Mr. Chatterbox

By staff January 1, 2005

It's the lucky town that has a unique sightseeing experience. I'm talking about things like the voodoo tour in New Orleans or driving by the homes of the stars in Los Angeles or going to see the mummies in Guanajuato. Sarasota has never really had anything like that (although the mummies come closest). We have great sights-museums, aquariums, etc.-but nothing truly unique either in content or style.

Now all that's changed with the Segway tours. Segways are those strange contraptions you've seen downtown, traveling in packs with helmeted people steering them. The look is very Star Trek. What makes them so remarkable is the way they defy gravity. Why don't they fall over? Can they fall over? If I rode one, would it fall over?

Sarasota was the first town in the country to have Segway sightseeing, and our tours, I'm glad to report, are still the gold standard. The reason? Downtown Sarasota turns out to be the perfect place for a Segway tour. The topography-flat as a board-is ideal, the traffic, both automotive and pedestrian, is manageable, and the sights to see are just interesting enough to hold your interest without being so interesting that you forget you have to balance your Segway or you will topple over.

Your Segway tour begins with a driver's ed class, and I must say, everyone in my group picked it up pretty quick. The secret to staying up has something to do with gyroscopes-each Segway has five-and as long as you keep it balanced you're fine. If you lean forward, you go forward; if you lean back, you go back. To hold still you sort of "tread water."

Training takes about 20 minutes, and by the end of the lesson we were going backwards and doing slaloms around orange cones set in the parking lot. It was great fun, and Tom and Janey Jacobson, who run Florida Ever-Glide Tours, exude confidence and security, even when I panicked and starting heading toward a Buick with no idea of how to stop. (They say they'll take people in their 80s if they still have their faculties.)

Then it's off, off to the sidewalks and alleyways of downtown Sarasota. The tour starts in my old neighborhood, Laurel Park. This is one of the oldest parts of town and has great old houses that Tom tells stories about. We saw the group of cottages that belonged to the famous Doll Family (circus midgets and Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz) and old Judge Early's house. He was a former mayor, and, before he died about 10 years ago, the world's oldest living Eagle Scout. His two-story Dutch colonial is a Sears kit home.

Then we traveled down Oak Street to see the oldest garage in Sarasota. Oddly enough, it was very interesting. Also included: Burns Court, where the SARASOTA Magazine building was pointed out ("There's my window!" I said, letting go for a moment and immediately regretting it; my Segway began to lurch, greatly amusing Jerry Roucher, who happened to be passing by); the Towles Court artist colony and Hawkins Court, tucked away and virtually unknown, with its original brick pavement and Key West-looking houses. Some of these homes are old, dating back to the 1920s, and some are brand-new but built to blend in. They're the ones that cost $600,000. In fact, discussion of escalating real estate prices constitutes a great deal of the tour's narrative, which in Sarasota means you're on a good tour.

The only problem with the Segway tours is that they have just one itinerary, because once you've ridden one, you want to do it again. I'm trying to convince the Jacobsons to offer a Segway obstacle course, where you can ride a Segway for an hour or so just for the fun of riding one. It would be like miniature golf. Believe me, if they had Segways at Disney World, it would be the most popular ride in the park. And here's a hint for those new downtown apartment dwellers: Segways are the perfect way to get to Whole Foods and Sarasota News and Books, and they only cost $4,000.

Segways have empowered me as a sightseer. No longer is something too unusual, too expensive, or too scary. With this in mind I recently took a helicopter tour, one of those offered by Bill Cooper at Florida Suncoast Helicopters over at Jones Aviation; and I must say that seeing the town from that height makes you understand it in a way you never have before.

At first I was worried that Sarasota would look too "blah" from the air. Nothing to look at but a bunch of roofs, like Dayton. That proved to be anything but the case, however. Never has our town looked so opulent, with its wide white beaches, the blue-green water, the endless canals dotted with yachts. And the pools-swimming pools everywhere you looked. At this level, while flying low over the keys, you have a new understanding of all the money that's here. Everywhere you look, a new waterfront mansion.

The helicopter tour is good for tourists, but I also highly recommend it for anyone doing business here. The Chamber of Commerce should use it to induct new members. Any realtor who hasn't taken it is nuts. It's like looking at a living map.

And speaking of realtors, you can even see sharks out in the Gulf. They are surprisingly close to the swimmers; but Robin, our pilot, told us with a chuckle that they hardly ever attack unless you kick one accidentally. Gossips will also find much of interest on the tour. Did you know that Caren and Dick Lobo raise pigeons on their roof? Or that Frank Folsom Smith swims laps in the nude?

If you're like me, your biggest concern is, how scary is it? Not scary at all, I'm glad to report. I had never been in a helicopter before and had no desire to go, but now I'm a convert. The physical sensation is exhilarating, and you're so close to the ground that you feel that if the rotors stopped turning, you'd glide gently to the ground, which come to think of it, probably isn't the case. But as a way to see Sarasota, it can't be beat.

Florida Ever-Glide Tours; tours depart 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and last two hours; $59 person, snack and drink included. Information: (941) 363-9556. Florida Suncoast Helicopters; half-hour tours cost $75 person, with a three-person minimum. Information: (941) 355-1259.

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