Hello! How are you all? I know it has been awhile since my last post. I have been traveling around the Midwest, and then this last week I finally got to go on vacation to the beautiful island of St. Armand’s Key. It has been a dream. Staying on this semi-tropical island has been absolutely magical. I’ve been able to sleep late every morning, awoken by the sun’s rays and the birdsong outside. After a quick breakfast of Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk, I pack my basket-weave bag and stroll a few blocks to start my day at the beach, located on a barrier island off St. Armand’s Key. Sunbathing by the turquoise waters of the ocean makes the passage of time cease. Screaming gulls fill the sunlit sky and the waters of the gulf roll placidly and pound calmly at the shore as I lay peacefully listening. The back of the beach has native plants like palm trees, mangroves, and sea oat grass. When not sunbathing, I go for a swim or I stretch out on the cream-colored sand inspecting the ribbons of seashells left by the waves out where the shore meets the water. It is truly a paradise, and unplugging and resting here has worked wonders on me. I feel much refreshed. Some of the things I have most enjoyed about being on island time have been: swimming in the crystalline warm waters of the gulf next to tiny moonlit-colored fish; watching the black skimmer birds dive for fish along the shore; seeing little kids build towering sand castles; wearing a windswept hairdo; sunbathing; and worrying about absolutely nothing.
Island life also allowed me to eat tons of fish and seafood. I was reminded of how much I enjoy Spanish and French cuisines and a nautical lifestyle, all of which are part of my heritage. I have tried so many delicious dishes during my stay here: paella marinera, the famous saffron rice and seafood dish originally from Spain; lobster croquettes; fried empanadas de picadillo; grilled grouper with lump blue crab meat and fried plantains; briny oysters fresh from the sea, served with a champagne sauce; flan made the traditional Spanish way and served with mint leaves; classic Key Lime pie; and lots and lots of Italian-style gelato made right here on the island by the local shop. There is, however, one dish I refuse to try no matter what restaurant I visit: shrimp scampi. If you want to make this dish, check out my recipe here.
My time on the island was so enchanting that I wanted to learn more about it. I found out that this island in the Sarasota Bay was bought by a Frenchman named Charles St. Amand in 1893. He homesteaded the 131 acres that he purchased, raising vegetables, fishing in the waters of the bay, and bringing the produce by boat to the market on the mainland in Sarasota. One interesting bit of trivia is that Charles St. Amand’s name was misspelt on the deed, so the Americanized name given to the island persists to this day! In the early 1900s, St. Armand’s Key was still just a mangrove island too far from the fishing village of Sarasota to attract much attention. But all this was about to change when John Ringling, the circus magnate, purchased property on the island in 1917. He had a vision for the tiny island and planned a development laid out in a circle, as well as a bridge connecting the island to the mainland. It was this vision over a century ago which drove St. Armand’s to become the idyllic spot it is today.
It took a lot of work and investment though. While the bridge was being built, Ringling used an old paddle wheel steamboat as a work boat. Crews began working on a causeway to join St. Armand’s Key to the mainland and it was done in style: circus elephants hauled the huge timbers from which the development and causeway were built! Starting in 1925 crews labored long hours dredging canals, building the sea wall, and lining sidewalks and streets with rose-colored curves. John Ringling was the first person to cross the bridge when it was completed in 1926, and many soon followed, purchasing land on the island.
However, as the Great Depression hit the nation, and the economy worsened, land sales everywhere and in St. Armand’s in particular stopped completely. Even Ringling could no longer afford to maintain the causeway, gifting it to the City of Sarasota. Gradually, the wooden causeway began to rot and the native vegetation covered the carefully planned streets and sidewalks. For 20 years, St. Armand’s lay dormant. Only the bravest tourists ventured to the once renowned island. Then in the 1940s and 1950s, a few investors decided to open restaurants and a service station on the Circle. By 1955, several stores had opened on the island.
Today, the island looks very much as Ringling originally envisioned it, with a large roundabout with a park in the center, known as The Circle. The palm-lined Circle contains restaurants, a tobacconist, a gelateria, multiple clothing stores, antique shops, and even a jewelry shop. The original bandshell did not survive, and the vacant lots and pioneer farms are gone. But the statue walk featuring the works originally purchased by John Ringling is still standing, a testament to his lifelong love of art. If you read past the photos here below, I have included a list of attractions you may want to check out if you visit the island.
Things to do:
- Eat at the Columbia Restaurant or Crab & Fin
- Get a cone at Settimi’s Gelato
- Visit the Ringling Estate
- See the sea creatures at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
- Learn about Florida’s tropical plants at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
- Relax on the dunes and take a dip at Lido Key Beach and South Lido County Park
- Tour the Siesta Key Rum Distillery to learn about the history and rum-making process
- If you’re a golfer, which I’m not, play a round at Longboat Key Golf Club
- Take a cruise or go on a coastline excursion
I can’t finish this post without recommending the very therapeutic practice of sitting on the beach in the evenings and watching the sun set. One of the miracles of the sea is that each hour by the ocean has its own mood and color. I’m not much of a morning person, so I didn’t watch any of the sunrises, but I did enjoy many a wonderful sunset as the colors of the sky switches from bright blue to lilac and pink and the burst of orange and gold right before the dark purple and indigo blue of the night sky set in with its sprinkle of brilliant stars. Truly, truly magical. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my adventure, and I can’t wait to come back here in the future. I hope you can visit soon too.