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Longboat Key: Sanctuary for Man and Beast
By William G. Connolly
Nov. 1, 1970
LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. — Drive west on the Ringling Causeway from down town Sarasota, turn right at a dollop of overpriced shops on St. Armands Key and head north on State Route 789. Sweep across a concrete‐and‐steel draw bridge draped with aging fishermen decked out in loud shirts, short pants and anxious expressions.
“Up to $100 fine,” the signs say, “for throwing trash on highway. Peddlers license required. Welcome to Longboat Key. Speed limits strictly enforced. This community is a wildlife sanctuary.”
A wildlife sanctuary it is — and refuge for the harried Northerner in need of escape from a slushy winter and the well‐to‐do retiree in search of a quiet, sun‐dappled denouement.
Longboat Key is a narrow, 10‐mile spit of sand clutched in a clutched in a tangle of pine, mangrove, sea‐grape, buttonwood, live oak and palm roots that — with a few other islands — keeps Sarasota Bay from being just the last five miles of the Gulf of Mexico. It is fringed on the west by beaches of blinding whiteness that have all the ingredients for a shell collector's orgy and on the east, the landward side, by a maze of bayous, in lets, basins and canals — the stuff of a yachtsman's dreams.
The yachtsman's dream of a home on the water is coming true here for hundreds of wealthy renters and buyers, and the dreams of the golfer, the fisher man and, the sun worshiper are being realized, too, for the 4,000 or so visitors — some of them not at all wealthy — who materialize each winter on Route 789, a, two‐lane blacktop road that slits the island up the middle like a seam.
The road wanders for much of its length through thick jungle, interrupt ed here or there by two housing developments (discreetly shielded by palm and brick from the gaze of the idle passerby), a passel of apartment buildings, one predictably plush golf course, a few lavish motels done up in a Bahamian motif and a score of modest hostelries in the superhighway tradition. The rookeries and restaurants are varied enough to suit the taste of almost any vacationer whose budget does not include a knapsack; the sun, the sand and the sea are nowhere better, and at night there de scends upon the place a silence that is downright un‐American. For though the inevitable developers have plans for More apartment buildings, shopping cen ters and parking facilities (see box on Page 26), Longboat is still mostly jungle —a tropical island of lushness and quiet.
Birth of a Trek
Almost any one of the 3,000 souls who call the key home will tell you that Juan Anasco, a Spaniard on the payroll of Hernando de Soto, set a mailed foot here in 1538. A year later, local sages maintain, the conquistador himself arrived in what may have been the beginning of his four‐year trek across North America. De Soto's itinerary is a subject for contention hereabout (sages of other locales have their own claims, and a De Soto festival of some stripe seems to be an annual attraction at every crossroads within a stone crab's throw), but there is little argument that the Spaniards passed through. For one thing, the island's name was chosen only after the discovery in the sand of the wreckage of what was said to be 16th‐century Spanish longboat.
De Soto's inability to find the pot of gold in this neck of the woods apparently cooled things off for a few centuries — until the Florida land boom of the nineteen‐twenties brought John Ring ling, the circus tycoon, paddling across Sarasota Bay with his bankroll. Ring ling bought roughly, half of the 2,700 acre key and set boom collapsed, work was suspended, and the jungle quickly engulfed the golf course and the re mains of the building (its rusted skeleton was torn down a few years ago as a hazard).
Though the State built a bridge to Lido Key, on the south, in 1929, life on Longboat did not become exactly lively. Mrs. L. H. Garaux, a widow who moved here in the mid‐forties with her husband, a real‐estate broker, and two daughters, remembers that most of the activity then was aerial or aquatic:
“There were so many mosquitoes you...
“A 10‐mile spit of sand” midway along Florida's Gulf Coast, Longboat Key is “a wildlife sanctuary of idyllic lushness and quiet.” It is also a “refuge for harried Northerners, a place where yachtsmen's dreams come true,” with beaches for sand castling, a bridge for relaxed angling, a golf course just a chip shot from the apartment and nearby, a shopping center. had to wear a raincoat to the beach. There were lots of hawks, flamingos by the hundreds, spoonbills, gulls, egrets. It was nothing to catch 40 or 50 mackerel or 50 trout in a day.”
When Mrs. Garaux arrived, Longboat had only, two facilities that might be called resorts, small groups of beach cottages that have recently been razed to make way for apartment developments. Within a decade, though, Herbert P. Field, a shaggy, pipe‐smoking entrepreneur who had been in the resort business in Wisconsin and Arizona for 13 years, had bought a chunk of Gulf beach and started to build Colony Beach Club, “an island paradise right here in the States.”
Colony Beach opened in 1954 with eight kitchen‐equipped cottages and started to grow almost immediately. Before long, Field was developing the Buccaneer, a restaurant and bar on Sleepy Lagoon, the site of a rundown tavern that older residents remember as “the Sloppy Spittoon.” Though its owner says the Buccaneer was built to be no more than “an interesting restaurant,” it now has 10 hotel rooms, 16 apartment units (the daily rates range from $14.50 for two between May and December to $41.50 for two in prime time, March 1 to April 13), a pool and dock facilities for 50 cruisers.
Old Ball Games
Colony Beach, meanwhile, has grown to include “championship” tennis courts — together with a pro and a pro shop; Tiki House, a “teen hut” with pinball machines and a pool table; a cocktail lounge “with unique lighting using real starfish,” and an expansive sun deck and pool overlooking the gulf beach. The resort's 50‐odd gray build ings are tucked among clumps of palm and sea‐grape on winding shell drives (Field landscaped with crushed shell ra ther than grass to deny the insects a breeding place) and house 102 rooms and suites that range from a two‐bed room two‐bath and private‐pool layout ($125 a day for two at the peak of the season) to a room and a bath with a patio that couple can snap up for $16.50 a day between May and December.
By the late fifties, Field and Jack Kahn, a Milwaukee TV executive and guest at Colony Beach, had joined forces in another hotel, Far Horizons, just hail ing distance up .the road. Within a few years, the Kahn family bought Field's interest, and they have since turned Far Horizons into what is in many ways the island's most luxurious resort. Jack Kahn Jr., who runs the place with his father and his brother, Bill, says they can play host to “75 couples, of whom 60 can bring one to three children” (except between Feb. 1 and March 15, when “nonadults” — the term is undefined—are barred).
The Far Horizons complex shows the Field touch in its one‐story and two‐story gray cottages, its crushed shell paths and its accommodations everything from a “Sunset Gulf‐Front Superior Suite,” which boasts two color TV's and commands $125 a day when things are at fever pitch, to a “studio” that's available for $22 a day for two when the business temperature subsides. Far Horizons claims only two tennis courts rather than the Colony Beach's six, but they're “all‐weather” as well as “championship,” and there are putting green and tether ball to boot.
Kahn, a thirtyish Yale graduate who seems to enjoy rubbing shoulders with the great and the near‐great (or at least the rich and the near‐rich), says: “We try to create a special kind of place where a guest can be graciously treat ed.”. Apparently, he's serious; he interrupted a recent tour of his fiefdom three times in an hour to be sure that one guest was happy fishing off the hotel's beach, that charter‐boat reservations had been made for another, and that personnel at Sarasota‐Braden ton Airport had been alerted to watch for a third who would have extra luggage.
Not every Longboat resort can supply all such amenities, of course, IRA not every one is so expensive and all have the main assets of the best hotels—the beach and the sun. The Silver Sands, for example, contains eight motel units, a cottage and a three‐bedroom home. The daily rates begin at $10 for two in the slow season and go as high as $36 for two when the fun is most frenetic.
The Silver Sands, owned by Bill Wal lace, a husky former Michigan contractor Who is president of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce seems to have as its main off‐beach attractions lime, orange and grapefruit trees. “It's fun to have people see how they grow,” says Wallace.
The visitor who tires of watching an orange grow can avail himself of the Longboat Key Golf Club, a par‐72 spread that meanders among palm‐shad ed water traps at the southern end of the key. The larger resorts maintain guest memberships at the club and make available — for a fee — water skiing, sailing and charter‐boat fishing in the gulf or bay. The Longboat Key Art Center, of which the town is surpassing proud, provides lessons, demonstrations and exhibits from November to May. The shops on St. Armands Circle are convenient, if more chic than economic al, and Sarasota offers the Chicago White Sox spring training camp and the usual assortment of tourist attractions (the Circus Hall of Fame, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Cars & Music of Yester year, the Ringling home).
After dark, one may retire to the Garden Dining Rooms of the Colony Beach Club, where the dinners cost about $4.50 to $7.50 and where two guests were recently served a relish bowl that included a solitary radish, a bread basket containing nothing but two rolls and cream so curdled that it couldn't be poured.
The hungry refugee front the Colony Beach will find that the Buccaneer has pitfalls of its own — it is a “pirate” restaurant. “Welcome Matel” the menu bellows. “. . . Shake out your mainsail, trim your jib and pull your captain's chair in a little closer. . .” Once the old salt is bellied right up to the groaning board, he discovers that “Cutlass Carved” roast beef is priced at “3 Doubloons, 3 Pieces of 8, 4 Pieces of 40,” which he may laboriously trans late into $6.95 (a doubloon is $2, a piece of eight 25 cents and a piece of 40 is 5 cents). The doubloons and pieces of eight add up to $8.25 for the flagship of the fleet, “The Hernando de Soto Ex tra Thick T‐Bone,” and one should not up anchor without noticing that the menu includes “The Jose Gaspar Chicken a la Kiev” at 2 doubloons, 7 pieces of eight, 4 pieces of 40.
For the early diner not so much interested in alcohol or atmosphere, Shenkel's, a neat, unpretentious restaurant near the center of the key, offers, for $2.35, a chicken pot pie to which any pullet should be proud to aspire. Shenkel's has no bar and serves din ner only from 5 to 8 P.M.
By any measure, though, the best dining on Longboat Key is to be found at the Reef Dining Room of Far Horizons, a red plush retreat awash with white linen and (in season) fresh flow ers. The menu is extensive, it changes daily and one pays for the privilege. A random sample of the fare over two weeks disclosed white lump crabmeat Mornay ($9.50), paprika of veal with mushrooms and spaghetti ($6.50), beef tenderloin ($8.95) and frog legs ($8). The wine list includes Chateau Mar gaux, 1937, at $50 a bottle, and two domestic Burgundies at $6 a bottle. One dinner for three that included two rounds of drinks and two half‐bottles of wine elicited a total damage of $61.80, plus tips. It was worth every...
Phone Call, Anyone?
He who hopes to cap a Far Horizons dinner with some night‐time entertainment on Longboat is in for a disappointment. The island's brightest light after 10 P.M. seems to be in the tele phone booth in front of Sal‐Lu Cottages & Apt's. The bars at the big hotels close when the night is but adolescent by New York standards, and the only ideal watering hole unaffiliated with a larg er establishment, the Broken Reef, is not out for the tourist trade; its builder apparently had a relative in the refrigerator‐crate business, and its owner is obviously on less than intimate terms with the decorating and advertising crowds.
The visitor in search of some kicks, says Mayor Samuel Y. Gibbon, would do well to hie himself to St.Armands, where “he can find anything he'd like.”
That may be, but back on Longboat, though Mrs. Garaux no longer finds raincoat necessary except in the rain, only the mosquitoes are out after 10.