Cultural Exploring in Sarasota

by Peter Morrell on 03 July 2014, 10:07AM

Peter Morrell, editor of continues his cultural odyssey in Florida and on the second leg has a very packed agenda.


I was heading for Sarasota, which is only about an hour's drive south from my last stop, St Petersburg. In front of me was a very busy 36 hours of cultural exploring. I was staying near Lido Key, just a few minute’s drive from the city centre. My room overlooked a stunning 600 foot long white coral sand private beach with an uninterrupted view of the Gulf of Mexico. The hotel was also just a walk from the fashionable St Armands Circle, an upmarket shopping area with galleries, bars, restaurants and gift shops.


Although it was difficult to drag myself away from the spectacular sunset over the Gulf I was looking forward to a performance of the musical, 1776, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the launching pad for many successful Broadway shows. The play is a humorous take on the events leading up to Congress drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence. The cast were excellent and I actually learnt a lot about the concerns of the States involved and the arguments that shaped the final wording of the Declaration. The Asolo Theatre itself is a charming, intimate building and the appreciative audience added to the enjoyment of the evening.


Another glorious sunny day dawned and I was up early for a tour of the Sarasota Opera House. Opening its doors in 1926 the Opera House has played host to a range of entertainment over the years including the Ziegfeld Follies and a young Elvis Presley. The building was taken over by the Opera Company about 30 years ago and in 2007 was the subject of a major $20 million renovation which saw an improved auditorium and the restoration of the impressive three level atrium at the entrance.


A short drive away from the Opera House is the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, situated on a huge estate next to the Asolo Theatre. John Ringling was a circus mogul who also made a vast amount of money from property and the railways and he spent his wealth in ways that we can all still enjoy today. On arrival I headed straight to Ringling’s private mansion, Ca’ D’Zan, meaning House of John in the Venetian dialect. This lavish construction, based partly on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, has 56 rooms that are flamboyantly furnished with objects d’art. Outside the large marble terrace offers expansive views across Sarasota Bay and steps lead down to a mooring where Ringling’s mini cruise ship used to dock.


Walking past his wife Mabel’s beloved rose garden, which is still maintained in perfect shape, I visited the circus museum, a source of fascination for all ages. Ringling pioneered moving his circus around the country by train and along with the cages, trailers and circus props his private railcar is on display. Named Wisconsin after his home state, the train features luxurious compartments including bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and an observation platform.

I had saved the biggest and best attraction until the end; the actual Museum of Art. Ringling was an avid and eclectic collector of all types of art and built a museum on the estate to house it all. The construction of the museum itself was beset with problems including a slump in the Florida property market and Mabel’s untimely death at the age of 54 but in 1931 it finally opened to the public.

The museum is huge so I sought the advice of a friendly and knowledgeable docent (volunteer guide) on where to begin. The tour starts with the figurative bang of four huge cartoons by Rubens. This sets the tone for the entire exhibition with one gallery after the other displaying everything from the Flemish Primitives to 20th century artists. Mixed with these are photographs, carvings, furniture and even the interiors of two rooms from the Astor’s New York mansion.

And the art doesn’t stop when you leave the building. The massive Italianate courtyard is beautifully laid out with statues lining the roof of the museum and is dominated at one end by a life-sized bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David, which has also become the symbol of Sarasota.


The Ringling estate had easily absorbed several hours and I could have stayed for longer but the day was by no means over. It was back to the hotel to change, catch another romantic Gulf sunset before a packed evening of dining and entertainment. The night saw the opening of the circus themed production of Nutcracker by the Sarasota Ballet and the City’s culture lovers gathered for a gala dinner before the performance. Over the meal I chatted with the Mayor of Sarasota, Suzanne Atwell, who is a passionate supporter of the arts and culture and understands what a unifying effect it can have on the community.


Both the dinner and the performance were in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, another of the city’s great cultural assets boasting a capacity of more than 1,700 seats. I was proud of the fact that a couple of Brits were involved with the Sarasota Ballet, Iain Webb is the Director and for Nutcracker, Matthew Hart was the choreographer.

The performance itself was flawless, with John and Mabel playing prominent roles and symbolic circus animals popping up in many of the scenes. An added bonus was that the Sarasota Orchestra, another gem in the City’s cultural crown, gave full justice to Tchaikovsky’s score. At the end the audience rose to its feet as one in homage to what had been an incredible performance.

My time in Sarasota was coming to an end.  Next day I was heading south to Fort Myers and Sanibel and there was so much I still hadn’t done. For example there is a self-drive, two-hour tour of the architectural highlights of the city with emphasis on private homes and public buildings designed between 1941 and 1966. And, if after seeing all the exhibits at the Ringling, you want to see a live performance then Circus Sarasota not only do shows but also are very much part of the community with their outreach program.

The two days that I had spent in the area had been a cultural whirlwind of unforgettable sights and sounds and I could easily have spent more time there with some rest and relaxation thrown in. I had not taken full advantage of the miles of sandy beaches or great restaurants but I had seen enough to want to return andenjoy more on what is known as Florida’s cultural coast.

For more information about Sarasota go to

If you want to find out more about holidays to Sarasota, visit

Author bio: Peter Morrell is editor of &

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