Sarasota! Not Saratoga
I waited on a very long line to get a cab back to Manhattan from LGA. Naturally, the driver’s first question, “Where to lady?” The second question, “Where have you been?” I told him I was back in NYC after visiting Sarasota for a few days. “Oh, Saratoga! Isn’t that in upstate New York?” I added more information, “I was in Sarasota, Florida.” “Oh,” commented the driver. “I did not know there was a Saratoga in Florida.”
Under the Radar
It looks like Sarasota, Florida, flies under the radar and, as hard it is to believe, Sarasota residents want to keep it this way. People who live in Sarasota (either year-round or are snow birds) do not want to duplicate the sizzle and sparkle (or congestion) of Miami and are anxious to keep their prize possession on the down-low. Journalist Cooper Levey-Bake, quoting Shelby Webb, finds that, “City leaders are hostile to boisterous bars, downtown festivals and live music, and their attitude is driving young people away.”
The fact that Sarasota is an attractive destination for people 50+ is not an accident. The county’s median age increased from 50.7 in 2009 to 54 in 2015. The good news is that people moving to this locale are living longer and enjoy a lower crime rate than metro areas of similar size, making Sarasota a very desirable destination.
Where Exactly is Sarasota?
The city of Sarasota is south of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Its claim to fame? It was once the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Today it is an art and cultural center (10 theaters, a professional symphony, the ballet, and 30+ art galleries), the home to the Ringling Museum of Art and, when there is no Red Tide, it offers access to miles of beaches complete with fine white sand and shallow waters (i.e., Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach).
It is a terrific destination for walking and biking with open spaces at the Myakka River State Park and the Oscar Scherer State Park plus the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (for horticulturalists). There are film festivals, performing arts theaters (especially the Van Wezel). It is also noted for its mild weather (although hot and muggy in the summer), and nearby golf courses, kayaking, sailing, swimming and jogging. The healthcare system is considered among the best in the state of Florida with the Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Doctors Hospital of Sarasota within easy driving distances.
Although not geographically detailed in the news (at the time), Sarasota is the home of Booker Elementary (the school where George W. Bush was during 9/11) and the spring training locale for the Cincinnati Reds.
Sarasota does have its own airport and even carries an “international” designation; however, the international options are limited. The international designation was actually a marketing decision for PR purposes and not for global access. For flight flexibility the best choice is Tampa (TPA) although this airport requires an additional hour of ground travel to Sarasota.
Returning to Sarasota
I received my Doctorate in International Business at the University of Sarasota (currently Argosy) and my student perspective of the city was very narrow. I flew into Tampa, rented a car, checked into the cheapest motel I could find, had dinner, went to sleep and showed up for class at 8 AM. From classes to the library, to dinner and back to motel was most of my exposure to this destination city. Now, years later, I thought it was time to actually do a look-see on what happened to this interesting town.
I called Dial 7 for a car to LGA from Manhattan, arrived quickly as there was almost no traffic, had an eventless Delta check-in, got a coffee, scanned the crowd to see who my flight-mates were likely to be, boarded the plane, got comfortable in my aisle seat, pulled out my book, and the next thing I can remember is waking up to the pilots’ announcement that we were landing in Sarasota.
I called my friend for a meet-up at the airport and after lots of “did you know” and “by the way” we stopped at Captain Brian’s Seafood Market on N. Tamiami Trail for an excellent seafood lunch. When you stop by, do not look for ambiance – you will not find any; however, what you will find is fresh and delicious fish and seafood, very friendly service, lots of locals enjoying their mid-day meal and a bill that will not cause a disruption in your budget.
Captain Brian’s Seafood Market
Additional Dining Opportunities
Noted as one of the most popular go-to restaurants in Sarasota, luncheons and dinners at this restaurant are popular day and night and enjoyed by locals and visitors. Arrive by boat, car or foot, the restaurant and the mariner meet each and every condition for being user friendly. With postcard vistas of the bay, sail boats and yachts floating in a bustling marina, you know this is the place to see and be seen.
There is nothing formal about Sarasota or Marina Jack; if you are inclined to wear shoes and a shirt, select the more traditional upstairs dining room with breath-taking views of the waterfront. Select the Blue Sunshine venue for family-friendly, direct from the yacht foodies where the emphasis is on American regional fare with a focus on seafood (and Gluten-Free selections). The Deep Six Lounge and Piano Bar are perfect spaces when you feel like playing grown-up and dine/drink with a Significant Other.
Patrick’s 1481 on Main Street
This trendy restaurant is not part of a chain! It is independently owned and operated by Jim Sullivan who has fed his guests for over 30 years. From families with toddlers and grandchildren, to young couples more interested in each other than the good food in front of them, this is a perfect luncheon or dining locale that is also pet friendly.
Depending on your preference, you can dine inside where the tables and the spaces in-between, are large and comfortable, or on street-side where people watching is part of the ambiance. The downtown location is perfect for enjoying live music, and shopping. Looking for a dining deal? Reserve a table on Monday evenings for the $5 burger (with the purchase of a beverage).
Mattison’s City Grille
The owner and Executive Chef, Paul Mattison brings food, drink and entertainment to guests at his large outdoor café. A native New Yorker, Mattison’s kitchen has an Italian focus (thanks to his Italian grandmother). He started cooking at 15 in a Greek restaurant and attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After graduating with honors, he interned in Aspen at Pinons, returning to Sarasota in 1991. In 2001, in partnership with Jason Sango, he started Mattison’s Catering Company, Mattison’s City Grille, Mattison’s Forty-One, Mattison’s Bayside at the Van Wezel, the official in-house caterer for the performing arts venue and Mattison’s Culinary Adventure Travel, a personalized tour company that designs hands-on culinary experiences for locals and visitors.
The Mattison menu supports regional farmers and culinary suppliers and has a focus on locally produced, natural ingredients.
The Pastry Art Sandwich Shop on Main Street
This breakfast/lunch dining spot has been serving coffees, pastries and sandwiches for over 20 years. Frequented by locals, visitors, artists, c-suite executives and everyone else looking for a great cup of coffee (and conversation). Dine indoors or grab a street-side table, this is where residents and tourists find out what is really happening in the locale.
The Granary (Lakewood Ranch)
Originally from Scotland, Karen and Malcolm Ronney opened The Granary as a family-friendly dining option that is open for breakfast and lunch. Starting at 7:30 AM and closing at 3 PM, this is a perfectly comfortable location for meeting friends and neighbors looking for good food at value prices. Rustic in design with wooden tables, faux reclaimed brick walls and lamps from mason jars, this is a low-key, flip-flops/shorts place for comfort food.
The Metro Diner started in 1938 in Jacksonville and the home-style cooking and comfort food favorites can be found in multiple southern cities. From locals to visitors, this is a perfect stop before and after shopping and museum visits. Look for fried chicken and waffles, corned beef hash and poached eggs, meatloaf plates, and Philly cheesesteaks.
What to Do
Manatee Performing Arts Center (Bradenton)
The date was December 15, 1939 when the film version of Gone With the Wind opened in Atlanta, Georgia. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is revered as one of the greatest motion pictures – ever! One of the features of the film is available for viewing in the lobby of the Manatee Performing Arts Center. The crystal chandelier that hung at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes plantation should be part of your sight-seeing plans in Sarasota/Bradenton. Please note – that it is not a duplicate or a copy – it is the actual chandelier from the movie! It does not belong to the Theatre, rather it is on loan from the Sarasota Opera (the owners since 1978).
Susan Belvo, Actress
I had the good fortune to spend a few moments with this piece of history as I waited for the opening of a delightful and insightful presentation of Becoming Dr. Ruth. This one-woman show introduces us to the “authentic” Dr. Ruth (Karola Ruth Siegel) who was caught in Germany as the Nazis regime began to decimate the Jewish population. Dr. Ruth was placed in the Kindertransport system, joining Jerusalem’s Haganah as a scout and sniper. A struggling single mother she found her way to the United States, got herself advanced degrees at New York universities, and became a household name by being honest, truthful and humorous about sex.
Susan Belvo stars in the one-woman show as Dr. Ruth in the Manatee Players Kiwanis Studio Theatre production of Mark St. German’s play. Belvo captures the essence of Dr. Ruth as she picks up and tries to pack her decades of memories into cardboard cartons as she gets ready for the move from her old New York apartment to a new home after the death of her third husband, Fred Westheimer.
It is not an easy task to keep an audience glued to their seats for 90 minutes while listening and watching one woman talk endlessly about herself, her stuff, her family, her wishes and dreams…but Belvo nails the role and has the audience laughing and weeping with her, as she leads us through the ups and downs, losses and wins of an amazing life.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
This museum is the state art museum of Florida. It was established in 1927 as the legacy of Mable and John Ringling for the people of Florida. The property is governed by Florida State University. The vast space includes the museum, the circus museum, and Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling Mansion and the Asolo Theatre as well as a Visitor’s Pavilion, libraries, a Conservation complex, the Tibbals Learning Center with a miniature circus and the Searing Wing Gallery for special exhibits.
The Ringling space is huge and walking from one building to the other in the hot and humid Sarasota sun can put a damper on the most well-intentioned visitor. Wisely, the Museum offers friendly trolley escorts to make the journey pleasant and efficient.
Where to Stay
US News and World Report 2018 listed the Ritz-Carlton, The Westin, and the Hyatt Regency as the top three hotels in Sarasota. Since the Marriott Art Ovation Hotel (Autograph Collection) recently opened (April 2018), perhaps it will be a candidate for the 2019 US News list. With 162 rooms, this boutique property celebrates Sarasota’s visual and performing arts.
The hotel is designed with two bars and dining options (lobby and poolside). In-room amenities include an Espresso machine (a challenge to fill the water reservoir – it does not fit under the faucet in the bathroom; a default option is to use bottled water), a plasma TV (my TV did not offer good reception for CNBC – although the reception for Fox 5 was excellent. I questioned whether this glitch was a political statement; the query was ignored), and a mini-fridge convenient for cold drinks and snacks.
The collection of local artists on display in the hotel lobby and on individual floors near the elevators is excellent and the in-house curator offers guests a well-informed and interesting tour of the art (available for purchase), followed by a glass of wine.
Ovation is still in its infancy and has a few kinks to address.
- Destination fees. When comparing room rates with other properties, be sure to note the $22 per night “Destination Fee” that is listed separately (on the website and near the bottom of the emailed room confirmation information). It includes shuttle bus service to nearby restaurants, shops and beaches.
- Hungry singles will be disappointed with the food menu at the rooftop bar since it is designed to serve couples with very eclectic palates.
- Pool swimmers and sundeck guests may find that the proximity of the pool to the restaurant distracting – especially when the cooking smells invade the pool space.
- There are a few cabanas (did someone ask for privacy?); however, there may be extra fees for usage.
- Exercise space (with man-sized machines and yoga mats – not exercise mats).
- Wi-Fi (free in-room and public spaces) with limited bandwidth and weak reception (be prepared to step outside for placing/receiving telephone calls and emails).
Time to Go (or Not)
My American Airline reservation back to LGA was a nightmare. I arrived at SQR early, checked in, picked up a coffee, retrieved a book from my tote, and settled in to wait for the 7:23 PM flight to Charlotte with a connection to La Guardia. Around 5 PM I received an email from AA that the flight from Charlotte to Sarasota was delayed. I expected that the next email alert would change the departure times from Sarasota to Charlotte and from Charlotte to New York. I waited and waited, constantly checking the nearby monitor for flight delay information – nothing! Finally, at approximately 6:30 PM I was notified that I would have to rebook my flights.
I called AA and was told that the delays were weather related, and they would not offer overnight accommodations, transportation or food vouchers; I was on my own. I was also warned that the longer I stayed on the telephone with the AA representative the smaller were the options for getting out of Sarasota the following day. I had to make a quick selection or cancel the trip.
There were no good choices – I had to spend another night in Sarasota and make connections to the east coast the following day – at my own expense.
The most annoying part of the entire saga (I finally landed at LGA approximately 24 hours later than planned) was the AA lie. I checked the news reports that evening and learned that AA had ground stops because of technical glitches – not weather. By delivering “fake news” the airline was able to avoid the costs and arrangements required for delays due to technology and not an “Act of God.”
Sarasota (with or without its beaches) is a desirable destination and should be part of holiday plans. A car is a necessity if the idea is to see the many attractions available in Sarasota and nearby locales…and – fly Delta and not American.
Sarasota is a perfect destination for meeting with friends and family. For private catering and other personalized experiences contact [email protected]
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.