As you might expect, Florida is overrun with retirees. And there is a thick and bourgeoning population along the Southeastern coast. For the most part this takes me through never-ending strip malls and high-rise retirement condos along the coast. And it isn’t until I get to Sarasota that I find something worth stopping for: the Ringling Museum. At first I worry that it’s just something thrown together to capitalize on the Ringling name and the public’s fascination with the circus and that it will be small and unimpressive and a waste of money. But I found it to be completely the opposite.
It was John Ringling’s mission to attract visitors to Sarasota where the Ringling Brothers Circus had its winter headquarters. He erected a colorful and elaborate mansion there at the water's edge and named it Ca d‘Zan. It glows warmly even in winter as though it were made of fresh gingerbread. The windowpanes are alternating colored glass of green and pink and yellow. Inside the high ceilings and ornate furniture create a more traditional, yet terribly over-the-top home. Despite the cold winds and dark clouds outside the windows, everything is warm and inviting inside.
The Ringlings collected an impressive display of art and antiquities with the intention of one day opening an art museum on the grounds of their home estate. Although some of the paintings and sculptures have animal or gypsy themes that mark them as works chosen by a circus magnate, the majority of the pieces show that the Ringlings had a varied and classic taste in art (or maybe they just bought the most expensive stuff they could get their hands on).
The final part of the museum is the circus history buildings. The museum includes artifacts that only the Ringlings would have the right to keep, like their personal train car and calliope wagons.
Also many performers have donated items such as their costumes - encrusted with enough sequins and beads to make Liberace proud. A large section of the building is devoted to a miniature scale model circus complete with spec, menagerie, big top, performer dressing tents and the "hotel" tent where everyone was fed. It’s all been made by one man who devoted 50 years of his life to creating this intricate model that spans over a huge space where people shuffle past in awe and wonder.
Just a short drive inland from the museum is a unique kind of neighborhood. The only way I can describe it is an "Amish suburb". And maybe my perception of the Amish as a purely rural and pastoral people is wrong, but it sure is strange to see an old Amish woman dressed traditionally but riding down the street in a low-rider three-wheeled bicycle. The reason for my coming here is a little Amish restaurant called Yoder's. The food I ordered was plain and ordinary, but the restaurant is justifiably famous for its baked goods, especially the pie. I try a slice of butterscotch cream pie. The crust is sweet and crumbly but still crisp and the filling is fresh and made with real cream. I wish they had some kind of pie tasting program where I could try a bite of each of their pies. I'm sure everything would be delicious.