In the real estate business, the ever-intoned mantra is location, location, location. So, it is no surprise that when people are dreaming of fleeing the frost of January and February, seeking the embrace of the sun, they are faced with demand-pricing for lodging (not to mention inflated air fares) during those winter months — because everyone wants to be in the blush of warm weather. However, in one of Florida’s destination treasures — the Gulf and Longboat Key — there is at least one value-oriented condo community, Casa del Mar, where that highly desirable location means being literally on the beach. In this price category, few places are as gracious and welcoming as Casa del Mar(velous) as I came to call it, where you can rent a two-bedroom unit (800-plus square feet, with an additional just-under 150 square-foot lanai) that is truly on the beach: Walk out your front door and your toes are in the sand. The complex, built in the late ’70s/early ’80s, has 101 units and 32 of them are truly on the shore. The others have courtyard and garden frontage and views, and are a mere additional 100 feet or so from those dunes.
The tariffs? The lowest rate per night, off-season is $194, and the price tops off at $340/night in season, for that beach-front unit. (Worth noting: Casa del Mar has a packed spring break/Easter season as well as a very busy July Fourth period, so plan ahead, even for those warmer months.) Unlike many other places on Longboat Key, where the minimum rental is a month or two, Casa del Mar offers four- and seven-night packages, although most stays are seven to ten nights. (At some of the island’s more prestigious addresses, a night in season could easily top $700.) Because the Casa del Mar complex is older, most units have been updated with new, well-equipped kitchens and modern baths. (Notice that that noun is plural — as in TWO baths — another advantageous selling point.) Moreover, you can view all the units on line, to pick the one that feels most like home.
But then, again, you’re likely not going to want to stay at your home-away-from-home, while vacationing and there is plenty to do not only on Longboat Key, but also in greater Sarasota… for everyone.
Arguably the biggest attraction in the area is the famed Ringling Museum Complex. John Ringing was one of five brothers responsible for the establishment of the legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Alas, those visionaries may be turning over in their graves, knowing that the circus has reached the inevitable finish line, in the Internet era of social media. But at the museum campus, the legend lives on gloriously.
You could easily spend a day here, particularly at the circus museum, where there are many interactive exhibits and activities for children. Kids of all ages, whether 9 or 99, will learn so much interesting trivia — like the fact that the showy blankets used on the elephants require 75 yards of fabric, thousands of rhinestones, and can weigh up to 200 pounds. For my money, the highlight of the visit is the to-scale (3/4″ to the foot) model of a circus, called Howard Bros. Circus. It is the painstaking, lifelong work of Howard Tibbals, and it has been called “a magical world more than 50 years in the making.” Consisting of nearly one million pieces, it features a staggering 1,500 performers, 152 wagons, 7,000 folding chairs for circus visitors, and some 900 spectators.
A centerpiece of the complex is Ringling’s home which he shared with his wife, Mable. In 1911, they purchased 20 acres of rustic, Gulf-front property in Sarasota, where they built their lavish home, Ca’ d’Zan (House of John, in a Venetian dialect), and a museum (modeled after the Uffizi Gallery in Florence) to house all the treasures (think Velazquez, van Dyke, and Rubens) Ringling “picked up” on his many trips to Europe, seeking out circus acts.
While the buildings fell into disrepair over the years, the Florida State legislature rescued the complex in 2000, and put its stewardship under the aegis of Florida State University, which has a tradition of fostering the arts. Today, the campus is home to the Sarasota Ballet, the highly acclaimed Asolo Repertory Theatre, and the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training (which receives 1,500 applications a year for 12 slots!).
The Asolo Rep stages up to fifteen productions every season, spanning a diverse repertoire, from newly commissioned plays to bold interpretations of contemporary and classical works. The theatre itself was erected originally in Asolo, Italy, in 1798, and was brought to Sarasota in the early 1950s and was meticulously restored in 2006.
Another delightful place to visit is the Marie Selby Gardens which features the most varied living and preserved collections of epiphytes (plants that find their nutrition from the air). The museum has over 20,000 plants, including 5,500 orchids and 3, 500 bromeliads. There are rotating exhibits, and in February, 2018, the Gardens will stage “Warhol: Flowers in the Factory,” which will highlight horticultural interpretations of the artist’s work and will also showcase his iconic silkscreens of hibiscus. The younger set will revel in the Anne Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden, with interactive activities, a waterfall and natural pool, canopy walk and rope bridge, a 100-year-old banyan tree, a research center, and the Epiphyte Canyon.
Mom may want to revel in a day of pampering without the family, and the Ritz-Carlton Spa at the eponymous hotel in Sarasota is the picture-perfect haven of sanctum. The Web site notes that there are “Spoil Her Silly” treatments (and if dad comes along, note that there are “Spoil Him Silly” treatments, also), among the many dozens of offerings, including a Chardonnay manicure and pedicure. Choose the Day of Indulgence, and you will luxuriate with three treatments and a delicious lunch that you should take al fresco on the bucolic terrace, where you can bliss out.
And while you could easily cook a family meal at Casa del Mar (there are barbecues at a patio BBQ center for guests), chances are you will want to dine out a few nights and there is no dearth of places for both family-friendly and fine dining. The Gulf Drive Café offers hearty platters of delicious breakfast fare — piles of waffles, stacks of delicious pancakes, fresh fruit salads, and mouth-watering eggs. After breakfast, take advantage of being in Bradenton and check out the mom-and-pop gift shops, particularly on nearby Anna Maria Island, where charming boutiques reign (look for Pink & Navy, Tide & Moon Jewelry, and The White Egret & The Egret’s Nest). A destination for dinner is the popular Dry Dock Waterfront Grill, which has received raves from hither, thither, and yon, including in the Boston Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Seafood doesn’t get much better. Another go-to restaurant is Harry’s Continental Kitchen, which houses a triple threat — a deli, a corner store, and a kitchen that not only serves up toothsome fare (the dining room is charming, decorated with little twinkling white lights, in a near-all-white setting), but also provides catering. For a sumptuous meal that will herald back to the flavors and ambiance of old-world Havana, head to St. Armand’s Circle, to the Columbia, a cousin to the original Tampa outpost, where in former days, local cigar-factory workers came for the Cuban coffee and ethnic-flavored sandwiches. If you hang around St. Armand’s Circle for indulgent fun and shopping, then drop into the Creperie Caffe, where the crepes are so plentiful and diverse, you’ll want to have both a savory and a sweet one. And note the sign on the blackboard: “We do not have WiFi. Talk to each other, pretend it’s 1995.” At least one night you must visit Euphemia Haye, and even if you do not dine there, visit the upstairs Haye Loft for cocktails, light bites, music, and… drum roll!!… the most extraordinary, mouthwatering, delectable, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping desserts you might ever see in one place. Come hungry.
And thus you will leave Sarasota and Longboat Key, sated, and with your wallet still relatively intact.
© Ruth J. Katz 2017 All Rights Reserved