I hadn’t been to Historic Spanish Point for years. I live in north Sarasota, two miles from downtown, so I have plenty of nearby outdoor spaces to enjoy, from The Ringling bayfront campus to Lido Beach. The 40-minute drive south to Spanish Point in road-rage traffic feels like a major expedition to a lazy sightseer like me.
That’s why, when I heard about Marie Selby Garden’s “Set Sail” boat tour to Historic Spanish Point, I drove the 10 easy minutes to Selby's downtown campus and hopped aboard. Selby, if you remember, “adopted” financially struggling Historic Spanish Point in 2020. It made sense. Both institutions have compatible, gorgeous bayfront settings filled with native Florida plants and long histories. The boat tour is a win-win for Selby since it makes both campuses, situated 10 and a half miles apart, accessible on one day.
And c’mon. There’s not much that competes with being on the water on a sunny day to fulfill your need for nature, socializing and mansion-gawking.
The tour meets at the entrance of Selby Gardens at 9:45 a.m. before heading to Selby’s dock on Hudson Bayou. Everyone is strongly advised to make a trip to the bathroom, since the boat ride takes an hour and 15 minutes. The boat, the Miss Clara, seats 36. These tours have been selling out, so you will be sitting shoulder to shoulder with other passengers. For that reason, I wouldn’t bring a lot of gear beyond a hat, a phone and maybe a bottle of water. Selby also provides a big thermos of lemon water and cups for the boat ride. The boat is open air, so pay attention to the weather report. The tour leaves rain or shine.
Selby’s Ross Johnston, the manager of visitor engagement, was our tour guide. And, boy, does he engage. Johnston, who was wearing what I would describe as a sexy sailor hat—one of those jaunty blue-and-white striped caps with a gold anchor insignia—received his B.A. in environmental science, an M.A. in education and possesses an outgoing personality that perfectly fits his edutainment approach. He never passed up a chance to tell a corny one-liner—example, “Holy, sea cow! Look over there!” when he saw a manatee. But making us groan brought the group together and got our attention.
“We’re touring three campuses,” Johnston announced at the beginning, referring to Selby, Historic Spanish Point and Sarasota Bay as the third “lawn.” Viewing Sarasota from the water is always a treat, but this time, even though I’ve lived in Sarasota for decades, I learned more about the life aquatic. Some factoids:
- The invasive Australian pines on our spoil islands, which we’re trying to eliminate, emit a chemical that poisons the soil.
- The Arctic tern, which has one of the largest migratory routes of any animal, has a stopover in Sarasota.
- Unlike other marine mammals, 1,500-pound-plus manatees have no blubber, which is why they head to warm springs in the winter. They also have a never-ending supply of teeth, and eyes that close like a sphincter muscle. When they’re under water, they close their eyes and feel for food with their whiskers.
- Oyster exteriors are really “boogers,” Johnston says. Oysters protect themselves with a layer of mucus, and their prized pearls are really scabs—a substance that covers a wound.
- Sarasota Bay is 60 percent saltwater and 40 percent fresh. That mix creates an unusually rich environment for sea life. Johnston said people often exclaim about the crystal-clear turquoise water of the Caribbean over Sarasota’s murkier greenish water, but that green hue means our waters are abundant in phytoplankton or microalgae, the nutrient-rich plants required for all kinds of sea creatures.
- Sarasota’s bottlenose dolphins, a few of which we spotted that day, have been studied for more than 50 years. They’re female-dominated clans and, unlike other dolphin “families” that are closed to new members, Sarasota dolphins welcome newcomers and let Sarasota-born dolphins move in and out of their family of origin with ease. They have a lifespan of 65 years, 10 more years than other dolphins. (An argument for inclusivity?) They’re also knowns as a “group” here, not a pod.
While nature was the theme, no one could escape the wall-to-wall, multimillion-dollar mansions lining the coast. Most are beautiful (and sometimes shocking in their size) with huge pools, gorgeous landscaping and, once in a while, an actual person. I’m sad when I see the mansion fortresses and think about what we’ve done to our environment, so this house-gawking gives me plenty of opportunity to be sanctimonious—and, if I’m being honest, jealous.
Finally, we disembarked at the dock at Spanish Point, a 30-acre campus that allows you to view history and natural Florida. You can walk through a preserved shell midden—fascinating!—to a restored 1901 pioneer home (the Guptill house) and charming Mary’s Chapel. Socialite Bertha Palmer eventually purchased the property and created lovely gardens where you can meander along the water (don’t miss the aqueduct) and breathe deeply. And don’t forget the new butterfly garden, one of the largest in Florida. It’s magical to walk through.
An added bonus on this trip was a chance to see Selby’s Seeing the Invisible augmented reality art exhibit. Spanish Point is one of only 12 participating gardens in six countries that have this computer-generated and interactive artwork accompanied by sound. You can view the work of 13 artists by pointing your phone at one of the numbered plaques scattered throughout the campus. Make sure to see it before it leaves in August 2022. Tips: Download the exhibit app before you arrive, since the internet at Spanish Point is iffy and the app is large, and make sure your battery is fully charged. Even though the tour gives you two hours to tour Spanish Point and have lunch, it wasn’t enough for me. I luckily ran into Johnston, which reminded me that the clock was ticking, and I had to rush back to the boat.
The tours run weekly on Saturdays. Admission is $125 person ($115 for Selby Gardens members) and includes a $20 lunch voucher at a café operated by Michael’s On East. This is a day-long commitment, but you need that much time to view Sarasota by boat and explore Spanish Point. If you still have energy when you get off the boat at Selby, you can walk through the gardens here, too, and view the Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry and Light exhibit. But I’d had enough beauty for one day. And lucky for me, since I’m a Selby Gardens member, I could come back another day without an admission fee.
Tours are running through the summer, with reservations available through August 20. To purchase tickets, click here.