Beach Dreams

A Day at the Beach

"This," you think to yourself, "must be what it’s like in heaven."

By Hannah Wallace December 1, 2011

7 a.m.

Sunrise at Siesta Beach is a slow unveiling. From darkness, the sky warms to blue. Then the green Gulf waters start to sparkle. Finally, from the shoreline in, that famous expanse of Siesta sand fades from pre-dawn gray to brilliant white.

When the early risers begin their beach routines, the least terns and laughing gulls stand rooted in the sand, grounded flocks all facing the wind. At the shoreline, the soft whoosh of the breeze is accompanied only by the distant hum of a beachcombing tractor sifting row by row toward the sea oats and Australian pines. Even the waves are hushed—more like the lapping shore of a lake.

The Best Beach in America starts its day as a quiet neighborhood lane. Sprinkled across the wide stretch of sand are a few joggers, walkers and leisurely bikers on fat-tired beach cruisers. Many give a cheerful “Good morning” in passing, as though they’ve spotted each other in the driveway retrieving their morning newspapers.

A few treasure hunters cast metal detectors back and forth over the sand. A hunched old man marches back and forth, never looking beyond his feet. Other treasure seekers are younger and more social, calibrating their machines together and cursing their luck that the tractor has already combed this section of shore. One of them, Norman, a 20-something North Port native, looks up to the sands farthest from the water, where the tractor hasn’t yet combed. His eyes light up: “Volleyball courts!” he exclaims, then sets off hiking high-kneed in the soft sand, to the distant parts of beach that are still asleep.

A lone yoga practitioner in leggings and a long-sleeved shirt stands with her eyes closed, oblivious to the occasional passersby. She takes a deep breath of sea breeze, then bows, places hands to the sand, then, back arched and head pushed upwards, offers slow and careful sun salutations to the Gulf.

This, you think to yourself, must be what it’s like in heaven. 

9 a.m.

By 9 a.m., subtly at first, the tempo begins to quicken. People trickle in from the parking lot and pass through the 50-year-old pavilion, a historical structure designed in the late 1950s by legendary Sarasota architect Tim Seibert. An icon of the Sarasota School of Architecture, with its simple, efficient geometry and prominent horizontal lines, the high-ceilinged breezeway is both massive and unobtrusive, integrated seamlessly into an oasis of sea grapes and cabbage palms. It serves as a main gateway between parking lot and beach.

Lisa Labonte, who for the last decade ran a snack bar in Nantucket, Mass., now raises the metal shutters at the Siesta concession stand. She and her husband, Warren, competed for more than two years to earn the coveted Siesta lease; they took over concessions operations last year during spring break, when renovations forced them to set up tents and generators for serving Cokes and ice cream on the beach. “It was un-believable,” she says of the spring break trial by fire.

Now at home in the breezeway, the Labontes start the morning by setting out baskets of bagels, greeting the neighborhood coffee klatches and the regulars buying bottled water after their runs. Beachgoers pause at the concrete tables to adjust their hats and re-gather their towels before setting off over the boardwalk.

There, on a shaded bench just outside the pavilion, sits Barbara Bender, 83, slender and elegant in a white blouse and visor. A professional model who moved to Sarasota in 1976 and often posed for photo shoots on Siesta Beach, Bender now spends an hour or two a week just sitting, taking in the growing energy as the morning progresses. “I can’t get out in the sun anymore. Too many skin cancers,” she says with a smile. “I like watching the people now.”

On the beach side of the dunes, new beachgoers step into the sunlight, emerging from the palms and sea oats with their pink foam noodles like Field of Dreams’ Shoeless Joe materializing in the corn field. They kick off their sandals and start the long march to the shore, 100 yards of sugar sand away. There, by the water, lifeguards in red trunks are already beginning their mandatory pre-shift hour of physical training, jogging and swimming as the earliest sunbathers set up camp.

The methodical treasure hunter has changed costumes. Now encased in a wetsuit, he wades knee-deep in the waves, still tracing measured rows back and forth with his metal detector. The seagulls have begun their preliminary flights, taking off for a few broad laps in choreographed groups—testing the day’s wind—before returning to the sand.

The one lone yoga practitioner has morphed into 100, all focused on Ava Csiszar, who calls out instructions over a hand-held speaker. It’s a free class, open to anyone; Csiszar asks only a donation to cover county fees. Not long ago, she taught yoga and surfing in Hawaii. But for all of Hawaii’s beauty, she says, the famous Siesta sand, 99 percent quartz, is ideal for channeling natural energy up through the soles of your feet. “It’s like standing on a giant crystal,” she says. “It’s heavenly.”

Like many people who visit Siesta, the beach’s famous white sand started its journey up North. Eons ago, it lived in the Appalachian Mountains, a vein of quartz surrounded by granite that has long since turned to dust. Over millions of years, the more durable quartz wore down to tiny, pure white grains, each one as smooth and as round as a stone in a river. Wind and water carried the sand south until it encountered Point of Rocks, a rare limestone outcropping on south Siesta Key. Like a foot in a stream, Point of Rocks disrupted the flow, stopped the sand from going farther. And so it gathered here.

Though it’s among the most common minerals in the world, quartz is also a gemstone, as precious to Sarasota as pure gold. 

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Image: Shutterstock

11 a.m.

The climbing sun changes beach philosophy. By 11 a.m., sitting in the sand has gone from a relaxing meditation to a heat endurance test. Sunbathers—people of all shapes, sizes and colors, middle-aged couples and extended families of 10 or 12, groups of tanned and toned young people and vacationers from England, Germany, Spain and Russia—seek shelter in the cool waters. The beach is a rainbow of tents, towels and umbrellas, while the Gulf is dotted with hundreds of heads sticking out of the water.

Above all that colorful jetsam, professional lifeguards survey the scene. From their brightly colored towers, the water is not a flat and uniform expanse but an ever-changing pattern of loops and whorls. Even on the sunniest days, dangerous rip currents can alter course and sweep unsuspecting swimmers out to sea.

“If you do not swim well, do not go in over your head,” warns Mark Miller, a three-year lifeguard veteran with an easy grin and a boyish crop of curly blond hair. Though he sits shirtless with his bare feet propped on the railing of his tower deck, Miller, an EMT like many of his coworkers, keeps his eyes trained on the water. One afternoon during his first summer as a Siesta lifeguard, he bolted into the water after seeing a father and his three small children struggling against a powerful current.

“We had an area flagged off, but all of a sudden the rip current just opened up in the area where we were letting people swim,” he recalls. The father was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and couldn’t keep himself and the children afloat. “They were in big trouble,” Miller says. He brought the four of them back to shore on his paddleboard. “That was probably my most exciting rescue,” he says.

Other rescues, he admits, aren’t so dramatic. Weak swimmers often succumb to peer pressure and try to swim too far—like to the buoy-marked boundaries of the swimming area. “You have no idea how many times we have to go out and get people who are clinging to the buoy because they can’t make it back,” he says.

Back at the pavilion, sheltered from the midday sun, a young couple from Fort Wayne, Ind., pauses by the restrooms, setting down armfuls of chairs, books, beach toys and towels to corral their wriggling four-year-old son for a sunscreen application. The boy clutches a brand-new boogie board and squints at the sunlight reflecting off the sand.

A line of barefoot lunchers waits to order from the Labontes’ varied menu—standard concession fare like burgers and chicken fingers, but also options like pulled pork, the popular fish and chips or the fried shrimp and scallops special, and a veggie plate with hummus. “It’s amazing how many people don’t want the usual stuff,” says Lisa Labonte. They also serve locally churned McClain’s ice cream on the other side of the pavilion. Perched over the shaded tables, people with salty, wet hair and towels around their waists munch on French fries and Rocky Road. You may overhear gossip from the Riverview High School marching band musicians at the next table; you may hear a conversation in Czech.

In the parking lot, an endless line of cars circles in search of parking spaces, like seagulls over a potato chip. 

4 p.m.

Locals will tell you of the “changing of the guard”—a time around 4 p.m. when afternoon Siesta visitors depart for dinner, and the evening barbecues haven’t yet gotten going. The parking lot fills with the clop-clop-clop of people banging sand off their shoes, and on the beachside boardwalks, children squeal in the cold showers. This is when you easily find a parking space.

This is also when pro beach volleyball player and Sarasota native Megan Wallin and her teammate find practice time on Siesta’s courts. That famous sand draws internationally acknowledged sand-sculpting contests and countless triathlons and runs, but pro volleyball, with its fast-paced action and photogenic athletes, may be the most glamorous of the beach’s sports. Pro tournaments like November’s Crystal Classic draw hundreds of athletes, trainers, sponsors and spectators to Siesta. During routine practice on sets and spikes, Wallin and her partner, who are ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams, field questions from passersby about their careers—and turn down frequent requests to join in pick-up games. “We’re out there until sunset,” Wallin says. “When we finish our workout, we go in the water to rinse off. It’s our little reward.”

There by the water, Emily and Pedro Soto of Oklahoma sit under an umbrella’s lengthening shadow, alongside their daughter and 18-month-old granddaughter, who pats at a loose pile of sand half burying her chubby legs. While many beach visitors from out of town have connections to the area—often they’re visiting parents who moved here after retiring—the Sotos represent the surge in visitors that began in May, when Siesta received its No. 1 ranking. The family came to Florida for a Fort Lauderdale wedding. “We heard this was the best beach in the U.S.,” says Pedro, laughing with glee. “I was like, ‘Let’s go!’”

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Image: Shutterstock

7 p.m. 

The smell of charcoal smoke accompanies the first hint of sunset orange in the sky. Bring on the beer and barbecue. The evening grilling crowd under the Australian pines is both rowdy and relaxed, focused more on brats and bocce than venturing down to the water. The din here is all music and laughter.

But sunset on the shoreline brings a quiet pace like morning again—walkers in ones and twos, a shell collector focused downward, lost in pursuit. Randy Lafave, a Cincinnati IT worker in his mid-30s, squats in ankle-deep water and points his camera at a snowy egret stalking baitfish. An aspiring professional photographer who’s visited Siesta a dozen times over the years, Lafave can’t always identify the wildlife he captures on the beach. “I just know there’s more of it here than in Cincinnati,” he jokes. A brown pelican obligingly dives headlong into the nearby waves.

No matter their activity, the moment the sun touches the horizon, all the people on the beach stop and turn in deference to the show. The sand, more magical than ever, glows with the colors of the setting sun. Hanging on walls in homes throughout the country are thousands of photos of first wedded kisses set against the gold, orange, red and purple backdrop of a Siesta Beach sunset.

When dusk begins to blur the horizon, the evening sea breeze escorts people, smiling and ready for dinner, out to their cars. They leave their stories in the sand: the purposeful stride of a power walker, the shuffling steps of a treasure hunter, the wandering gait of the sky gazers and seashell collectors.

Overnight, their footprints melt into the darkness, carried off by the wind and waves—the slow and quiet breaths of the sleeping beach. Tomorrow’s sun will rise over a fresh canvas of sand, as pure and white as the fresh-fallen snow.

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