Florida met all my expectations

May 21, 2014 

I always wanted to visit Florida to see the Gulf Coast, feel the subtropical warmth, experience the flora and fauna, and explore a bit of history. So in April my husband and I did just that.

My research revealed that one of the best beaches on the Gulf coast, Crescent Beach, is on Siesta Key, an island just off the coast of Sarasota. When we arrived, there were signs everywhere that read “#1 Beach in the USA,” a designation bestowed in 2011 by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, a noted expert on beach desirability.

We settled into our rented condo, then quickly made our way to the beach. It was just how I’d pictured it: pure white sand the consistency of powdered sugar that never gets too hot to walk on. Where the sand ended, an aqua blue expanse of sea and sky began. This was the gulf I’d longed to see. I felt grateful to be there.

The beach was full of folks sunbathing, swimming, picnicking, playing volleyball, building sandcastles and walking. Umbrellas of every color and shape fluttered in the breeze. The crescent beach stretches for more than three miles; along its shoreline are condominiums, resort hotels and a big state park with lifeguards and other amenities.

The water was so warm and shallow that toddlers splashed along the shoreline, safely within their parents’ purview. Pelicans swooped low, folded their wings and dove for fish. Boats cruised by with their parasailing passengers high up in the sky, barely visible to those of us on the ground.

One day, when it was too cool to swim, we drove south to Punta Gorda. There we took a cruise across Charlotte Harbor, a huge estuary that flows toward a string of little islands, then into the gulf. We stopped on Cabbage Key and had lunch at its sole restaurant. A short nature walk brought us close to mangroves whose roots grow in the salty shoreline. Sea grape trees with huge colorful leaves were prolific.

Another day, we explored Myakka River State Park. We took an airboat ride on the lake and saw dozens of alligators as long as thirteen feet as they laid like dark, scaly, driftwood on the shoreline. Some of them slid into the water and floated with their eyes barely breaking the surface.

We visited Historic Spanish Point, located on a small peninsula just south of Siesta Key. The history of Native American settlement here is understood through the study of middens, piles of seashells and debris that were left behind. Later, white pioneers from New York settled there. Later still, a wealthy woman named Bertha Palmer built sweeping gardens and porticos on the site. It was a truly splendid, multifaceted park.

John and Mable Ringling, of the famous circus family, bequeathed their lush estate on the shores of Sarasota to the state of Florida. It was a must-see. Here we visited the circus museum, which had an old-fashioned train car where Ringling slept, as well as a huge display of tiny circus figures. There were towering banyan trees on the grounds, festooned in hanging moss. The Ringling home resembled an extravagant Venetian palace — evidently, Mable loved Venice.

One of the simplest pleasures we enjoyed was dining outside, then strolling to the beach to contemplate another glorious sunset.

Florida is beautiful, but it is also very flat. If predictions about rising seas due to global warming come true, much of Florida will be underwater, a sad fate for such a fascinating place.

Reach columnist Mary Magee at marymagee@harbornet.com

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