We continue to be pleasantly surprised by the places we are visiting along the Gulf coast of Florida. Sarasota is no exception. We didn't know much about it, and I would have probably bypassed it as we traveled south since it was so close to Clearwater. Our main reason for stopping here was the fact that Fred's cousin, Ted Wishnie and his wife Ethna now live here (and their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bailey). The last time we saw them was on our maiden voyage back in April 2006 when they lived near Ocala, FL.
They actually live in Osprey, which is the next town south of Sarasota, sort of like a suburb of Sarasota. There is a lovely state park near them, but as we have been finding here in Florida, they are all booked up and impossible to get into at this time of year. A little digging turned up a very small campground on the southern edge of Sarasota about five minutes from them. We were a little apprehensive as it sounded like a mostly mobile home park. But the location was great and the price was too at $180 a week. Sarasota Sunny South Mobile Home Park
is a diamond in the rough. The new owners have been upgrading and renovating the place, built a little clubhouse and now a swimming pool which seems to be very close to opening. When we checked in, along with an information packet, they handed us two $10 gift cards to a nearby delicious seafood restaurant, Phillipi Creek Oyster Bar, which they also own. Wow, and just in time for lunch! It exceeded our expectations, and I think we'll be back.
Ted and Ethna were so excited about our visit and had all kinds of things planned for us to do. They have only lived in this area for about eight months but they certainly knew all the best places to go. And their new home is lovely. Ethna is a great decorator. It's spacious and open. They even have a little swimming pool and hot tub on an enclosed lanai with a great view of a pond.
We had no idea that Sarasota was such a cultured city. They have a lot of great arts venues. Ted and Ethna have joined a number of performing arts groups including a small theater group called Florida Studio Theater and the opera guild for the Sarasota Opera. They also recently became members of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. So thanks to our hosts, we participated in events for all three of these groups.
We joined them for "An Evening at the Opera Warehouse," a meet-and-greet at their sets warehouse, kind of a behind-the-scenes event where we learned a bit about how they store and use the various sets for each of their operas. The four of us were even photographed by a local paper, The Observer, for their society department. It was fun.
The Florida Studio Theater is really a group of three theaters, the 173-seat Mainstage Theatre, the 160-seat Gompertz Theatre and the 109-seat Cabaret Theatre. The FST produces many different kinds of plays and performances throughout the year. I love those small venues. It reminded me of some of the small theater groups we used to subscribe to when we lived in Milwaukee. The performance we enjoyed with Ted and Ethna was musical production in the Cabaret called Reflections, featuring music of the 60's and 70's. What a nice evening.
I had read a little about Ca d'Zan, the 36,000 square foot, 41 room mansion built by John Ringling. and had hoped we would have a chance to visit it. Fortunately, we were able to get into the whole Ringling complex for free as guests of Ted and Ethna because of their membership there. I knew we couldn't possibly tour everything there in one day, so we prioritized what to see with the mansion first, and the historic Asolo Theater second. Clearly we need to return to see their spectacular art collection in the Museum of Art, and the miniature circus museum.
Completed in 1925 at a cost of $1.5 million, the mansion was designed in a combination Venetian/Gothic style, reminiscent of Venice's Doge's Palace, on Sarasota Bay which would serve as it's Grand Canal. The Ringling's were crazy about all things Venetian. Ca d'Zan means "House of John" in Venetian dialect. Mable was the driving force behind every aspect of the design, making all choices of materials, colors, furnishings. John, the busy businessman was off generating income from his many businesses. (Someone had to pay for this thing :) Unfortunately, Mable was only able to enjoy this dream home for a few years as she died from complications of diabetes in 1929. Poor John was never the same after losing his love.
Palatial and opulent are almost understatements; ostentatious would not be out of line. And remember, this was only a winter home for the Ringling's! Consummate art collectors, they also amassed an amazing collection of paintings and sculpture, primarily by the Old Masters. That collection is now housed in the Museum of Art on the Ringling complex grounds. We ran out of time to visit this museum, but we will be back.
The historic Asolo Theater, also on the grounds, was truly a wonder to see. It was originally built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy to honor the 15th century exiled Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cypress. It was remodeled in 1857, but eventually fell into disrepair. In the 1930's the decorative panels were removed and placed in storage. In the 1950's, Chick Austin, Jr., the first director of the Ringling museum, purchased this great artifact, had it dismantled and brought to the estate here in Sarasota. A pavilion was constructed to house it.
Many years of painstaking restoration were required before it could be opened to the public in 2006. Today, it is actually used as a performing arts venue for theater, music, dance, film and lectures. Daily it is used to show a short film about the Ringling's life and the creation of this wonderful estate. It really helped to learn the whole story. The theater is quite beautiful and we were able to spend time before and after the film walking around taking any and all pictures we wanted.
Here's a link where you can read all about this very cool place: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
. This is a must see if you are in the area.
And finally, we got to spend an afternoon with Ted's daughter, Dawn who lives here in Sarasota with her husband, Mitchell and daughter, Melanie. They have a lovely home right on Sarasota Bay complete with boat slip. We all took a ride on their Sea Ray boat to a local restaurant for lunch. I, of course, had never met them, and Fred had not seen Dawn since her wedding in the late 1980's. It was a very nice visit.
In spite of the whirlwind of activity, we only scratched the surface here. We left many things undone, including shopping at St. Armand's Circle, historic downtown Sarasota, some very cool sculptures along the waterfront. We're hoping to make a return visit on our way back up the state, possibly sometime in March or April.
Did I mention we are really enjoying the Gulf Coast of Florida?