If the graceful aerialists, mighty strongmen and goofy clown humor of the circus puts stars in your eyes, you’ll enjoy Sarasota. John Ringling of Ringling Brothers circus fame not only made a home there but left his imprint on the county known today as America’s Circus City.
But Sarasota, some 200 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, is no one-trick pony.
Sarasota, www.visitsarasota.org, is a sweet blend of satiny sand with a side of culture. It’s upscale, but not uptight. The people are friendly, the shopping is plentiful, and the vibe, laid back.
You’ll find Oscar Scherer State Park, with its tranquil, shaded streams perfect for families who want to try canoeing. There’s Tree-Umph, an obstacle course in the trees that takes advantage of lush tree canopies with zip lines and rope swings. And of course, there’s Siesta Key, home of the No. 1 rated beach in the country in 2011 by expert “Dr. Beach.”
But back to the circus. John Ringling made Sarasota the winter home of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927. That circus culture is still alive today: Many old-line circus families continue to make their home there, including the Flying Wallendas, (Nick Wallenda crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope in June 2012). Circus Sarasota, a one-ring show, and Sailor Circus, the oldest youth circus in the country, are based there. Retired circus animals live out their days at the Big Cat Habitat. Thrill-seekers flock to Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park.
At the Ringling Museum, www.ringling.org, on 66 sprawling acres, my kids, Ian, 12, and Chloe, 11, wandered through an exhibit of restored circus train cars, and saw the 3,800 square-foot “biggest miniature circus” in the world. It’s a wonder of hand-carved items built over a 50-year span that includes eight main tents, 1,300 performers and more than 800 animals. Amazing.
The one-hour Summer Circus Spectacular, presented by The Ringling Museum and Circus Sarasota, was fun for all of us, with an illusionist, clown, aerialist and even a lasso-spinning artist from Austin.
Free trams spirited us around the grounds, which are shaded by banyan trees and boast a 100-year-old rose garden. The lovely Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringlings’ mansion, is built in the Venetian style and can be toured on your own or with a guide.
Oscar Scherer State Park
Because it’s smaller than Sarasota’s Miyakka State Park, Oscar Scherer State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/oscarscherer, often gets overlooked, said park manager Tony Clements. But that would be a mistake. My kids and I embarked upon our first adventure canoeing on a semi-winding park waterway, and an adventure it was. But that was more because of our inexperience, I’m afraid.
Ian and I teamed up for our ride. Let’s just say we got acquainted with a few tree branches along the way. But there was almost no current, and the scenery was lovely, with the waterway at times covered by a canopy of tree leaves and greenery.
Bird watchers are drawn to the park by the elusive Florida Scrub-Jay, which reside in the park’s scrubby habitat, Clements said.
It takes a leap of faith (also the name of a Tarzan-esque free fall clinging to a rope) to do the TreeUmph Adventure Course, www.treeumph.com. After you’re fitted with a harness and knit fingerless gloves, you go through a safety briefing and mini-course that has you practicing the sequence of unclipping and clipping the metal hooks on your harness to the steel rings and cables that are literally your lifeline on the course. The practice course is just five feet off the ground, so the height-adverse can test out the mechanics of the course, and get a full refund if they decide an adventure in the trees is not for them.
You also practice letting go of the steel cable overhead, to assure yourself that the metal hooks really will hold you if you slip (they can hold up to 500 pounds, we’re told.)
My kids were excited about doing the TreeUmph course. I was mildly nauseous.
There is one thing you need to know about TreeUmph going in. There are no staff members at the entrance and exit to each obstacle, hooking and unhooking you to safety. It’s all on you. This thought paralyzed me for a second, but it also brought to the forefront the critical fact that I had to get it right. So I blocked out all rational thought and took my first step.
The course turned my kids into tree-climbing warriors. And I must admit it was thrilling.
On Saturday morning, we checked out the town’s Farmers Market, www.sarasotafarmersmarket.org, a Sarasota mainstay for 30 years, even before it was cool to have one. Locals come by on bicycles, or stroll through with their dogs in tow as they peruse the 70-plus vendors lining the streets. Ian tried an apple cider slushy and tasted homemade guacamole.
There was a decidedly upscale feel, with wares ranging from grass-fed beef to gluten-free bars and all-natural breads. Musicians played under a billowy white tent at one end of the market. Meanwhile at the parked Java Dawg Coffee red double-decker bus, customers sipped drinks and people watched from the umbrella-topped seats of the open-aired second story.
Started by a shark researcher, Eugenie “Genie” Clark in 1955, Mote Laboratory, www.mote.org, has grown to be a center for research on sharks, manatees, dolphins and other sea life, as well as an aquarium with more than 100 species.
Clark, 91, still dives and does research at the facility, which has branched out to tasks such as breeding seahorses to send to aquariums around the world and raising sturgeon to harvest caviar. Ian and Chloe made a beeline for the stingray touch tanks, where they dipped their fingers in the water to slide them against the rays’ velvety backs. I enjoyed seeing the mammoth manatees contentedly munch on lettuce leaves in their tank, as they peered at visitors from behind the glass walls.
We loved seeing the baby seahorses, born the day before, with a wisp of a body the length of your fingernail.
Big Cat Habitat
An eighth-generation big cat trainer, Kay Rosaire is a staunch supporter and advocate for animal welfare. So when she started to see the plight of big cats retired from the circus that were being euthanized because they had no home, she decided to give them one.
That grew to Big Cat Habitat, www.bigcathabitat, which now houses, and I’m not kidding, lions and tigers and bears, but also emus, goats and assorted other animal species.
Wear old shoes, because it’s nothing fancy. Sign the brief waiver form, and pay your money, and walk on the shell road, where you’ll see a line of metal cages. The first contains a showstopper – a large tan and gold-flecked Kodiak bear named Buck.
For a buck, Ian put a half of a hot dog on a long pointed metal rod and fed Buck a treat. There were lots of opportunities like that, to spend a dollar or two and feed the larger animals. It all helps pay for the food, because the big animals each consume about 30 to 50 pounds of meat a day, Rosaire said.
After the line of bear cages, we skipped by the emus to head to the big cat area, where several Bengal tigers and a 1,000-pound liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger) paced in their individual cages. For $5, we bought two chunks of pork, which were skewered onto a metal rod by a staff member for Ian and Chloe to use to feed the cat of their choice.
In a one-hour show set up in a simple metal building, visitors sat on bleachers that ringed a metal cage. Kay Rosaire’s sister, Pamela, a primate expert, came out with a chimpanzee named Chance that played basketball, rapped, and flipped happily in response to her commands. The finale included a training session with three Bengal tigers. The tigers leapt over and around obstacles and received a chunk of meat for their trouble.
Like Sarasota, each new turn brought a new reward.
Where to stay:
For a splurge, stay at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, www.ritzcarlton.com/sarasota, and enjoy its first-class service and amenities. While it’s not on the Gulf of Mexico, the resort has a private beach club, with a hotel shuttle that runs the three-mile distance every hour.
The hotel also has a pool and hot tub at its main location, and we enjoyed club level access, which has a light buffet at each mealtime, and one at night with desserts. At check in, the kids signed up for the kids club, and received scavenger hunt sheets that helped them explore the hotel. At the beach club, kids’ activities included a family Olympics.
Where to eat:
Café Gabbiano, www.cafegabbiano.com, offers a taste of Old Italy amidst the casual beach cafes that line the main drag in Siesta Key. Try the gnocchi and the bruschetta, with fresh cut cherry tomatoes from the restaurant’s garden. Pomodoro sauce is made fresh daily here, as well as the balsamic glaze that drizzles the bruschetta.
Nancy’s BBQ, www.nancysbarbq.com. This little slice of country charm offers dry-rubbed ribs, pulled pork, and a moist pulled chicken. Owner Nancy Krohngold started it all in her home kitchen. Friends requested food for parties, which led to catering jobs, then an underground take-out of sorts, where she would show up at a retail outlet with vats of barbecue, and devotees would spread the word.
“Barbecue brings people together,” Krohngold said. “People who don’t have anything in common can come in, sit down at a plastic resin table for 20 minutes together and have barbecue in common.”
Pop’s Sunset Grill, www.popssunsetgrill.net. Tranquil water views on the Intracoastal and lots of seafood on the menu are the stars in this casual eatery, with loads of shaded seating indoors and out along the dock. Try the Seafood Cold Plate, with a scoop of Pop’s own crab and shrimp salad, or a steamer pot. Very casual vibe. You’ll see bikinis to shorts to sundresses here.
Dry Dock Waterfront Grill, www.drydockwaterfrontgrill.com. Expansive views of Sarasota Bay, plus a seafood-lovers menu, with fresh grouper, amberjack, mahi, yellowfin tuna and the like bought from local Gulf of Mexico fishermen. Seafood tacos stuffed with fried lobster chunks or blackened grouper reign here. I enjoyed a lightly blackened grouper on a spinach salad. My kids loved the fish and chips.