Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast

Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.

 

This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and  palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.

I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.

The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan  the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.

Who loves The Ringling? 

The Ringling Art Museum Courtyard

I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…

1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream

Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco 

and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay. 

Doge’s Palace, New Year’s Eve, 2015
Doge’s Palace
Ca’ d’Zan Photo Courtesy of The Ringling

The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color,  the breathtaking property, and  John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.

Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace.  John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University. 

Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts.  She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.

John and Mabel Ringling

2)  Lovers of Architecture and Design

In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald  inspired the plans. 

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice taken New Year’s Day, 2016

The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave. 

Ballroom Ceiling

John’s Man Cave

Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)

Everywhere you look there is regal beauty. John Ringling’s bedroom
Mabel and John painted on The Playroom ceiling
Some guest rooms, such this one where Will Rogers often stayed, were closed due to Covid
Everyday feels like a holiday at Ca’ de’Zan

 

3) Lovers of Art and History

After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy.  It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.

The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida’s Cultural Coast

Ringling Courtyard Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

At the Museum of Art and Education Center budding artists,  Artists in Residence, and teachers find resources, professional development, and inspiration. 

4) Lovers of Theater/Performing Arts

The Historic Asolo Theater itself, once in the castle in Asolo, Italy of Queen Caterina Cornaro, Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus is a MUST-SEE.

It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.

5) Lovers of Glass Art

Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.

5) Lovers of Gardens and Gorgeous Landscapes

In the 66-acre paradise are waterfront gardens and a Level II Arboretum with 100 different species of trees to hug. John and Mabel are buried in the Secret Garden below.

Secret Garden

6) Lovers of Cinderella Stories, Business, and Finance

The Ringling family story is fascinating. In 1927 John Ringling, one of the wealthiest men in the world, made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the circus. In addition to owning “The Greatest Show on Earth” he invested in oil, railroads, Madison Square Garden, and his community. When he died his estate appraised at $23.5 million, and he had $311 in the bank. Business Insider gives an in-depth analysis here.  

7) The Circus and Circus Movies

Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last.  One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth  which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with  Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career.  Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me. 

Check out Sarasota’s Circus Legacy and Circus Museum here. Don’t miss the world’s largest model circus (see video) and special exhibits, like Circus and Suffragists

9) Lovers of Visionaries, Dreamers, and Muses

John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown. 

After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city  transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel.  One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.

St. Armands Circle

10) Lovers of Photos Ops

If you are vacationing with teens and they aren’t convinced yet to do The Ringling, tell them it’s Instagram heaven. You can also book professional  portraits  here. 

 

MORE OPPORTUNITIES

Until you can visit in person, virtual options are here:

https://www.ringling.org/events/virtual-talks-lectures

https://www.ringling.org/events/learn-home-anytime

Valentine Celebration

Spring Break Treat April 1–my favorite artist on the Big Screen here.

Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1

Part 2

 

 

 

Sarasota County, Florida’s Cultural Coast, Offers Best of All Worlds: Part 1

Disclosure:  A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own. 

Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here.  As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield.  When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here

In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report.  In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.

Unconditional Surrender Statue, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and  learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.

I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.

Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day.  Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place.  My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot.  But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.

When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach. The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.

I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome… 
The Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…
Venice Theater,  Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
sculptures in Athens and Florence…
The David at The Ringling Courtyard, Sarasota
 palatial architecture in Marrakesh, Venice, and Rome.
Ringling Museum of Art Courtyard, Sarasota, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com
Sarasota County offers all of these experiences. 

Sometimes the free spirit in  me just wants a dozen raw oysters and live music, a transcendent sunset, days spent gathering seashells and crashing on powdered sugar sand. 

Siesta Key Beach, voted #1 in the US, is that place, too.
If you enjoy walking or biking to patios of locally-owned coffee shops and cafes …
Lila, Sarasota
checking out craft beer breweries
Big Top Brewing Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
…or having a cocktail on a rooftop looking down on city lights and an ocean bay… 
Art Ovation Rooftop Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
Sarasota County is your place.

Family members have different interests and priorities… shopping vs golfing, playing beach volleyball vs working out, eating vegan vs grilling steak or seafood, exploring nature vs hopping beaches, watching dolphins vs watching the Braves. Here everybody gets to do his or her thing.

Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.

Selby Butterfly Garden Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN. 

Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below. 

The Pineapple Drop  was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing. 

(Those I recorded in video removed masks  for interviews only).

Day One
Arrive in Sarasota County at SRQ Airport
Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Check In Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection 

Art Ovation Hotel  is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine.  Florida Studio TheatreSarasota Opera House  , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout.  I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight  while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu,  and the playlist.

Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.

Art Ovation Hotel Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
Sarasota Opera Production of Romeo & Juliet Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Florida Studio Theatre, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Lobby Lounge

 

The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.

The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and  and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with  a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for  find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.

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9 pm Dinner at Columbia Restaurant

Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater.  It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is  known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar–  Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.

After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I  miss  favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at  Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult.  My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had  the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.

Roxy, my amazing server, is new to Sarasota and loving it. She makes me want to move here, too. Another server stopped by to say he grew up in Budapest and has been to all 50 states. He settled in Sarasota and says, “I know it’s a cliche, but this IS paradise.”
The Original 1005  salad is worth the hype. It would also be perfect for lunch with a dessert.

 

I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature  salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to  all safety  measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Columbia’s Manager, Richard Appelgren

NYE Party for Guests on Art Ovation Rooftop–See story on Instagram Highlight. 

Day Two
11:00-12:00 AM Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio 

(In this outdoor cycling/yoga class we wore masks unless on our mats or bikes, and class size was restricted to follow social distancing guidelines. More about Yoga and Lila in Part 2.)

1:00 Lunch at Lila
Afternoon on Lido Beach
Dinner at Element. Steak. Seafood. Pasta. 

Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic.  I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.

Element’s elegant dining room
I loved the terraces at Element for their quiet, private spaces.
Day 3
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel  
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman 
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series. 
Check in at Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club 

My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters.  (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.

Nightlife in Siesta Key Village, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key

Ok, this is a  Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in  Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in  2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains  a loyal  following  of locals and of tourists who always come back.

I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.

Ophelia’s on the Bay, Photo Courtesy of Visit Sarasota.com
~  Lioni Latticini Burrata Con Panna Mozzarella ~Heirloom Tomato and Heart of Palm Salad, Prosciutto di Parma, Country Olives, Roasted Peppers,
Black Truffle Marcona Almonds, Black Truffle-Dijon Vinaigrette

1 ½ Pound “Lazy” Maine Lobster, Butter Poached, Handmade Fresh Tortellini, Champagne Lobster Sauce
Day 4
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
Depart from SRQ Airport  

MORE PlACES TO STAY AND PLAY

See the Official Visitors Guide containing a a map, activities for younger children, and MUCH more: digital version and additional guides to download here. 

First, FESTIVALS, My Favorite Thing

See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…

FEBRUURY

4th Annual Taste of New Orleans

Thunder by the Bay–Music and Motorcycles Fest for Local Charities

Sarasota Ski-A-Rees–Ski Show normally every weekend February-May. On hold but check back for reopening.

MARCH

Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash

APRIL

Venice Shark Tooth Festival

MAY

Myakka River Blues Festival

JUNE

Sarasota Music Festival

2022

SarasotaHighlandGames.com

Sarasota Music Half Marathon

More Places to Stay

Luxury, Boutique and More here.

Longboat Key

The Resort at Longboat Key, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards
The Resort at Longboat Key, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 

Zota Beach Resort, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards
Zota Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VistiSarasota.com

 

Lido Beach

Lido Beach Resort
Lido Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Hotel Indigo

Don’t forget the fur babies…

Hotel Indigo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Legacy Hotel

Legacy Hotel, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Other Places to Learn and Play

 Mangrove Tunnels at Lido Beach
Mangrove Tunnels Lido Beach, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com
Sarasota Farmer’s Market
Sarasota Farmer’s Market, Photo Courtesy of VisitSaraosta.com
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com
Civil Rights Tour , Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com.

 

Other possibilities for beauty, adventure, Education and fun include Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, MOTE Marine LABROTORY & AQUARIUM, Civil Rights Tour, and Siesta Key Water Sports.

More Places to Eat

Places to ShopSt. Armands Circle & Beyond

L. Boutique–See all of their designers. I fell in love with kaftans in Morocco so no surprise I LOVE Camilla’s Kaftans and her story. 

T.Georgiano’s  

Influence Style

Island Pursuit

Molly & Zoey

Apricot Lane Boutique 

Fixxation Boutique,

Lotus Boutique,

Pineapple Lain Boutique

The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime 

Camilyn Beth

In the next 2 posts I’ll focus on Health and Wellness Getaways and the Biggest Attraction in Town.