Remember how your heart fluttered when you first drove across the John Ringling Bridge and saw aquamarine waves dancing under a bright blue sky? Remember your first bite of stone crab claws at The Colony? Or standing barefoot on the cool, soft sand of Siesta Beach at twilight and watching the setting sun paint the sky in shifting shades of pink, gold and purple? We’ll never forget what sparked our passion for this place; and, as in any great romance, we keep discovering enchanting new reasons, some rational, some sentimental, and some just delightfully quirky, to fall in love all over again.
Because it’s the perfect car town.
We know it’s politically incorrect, but we just can’t help it. We love our cars. Our new Lexus LS 480, our BMW ragtop, our C-note Mercedes. Even our beat-up old Toyota Corolla. Is it our fault we live in the perfect car town?
Yes, we agree we need better mass transit. And we’ll fight to get it. But what could be more exhilarating than coming back from St. Armands, with the Beach Boys blasting on the stereo, and cresting the bridge to suddenly see our fabulous new skyline laid out before us? It’s a real “this is my town” kind of moment. We always feel a lump in our throats.
We bitch about the traffic, but in all honesty it’s much more manageable than in most Florida cities. Have you been to Orlando lately? Or Naples?
And what wonderful blessing has given us perfect automotive geography? Everything is 15 minutes away. And even the longer trips—out to the south end of Siesta for a sunset dinner at Ophelia’s, or up Gulf of Mexico Drive to the Colony—become magic journeys of astonishing postcard views. The turquoise water, the gorgeous homes, the Season of Sculpture whizzing past . . .
Anyone for a drive?
Because real estate is suddenly dirt cheap.
Our beautiful real estate boom may be over, but Sarasota always finds a silver lining. Bargains are everywhere.
High-end homes are seeing million-dollar reductions, both on the keys and inland. Those high-rises downtown are suddenly affordable, and for the first time in years, you can get a real nice house in a real nice neighborhood for under $200,000.
And what do you get for your money? You get much more than a piece of real estate. You get a share in Sarasota, with an amenity package that puts any other town to shame. Thirty-five miles of white sand beaches, world-class culture and social life, year-round golf, tennis and boating, the best dining in Florida and a sophisticated lifestyle no matter what your income.
The Europeans have already started arriving, driven by a weak dollar and offers they can’t refuse. And smart locals are upgrading. We personally plan to watch the economic return from our new penthouse overlooking our new urban downtown. It was a steal at $599,000.
And we don’t even care that a similar unit went just last week for $549,000.
Because the most popular girl in town is 95 years old.
With her ever-present dark glasses, imperious bearing and husky European accent, Ulla Searing has a Garbo-like aura. But unlike the reclusive actress, this Sarasota philanthropist definitely doesn’t want to be alone.
The 95-year-old Searing, a Swedish native who says her Viking heritage accounts for her remarkable stamina, is out on the town every night, at performances, concerts, art openings and gala affairs, many of them thrown in her honor. Her face appears regularly in society-column photo spreads, often with beaming arts leaders by her side.
It’s no wonder they’re her biggest fans. In the last few years, Searing has donated millions in legacy gifts to Sarasota cultural organizations and educational institutions.
She pledged $9 million in endowment funds to the Ringling Museum of Art, which named its new wing for her and her late husband, Arthur. Her generosity also encompasses a $2 million gift to New College, $4 million to the Ringling College of Art and Design (both of those institutions have named buildings for her, too), $2 million to the Asolo Repertory Theatre and $1 million to Circus Sarasota.
But as a smiling Searing stresses, “They’re not getting the money until I’m dead, and they’re going to have to wait a long time.”
That spunky attitude endears Searing to people like Michael Edwards, the Asolo’s producing artistic director.
“Ulla has such vitality, such a passion for life, at an age when many people have retreated from life,” Edwards says. “She’s got a wicked sense of humor, and she’s so engaged. At intermission of a show, she’ll tell me exactly what she thinks.”
Searing loves to talk to Ringling students about their projects, says president Larry Thompson. “She has the spirit of someone half her age,” Thompson says. “She goes to more events, and stays longer, than anybody in town, including me. And I go to a lot.”
Stephen Borys, whose curator of collections position at the Ringling Museum is endowed by Searing, calls her the quintessential patron of the arts.
“She has such high standards when it comes to art and aesthetics and taste,” Borys says. “It’s one thing to give money, but when that is backed up by connoisseurship, really special. We got to know each other well when we were planning the new wing. She took such a personal interest not only in the wing, but in my work, in my professional and family life.”
Noting that Searing wouldn’t think of attending a social event without wearing her white gloves, Borys says she’s a throwback to a more formal, genteel age.
“I would never meet with her without wearing a coat and tie,” he says. “But she’s not stuffy. She’s witty and smart and fun. And she loves to be on the arm of a handsome man, preferably a young one.”
For more than 30 years, Searing was on the arm of her first husband and great love, Arthur. They met in New York City in the 1950s, when he was chief financial officer of AIG, a world leader in insurance and financial services.
“He was handsome and brilliant and caring,” Searing says. “We had a wonderful life together.” They had a glamorous life, too, attending white-tie-and-tails openings at the Metropolitan Opera and socializing with a wide circle of friends.
The relationship must have been particularly satisfying to Searing, in light of what she says was an unhappy childhood. The daughter of a prominent physician, she was born in Goteborg, Sweden. “I was an only child, and there were few other children around to play with,” she says. “I was lonely a lot of the time.” Both of her parents died when she was still an adolescent, and she went to live with relatives.
Her stable, happy life with Arthur was upended a bit in 1973, when he surprised her with news that they were moving to Longboat Key. “There were only a couple of condos on Longboat then, and it didn’t seem like a very interesting place,” Searing says. “I wasn’t happy at first, though now I absolutely love what Sarasota has become. But at first, I missed New York and my friends. Of course, we did go back to New York in the summer [the couple had a home in the exclusive Hamptons on Long Island].”
After Arthur died in 1983, Searing remarried and divorced twice. She has no children. In a sense, she has adopted the organizations that she supports. “They have become her offspring, in a way, and she wants to see them thrive,” says Suellen Field, the Ringling Museum’s development director.
Searing’s elegantly furnished downtown apartment has a stunning view of Sarasota Bay and Island Park, where Searing walks occasionally to keep fit. At her home in the Hamptons, where she still summers, she swims in a backyard pool. “I used to go water-skiing, when we first came to Florida,” she says. She also used to love to dance, before developing hip and knee trouble.
An avid reader, she has no time for television but would like to stop procrastinating and finally learn how to use a computer. She monitors her finances carefully, and is full of political opinions. “I don’t like our president, but we are stuck with him for a little while longer,” she says. Searing thinks it’s time for a woman in the White House. “But not that woman,” she says, referring to Hillary Clinton.
Asked what brings her the most pleasure, Searing responds quickly. “Sleeping,” she says. “I never get enough of it.”
Debbie Trimble, the Asolo’s development director, describes Searing as “a perfectionist with high expectations of how things need to be done. That’s the benchmark you have to live up to. She is demanding, but I mean that in a good way.
“She’s also extremely thoughtful and gracious. One night I took her home from an Asolo performance, and she invited me upstairs so she could give me a pair of lace gloves she thought would be perfect with my outfit.”
Searing ponders a moment when asked if she thinks she’s easy to get along with.
“It depends on how you behave toward me,” she decides. “I don’t like to be fooled or taken advantage of.” She was upset recently when a friend she hadn’t heard from in years invited her to lunch, only to make a pitch for money for a local organization.
“I thought he just wanted to see me,” she says. “I’m hounded day and night by people asking for money. I have no peace. I’ve told them that all the money has been allocated, and there’s no more to give. But they don’t believe me.”
BobVan Skike, a friend and frequent escort, agrees that the requests for donations can be wearing. “I’ve been asked to bring Ulla along to lunch by people who clearly are hoping to get her support,” he says. “I tell them I don’t bring Ulla anywhere. I escort her where she wants to go.”
And Searing clearly wants to keep on going. She enjoyed a recent Asolo concert by Broadway star James Barbour so much that she returned the next night to hear it again.
“I’m sure she would like to turn the clock back 25 years and have Arthur here, and not be as physically frail as she is,” says Van Skike. “But she’s still so positive about life.”
“She makes the 90s look pretty good, doesn’t she?” the Asolo’s Edwards agrees. “How great that she can still be so active, be such a force for good in the community.”—Charlie Huisking
Because we’re finally a two-party town.
Sarasota has always been a little hard to peg politically. We’ve long had the image of solid Republican conservatism, but social issues are important here, and the latest city voter rolls show more registered Democrats than Republicans. Not too long ago, everybody registered Republican to vote in that all-important primary. But in the last few years, Democrats have been fielding strong candidates and winning key posts. Sarasota is suddenly a two-party town, and that makes politics—and life—here much more interesting.
Sarasota is also a small town politically. Chances are you actually know the people on the ballot. And you can’t say we don’t have great elections. Or rather, memorable elections. Our last contest for U.S. Representative of the 13th Congressional District produced a classic controversy that’s already gone down in the history books, with 16,000 “lost” votes that many believe cost Democrat Christine Jennings the election. With winner Vern Buchanan starting his campaign for re-election, he’s suddenly everywhere in town, trailed closely by Jennings. The new fight promises to be the grudge match of all times.
And the history-making national election is making a little history here, too. We got a good look at the candidates as they crisscrossed town during our bungled primary. Some of the most prominent people in town hosted the candidates. The Lobos and the Grains opened their homes to the Obamas; the Githlers entertained Rudy Giuliani. And who should welcome Hillary Clinton to their Siesta Key home? None other than quintessential Sarasota power broker David Band. “Weren’t your Republican buddies appalled?” we asked him. “Heck, no,” he replied. “They all wanted to come and meet her.”
Because we seriously adore animals.
In pet-crazy Sarasota, we’ve successfully lobbied to dine with our dogs at sidewalk cafes and we even have galas—and parties at Saks Fifth Avenue—where cats and dogs are part of the posh guest list. Our Ritz-Carlton has special pampering services just for pooches. And when animals’ lives are threatened, activists and everyday citizens come roaring to the rescue.
Consider the case of the graceful greyhound. Although greyhounds race in a number of states—and even in the U.K.—the sport is especially popular in Florida, with a number of tracks clustered in the region from Tampa to Naples. But until local advocates for these fleet-footed creatures began organizing in their defense, hundreds of dogs were put to death each year when they grew too old to race. People in Sarasota were quick to open their hearts—and homes—to these doomed dogs.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve cheered them as they zip around the local dog track; perhaps it’s because they’re traditionally the dogs of kings (and we fancy ourselves royalty). Maybe it’s their sweet, endearing natures, paired with their intelligent faces and noble beauty. Or is it just that animals have a special place in Sarasota’s heart?
Whatever the reasons, The Racing Dog Rescue Project, one of several regional greyhound adoption efforts, has helped place more than 1,000 greyhounds in adoptive homes since it was founded 10 years ago. Its volunteers are dedicated to saving as many as possible of the retired racing dogs disposed of each year after their careers are over. They can help you find a reason to love a greyhound, and you can help them in their dream of purchasing the farm they now rent, so that greyhounds can always have a safe place to go to. If you’d like to become one of the many Sarasotans who’ve made a greyhound a part of their family, call the RDRP at (941) 379-FAST or log onto their Web site, rdrp-greyhound.org.
Because we really are a college town.
Next time you happen to be on lower Main Street near Sarasota News & Books, take a look around. You’ll see businesspeople in suits waiting for a table at Epicure, downtown dwellers walking their dogs, elderly couples strolling hand in hand.
But if you look a little closer, you’ll also see another kind of person—the college student. Seated at an outdoor table in jeans or khaki shorts, their legs tucked underneath them and an open textbook and Styrofoam coffee cup at hand, Sarasota’s college students are just as much a part of the fabric of our community as the philanthropists and CEOs. We have 13 colleges and universities, several of them nationally recognized, and the thousands of students they attract from all over the country and even the world are living evidence of one of Sarasota’s most basic, but sometimes forgotten, truths: This is a college town. And the college students who live here are adding their energy and talents to our community, making an impact far beyond the campus.
Take 22-year-old Mariah Arnold, a senior at New College, which consistently ranks as one of the very best liberal arts colleges in the country. Arnold came to Sarasota from Apopka, Fla., and is writing her thesis on estrogen levels in fish in the Myakka and Caloosahatchee rivers. She loves New College—and its famous unstructured curriculum. “I’ve had a broad variety of experiences that I never would have had if I’d gone to a big-name university. If you can handle the freedom and the flexibility, you can do really well here,” she says.
A National Science Foundation grant recipient who plans to pursue a Ph.D., Arnold says her community involvement has augmented her college experience. “I did a lot of Habitat for Humanity work my first year,” she says, “and I’ve been working with Mote Marine Laboratory since my freshman year. I traveled with the New College alumni association, too. My experience here has been uniquely mine, and that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Amar Agha, a 27-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native who came to Sarasota by way of Chicago, chose to get his M.B.A. at USF Sarasota-Manatee because, he says, “it’s the best school in the region.” A graduate assistant with a full course load, he works full-time (also at USF) and is active with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County and the Sarasota Young Professionals Group. “[This] has been a life-changing experience,” he says. “It’s not suit-and-tie cutthroat America. This place makes it a pleasure to get up and come to work.”
Agha plans to pursue a Ph.D. in marketing and remain in the Sarasota area, as so many other graduates from local colleges and universities have. “Sarasota is a great place to be in terms of earning potential and setting yourself up for success,” he says.
Twenty-four-year-old David Trujillo, a native of Ecuador and a second-year graphic and interactive design major at Ringling College of Art and Design, applied to several prestigious art schools—Parsons, Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt—but says Ringling was his top choice because of its reputation. “Some professors are nice and some are fierce—sometimes I’m a little scared to show my work,” he says. “But they all want the students to succeed.”
Trujillo hopes to pursue a career in advertising design after graduation, citing Target and Disney as companies he’d like to work for. “My time here has been fulfilling,” he says. “I found what I was looking for. The community has been incredibly supportive; living here reminds me of the Miami Design District, but less corporate. Sarasota can hold its own.”
Because the best view on Longboat Key is from the trailer park.
Because for gay people, this might just be the best town in America.
Sarasota doesn’t register very high on the nation’s gay radar, and that’s just the way the local gay population likes it. With neither the party atmosphere of Fort Lauderdale nor the raucous bohemianism of Key West, gay life in Sarasota impresses with its affluence, style, and—above all—discretion.
Sarasota has long had a history of tolerance in such matters. Our artistic background set the stage, and our easygoing, welcoming style makes newcomers of all stripes feel at home. The town has shown its true colors in several high-profile tests–by our early success in AIDS fund raising and awareness, then by serving as a refuge for the beleaguered Ray family, who were driven out of Arcadia when their three hemophiliac sons became HIV-positive. And recently, when transgendered Susan Stanton applied for the city manager job, she was treated with seriousness and respect.
But no gay person ever came to Sarasota for the nightlife. There is exactly one bona fide gay bar (Club Witness up by the airport), and nocturnal activities are likely to center around the arts and dining. If the visitor is lucky, he or she may be invited to a local gay dinner party—where, like gay dinner parties from New York to Calcutta to Buenos Aires to Paris, the atmosphere is electric with wit, repartee, hors d’oeuvres to die for, and a camaraderie rarely found in the straight world. The visitor might be impressed with another element: the level of power and influence of the local guests. They come from the arts, real estate, the media, all the way up into banking, medicine, and even politics. And the picture they paint of sophisticated gay America, tropical style, is hard to top.
Because a shy young immigrant from the Peruvian jungle made downtown a hip restaurant destination and happening night spot.
Since Selva Grill opened on lower Main Street in 2004, it’s been packed with the young, the beautiful, and the well-heeled, who perch at the bar or on the nearby red sofas with their BlackBerries and mojitos or devour the ceviche and other Peruvian specialties in the dark and sexy dining room. Their presence and the restaurant’s success soon sparked other openings nearby. Now downtown Sarasota, once dark after 5 and on weekends, stays up late, with a critical mass of stylish spots to meet friends for dinner or drinks. And though Sarasota’s young people first discovered Selva, their elders have followed, developing such a taste for owner Darwin Santa Maria’s fiery specialties that “some of them keep telling me ‘more spice!’” he says.
You’d expect the creator of such a culinary hotspot to be cool and cocky, working the tables like a visiting celebrity, but that’s not what Santa Maria is about. Instead, the short, stocky 32-year-old spends most evenings speeding around the kitchen—making the sauces and specials, supervising the staff, even slicing up plantains or loading the dishwasher, if that’s what needs to be done to help his hardworking crew keep up with the giddy rush of orders and ensure that that every plate lives up to his exacting vision.
That vision grew out of Santa Maria’s childhood on a 300-acre farm in the Peruvian jungle. His father was a local politician, but he and his wife also ran a little restaurant. Their three children all worked at the restaurant, but only Santa Maria loved it. “We never went to market,” Santa Maria remembers. “We had fresh produce, spices, game, even our own fish ponds.” The tropical bounty of that farm remains his touchstone for how food should taste: fresh, flavorful, healthy and real. “People tell me I’m an artist,” he says. “But Mother Nature is the artist.”
In 1989, when he was 13, a wave of terrorism led the family to emigrate to Miami. His father, who had been a minor celebrity at home, couldn’t deal with the anonymity and struggles of life in a new country and soon returned. His mother remained, scratching out a living by babysitting. A few months later, she and the children moved to Sarasota, where Santa Maria entered Sarasota High, still unable to speak more than a few words of English.
But he knew even then he wanted to go to culinary school, and he washed dishes after school at a restaurant at Sarasota Quay, where he convinced the chef to let him cook by offering to work extra hours free.
“When they hire you, they’ll see what you’re worth,” his mother had told him, and he proved her right, coming early and staying late as he absorbed knowledge like rice absorbs water. He went on to attend Johnson and Wales in Miami, always holding down restaurant jobs as well. After graduation, he’d planned to cook his way around the world, but when he came back to Sarasota for a few months, he sensed, with downtown’s burgeoning energy and the rise of special events like the film festival, “things were going to happen here.” Over the next few years, he made a name for himself cooking at the Bijou, Michael’s and Fred’s. In 2001, at the age of 24, he surpassed his original goal of owning a restaurant by the time he was 30 by opening Selva Grill (Selva means “jungle”) in a little building on Clark Road.
“People said the location was bad, the food was too spicy, there was no ceviche here and no young crowd,” he remembers. “But I knew what I wanted to do.” His young Peruvian wife, Lellys, waited tables; a colleague from Fred’s took a pay cut to cook with him; and family members pitched in, too. The building was shabby, equipment kept breaking, and he had to work almost around the clock and struggle to pay his bills. But Selva began to build a buzz, and one night, Santa Maria looked out to see a local news anchor, a national sports star and AC-DC rocker Brian Johnson in his little dining room. “That was my happiest night,” he says. “And then the air conditioning broke.” But his guests just wiped away the sweat and kept eating—and Johnson, he says, was one of those who urged him to move the restaurant downtown.
Despite the new Selva’s success, Santa Maria says he’s poured most of his earnings back into his business, which recently expanded to include Malabar, a downtown lunch place specializing in Peruvian salads and sandwiches. “But I never got into this for the money,” he says. It’s all about the food—and his family, from his fiercely proud mother, who saves every clipping about her son, to his seven-month-old “beautiful son,” Joaquin, who has a crib in Santa Maria’s tiny office over the restaurant.
Eventually, he says, he dreams of opening “a boutique hotel in the jungle,” offering Peruvian cuisine and tours of the rainforest to sophisticated travelers. But even if that happens, his base will remain in Sarasota. “This is going to be a major food town,” he predicts. “And I like competition. There is a saying: ‘If you’re comfortable going the same speed, you’re not going fast enough.’”
Because we love our celebrities—but we leave them alone.
You would expect the rich and famous to be drawn to Sarasota’s natural beauty. And they are. But our town offers them something even more special—a little personal privacy.
Sometimes they want to join in the fun. Comedian Dick Smothers, sportscaster Dick Vitale and AC/DC singer Brian Johnson are often seen out and about and have made friends all over town.
Others keep a lower profile. TV’s Jerry Springer surfaces occasionally, and the tennis glamazons – Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova—can sometimes be glimpsed on various courts around town, at the gym, even in the aisles at Publix.
But others, like novelist Stephen King, are virtual recluses. They demand total privacy for their extraordinary creativity, and we give it to them.
Most reclusive of all is our latest celebrity newcomer, Leona Helmsley’s poodle, Coco. The world’s richest dog—she’s worth $12 million—is now living somewhere in Sarasota, under an assumed name.