Redefining Sarasota from dreaded to delightful
Not long ago, I was at Medford High School to see my friend’s teenage daughter perform in a school production of Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow.”
She and the young actors, who delivered their lines in their best English accents, kept talking about a fictional estate named Ainswick, a family property that seemed to house all of the characters’ emotional baggage.
They’d say things like, “We must nevah return to Ainswick” or “I mustn’t stay long in Ainswick.”
Ainswick seemed to be a real source of stress for these characters.
Ainswick must be the worst, I thought.
I remember thinking, as I watched the play, that most grownups have a real Ainswick, whether it’s their hometown, a place they spent summers, or some other spot that holds their darkest, most complicated memories.
My Ainswick is Sarasota, Fla., a place for sun and fun . . . and the former home of my maternal grandparents.
It used to be that when I talked about Sarasota, I’d sound like one of those Agatha Christie characters, all dark and brooding and confused about how I never wanted to go there again.
“We must never return to Sarasota,” I’d say to my sister or anyone who would listen.
I had a complicated relationship with my grandmother, whom my sister and I visited in Sarasota about once a year. I won’t get into it too much here because it’s not classy to air family grievances in this kind of forum (I’ll take it to therapy) — and, for the record, it’s not as though my grandma was an Agatha Christie villain.
We were just two very strong people who disagreed about a lot of things.
When I was very young and she could be the boss of me, she told me how she thought I should live, and how “smart people” behaved.
Her local rules included not letting me go into the water past my knees. Also, when I was in a bathing suit at Siesta Beach, she told me that young women shouldn’t “strut and sample.”
At 13, I didn’t know what she meant by “strut and sample,” so I asked my older cousin, who explained that “strutting” was looking like I was easy, and “sampling” was engaging in sexual behavior. It was my grandma’s early 1990s way of slut-shaming.
Of course, the thing to know about slut-shaming someone who hasn’t hit puberty is that it often causes that person to hit puberty right at that moment. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I was capable of strutting and sampling. It put a lot of ideas in my head.
The summer she told me not to strut and sample, I had used my allowance to buy the cassette tape of Lenny Kravitz’s “Mama Said.” I’d listen to the tape over and over while thinking about what it would be like to strut and sample with Lenny Kravitz, maybe by the beach, maybe in the water past my knees. It would be incredible.
By the mid 2000s, when I became a grownup and could make my own decisions about where to spend vacations, I decided I would never return to Sarasota. It was a bad place that made me regress.
But much like the characters in that Agatha Christie play, fate brought me back to the most complicated place.
In 2013, my friend Jess — a companion so close I think her kids might have some of my DNA — told me some upsetting news. Her husband had been offered a great job in Florida.
“We’re moving to Sarasota,” she said, sheepish.
“I must nevah return to Sarasota!” I said.
But I didn’t have much of a choice. It was Jess. Jess. Jess, whom I needed to see a lot in order to be happy. Jess, whose kids were the most important young people in my life. There was no way I couldn’t visit.
My only choice was to flip the narrative. I decided to take back Sarasota. I would make my Ainswick the best place on Earth.
I needed to get to it quickly, so I flew down shortly after she moved.
One of the first things we did when I arrived was to go back to Siesta Beach, which turns out to be better than any beach I’ve ever been to — and I’ll include Aruba in that mix.
All I remembered of Siesta Key from my trips in the 1980s and ’90s was my fear of going in the water too far. Also, I remember my fear of hitting puberty in my bathing suit.
But as an adult, all I could pay attention to was the white, soft sand, which feels like silk on your feet. It’s not a crowded beachfront — there were options for food, but I didn’t feel attacked by commerce. Siesta Key has eight miles of beach, so on any given day, there was space for us to stretch out, especially on that first weekday. During that visit, I sat with Jess’s youngest son in my lap as we let the warm water rush over our legs.
The next place to take as my own was the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. I remembered the Sarasota landmark as a sterile space with creepy paintings of clowns. Maybe it was that at some point, but now it’s The Ringling — a rolling campus that includes a classy restaurant for a date, a play area for kids with a slide that keeps Jess’s sons amused for hours, and a beautiful flower garden — Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden — where every plant has a special name. We could spend an entire day there.
My favorite part of the attraction is the circus museum building, which includes massive, colorful circus posters from past Greatest Shows on Earth, and a 44,000-piece miniature circus that shows you how the entire setup works, from ticket collectors to animal tamers.
In Sarasota, dining options were limited with my grandparents; my grandma was always worried about my potential food allergies. But Jess took us to Owen’s Fish Camp, where it’s easy to relax. The food is great – fresh fish, good wine, etc. But the backyard is what makes the place. If you walk to the back of the restaurant, you’ll find a setup that looks like a southern lawn party with picnic tables, cornhole, and a fire pit where you can buy plates of grilled shrimp and beers in a cooler. You can also get a yummy smoked fish spread served with crackers to share. Every time we’ve retured to Owen’s, there’s been live music. Kids are welcome, and there’s a good tire swing for entertainment.
I grew up in Maryland, so it seemed fitting that after all these years I’d try out Orioles Spring Training at Ed Smith Stadium. No offense to the Red Sox’s setup in Fort Myers (where Jess and I have also taken the kids – it’s only an hour and a half or so from Sarasota), but the Orioles park feels more like a family picnic. People seem like they’re on vacation. Maybe it’s the Baltimore charm.
I continue to travel to Sarasota (I’ve been there about 10 times in three years) to spend time with Jess, but also because there’s so much more to see. I’ve visited the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, but I haven’t explored the entire property. I’d like to go back to the Sarasota Jungle Gardens, because one of my best memories is watching the kids feeds the flamingos. We also plan to visit Naples, where there’s a hotel with a 100-foot waterslide.
Jess and I also want to do some more activities on our own, like driving up to Tampa to see some of the sites featured in the movie “Magic Mike.”
Talk about strutting and sampling.
My sister, who accompanies me on many of these trips — and has just as much baggage when it comes to Sarasota — used to say that we should also visit the places where my grandparents lived, or where they’re buried. We’ve talked about airing our grievances, even if it’s just to an old house, or to each other.
But every time we go to Sarasota, we’re having too much fun to make time for that kind of behavior.
Also, I don’t know what we would say.
Sometimes I think about how my grandma did take us to all of those spots — to the beautiful beach, to the weird clown museum, and to St. Armands Circle, where she’d let me buy shells and little treats.
Looking back, it’s clear she moved from New York to Sarasota so that the people in her life would want to visit. Looking back, it’s clear she wanted to show me a good time.
I have some adult perspective on this now; she never meant for Sarasota to be Ainswick.
She wanted it to be a place filled with love and family.
It’s nice to know that it is.