Far below us, the Gulf of Mexico glinted in the late-afternoon sun and dive-bombing pelicans flashed through the air like silver streaks. But inside the Radisson ballroom, all eyes were focused on the platter the server was bearing to the judges' table. From a bed of flaky pastry rose a lofty mountain of shimmering custard, topped with pale-green slivers of lime and quivering peaks of whipped cream. Aah-ah, sighed the hotel chefs, who had left their posts in the kitchen to watch the proceedings; and aah-ah, sighed the five judges, as the server picked up a silver knife and sunk it into the delicious, subterranean depths of the pie. Aah-ah, I sighed bitterly from the back of the room, condemned to only watch and record it all in my little reporter's notebook.
It was Pie No. 1 in our SARASOTA Magazine Key Lime Pie Tasting, and undaunted by the eight pies that still waited in the background, the judges grabbed their forks and dove in. Forty-five empty dessert plates later, they shook each others' hands and staggered to the elevators, while I looked gloomily at the pile of crumbs, cream and custard the server was scraping into the trash. Outside, the immense, indifferent Gulf rolled on.
It's not easy editing SARASOTA's Visitors' Annual, but we forget all our self-sacrifice and suffering when they result in a big, beautiful book like this. In addition to including the results of that first-ever Key Lime Pie Tasting, this is our first Visitors' Annual to go to regular SARASOTA subscribers, as their December issue, as well as to visitors to the region's top resorts and hotels.
We think that makes sense, since most subscribers host a steady stream of visitors who can use a guidebook. (In fact, one-fourth of all Sarasota visitors stay with friends and family.) And even longtime residents may appreciate some fresh local perspectives, from the stunning images our photographers contributed to "The Essence of Sarasota" to comic novelist Robert Plunket's take on the 10 ultimate Sarasota experiences. (Locals will remember what a stir he caused writing about Sarasota for the New York Times travel section last year.)
Most of us, after all, first came here as visitors ourselves, and even though we're no longer on holiday, we've mastered the fine art of the Sarasota micro-vacation. That can be as simple and spontaneous as slowing down to savor a sunset on the bay or as deliberate as keeping a swimsuit in the car for an occasional lunch break at Lido Beach.
Visitors are a huge part of Sarasota's story. Last year, we hosted 1,386,000 tourists-and that doesn't include the 100,000 or so snowbirds who spend much of their winter here. According to the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, they have an average age of 50 and household income of $71,000, and they come from all over the world and the country-especially from Florida, New York, Ohio and Illinois. Of those who rent accommodations, 45 percent stay in condos, 34 percent in hotels and motels and the rest are divided between apartments, houses, mobile homes and campsites. Every year, they contribute about $856 million to our economy; and they're also the major reason we year-round residents have so many top-flight restaurants, shops and other attractions to enjoy.
Best of all, says the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau's Virginia Haley, they go home happy-and hoping to return. On a recent Web survey, an "amazing" 98 percent said they'd like to come back. Their top reasons: the beautiful beaches, warm weather, "not overly touristy" atmosphere and "enchanting bayfront." (Close behind was "great food"-including, no doubt, some of those winning key lime pies.)
And their top request was for relocation information, proving that the time-honored tradition of visitors turning into residents is still going strong. If you're a visitor dreaming of making Sarasota your home-or one of your homes, since about a third of all homes in the county are vacation homes-be sure to turn to our "Luxury Home" section. In addition to a report on the second-home phenomenon, we've included a look at some of the spectacular new water features spouting in local backyards (don't you deserve a tropical waterfall, swim-up bar or your own manmade rushing river?)
And if you'd like even more information about relocating to Sarasota, you'll be happy to know that we also publish Homebuyer, a comprehensive guide and idea book to finding your place in paradise. You can find copies in model centers at most local developers, or write to me at Gulfshore Media, 601 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, FL 34236, and I'll send you a complimentary copy of your own.