A Cultural Odyssey in Florida

Peter Morrell finds that there is a lot more to the Sunshine State than beaches and theme parks and with Florida celebrating its 500th anniversary 2013 this is the ideal year to go

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Just before Christmas I went on a remarkable journey of discovery. Starting in Tampa, the road trip saw me eight days and more than 500 miles later in Miami. My mission was to find out how much culture Florida had to offer. The short answer is a lot, ranging from world-class museums to professional ballet troupes, communities of artists to symphony orchestras.

An added bonus was that along the way I met charming, helpful people and the weather was dry, sunny and warm. Over the next few weeks I will be writing in depth about the culture in four areas, St Petersburg, Bradenton & Sarasota, Fort Myers & Sanibel and Fort Lauderdale & Miami. For now here is a quick overview of what is to come.

Day one started with a cultural bang, as within a stroll of each other alongside Tampa Bay in St Petersburg are the Dali Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of History and the Chihuly Collection. For those not familiar with the name, Dale Chihuly is a contemporary artist and glass blower extraordinaire and he has created some of the most elaborate pieces of art glass that you will ever see, such as chandeliers comprising literally 100s of individual parts.

The Chihuly Collection is managed by the Morean Arts Center that also has its own community-based gallery about a mile away and runs regular glass blowing demonstrations.

Moving south to Bradenton I called in on a community of artists who have moved into an area of wooden cottages built in the 1920s and 30s. The Village of the Arts, as it is now called, has 30 businesses selling clothing, crafts, jewellery and food and every artist I met clearly had the utmost passion for both their work and the Village.

Also in Bradenton, down by the Manatee River, is the South Florida Museum that is also home to the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium. By this time, in danger of cultural overload, a stroll down the historic Main Street and a walk along the newly created Riverwalk was the perfect pick me up.

A short drive south took me to Sarasota, a city with a cornucopia of culture on offer. In less than two days I crammed in a trip to the Asolo theatre to see 1776, a musical charting the lead up to the Declaration of Independence, a performance by the Sarasota Ballet accompanied by the Sarasota Orchestra premiering a circus themed production of Nutcracker. I also did a backstage tour of the Sarasota Opera House and spent an afternoon at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art as well as the Ringlings’ circus museum and their fabulous house Ca D’Zan.

The route further south from Sarasota took me through Matlacha (Mat–la–shay) an ‘old’ Florida fishing village and artists’ community. Here my guide was the highly talented Leoma Lovegrove who has produced an incredible body of work, including a portrait of Richard Branson that hangs in the offices of Virgin and other artworks that hang in the White House

Next stop was Fort Myers and Sanibel Island. The first attraction were the neighbouring winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, great friends and two of the most influential industrialists in America. Next was Art of the Olympians, a gallery dedicated to the works of Olympic medal winners. Founded by the late Olympian and artist Al Oerter, it is now run by his widow Cathy and the legendary athlete Bob Beamon.

My all-too-short one day in Fort Myers concluded with Tally’s Folly, a play at the Florida Rep. The company is based in the historic Arcade theatre, built in 1908, where Edison and Ford took their friend Harvey Firestone (of tyre fame) to see a brand new invention – films.

Sanibel Island and Captiva, its even smaller sibling at its northern tip, is a magnet for artists. There is something about the tranquillity and the quality of the light on the islands that helps the creative process, evidenced by the plethora of small galleries selling the works of local artists.

The final two days of the journey meant a drive across the Florida peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast. The first gallery on the itinerary was the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art where I feasted on works by Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus and a special exhibition on sharks.

The last 24 hours was a cultural adrenalin shot, with a walk around Miami Beach with Miami Culinary Tours that also covered the stunning Art Deco architecture. There was also a morning in Little Havana with Charles Kropke, a font of knowledge and owner of Dragonfly Expeditions and finally a tour of the New World Center, the Frank Gehry designed home of the New World Symphony which was followed by an evening outdoor ‘Wallcast’ of the concert being played in the hall.

The odyssey was over and what an eye opener it had been. Apart from the sheer quality, diversity and number of cultural attractions it was interesting to see how culture involved the entire community, from the major financial donors to the volunteers sewing sequins in theatre costume departments and the guides, many of them seniors, whose energy and enthusiasm brought the museums and art gallery exhibits to life.

This year, 2013 is the ideal time to visit Florida, as it was 500 years ago that Juan Ponce De Leon landed at St Augustine and christened this new land La Florida, the Spanish name for flower. The Floridians certainly have much to celebrate and there are many events scheduled during the year in addition to permanent attractions. Click here… for a listing of some of them.

Useful Links

Florida More Information www.visitflorida.com
Car Hire Hertz www.hertz.com
St Petersburg Hotel Indigo www.hotelindigo.com
Sarasota Helmsley Sandcastle www.helmsleysandcastle.com
Fort Myers Hibiscus House www.thehibiscushouse.net
Captiva Island Captiva Island Inn www.captivaislandinn.com
Fort Lauderdale Riverside Hotel www.riversidehotel.com
Miami Beach The Beacon Hotel www.mybeaconhotel.com

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