Sarasota’s Three-Ring Circus

Photographer: Emily and Mark Fagan
Hot sun, soft sand and warm, sparkling blue water bring happy crowds to Venice Beach, 20 miles south of Sarasota.

 

Miles of soft-sand beaches, a vibrant arts community and a weekly farmer’s market come together along the boardwalks and under the big top on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Sarasota is a colorful waterfront paradise halfway down the Gulf Coast of Florida where the beach sand feels like powdered sugar between your toes and the waves splash playfully on the edges of the turquoise water. As soon as we arrived, my husband, Mark, and I were swept up in the summery spirit of this friendly, outdoorsy town.

Tucked behind several barrier peninsulas, or keys, that protect the city from the open ocean, Sarasota offers endless opportunities for enjoying gentle breezes and sunshine, whether in an upscale, urban setting or in a quieter place where nature abounds.

We began our explorations on the lovely Marina Jack Trail that circles Bayfront Park on the edge of Sarasota Bay. Beginning at the marina, we admired a wide variety of yachts. From luxury powerboats to nimble sailboats, the marina oozed a vacation atmosphere, as owners kicked back in their cockpits or worked on their boats while enjoying a fun waterfront life with one foot firmly planted in this pretty city.

The Marina Jack Trail wanders past palm-tree-studded tiki bars and tiny beaches, and the city skyline of high-rises rose behind us, as we took in the views of boats in the bay. We were surprised when we turned a corner and found an enormous statue of a World War II sailor kissing a nurse. Called Unconditional Surrender, we knew this image well, not only from the famous photo taken in New York’s Times Square on the day of the Allied victory over Japan but from an identical 25-foot sculpture that stands near the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

Sailboats and powerboats ply the turquoise bay waters off Centennial Park in the heart of Sarasota.
Sailboats and powerboats ply the turquoise bay waters off Centennial Park in the heart of Sarasota.

Just a few streets in from the bay, we visited Sarasota’s Saturday Farmer’s Market and found endless fruits and veggies. This is a huge weekly market, right in the heart of the city. Surprisingly, for all the towering glass-walled skyscrapers that make up downtown Sarasota, this vast yet intimate market brings the community together. Nearby, charming boutiques line historic streets, and we enjoyed a morning cup of coffee sitting outside at the Pastry Art Bakery.

As we walked and drove around town, we kept noticing an unusual sculpture that popped up in storefronts, on house lawns and by the front doors of local businesses. It was a bigger-than-life-size, brightly colored metal stick figure that was always waving and grinning. We saw him wearing a baker’s hat at a bakery, carrying a toothbrush at a dentist’s office, holding a mailbox under his arm in the front yard of a house and even sitting in a kayak at an outdoor sporting-goods store.

I finally asked a shop owner what it was all about, and she cheerfully said, “It’s the Tube Dude!”

It turned out that the Tube Dude is the brainchild of sculptor Scott Gerber who has been welding his very tall buddy in all kinds of poses and selling the sculptures to shop owners and residents since 2010. The Tube Dude has become so popular around town, he is now something of Sarasota’s unofficial greeter and mascot. We got a kick out of looking for him, pointing whenever we found him and calling out, “Tube Dude!”

The arts are huge in Sarasota, and that also came as a surprise. The central Gulf Coast of Florida is such a beach-lover’s paradise that we never expected to see much beyond a wide expanse of pure white sand, dazzling blue waves and hundreds of sun worshippers in skimpy bathing suits. However, while walking a waterfront path through Centennial Park, which looks out on boaters zipping across the bay, we found the huge Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall where Ringo Starr and other top performers were on tap for upcoming performances. We didn’t catch the former Beatles’ drummer in concert, but we were impressed by the big patio that extends off the back of the concert hall where patrons can enjoy a drink and a view of the bay during intermission. What a wonderful juxtaposition of the high-arts scene and the simple waterfront pleasures of this unique city.

A stroll or bike ride on the paved Marina Jack Trail takes in urban waterfront views and passes by small beaches and tiki bars.
A stroll or bike ride on the paved Marina Jack Trail takes in urban waterfront views and passes by small beaches and tiki bars.

Far more astonishing, though, was our unexpected discovery of the Ringling estate and museums. Back in 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers created a circus that came to be known as World’s Greatest Shows, and later merged with Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. The Ringling circus was the first to travel the country by rail, and at one time its train had 100 cars and housed animals and performers all season long. Sarasota was just a small fishing village then, and John and Charles Ringling began buying up property to create a home base. At one point they owned 25 percent of the town.

Most of the circus performers lived in Sarasota when they weren’t touring. A local friend introduced us to an elderly resident who not only remembered waving hello and good-bye to the train each year when it arrived and departed, but also recalled the neighborhood where the circus dwarfs lived in pint-size houses.

John Ringling’s fortunes soared for decades, and his investments ranged from railroads and fine art to Madison Square Garden. Then it all fell apart during the Great Depression. Shortly before his death in 1936, just as he was poised to lose everything, he donated his grand mansion and impressive collection of European art to the city of Sarasota. His home, a veritable palace, and his art collection are now part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the state’s official art museum, known as the Ringling. Every Monday the entrance fee to portions of the museum is waived.

Walking into the ornate art museum, which is decorated to the hilt in a fanciful way that only a circus man would think to do, we were blown away by the series of 8-foot-tall paintings that greeted us. Created by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens in the 1620s, these sensational paintings are a fittingly jaw-dropping opening act for this magnificent collection. We wandered from room to room admiring beautiful artwork that seemed to represent every great painter prior to 1900.

A sandhill crane checks on its newly hatched chick.
A sandhill crane checks on its newly hatched chick.

The grounds of the museum are equally sensational. A massive courtyard surrounded by the endless pink-columned facade of the museum is filled with meticulously pruned landscaping and statuary. At the head of these immense gardens stands a replica of Michelangelo’s David, poised with his rock on his shoulder between a row of palm trees, gazing at the gardens below. We watched a tiny bird land on top of one of the garden’s many statues, and he sang his heart out for a while, his beautiful trills and warbles bringing ethereal quality to this stunning place.

The Ringling mansion itself is a palatial building that overlooks Sarasota Bay. It is a virtual castle, embellished with fairy-tale turrets and colorful decorations. A massive patterned marble patio enclosed by stone railings extends to a boat dock on the bay. Out back we found Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden where roses of all kinds were in bloom.

The Ringling is made up of several museums, including the Circus Museum, and the interior of the mansion is also open for tours. We did not purchase the three-day all-inclusive ticket, but there’s no doubt it would take that long to see the entire estate and all of its grounds and museums.

After this marvelously highbrow immersion in the arts and wealth, we were ready for some simple beach time. Siesta Beach is Sarasota’s most famous stretch of shoreline, and it was rated the Number One Beach in America by TripAdvisor in 2015, so there are proud Number One Beach signs everywhere. Walking on powder-soft sand that felt like flour to the touch and squealed with every footstep, we were delighted by the beautiful shades of blue and turquoise rippling across the water as the waves gently lapped the shore.

It would have been easy during our stay in Sarasota not to seek out another beach, but we drove a little south to spend the day on popular Venice Beach. Families and couples, young and old, strolled along the water’s edge and spread out on beach blankets in the sun. The glistening water was thick with bobbing heads and kids jumping in the waves. Beach grasses form a natural border between the white sand and the developed areas, and a series of boardwalks and shaded wooden picnic areas provided a memorable place to enjoy lunch with a view. The Venice Fishing Pier allows walkers to get far out on the ocean without dipping a toe in the water, and the entire pier was lined with people tending fishing rods that hung over the railings.

Magnificent artwork by Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens fills the walls of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Magnificent artwork by Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens fills
the walls of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Back in Sarasota, it was easy to enjoy the nearly tropical surroundings, on or off the beach. The city is home to several beautiful parks that attract a wide variety of birds. At tiny Payne Park in the middle of the city, we were captivated by some very exotic geese swimming between the lily pads and waddling on shore under the shade of big trees. Just outside of town, the Celery Fields are fabulous for bird watching. Long-legged herons and other waterfowl fished along the shoreline, and a large wooden viewing platform jutting out into the ponds made it easy for us to spot birds as they flew from shore to shore.

But we were most surprised when we found a throng of photographers set up with tripods aimed at a spot next to a manmade pond behind a Bob Evans restaurant in a strip mall. When we stopped to see what the commotion was, we learned that two sandhill crane eggs were hatching in a nest by the water. Training our own long lenses on the redheaded birds, we were thrilled when a tiny pip hole in one egg expanded and cracked to reveal a nestling. You couldn’t ask for more excitement in a zoo, yet here in the middle of the urban rush, a gaggle of excited bystanders watched two wet baby birds push away their shells and transform into adorable fluffy chicks over a 12-hour period.

With birdwatching on our minds, we took a day trip to Sarasota Jungle Gardens, rated one of the best children’s animal parks in the area. Despite being a little past childhood ourselves, we became kids again as we played with the flamingos. One took a liking to Mark and lovingly rubbed his beak all over his back and head, making us both giggle. Taking in the wonderful bird show, we were smitten with a 79-year-old cockatoo named Snowflake who rode a bicycle on a tightrope while counterbalanced by a macaw sitting below him on a swing, like a pendulum. I was so impressed that this bird had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show before I was even born, I just had to line up with all the 10-year-old kids to get a photo with Snowflake perched on my arm.

Sarasota was an utter delight for us, and we heartily encourage fellow RVers to spend some time savoring its many charms.

It’s no secret that Sarasota and the rest of the Sunshine State are popular with RVers.
It’s no secret that Sarasota and the rest of the Sunshine State are popular with RVers.

 

Sun City

 

The Sarasota mansion that John and Mable Ringling called home is fancifully decorated with ornate windows and intricate tile work.
The Sarasota mansion that John and Mable Ringling called home is fancifully decorated with ornate windows and intricate tile work.

Situated halfway down Florida’s west coast on the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota has an abundance of sunshine and an average temperature of 72 degrees, with summer thermometer readings mostly in the low 90s. It’s a tourist haven, with 4 million visitors each year, miles of soft-sand beaches and warm Gulf waters.

 

For More Information

Visit Sarasota County
941-706-1253 | www.visitsarasota.org

 

Where to Stay

The Sarasota area has no shortage of public campgrounds and RV resorts, including a pair of Good Sam Parks:

 Sarasota Sunny South RV Park | 941-921-4409 | www.sarasotasunnysouth.com

Sun-N-Fun RV Resort | 800-843-2421 | www.carefreecommunities.com/rv-parks/florida/sun-n-fun


 

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