Thursday, July 26, 2012

The wild side of Sarasota county

For all of its arts and sophistication, you're never far from a bit of adventure and wildlife encounters in Sarasota county.

Beach It
There are eight islands and 13 public beaches.
Posh - Longboat Key and Lido Key.
Shark's tooth capital of the world - Venice Beach.
Whitest and silkiest sand (some say in the world) - Siesta Key Beach, Dr. Beach's No. 1 best in 2011.
Shelling - Turtle Beach at the south end of Siesta Key, Englewood Beach.
Highest dunes - Turtle Beach,
Most amenities - Lido Key Beach.
Celebrities like resident Stephen King - Casey Key (King owns the northern end).

Venice Beach's pavilion.
Tip: Access to most is very easy, minimal steps if any and short walks from parking lots. Others, like Casey Key, you have to take a boat around. Venice Beach has changing rooms, showers and bathrooms plus a shaded pavilion and snack bar as does Lido Key Beach.  

Casting for bait on Longboat Key.
Catch it
Fishing - fresh and saltwater - is excellent. Cast from shore, drop a line in a lake or river but watch for the alligators or go out on a Gulf fishing charter.

Wait, wait, wait for the green flash.
Cruise it
Sunset cruises go from Sarasota Bay through and by the other islands; don't forget to look for the famous green flash. Rent a Duffy boat, simple to operate small party-style boats, for a do it yourself tour. They are electric, hold eight and run about $80 an hour.

Tip: Access to and from charter boats is as easy as it's possible to get, often just an easy step from the dock.

Paddle past the area's mangroves and costly homes.
Paddle it
Kayaking, canoeing or paddle boarding through Sarasota's calm inland waterways are must-do's, especially through the mangrove tunnels. You'll feel as if you're gliding through a chapel although it's more like a nursery, for this eco-system is the breeding ground for birds, shrimp, fish and a host of other critters.

Canoeing at Myakka State Park.
Tip: Outfitter Bob Nikla at I Kayak Sarasota makes kayaking exceptionally easy. He launched us a few steps from the car, gave instruction and helped us in and out of the kayaks.  I haven't tried stand up paddle boarding yet, my balance isn't what it used to be (which was never great).

Selby Botanical Gardens
Walk it
Selby Botanical Gardens are right in Sarasota proper. Of the 200-plus botanical gardens in the U. S., Selby is the only one that specializes in epiphytes - plants, like orchids, bromeliads and some cacti, that grow on other plants without taking sustenance from them.

Botanists seek out Selby's collection of 90,000 dried plants, but most of us will be happy wandering through the orchid house and seven acres of garden. There's a very nice gift shop.

Tip: It's all flat, no stairs. You'll have to walk but it's not that tiring.

Paths at Myakka are easy and smooth.
Myakka State Park is one of many spots popular with campers, fisherfolk and anyone who wants to get close up with the flora and fauna of the area. There are flat, easy trails and most people will insist you do the canopy walk.

The canopy walk I didn't make; too short for number of steps up.

Tip: There are 34 steps up and down with four platforms so I didn't. From reports, don't think I missed much.

The airboat that takes you on a slow, smooth ride around Myakka Lake.
 There's also a cruise around alligator-filled Myakka Lake in what must be the world's biggest and slowest air boat.

Stand off between alligator and storks observed on way out of Myakka State Park.
If you want a woodsy adventure, I recommend Odyssey Trails. Managing partner Chris Cole works with local guides and naturalists to develop small group adventures for all skill levels. He and naturalist Karen Fraley of Around the Bend Nature Tours gave us a fun sampling.

Shark habitat, Mote Aquarium
Watch it swim
Since 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory has explored the marine environment. Today it includes a 200-acre state-of-the-art Aquaculture Park including an excellent aquarium.  Lots of interactive and touch opportunities and a shark habitat. You can  buy Mote's sustainably harvested sturgeon caviar, too.

Tip: There are steps but most are accompanied by ramps. Take your time.

Warm Mineral Springs, the only one of its kind.
Soak in it
Warm Mineral Springs is a freak of nature: the only warm mineral spring in the state and the largest one in the world. Its many proponents insist the 87-degree water is good for whatever ails you and the natural spring pumps out enough water to refresh the huge "swimming hole" every two hours. There's Cafe Evergreen, a good organic restaurant, and a pretty basic spa.
Crowley Museum
See it the way it was
Crowley Museum
Crowley Museum and Nature Center can fill much of a day with its old Florida buildings and general store-style museum. That will take a lot of walking or you could just go to the "museum" and talk to its tenders to get a wealth of background on what it was like way back when.

View from the first white settlers' home, Spanish Point.
Historic Spanish Point is a gem along Little Sarasota Bay, named not for the Spanish conquistadors but for the Spanish trader who told New Yorkers  John and Eliza Webb about the land in 1867.

See inside a prehistoric shell midden at Spanish Point.
The earliest visitors left behind the largest prehistoric midden site on the Gulf Coast and clever visionaries have developed the world's only exhibition inside a midden.

Mrs. Potter Palmer's sunken garden at Spanish Point.
Mary's Chapel at Spanish Point.
There's a simple but comfortable old Florida house and boat building shed and the state's largest native butterfly garden. A wooden walkway goes through pristine red, white and black mangroves.  Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago's Palmer House castle fame once owned 90,000 acres of Sarasota and built a retreat here complete with sunken garden. Don't miss Mary's chapel.

Tip: It will take you 2 hours to see everything along the 1.25 miles of trails but the walking is easy. There also are tour trams.

Walking, driving, paddling or swimming, you can easily access a bit of nature's wild side in Sarasota county.
Fish, swim and camp along Sarasota county's many inland beaches.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Sarasota County - It has what you want

Sarasota Bay
Art, theater, all forms of music and dance, cutting edge marine science, innovative eateries, unexpected ecological experiences, tempting shopping, lavish homes and classic architecture and world-class beaches all with a circus flair entertain visitors to Sarasota County.

It's one of those places that no matter how many highlights you hit, you always miss some. Nonetheless, I'll offer a few don't-miss suggestions.

Tip: Levelers, Sarasota is blissfully flat. You'll find steps and stairs - humankind does have this compunction to elevate itself - but no hills.

What to see in Sarasota
Start with the house, art and circus collections of the man whose name was synonymous with exciting entertainment, John Ringling and his wife, Mabel. It's all wonderfully over the top in one of the prettiest settings you can imagine. You'll need most of a day to do it justice.
The Ringling Museum at night.
Ringling Museum of Art is a treasure with its huge exhibition rooms, antique furnishings, impressive collection (big on Baroque) of art and sculpture - except for the worst copy of Michelangelo's David I've ever seen - and gardens all facing Sarasota Bay. Attend an early evening function there and you'll think you've stepped onto the great Gatsby's terrace. Latest addition: Joseph's Coat, the Skyspace installation by James Turrell, who was featured in the PBS's season one of "Art of the Twenty-First Century." Go at sunrise or sunset.

Tip: There are a few steps up to the museum but to the right there is also a ramp. Take trams between the museums and C'a d'Zan and save your walking for what's inside.

Ca'd'Zan from the bay front terrace.
Ca' d'Zan interior.
The bay becomes the Grand Canal to Ca' d'Zan, the Ringling home, a Gilded Age mansion designed after the Doge's Palace in Venice. Living was gracious in this home where there isn't a single clear pane of glass.

Me horsing around in the Circus Museum.
Those who travel without children often snub the Circus Museums (I did until recently) but you'll be missing a treat if you do, especially the world's largest miniature circus, an astounding labor of love by Howard Tibbals.

Historic Asolo theater. Photo courtesy Ringling Museum of Art.
 The historic Asolo Theater, created in Asolo, Italy in 1798 in honor of the 15th century exiled queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus, is a gem. It was dismantled, packed up, sent to the Ringling estate and reassembled in the 1940s. The country's only 18th century European theater, the Asolo is the venue for plays, music, dance, films and lectures. Its repertory theater is the state's largest and oldest. If anything is playing during your visit, go.

The Van Wezel as seen from Sarasota Bay.
While we're on the arts, Sarasota is known for them. You can't miss the lavender Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the bay front. The seashell design was the creation of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation architect William Wesley Peters, its pink, lavender and purple color scheme the choice of Wright's widow, Olgivanna, inspired by a sea shell she had picked up on the beach.The various groups that fill it and other venues around town are too numerous to list. Seasons for most run October through April, but a few, like, play through the summer months.

Paul Rudolph's 1953 Umbrella House, Lido Shores.
Sarasota Architecture
Sarasota has more than 90 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, many from the Addison Mizner school of Spanish Mediterranean constructed during the boom days. Today Sarasota is known for its own School of Architecture, buildings constructed between 1940 and 1970.

Hiss and Associates, 1955, Lido Shores.
Young architects influenced by the Bauhaus, William Gropius, Mies van der Rohe  and Frank Lloyd Wright found fertile ground, tailoring their designs to climate and using technologies developed during the war.

The Don Chappell House, 2000, Lido Shores.
 You can do a self-guided driving tour using the nifty book, toursarasota ARCHITECTURE, available at Visit Sarasota County's Visitors Center. Even better, take a guided driving tour with Harold Buble, Real Estate Editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, who knows the recent sale prices as well as the history. He's available through the Sarasota Architectural Foundation and the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Paul Rudolph, 1957, Lido Shores.

Next: Sarasota's wild side.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Crawl Don't Walk in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

The Bulawayo Club
If going on an African safari isn't exotic enough, try the Prospectors' Pub Crawl, a tour through the colorful and historic pubs and bars of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city.

The guided pub crawl recreates the typical end-of-work-day of 19th century prospectors as they returned from the gold mines and cashed in at the gold exchange. It was developed by local expert and guide Paul Hubbard after studying miners' letters and accounts of their typical nights' activities. All ended at the still-open Bulawayo Club, a conveniently short walk from the police station.

You can choose to absorb the atmosphere and history, tip a beer or two or go the full prospectors' route, three beers and a tot of brandy in every pub.

Tip: Levelers, this is a "walking" tour but you'll be accompanied by a mini bus should you prefer - or need - to ride.

Imbibing is up to you.

It's offered through Expert Africa and is included with their Klipspringer Safari, which starts at $2,778 per person, sharing, and includes two nights at the Bulawayo Club along with time at Ivory Lodge in Hwange National Park and Matobo Hills' Camp Amalinda, internal flights to and from Johannesburg, transfers, six nights' full board, two nights' B&B, safari activities and the Prospectors' Pub Crawl.

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