A Canadian’s 50-year love affair with Sarasota

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Enjoying Sarasota on the water. (Visit Florida)

Writer Chris Ryall explains his adoration for his favourite city in the Sunshine State.

Story by Chris Ryall

SARASOTA, FLORIDA — My affection for Sarasota, located on the southwest Florida coast and the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, began simply with a pail and shovel. Siesta Key, named the second-best beach in the United States in 2016 by Dr. Beach (it won number one in 2011) was my childhood vacation playground. The soft, powdery white sand beach was home to countless days of carefree fun with my parents, brother and grandparents.

As I grew into my teens and early 20s there were other more adult beach attractions — namely the beautiful girls who were local to the area and among the many visitors Sarasota attracted from all over the United States, Canada and the world. The village of Siesta Key grew with many mom-and-pop beachwear shops and restaurants, and today it is brimming with beachfront cafes, boutiques, sports bars and ice-cream shops.

Sarasota County encompasses eight distinctly different islands each with its own personality and charm including the tennis and golf island haven of Longboat Key and cosmopolitan Lido Key with the innovative and historic St. Armands Circle.

I fondly remember many afternoons and nights strolling along with family members as we ventured through the uniquely designed circle with its streets sprouting off in all directions and lined with shops and gourmet restaurants. The palm tree-lined medians, bounty of colourful floral displays with a plethora of beachwear clothing and jewellery shops, art galleries and restaurants make it a paradise for shoppers and foodies. Think casual elegance with European sophistication.

My tradition when visiting St. Armands Circle, however, is about ice cream. I always make a beeline to the legendary Big Olaf Creamery. Home to the waffle cone, this spot has been a favourite for locals and visitors since 1983. Known for its generous scoops it will always remain my childhood and adult comfort zone. Cool licks of pralines n’ cream on a waffle cone in sunny Sarasota. Life is good.

Old-fashioned country cookin’ and all-you-can-eat buffets were the standard dining option when I first came to Sarasota back in the mid-1960s. You can still find a few of these old culinary treasures because Sarasota, somewhat surprisingly, is home to a significant Amish and Mennonite community.

Two favourite establishments are Yoder’s Restaurant and Der Dutchman Restaurant. Feast on the famous homemade pies and other dishes but leave the calorie counter at home.
In the past decade the culinary scene in Sarasota has changed dramatically with many new ethnic, trendy and chef-driven restaurants opening up in downtown Sarasota (check out Main Street and 1st Street for the heaviest concentration). There are now 21 Zagat-rated restaurants serving fresh seafood and flavourful steaks as well as Thai, Indian and a host of other tantalizing ethnic cuisines.

Ca d'Zan Mansion

Cà d’Zan mansion (Visit Florida)

Wine and piano bars can be found as well and if you really want to impress someone and are looking for a romantic atmosphere head to Euphemia Haye, a quaint fine-dining restaurant known for its wickedly decadent desserts. On Longboat Key, Euphemia Haye has been named one of America’s Top 200 Most Romantic Restaurants by the Automobile Association of America’s dining guide.

If you want to pair your culture with your fine food, Sarasota has a strong museum, gallery and architecture scene. An influx of Europeans brought touches of the old world to this part of Florida.

An absolute must visit is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Though I didn’t fully appreciate its importance to Sarasota when I was a young child I certainly do now as an adult. John Ringling, known for the Ringling and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had an immeasurable effect on Sarasota’s history and culture. Cultural seeds and institutions that were planted in the 1920s have blossomed into this important museum, featuring the works of Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and more.

Tour the incredible Venetian gothic Cà d’Zan mansion. Opened in May 2016, the Center for Asian Art provides glimpses into cultures of the far east. Circus history buffs will be mesmerized like I was at the Ringling Circus Museum featuring the world’s largest miniature circus — 3,800 square feet!

The arts and culture tradition that Ringling started continues today in many forms. So much so that Sarasota is known as Florida’s Cultural Coast. The Sarasota Opera House showcases works of Verdi, Sarasota Orchestra features many pop and classical concerts, and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has internationally acclaimed concerts and many music events and festivals throughout the year. Theatre enthusiasts can check out a variety of works, from travelling international shows to local avant-garde theatre productions at a number of venues in the city.

Sarasota has always been a leader in public outdoor sculptures and art and even has a biannual festival showcasing public art along Sarasota’s bayfront. I love walking along the water, drooling with envy at the luxury yachts. But besides the yachts and stunning bay vistas you will also encounter a series of fascinating and thought-provoking sculptures.
Sarasota lures you in slowly. It teases your senses. For me, Sarasota teased me with a sense of play sunny-side up with a pail and shovel on the beach’s soft sand. For me, it evokes memories of a simpler time and a time of innocence. Today, I create new experiences and memories with my kids — bistro seaside dining, enthralling art exhibitions, toe-tappin’ music concerts and kayaking in the gentle bay waters. Memories are made of this.

Sarasota and I – we’ve come a long way, babe!