SARASOTA FLORIDA CIRCUS - Sarasota's sun, sand, shells and Circus.

by Chelle Koster Walton, Florida Travel Editor

Visitors and area residents alike travel to Sarasota for a dose of culture, a shopping spree, a sun-fried day at the world's whitest beach, a fine meal, after-dark boogie or any combination tVhereof. Culture comes in the form of abundant theatrical and musical performances, museums and galleries galore. The Muses and their influence arrived at Sarasota in the late 1920s with John Ringling, circus magistrate and patron of the arts. In his memory, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art (941-355-5101) encompasses acres of bayside estate holding baroque statuary, original Rubens and Rembrandts, rose gardens, a circus museum, an antique Italian theater, and the opulent Ca'd'Zan palace where he wintered.

Modeled after the Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy, the 30-room Ca'd'Zan dazzles with ornately tiled towers and plazas and furnishings shipped from around the world. The total construction bill: $1.5 million.

Bring in the clowns!


Art schools, high-tech performing art centers and a lithe, avant-garde spirit continue to saturate the city with the artistic, culminating in the Ringling Medieval Fair the first week of March. Call 941-359-ARTS for what's happening artistically at any given moment.

Art galleries line the streets of a reviving downtown and at St. Armands Circle, the Rodeo Drive of western Florida. Located on one of Sarasota's barrier islands, "The Circle's" 100-plus boutiques and restaurants make shopping an outdoor sport devoid of "shop 'til you drop" crassness and supermall anonymity.

Pulverized quartz makes the beaches on neighboring Siesta Key the whitest and finest in the world. Unfortunately, most of the world seems to know about it. Beaching on Sarasota's islands means crowds and parking challenges, so don't expect solitude. Arrive early to stake your place on the sands and the asphalt.

Youngsters especially enjoy the sharks and other sealife studied at Mote Marine Aquarium (941- 388-2451) on Lido Key. Downtown, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (941-366-5730) wows plant lovers with riverside plots of orchids, palms, bamboo and other exotic flora. Best times to visit are the Christmas season, when poinsettias and greenery festoon the grounds and their historic home, and in April when orchid blooming inspires a festival.

Exclusive Longboat Key is home to the spectacular and sports-minded Colony Beach Resort (941-383-6464). Hordes of other resorts and mom-pop motels line the beaches along Sarasota's front line of defense. Something with character? Crescent House B & B on Siesta Key exudes gingerbread charm with beach proximity. Call 941-346-0857 for reservations.

Eating Sarasota

Choosing a restaurant in the Sarasota area is difficult only because so many of such fine quality complicate narrowing the selection down to one. In the downtown area, my dress-up favorite is Carmichael's (941-951-1771) because of its cozy, historic home atmosphere and creative wild game specialties. On the islands, I favor the fish house restaurants, such as The Salty Dog (349-0158) on Siesta Key or Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant (383-1748) on Longboat Key. Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar (941-925-4444) on Highway 41 between the two bridges to Siesta Key is famous for its seafood steamer pots.

Lots of birds share the shore.


Combine dinner with sightseeing aboard the Marina Jack II, a dinner boat that departs from the downtown Marina Jack restaurant. Call 941-365-4232 for information and reservations.

Disco 'til Dawn

Live entertainment and youthful verve turn up the volume on Sarasota's night scene. In town, Sarasota Quay -- an eat-drink-and-be-merry complex -- is the place to be seen in fancy dancing duds; on the beaches, try anywhere in "The Circle." Or come casual to beach joints such as Siesta Key's Beach Club (941-349-6311).