by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman
You step through an archway and all you see are neat, lush gardens with lounge chairs set in a row, and beach and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico beyond, and your immediate reaction is “aaaahhh.”
It is just the place you might imagine staying if you were writing your novel, an oasis of serenity and peace.
The Sandpiper Inn may have started out in the 1960s as a motel, but it bears little resemblance whatsoever. Each unit – studio, one or two bedroom – is more of its own cottage with its own garden, lounge chair, table and chairs, and small stone walkway leading to the door. Not like a door to a motel, but a door to a home. And that is what each unit is.
It is no wonder that there are “regulars” who come each year for a month or so (Canadians especially), losing themselves on one of the most secluded tropical beach settings on Longboat Key. They greet you as new neighbors, not transitory guests, making you feel that much more comfortable and cozy.
Open year-round, Sandpiper Inn offers just 11 units (studios, one and two-bedroom), with fully equipped kitchen, free WiFi, a flat-screen TV with cable and DVD. There are laundry facilities nearby. there is a small pool (11 x 20) which is better suited for aquacize than for swimming. There is also a communal barbecue and a pavilion with tables and chairs that can accommodate an extended family, and lounge chairs are provided on the beach. The landscaped walkway has a decorative waterfall fountain.
The Sandpiper Inn epitomizes Old Florida, that charming, unpretentious, easy-going casual feeling that brought people here in the first place.
Veteran inn operators, Christine & Cullison also own the Sandpiper Inn in Spring Lake, New Jersey, an exceptionally charming beachside town on the Atlantic, just about 1 1/2 hours from Manhattan, reachable by train. Before that, they had owned the Four Chimney b’n’b on Rte 9 in Vermont for five years.
Ours is the smallest of the units – a studio, which in the low-season of January runs about $99/night (less by the week or multi-week), but we couldn’t be happier or feel cozier. It is furnished with charming wicker furniture.
Totally unpretentious and completely charming. You feel at peace. You don’t need a Tiki bar, just BYO, and sit on beach, beach comb, right outside your door. Here you have a small apartment with all the comforts of home. A no frills hideaway and the beach; serene. Even the keys are quaint -an actual key, not a card.
Walking along the beach, you may well spot dolphins and manatees, rays, blue heron. From March through Oct, you have to keep outside lights off because of nesting sea turtles. Across the road is a small shopping center, and four miles down the Gulf Drive is a Publix (where you should stock up on provisions). Another two miles or so, at the southern end of Longboat Key (where you connect with the causeway to the mainland) is a marvelous “downtown” filled with boutiques and eateries.
You take two causeways from Sarasota to get to Longboat Key, which, for all its modern, luxury condominiums that loom over the beach, has a surprisingly residential and low-key ambiance.
The Sandpiper Inn is open year-round and is a non-smoking property; check the website for specials, 5451 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, Florida 34228, 941-383-2552, www.sandpiperinn.com,email@example.com.
There is a nearby recreation center which has tennis courts and a 12-mile bike path.
Nearby dining selections include:
Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub, only a short drive from Sandpiper Inn, is where your Old Florida experience continues. The restaurant is located in Longboat Key’s historic district under the centuries-old Button-Wood trees and one of the 12 oldest surviving buildings on the key. Owner Ed Chiles is the restaurateur with a pedigree and creator of the famous trio of Mar Vista, The Sandbar and The Beachhouse www.groupersandwich.com
Blue Dolphin Café, just across Gulf of Mexico Drive is where you go for a ‘locals’ breakfast that’s like being in your family’s dining room. At the Blue Dolphin everyone knows your name after only one visit; Sandpiper Inn guests seasonally enjoy a ‘Bed & Breakfast’ option, www.BlueDolphinCafe.com.
Harry’s Kitchen is the fine dining establishment, a local treasure since 1979, www.HarrysKitchen.com.
It is marvelous being able to stroll quietly along the beach, but our purpose in coming to Sarasota is really to explore this destination, which is so rich in nature, culture as well as marine activities.
We find the Sandpiper Inn a perfect base for our explorations, even though it is about a 20-minute drive back to Sarasota.
It is winter, after all, and an unseasonably cold one for this part of Florida, more conducive to exploration than lounging. We discover that Sarasota is a perfect destination, no matter what the weather.
Our first day is devoted to nature and we go off to explore the utterly fascinating and phenomenal Myakka River State Park. Our second day is devoted to Circus and Sarasota’s cultural side and spend the entire day at the Ringling Museum, which turns out to be an entire campus of cultural pursuits, including the Circus Museum, the Ringling’s Gilded Age mansion, Cà d’Zan, the Asolo Theatre, and the Ringling Museum of Art, winding up in historic downtown Sarasota. Our third day to the wonders and pleasures of the Gulf of Mexico, starting with the Mote Aquarium, then the magnificent white sand Siesta Beach on Siesta Key, and then the Legacy Trail, a dedicated, 10-mile bike trail extending between Sarasota and Venice (see stories).
Center Ring of Circus in America
Indeed, what most attracted me to Sarasota was its role as the “capital” of circus in America. I knew that it was where the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey circus had its winter quarters, But I did not realize that John Ringling was responsible for developing Sarasota into a resort destination.
When John Ringling first visited Sarasota in 1909, it was a quiet farming and fishing village with a population of 800. Realizing the real estate potential of the area, he bought vast tracts of land, including St. Armands, Bird Key, the south end of Longboat Key and 66,000 acres along the Myakka River.
In the late 1920’s, Ringling was offered 156 acres of land if he would move his circus winter quarters to Sarasota. He recognized the many advantages of relocating, so in November, 1927, the circus train rolled into town as it would do for the next 33 years. Many other circuses followed the Ringlings, and Circus became an integral part of the social and economic life of Sarasota, giving the area its unique identity.
Sarasota’s position as the center of the Circus World was set when in 1950, Cecille B. Demille made the movie, “The Greatest show on Earth,” filming much of it in Sarasota, using local residents as extras. Circus artists appeared in the film, and advised and helped the stars of the film, Charlton Heston, James Stewart and Betty Hutton, with their stunts.
The Ringling Winter Quarters is no longer here but the area remains home base for many circuses and home to thousands of active and retired circus families.
Then in 1997, Dolly Jacobs, a circus aerialist and the daughter of famous clown, Lou Jacobs, and Pedro Reis founded Circus Sarasota, to present winter performances under the big-top and special events and classes throughout the year. Circus Sarasota, 8251 15th Street E, Sarasota, FL 34243, 941- 355-9335, www.CircusSarasota.org,info@CircusSarasota.org.
To appreciate the essence of the American Circus and what it meant to millions of people and thousands of communities from the time of George Washington to the present, I plan a day at the Ringling Museum (www.ringling.org), but along the way, I discover Sarasota’s natural wonders that makes you feel you could just as easily have seen the same scene tens of thousands of years ago.
For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail
Tuesday, 22 February, 2011
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