vacation. The one must-see Sarasota neighborhood is undoubtedly Lido Shores. It's the sandbar just north of St. Armands; and though it doesn't look like much when you drive through on the state highway that bisects it, pull off and explore. It is very small, probably less than 100 houses, but it contains more Sarasota social history than any other place in town. All sorts of dramatic things have happened in those mansions that face New Pass. Fortunes have been made and lost, con artists have fleeced the unwary, there have been divorce, social ruin, and even homicide. As an added bonus, much of this mayhem took place in the elegant 1950s-style houses of the Sarasota School of Architecture. Lido Shores has the best collection of such homes. Check out Paul Rudolph's famous Umbrella House (1300 Westway Drive) or the beautifully restored Phillip Hiss house (1313 Westway Drive).

4. As you drive around Sarasota you will probably have a recurring thought-"Gee, I wish I could go into some of these houses." Well, you can. Just get the classifieds in the Sunday Sarasota Herald-Tribune and turn to the Open Houses. Every Sunday from 1 to 4, scores if not hundreds of Sarasota homes are open to any with the price of the paper. All price ranges are represented, including the showplaces. If you're uncertain where to start, choose any ad that says "waterfront" or "reduced to $3 million." And don't worry about the fact that you are driving a rented Chevy Cavalier and dressed in beach wear. Sarasota's realtors are so highly competitive they fawn over anybody who drops by, apparently working under the theory "you never know." And, for a fascinating view of luxury real estate from the water, try the Le Barge Sunset Cruise. Imagine-real estate and booze, the perfect combination.

5. The other neighborhood I recommend a drive through is Pinecraft, where the Amish and Mennonites live. Hard to believe, but our town is a famous Amish/Mennonite resort. They come from all over Pennsylvania Dutch country to spend the winter down here, particularly the older folks, who still ride around on their adult tricycles. Pinecraft, with its tiny little Midwestern cottages, looks like no other part of Sarasota, but its real attraction for the visitor is its food. The Amish express themselves emotionally through their cooking, and they can get pretty emotional. This is comfort food at its purest. My favorite Pinecraft restaurant is Yoder's at 3434 Bahia Vista. It's wildly popular (try to go during an off-peak time), and it's hard to spend more than $10 per meal. But keep in mind that all Amish restaurants are closed on Sunday, a shame since they'd be perfect for Sunday dinner. Some day some really bad Amish person is going to stay open on Sunday and really clean up. (Here's my other get rich quick scheme-an Amish used car lot. I would hire a lot of Amish car salesmen and we'd pretend the cars belonged to little old Amish ladies. I was all set to go ahead with this brainstorm until someone pointed out that the Amish don't drive cars.)

6. I am assuming I don't have to tell you about the beach. That's why you're here. But for an experience you'll remember far longer than our soft white sand and aquamarine water, I suggest a canoe trip. The rivers inland from Sarasota are like going back in time. Everything is very pristine and prehistoric. Giant oaks canopy the water, Spanish moss drips down, and families of turtles sun themselves on the logs. A vast silence envelops you, broken only by the cries of the herons and the screams of Mr. Chatterbox whenever he spots an alligator. If you didn't bring your canoe, call Economy Tackle, 922-9671.

7. One of the things that surprised me about Florida when I first arrived is that it's full of great old towns that time has forgotten. And one of the best is but 40 miles away-Arcadia, an old cowboy and cattle town, which in its day was one of the most important places in Florida. Today it's a time warp back to the early 20th century. Recently the residents have spruced up the downtown and opened some very nice antique stores; but gentrification is in its very early stages and Arcadia remains- thank God-much too gritty and real to be classified as some effete tourist attraction. Check out the residential neighborhoods in the northwest part of town. They look like the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird.

8. Now, if you're going to be taking day trips and such, you should definitely know about Morton's. It's our premier local gourmet market and it has the best takeout in town-sandwiches, hot food on steam tables, great salads, slabs of paté and cheese, unusual soft drinks and imported cookies. I often drop by twice a day, for lunch and then for dinner. They also have complete gourmet dinners you can microwave, perfect for a quiet evening back at your vacation condo.

9. And while you're staying in and feasting on beef stroganoff, you'll probably want to watch a movie. Head for Video Renaissance at 2243 Bee Ridge Road. You'll find an astonishing collection of classics, foreign films, new releases, even a little "adult room" in the rear. The width, breath, and depth of what you'll find on Video Renaissance's shelves are amazing. If it were in New York City it would be a "find." To have such a thing in Sarasota is almost too much to hope for. The staff is quite helpful, too, and some of them are filmmakers themselves. For instance, I have recently agreed to star in Zak Davis' new movie (he works the night shift) about an ancient, down-and-out, alcoholic circus clown. He took one look at me and offered me the part! Things like that are always happening at Video Renaissance.

10. And finally, as the sun sinks slowly in the West, keep in mind that in Sarasota, the sun really does sink slowly in the West. Right over the Gulf of Mexico. This makes it one of the few places on the East Coast where you have sunsets over the water, and if the sandstorms in the Sahara are acting up they can get pretty garish. Enough purples, pinks, oranges to do John Ringling proud. If you're not staying directly on the beach you might to drive over to Siesta Public Beach to view this phenomenon. A lot of people do, but the beach is so vast that it never gets crowded. Don't forget your beach chair and pitcher of mai tais. Whoops! I forgot you can't drink alcohol on Siesta Beach. This means you'll have to forget about the pitcher and pour the mai tais into soft drink cans. A minor inconvenience but well worth the effort.

Happy vacation!

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