When I first started coming here many years ago on vacation, flying down on People's Express and sleeping on couches and mooching off relatives, I thought Siesta Key was Sarasota. I barely noticed the mainland. To me it was a big staging area for the key, like New Jersey is for Manhattan.
And why not? Siesta had everything I wanted. The beach, the bars, the weather, the extremely casual dining, the running around all day in a bathing suit. In fact, I liked it so much that after four or five visits I decided to move here.
Of course I soon found out that Siesta Key is not Sarasota and that the mainland is much more reasonably priced, has better food, more activities, more shade, better shopping, less traffic, a Publix on every corner, and you don't have to cross a bridge to get there. I also discovered that one can't remain on vacation forever and that you had to put food on the table. So I soon had a job-this very one, in fact, which I cling to tenaciously despite all the attempts here at the magazine to get rid of me and replace me with John Karl-and I soon found myself immersed in the cutthroat world of the old-time Sarasota gossip columnists, the old pros like Helen Griffith, Carol Cheek, Sally Traeger, Jane Baldwin, all of us fighting tooth and nail for any scrap of information. Siesta Key became a place to go to parties at rich people's houses and rather anxiety-producing at that, as I didn't always have an invitation and Sally T., a tiny little old lady, could throw a mean body block if she felt I was being photographed more than her.
And now, 25 years after my initial visit I look back on Siesta Key and think, what was it? What was the initial attraction? What magic made me move to Sarasota and live out this life I've come to know so well? Can I put my finger on it? Can I solve this major mystery of my existence?
With this end in mind, I decided to return to the key. My quest took the form of a weekend getaway, which you have to admit is the perfect form for a quest on Siesta Key. My first observation was a comforting one: It looks exactly the same. Of all the places in Sarasota, Siesta Key has changed the least. True, they have built a lot of mega-mansions, and there are some new condos, and some of the enclaves near the Village that were once inhabited by people who parked on their lawns have been cleaned up, but it is instantly recognizable as the same place it used to be. In fact, since most of its beachfront condos were built in the '60s and '70s-with those great old names like Aloha Kai, Siesta Royale, El Presidente, Crystal Sands-the place is starting to take on a time warp quality.
This time I chose the Captiva Beach Resort at Sarasea Circle, that little grouping of mom and pop motels just south of the Stickney Point bridge. For old-fashioned charm, Sarasea Circle wins hands down. I always send friends there, and they always love it. The Captiva and its six or seven neighbors must be 50 years old but they've been so well kept and renovated that they are quite spiffy and manicured. There are koi ponds and cute little gardens and a shared swimming pool amongst the palms. It's such a classic piece of Florida vacation history that I'm surprised it's not on the National Register of Historic Places.
All the rooms at the Captiva Beach have kitchens and dishes and sleeper sofas. In fact, just about all the rental accommodations do, and the message is clear-bring the family. Never have you seen such a family-oriented spot. And not just the kids. Grandma is expected to come along-I guess she gets the sleeper-and the sight of a slightly frazzled older woman struggling with a three- and a six-year- old, right behind a young couple struggling with a five- and a seven-year-old, is one of the most common on the key.
But no time to linger in the room. I was on a quest. So I trotted down the wooden path that leads to the beach. Yes, the sand is great. It's spoiled us Sarasotans. When we're in St. Thomas or Maui we look down disparagingly and say, "You call this sand?" On Siesta it looks like some synthetic artificial stuff ordered from the prop department. It's too smooth, too white, too clean, too powdery to be real sand, and I love it.
It was, however, a trifle hot, even though it was only late May and I quickly learned that hairpieces and the beach don't mix. (Not my hairpiece, of course, but that of a man sitting nearby.) They curl around the edges and sweat runs down your face and neck. Furthermore, I had to dash home and walk Peanut and then drop by the office for my employee evaluation meeting with Jimmy Dean and Pam Daniel. I won't tell you how it went. I will say this. As soon as I hit the key I headed straight for the Crescent Club, Siesta's classic old bar and ordered a double. Things started going through my mind, things like "What do they know, anyway?" and "After all I've done for that stupid magazine."
After a couple of drinks I wove across the road toward the beach. The sun was setting, there was a breeze, and everything looked very, very golden. The families of tourists, the buffed and frisky teenagers, the frugal Germans traveling off-season-how happy and carefree they seemed. I kicked off my flip-flops and ventured into the surf, until inertia overtook me and I plopped down neck-deep in the 87 degree water.
And that's when it hit me. This was it! This was the reason I moved to Sarasota! So that every afternoon just before sunset I could get a little buzz and go sit in the Gulf. The gentle swaying, the perfect water temperature, the beautiful blue-green color. . . All my cares and troubles vanished, the warm water lulled me and I said out loud . . . "I want to live here."
"You do live here, dummy," a pelican seemed to screech as he dove in beside me. "Now get back to work. Tonight you've got Reggae on the Bay and the Film Festival preview press party. Chop, chop."
"Oh, well, " I though, as I slowly made my way back to the beach, wishing I'd worn a real bathing suit instead of cut-off sweats. They were so waterlogged they kept sliding off, much to the amusement of the Germans and the teenagers.
I didn't care. My quest was over. My impossible dream had come true.