As seen in The News-Herald/Morning Journal

By Paris Wolfe

Sarasota County is gaining popularity as a winter destination with Northeast Ohio residents. And so Allegiant Airlines is making it easier to get to the sunny Gulf Coast City. In April, the airline launched a new, low-cost direct flight to the sunny city.

Once there entertainment options range from beaches and museums to a vibrant food and arts scene. In fact, 13 theaters and countless restaurants are within a mile of downtown Sarasota. With all the sunshine, waterfront parks and preservation areas are abundant for hiking and biking.

To avoid Northeast Ohio snows, my partner Gary and I drove to Sarasota and parked our 40-foot, Tiffin Phaeton RV at Terra Ceia RV Resort in Palmetto, a small town about 20 minutes north of the city. The traffic and RV fees were lighter on the city’s fringe.  We set up camp for three weeks in February and let the sunlight stimulate our serotonin levels.    

A similar desire for warm-weather comfort brought John Ringling and many of his 1,500 circus employees to Sarasota nearly a century ago. In 1927 John Ringling made the then-small town the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A local legacy was born and his estate overlooking the Gulf is now The Ringling, a 66-acre campus housing three museums –Museum of Art, Circus Museum,  Ca’D’Zan  — and Bayfront Gardens.

The collection could entertain visitors for two days. We started at the Museum of Art, which is free to the public on Mondays. The museum displays John and his wife Mable’s collection of fine art. The 21 galleries and a courtyard offer 28,000-plus works representing Western and non-Western art from ancient periods through current day.  Among the best known painters is Peter Paul Rubens.

Meanwhile, across the expansive green the Circus Museum takes visitors behind the scenes with a 42,000-piece, complete miniature circus. The museum includes interactive displays and restored luxury railroad cars that were used by the Ringlings while traveling.  When we finished I was hungry for greater historical context and wanted to buy books about the circus and The Ringlings from the gift shop.  Plenty were available.

Between museum visits we lunched at Muse, an upscale, contemporary restaurant on site. Sitting on the bright patio we entertained ourselves counting turtles entering and exiting the neighboring pond.  We logged at least 12. Our day was full. Ca’D’Zan, The Ringlings waterfront home, would have to wait for another visit.

On sunny days we explored the beachy coastline. Considered tops in the United States Siesta Key beach is, justifiably, one of the busiest.  Its sugar-fine, white-quartz sand stays cool and easy on the feet. And, some folks say the white-quartz sand has healing properties. All the more reason to sprawl there for an afternoon nap (if you’re wearing sunscreen).

Meanwhile, less dense crowds at Venice beach, 24 miles south of city center but still in Sarasota County, makes for better shell – and shark tooth – collecting. Shelling is also decent on Lido Key Beach, south of Siesta Key. Beaches in both Venice and on Lido Key are within walking distance of boutique shopping and restaurants, something that appeals to me, but not so much to Gary.

Avid gardeners we marveled at the lush and unfamiliar tropical landscapes in Marie Selby Botanical Garden right in the city. Among the collections were multi-trunked, sprawling banyan trees that I nestled into with childlike glee and a conservatory full of orchids and bromeliads.

Apres garden visit we continued the afternoon with a refined air, dining at the relatively new Sage restaurant and following with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” at Florida Studio Theater. The day was pure class.

Because we knew we’d be in the county for nearly a month we signed up for local activities like home tours with the Sarasota Architectural Foundation.  The group works to educate people about the Sarasota Modern style of architecture and preserve examples. We visited restored two examples – the iconic Cocoon and Umbrella houses designed by well-known architect Paul Rudolph. Think form meets function with mid-century modern lines designed for comfort in a tropical climate.

On one of the warmer February days we kayaked the Frog Creek River from a dock in the neighboring RV park. We rented a tandem kayak for three hours of floating down a meandering river among live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. While Gary paddled, I filled the memory of my Samsung Galaxy with photos… until we saw the first alligator slide into the deep, dark water.  The outfitters and locals insist alligators aren’t interested in humans, but I didn’t want to be a first. So we returned early to the dock and solid ground.

Not long after we hiked Myakka State Park, observed alligators in the wild (from the car) and ate deep-fried, breaded alligator bites from the on-site café. (Tastes like chicken.)  We had another alligator encounter at Smuggler’s Cove Adventure Golf, an elaborate miniature golf setup where smaller creatures are just part of the hype and keep a safe distance behind fencing.

While we cooked many of our own meals in the RV, some of our favorite dining spots included Cafe Baci for authentic Italian-American and Columbia Restaurant in St. Armand’s Circle for tapas.

We didn’t get a chance to experience the Newtown African-American Heritage Trail via Newtown Alive’s narrated trolley tours, but will consider that when we return.  Guests on the tour hear stories about African-American pioneers contributed to the city’s formation and the civil rights movement.