SARASOTA, Fla. - It is a still, hot day on Sarasota Bay as we slide our kayaks into the water. Too lazy to use our oars, we drift a little and watch the mullet jump while we wait for the last members of our tour to arrive. Suddenly a pelican swoops down and grabs a silvery fish, startling us.
We set off a few minutes later, seven of us with little or no kayaking experience. Kelly, our guide, points his oar in the direction he wants us to go, then stays in the middle of our disorganized pack, showing us how to paddle, how to turn and stop, calling out encouragement to whoever is trailing.
Kelly talks about the bay's wildlife - the cormorants that are diving under our kayaks for fish, the sea urchins that would prick our feet if we tried to walk in the shallow water, the manatees that come and go with the seasons. As we pass bayfront mansions, Kelly also tells us about some of the famous people who live - or once lived - in them: Lucille Ball; Jerry Springer; Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/ DC.
And he talks about John Ringling, who in 1927 moved the winter quarters of the circus that he and his four brothers founded to Sarasota. He had already been spending winters in Sarasota and buying real estate, wanting to turn this city on the bay into a fashionable resort town. At one point, he owned 25 percent of the land in Sarasota.
He and his wife Mable built a winter home here, a Venetian Gothic mansion they called Ca D'Zan - House of John - where they displayed part of their art collection. As the collection grew, the Ringlings built an art museum, inspired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, on their waterfront property. In his will, Ringling left the estate, including more than 600 works of art, to the state of Florida.
I listen attentively because I'll be at the Ringling - now part of Florida State University - later to view an installation piece, SkySpace, in a building created just for that purpose.
On my trips to Sarasota, I sample what I find most interesting: nature and the arts. So I kayak the bay, take a boat ride with a marine biologist, explore Myakka State Park, spend a day browsing the Ringling's various art and circus exhibits and return on another trip to see the sunset transformation of James Turrell's SkySpace, wander through the historic Towles Court artists colony. And of course watch the sunset from Siesta Key.
Woven throughout is the story of Ringling and how he contributed to Sarasota, a city with a rich cultural life that attracts affluent snowbirds and retirees, as he envisioned, but also visitors and residents who are drawn to its bay, rivers, parks, mangrove islands and wildlife.
It is Sarasota Bay that drawn me on this day. We look for manatees as we make a leisurely circle around a tiny island. Cormorants dive and surface around us, unperturbed by the humans jerking at our oars. Occasionally a light breeze ruffles the water, and I enjoy the peace of being on the bay.
The first part of our tour is just a warm-up. Our destination is the tunnels through the mangroves that carve a protected section of the bay into small enclaves. It is shady in the tunnels, the water illuminated by the sunlight that filters through mangroves.
Maneuvering is difficult in these narrow passages, and it's easy to see why we learned to paddle on open water first. Kelly cautions against correcting our course by grabbing for low branches. He points out tiny tree crabs and large spiders crawling along those branches. After that warning, I avoid reaching for the branches, instead jabbing my oar at thick clusters of roots to try to change direction.
Another day finds me out on the water again, this time on a "Sea Life Encounter" cruise from the Mote Aquarium, a quasi-educational outing with Stephanie, a marine biologist.
We see dolphins within a few minutes after leaving the dock, but it's Stephanie who spots the tiny fin of a baby dolphin. The little children love that there's a baby swimming next to us, and there is much oohing and aahing every time the baby surfaces.
"I love dolphins," one little boy pronounces. "I love dolphins, too," another boy adds fiercely, as if only a limited number of people can love dolphins and he's competing to be one of them.
Our boat circles rookeries in the bay, densely populated with about 900 pairs of nesting birds - roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, cormorants, egrets and more. The islands are natural but have been diminished by erosion, so now they are protected by rock breakwaters. There is no connection to land, keeping the birds safe from predators like raccoons that would raid the nests.
On our way back in, Stephanie throws out a fish net that drags the bottom of the bay, then dumps its contents into an aquarium for our last lesson of the day. She puts some of the tiny creatures she caught - brittle starfish, sea anemone, conch, tiny silvery fish - in water in plastic containers and we pass them around, looking for the features that she told us about, gently touching the ones she told us we could. At the end, she throws everything back into the bay.
The view of nature is completely different at Myakka River State Park, which has North America's first public treetop trail, a walkway suspended 25 feet above the ground. Only a few other people are on the Boylston Nature Trail, which leads to the canopy walk, and I walk long stretches without encountering anyone.
Sometimes it is as if no one else is in the park, and at every rustle of leaves, every snap of a twig, I wonder who or what is keeping me company. The park has more than two dozen varieties of snakes, as well as animals I'd rather not meet alone in the woods: coyotes; feral pigs; bobcats. There have even been recent Florida panther sightings. But I see nothing other than lizards and squirrels.
The wooden walkway is a sturdy hanging bridge that crosses through the trees to a 74-foot-tall tower. Visitors who climb to the top of the tower get a panoramic view of the park. From this spot high above the treetops, a mass of a thousand shades of green, gray and brown, I can see across the hammock and beyond. I know the trees are full of birds, but I can't distinguish them through the foliage.
Instead, I am introduced to the park's population of birds on the Myakka Maiden, an airboat that tours the park's larger lake. Birds are everywhere. In addition to the usual herons, egrets, cormorants, ibises, anhingas, wood storks, hawks and more, we see rare sandhill cranes as we motor along the lake's far shore.
We also meet the park's alligators. At first, the gators are hard to spot, but before long before we realize that they are everywhere around us - dozens of them, floating motionlessly, swimming, sunning themselves on the shore. They are watching us, too.
That evening, I drive into Sarasota's old downtown for dinner. Every space on the street is taken. The place is hopping, diners spread among restaurants featuring Peruvian, Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish and Mexican food, plus seafood, sushi and American cuisine.
I have set aside the entire next day for the Ringling Estate, which has more to see in 2012 than it did in John Ringling's day. The Circus Museum, Historic Asolo Theater, James Turrell's Joseph's Coat Skyspace and other features were added after his death in 1936.
The art museum has some modern and contemporary art, but most of it is Renaissance art, represented by the 16-foot statue of David, a bronze copy of the original by Michelangelo, that towers over the museum's courtyard. Just inside the front entrance are enormous tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens. The Ringlings collected much of this art on their trips to Europe, where they scouted circus acts.
The Circus Museum, added in 1948, features a splendid miniature circus, which was created by Howard Tibbals, a master model builder, over 50 years. I could have spent hours looking at the tiny figures - more than 700 animals and 1,500 acrobats, drivers, animal handlers, cooks, clowns and everyone else associated with the Big Top, all in miniature vignettes that together make up the circus.
I wander through the rose garden, the sprawling banyan trees, the Ringlings' gravesites and finally, the first floor of their house, Ca D'Zan.
It will take another visit before I get to see James Turrell's Joseph's Coat Skyspace, a new addition that is open only a few nights each week. Skyspace is an enclosed space with a square opening in the roof for viewing the sunset, enhanced by lights from within the space that change color and - at least on this night - spotlight the moving patterns of clouds.
About 15 of us sit or lie on benches around the edge of the space, where Sarasota's art and nature intersect. One man lies on his back in the center of the floor. We watch the interplay of sunlight and artificial light in silence, our necks craned upward, and after a while, I wish I had thought to lie on the floor too so I could stare straight up. Several people nod off, including the guy on the ground. Then white lights come up slowly, and the show is over.
This is an opportunity, in a beach town that celebrates the sunset, to compare an artist's concept with the real thing, so on another day I go to Siesta Key, one of Sarasota's barrier islands. The beach is a vast sweep of white sand that "Dr. Beach" - Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research - named the nation's best beach in 2011.
The sky has a faint blush of pink as the sun draws lower.
Couples and families with children walk up and down the sand, some looking for shells. Others sit in beach chairs at the water's edge. Two 50-ish couples near me take turns posing, the sun over their shoulders turning them into silhouettes. Gulls flap by, hoping for scraps from someone's picnic.
I raise my camera and see that the sun is on the edge of the world, its bottom half already below the horizon. And then it is gone, out of sight. The light is gray, and now it is hard to distinguish where the sky, sand and water begin and end.
Just as suddenly, people leave the beach. Even the birds take flight, perhaps knowing that there will be no more picnic scraps tonight.
IF YOU GO:
INFORMATION: Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-800-3906 or http://www.sarasotafl.org.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hyatt Regency, 1000 Boulevard of the Arts; 941-953-1234; http://sarasota.hyatt.com. AAA four-diamond hotel on Sarasota Bay, in the arts district. Rooms from $149 weekdays, $179 weekends.
Hotel Indigo, 1233 Boulevard of the Arts; 877-270-1392; http://www.srqhotel.com. In arts district with water views and Florida decor. Rooms from $121.
Captiva Beach Resort, 6772 Sara Sea Circle on Siesta Key; 800-349-4131; http://captivabeachresort.com. Small resort has access to Crescent Beach; its 20 rooms and suites have fully equipped kitchens. Rooms from $89.
WHERE TO EAT:
Selva Grill, 1345 Main St.; 941-362-4427; http://www.selvagrill.com. Mostly Peruvian menu with an infusion of contemporary American: Steaks, Lomo Saltado, grilled duck breast with cilantro and green pea beer risotto, Chilean salmon with mango and sweet chile glaze, osso bucco with Peruvian white bean stew and chorizo, and several ceviches to start. Ceviches and starters $7-$19, main courses $22-$43.
Blu Que Island Grill, 149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key; 941-346-0738; http://www.bluqueislandgrill.com. Formerly Blue Smoke, this restaurant offers almost open-air dining on Siesta Key with live music and BBQ, plus a nice variety of grilled fish, shrimp and grits, Kobe beef burgers and Prince Edward Island mussels. Starters $8-$18, sandwiches $9-$16, main courses $15-$30.
Crab & Fin, 420 St. Armands Circle; 941-388-3964; http://crabfinrestaurant.com. Raw bar with a variety of oysters. The dinner menu changes daily to take advantage of whatever fresh seafood is available, but on the night I visited, included Mahi Mahi, Arctic char, Maine cod, black grouper, Atlantic amber jack, Nantucket bay scallops, lobster and several varieties of crab. Starters on a menu last week were $5.25-$14.50, main courses $14.25-$52.
Treviso Restaurant, 5401 Bay Shore Rd. (in the Ringling Visitors' Center); 941-360-7390; http://www.trevisorestaurant.com. A nice place for outdoor dining (museum admission not required); American and Italian cuisine, plus small plates. Lunch daily, dinner Thursday-Saturday. Lunch $11-$15, dinner entrees $17-$24.
WHAT TO DO:
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Rd.; 941-359-5700; http://www.ringling.org. Open daily; admission (adults $25, children 6-17 $5, seniors 65+ $20) includes the Museum of Art, Ca' d'Zan mansion and Circus Museum. Skyspace sunsets Thursday-Friday, arrive 30 minutes before sunset; $5.
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy.; 941-388-4441; http://www.mote.org. Open daily; Admission: Adults over 12 $17, seniors over 65 $16, youth 4-12 $12, children under 4 free. Additional cost for Sea Life Encounter and other cruises, which must be reserved in advance.
Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72; 941-361-6511; http://www.floridastateparks.org (choose Myakka from the pull-down menu). Open daily; Admission $6 for car with 2-8 people; $4 car with single occupant.
Towles Court Arts District, 1938 Adams Lane; http://towlescourt.com. Art walk third Friday of the month.
Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures, 941-504-6296; http://www.kayakfl.com. The 2 1/2-hour tour of Sarasota Bay and the mangrove tunnels is $55.
Marjie Lambert: mlambert@MiamiHerald.com