Seafood and Sand on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Nostalgia” is a word I wouldn’t normally associate with Florida, but a recent sojourn on the Gulf Coast got me thinking about old times down South.
A secluded beach at Sandpiper Inn.
Back in the ‘60s, wandering the Keys, I’d stumbled across a wayward inn that appeared to be straight off the movie set of “Key Largo”—eccentric owners, “regulars” from Saskatoon who showed up with their dogs each February, geese scuttling over the grounds, a peeling skiff available for “fishing—free!”
I lingered for a week and returned a couple of times in later years—until the owners died off and the property had been sold to speculators who figured to build condos. Geese were unlikely to be tolerated.
If you look hard enough, it’s still possible to find a bit of that easy-breezy old Florida. I discovered some on Longboat Key, a serene stretch of beach and mangrove on the Gulf of Mexico.
Cruise above 30 mph down the island’s two-lane road and you’ll likely miss the sign for “Sandpiper Inn”, a modest eleven unit motel resort hidden in tropical vegetation.
The tropical entrance to The Sandpiper Inn.
The managers will show you around the one and two bedroom lodgings—kitchen and dining areas, big beds and private patios–but they’d just as soon set you down poolside for a leisurely chat. Richard and Mary Lou have been running small inns for decades and gotten the hang of it: offer the traveler a welcoming cuppa and introduce him around to the other guests.
Pleasant room at the Sandpiper Inn.
When I happened by, more Europeans than Americans were padding about the place. Everyone seemed jolly well acquainted as they gathered on the beach for sunset cocktails and BBQ. Bedtime was soundless but for the plaintive croak of indigenous reptiles.
Longboat Key claims a rambunctious history flowing back to an early population of farmers, fishermen and sundry mavericks. A century ago impresario John Ringling wintered his circus company across the bay in Sarasota, meanwhile buying up land on the Key for development as a winter playground.
The hurricane of 1921 wiped out the farmers. Within a few years Ringling himself went bust, putting any resort projects on hold until the 1950s. The mavericks dug in, getting by on coon meat and bootlegging. Until after WWII, Longboat Key was utilized by the air force for target practice.
Tennis Gardens at Longboat Key Club & Resort.
Nowadays the island features luxury properties like Longboat Key Resort & Club, plus some of the priciest homes in Florida. Still, there remains the occasional bargain like Sandpiper Inn and, if you’ve an ear listen for them, persistent echoes of temps perdu.
Ringling’s Ca d’Zan
mansion in Sarasota.
To experience Longboat Key in context you may wish to meander down Sarasota Bay in the” Liquid Limousine” with Jimmy Seaton. The veteran Coast Guard captain steers his cabin cruiser among the dolphins and channel isles southward to the high rise hotels of Sarasota, meanwhile weaving in commentary on the colorful history of the region.
The Ringling complex in Sarasota–including the Ringling mansion, Circus Museums, Museum of Art and Asolo Theatre–is a cultural nexus on the Gulf Coast. The delightful Circus Sarasota continues a grand tradition with performances each winter season. The South Florida Historical Museum in the restored old downtown of nearby Bradenton offers exhibits ranging from prehistoric flora, fauna and aboriginal human settlement to the boom days of Florida resort development.
For me, a stay in south Florida usually involves many hours on a tennis court. Fortunately, there is no better place in the world to play the game. Those seeking an immersive tennis experience with resort accommodation and professional instruction may opt for Longboat Key Club & Resort with its state of the art Tennis Gardens, site each spring of the Sarasota Open tournament. Or at the IMG sports complex in Bradenton there’s the famous Nick Bollettieri tennis camp, which conducts all day/all week sessions for ordinary adult players as well as programs for touring and would-be pros.
Outdoor dining on St. Armand’s Circle.
Want a good week of tennis at bargain prices? Stay at the Sandpiper Inn and play at Longboat Key’s first class public facility. The Tennis Center offers ten Har-Tru clay courts and guest passes, plus a friendly staff that can help fix you up with partners.
The focus of area dining and shopping is graceful St. Armands Circle, with its cluster of 150 stores and restaurants located between Longboat Key and the bridge into downtown Sarasota. For lunch or dinner, don’t miss the Columbia, which has been serving up traditional Cuban favorites at Florida locations for more than 100 years.
Columbia Restaurant on St. Armand’s Circle.
On the north end of Longboat Key there remains a handful of long-established seafood eateries, quintessential “Old Florida”, including the Mar Vista Dockside Pub (great grouper sandwich) and the Beach House (great sunsets).
Of course contemporary fusion cuisines abound as well at restaurants like PattGeorge’s (fresh seafood prepared in a variety of exotic sauces) or Re Federico, where owner Alessandro Danielli may prepare fresh mozzarella right at your table. If you happen to stay at the Sandpiper Inn, ask about the bed & breakfast arrangement with Blue Dolphin Café. It’s just across the road, serving heaped platters of omelet and fried potatoes that’ll keep you fueled up ‘til dinner.
For further information about aforementioned lodgings, entertainments, etc. check out the following websites:
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine Editor. Photos courtesy of Leigh Cort, publicist. The tennis club photo is courtesy of Longboat Key Club & Resort; the two St. Armand’s Circle photos are courtesty of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. The mansion photo is courtesy of Ringling Museum.