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 A Multi-Faceted and Many Splendored Place: Longboat Key Club and Resort

It was all about tennis at Longboat Key Club and Resort this Sunday afternoon in March. Tennis Gardens had just opened, and the excitement was palpable. In a few months, the 20 clay-court, $4.5 million facility with a below-ground irrigation system and  state-of-the-art stadium court with seating for anywhere between 500 and 2,500, would host the 2009 All-Star Children's Foundation Sarasota Open. Some of the nation's up and coming mens players would be on the courts for the USTA Challenger before moving on to Paris for the French Open. That event would prove to be a memorable time in the Sarasota annals. But this beautiful afternoon was marking the debut of Longboat Key Club and Resort's world-class tennis center and reason enough for all the enthusiasm.

We had just returned to our seats from Court 21, the casual restaurant in Tennis Gardens' Clubhouse -- a sleek, low-slung 7,200-square foot structure of white stone and glass that overlooks the stadium court -- as head pro John Langer aced his opponent to the crowd's delight. But Bob Weil, F&B director of the Club and Resort who was seated beside us, seemed more interested in the tall, rose-pink "smoothies" we had brought back from Court 21 and were now sipping contentedly. "Those are a blend of fresh strawberries and blueberries with a touch of apple juice and açai -- a tremendous anti-oxidant that attacks negative stuff in your body," he told us. "We serve food that promotes a healthier lifestyle -- an essential, given the kind of place Longboat Key Club and Resort is."

Just what kind of place Longboat Key Club and Resort is we were to discover over the next few days. That the name is long and the property sizeable we already knew. Spread out across 410 acres on two sides of the slender barrier island just north of Sarasota -- "Islandside" which faces the Gulf of Mexico and "Harbourside" which faces Sarasota Bay -- it is a private country club for 2,000 residents of the larger Sarasota community and, at the same time, a full-service resort that attracts visitors from all over the country and abroad. All told, the property comprises seven condominium towers that house 218 terraced suites with spectacular views; the largest deepwater marina on Florida's west coast, 45 holes of championship golf; 25 tennis courts, a spa and fitness complex; a children's center, conference areas, jogging and bicycle paths; six distinctive restaurants, and a swimming pool in a gardened setting that leads to miles of a magnificent beach of pure white sand overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset over the Gulf from an apartment terrace - click to enlarge
 Sunset over the Gulf from an apartment terrace
A $400 million "Enhancement Plan" promises to add to Islandside an 18-hole Rees Jones golf course and clubhouse, a luxury hotel, a 28,000-square foot spa and wellness complex, a 10,000-square foot ballroom, a meeting center geared to small groups like boards of directors, and a pair of condominium towers and townhouse villas.

If Longboat Key Club and Resort is quite a place today, it promises to be even more of a place tomorrow when a new chapter is added to a legendary chronology that had its beginnings when the circus came to town.

John and Mable Ringling had begun wintering in Sarasota -- along with their animals, clowns, and high-wire performers -- in the years preceding the First World War. During the 1920s, the couple was part of the dizzying Florida land boom. They bought property throughout the area including a swath on the southern end of  largely undeveloped Longboat Key where they began building their Ritz Carlton Hotel. It was nearly completed when the stock market crashed, and construction was summarily halted.

Unquestionably the Ringlings have left their mark on the region. Their eponymous Museum of Art (filled with masterworks by such as Rubens, Velàzquez, Pousssin, and van Dyck); their Circus Museum and Venetian-styled mansion Cà d'Zan -- now all part of Florida State University -- lend the Sarasota community a cultural dimension unmatched in Florida, one might venture to say in any resort area in the world. But the couple's dream hotel never came to be.

For nearly half a century, the building languished. Surrounded by weeds, the "Ghost Hotel," as it came to be called, stood abandoned save for impulsive youthful forays. Then in 1959, real estate entrepreneur Arthur Vining Davis purchased 2,000 acres in the region from the Ringling interests. Some years later, his company Arvida (an acronym formed by letters of his  name) began the massive development program that brought infrastructure, along with home sites, condominiums, hotels, golf courses, and shopping centers to Longboat Key. Included in Arvida's purchase was the land on which the ruin of the Ritz Carlton sat. The hotel was finally demolished in the early 1960s. But it was not until some twenty years later when Longboat Key Club and Resort came up that the sound of tennis balls could be heard bouncing on clay courts built on the site of the former "Ghost Hotel."

"The concept behind Longboat Key Club and Resort is unique," says Katherine Songster, the young, dynamic public relations manager for the property that opened in 1982. "Guests can hop out of bed in their Islandside suite, play a few rounds of golf, spend some time at the spa, have a wrap-sandwich poolside at Barefoot's and go for a swim, take the complimentary shuttle -- it's  always available -- across to Harbourside. Once there, they can walk the docks of the marina, play some more golf on the Harbourside course or maybe a game of tennis at Tennis Gardens. Then they can  take the shuttle back to Islandside, relax on the beach for a few hours, shower, dress, and have a seafood dinner at  Sands Pointe in Resort Center or go back to Harbourside for Northern Italian in Portofino. All of this in a single day on a tropical island adjacent to a beautiful, artistic city. They might even be able to spot a manatee from their terrace.  They're these big mammals, who frolic in our waters during winter."

Katherine paused, took a deep breath, smiled, and added: "We have it all."

Barbara Michel has seen it all. One of the first American women to be admitted to the Clef d'Or, the Club and Resort's chief concierge has been a fixture at the Resort Center since the mid 1980s. She has lovely fair skin (a miracle in southern Florida), blonde hair worn in an old fashioned upsweep, and a voice gentle enough to please King Lear.

"I've been here for 26 years, and I can tell you when our guests leave, they leave their heart-prints behind," she told us. "We become very involved. I feel sad when they say goodbye. I've become emotionally attached to them."

Barbara, like Katherine, stresses the comprehensiveness of this destination property albeit from a different perspective. "Where else can you spend the day on the beach and in 15 minutes be at the opera or a concert?" she asked. "Sarasota has one of the richest national opera companies in the country. The Boston Symphony was in town a short while ago; the Boston Pops will be here in a few weeks. We have excellent theater. Our museums are of great caliber; the Reubens collection is one of the finest in the world. And we are here to get the tickets for our guests, to make their dinner reservations. There are 35 quality restaurants in the area."

Public Relations Director Katherine Songster - click to enlarge
Public Relations Director Katherine Songster
Chief Concierge Barbara Michel - click to enlarge
Chief Concierge Barbara Michel

Six of them are right on the premises and these private dining amenities, along with room service and an extensive catering service, fall under the direction of the fellow who commented on the açai in our "smoothies" at the Tennis Gardens.

Bob Weil is tall and burly with a head full of dark hair and a chin covered with a wisp of a beard. We met him on a day when five events would be going on, typical for the F&B director who has been with the property since 2001. "We are so spread out; we act like an outside caterer," he said.

We were having lunch with Bob at the Grille at Harbourside alongside the golf course. The clubhouse dining room is warm and woody, and vintage photos of Sarasota and Longboat Key, including the ill-fated Ritz Carlton, decorate the walls. But it was too lovely an afternoon to spend indoors. Instead, we opted for an outdoor  table where the décor matches the blue of the sky and the white of the egrets spotted every so often. Here you can get a frank, burger, or salmon steak hot off the grill, a chicken breast or slice of pizza right from the oven, or you can select your greens from an organic salad bar while at the grill, the cook prepares your grouper wrap.

In the dappled shade of wild oaks, we watched golfers at their game and checked out what appeared to be an iridescent crow who was checking us out from a perfectly oval window in his tree-trunk home. We also checked out a lunch menu that included matzoh ball soup(!) as well as a spicy gazpacho, a range of salads -- including a great salmon Niçoise, sandwiches, grilled grouper tacos and chicken quesadillas (for dinner, prime cuts of beef and lamb and fresh seafood are among the offerings), while over some Bloody Marys, perfectly seasoned with just the right touch of horseradish, Bob told us how he got into the business in the first place.

Food & Beverage Director Bob Weil

"When I was 15, I worked in a friend's family restaurant in North Carolina" he began. "Then, while in college, I supported myself washing dishes, cooking; I already had decided the restaurant business was where I belonged. I was a history major, never went to culinary school. But I had great summer and after-school jobs, learned by working, watching, studied when I got home at night. Also, my grandfather was a professional chef so I guess it's in the DNA.

"I think a lot about the act of dining as a human activity, as a ceremony that binds us as human beings," he said. "And I like to incorporate into our dining experiences a lot of different cuisines and cultures."

Bob is clearly smitten with the cuisine and culture of northern Italy, and in Portofino's, the property's newest dining room, he's had the opportunity to exercise his creative gifts. It's set off the dock in the marina clubhouse whose red-tiled roof, yellow canopies, Renaissance-styled fountain, and stone pathways bordered with cypresses give one the feeling of being in Italy. The dining room itself comes straight out of a Tuscan farmhouse with tiled floors, stone, and earth tones. Except the walls are lined with windows that nearly reach the ceiling, and they look out to a sea of white boats docked at Longboat Key Club Moorings and Sarasota Bay.

A sizeable bar on one side of the room wraps around a wood-burning oven where pizzas are baked. Diners have a choice of view: Sarasota Bay or pizza-making. The cooks actually put on a show of  tossing the dough in the air.

"The pastas and breads, the sauces are all home-made, always fresh," Bob said. "Crushed tomatoes in olive oil, stocks are at the ready. You place an order; the cook starts making the sauce. The ambience is casual. You can order one of our eight pizzas, an antipasto and a cold beer on draft, while at the next table, they can be having a fantastic Italian meal with a great bottle of Barello."

Portofino is one of Longboat Key Club and Resort's signature restaurants. Sands Pointe, which specializes in local seafood, is the other. Located in the Resort Center on Islandside, the  contemporary split-level dining room, a study in cool shades of lime, pale avocado and yellow, is poised like the prow of a ship overlooking the beach and Gulf of Mexico.  

"At Sands Pointe, you never lose the sense of being in Florida. No matter where you're seated, you have that view of the Gulf," says restaurant manager David Hood. It's true.  

Bob had told us the nighttime atmosphere at Sands Pointe is completely different from the one it has during the day. And that's true too. Not because the level of formality goes up once the sun goes down; an easy-going, casual spirit prevails be it at the lavish Sunday brunch, lunch or dinner time. The difference lies in an enhancement of the diners. In addition to resort guests, the dinner crowd routinely includes club members and the friends and relatives they've brought along, often guests from out of town. Their presence lends to the dining experience the quality of a special occasion.

"Many of the club members and their guests belong to clubs up north" David said, "so they have that  expectation. Also we are one of the best, most exciting restaurants in the Sarasota area. The location is beautiful. The dining room is fine cuisine. There's entertainment five nights a week, al fresco dining on the patio outside. Club members have high standards; they're accustomed to excellent food, fine service. And we keep them happy."

It's not too hard to keep guests happy when they're dining on crab profiteroles with white truffles and asparagus; arugula salad with pears dressed with a slightly sweet mélange of mangos, white balsamic vinegar and a bit of egg yolk, honey and mustard; duck confit (made in the house, cured for two days); and Steak Delmonico served with creamy mashed potatoes in a red wine reduction, asparagus and Béarnaise sauce. Especially when such dishes are accompanied by a favorite Burgundy: Corton from the Domain of Louis Latour.

The wine list is very strong, perhaps four hundred wines are available (many by the glass); among them, the delicate white Bordeaux: Margaux, another favorite. In one of his many guises, Bob travels the world selecting wines. "I have a mix, but there are many Californian and French. The reserve list is heavily Bordeaux and Burgundy." Figures.  

Bob oversees an accomplished team. Jose Cuarta, Sands Pointe's sous chef, is one of them. He tells us he's been influenced by the great chefs he's worked with at the Breakers and the Ritz Carlton of Palm Beach. "I like to keep it simple, accent the main ingredient whatever it may be. Everything that comes with it: the sauce, the vegetables should be there to lift it up."

More often than not, the main ingredient is a fish from local waters. "We do pay a handsome price for grouper -- fourteen to fifteen dollars a pound," Bob had mentioned, "especially in season when there are restrictions on catches. But my preference is salmon and snapper, both of which are local.

"Once we had a client who said he only eats fish with a certain salt," he told us. "'No problem,' I said, and we brought out a little bamboo tray with smoked Danish sea salt, Hawaiian salt, etc. I think he was impressed. But then, so were we to learn he owns the Buckingham in Greenwich Village."

 Restaurant Manager David Wood - click to enlarge
Restaurant Manager David Hood

Like a classic French dinner, Sands Pointe's concludes with a cheese plate before dessert. The presentation included a Californian triple cream brie, an Australian blue cheese, a French sheep milk cheese with a sweet and sour cranberry compote, apricot jam, pickled grapes, and strawberry rhubarb jam.

There you have it: the Grille at Harbourside, Portofino's, Sands Pointe. Also Court 21 at Tennis Gardens where, in addition to the "smoothies," sliders, salads, curried chicken satay are available along with wine by the glass. ("Some interesting varietals expressive of the food," Bob had said, "Malbecs and Tempranillas.") And Spike 'n Tees on Islandside's golf course where the buffet lunch of salads, seafood and grilled items is 80% organic, and Barefoot for casual poolside fare dining.

We had yet to encounter an F&B director with a reach as large as Bob Weil's. Beyond the restaurants and room service, there's a substantial catering component in his domain: weddings and rehearsal dinners, fundraisers, special events, as many as thirty a month during season, and held, as a rule, in the ballroom of the Harbourside Golf Clubhouse and out on the course itself.

Bob has orchestrated gala receptions with imaginative setups of stations, sit-down dinners, buffets for such events as the Sarasota Film Festival, a tribute dinner to the film star Kevin Bacon, the Fall Wine Makers' Dinner (recently the honoree was Louis Latour; a different Burgundy from his famed vineyard accompanied each course of the six-course dinner, one being the Corton we had at Sands Pointe), the regular Friday night buffet, and a Passover Seder for the Jewish community of the Club. The scope of creating and directing so many and such different kinds of events leaves one breathless.

"That's the beauty of this property," Bob said. "There are so many options. We meet weekly for three hours to go over the week's events. We know exactly what's going on in every outlet. I have a great job because I have such a great staff.  When you get the right people in place it's a charm for everybody.

"It's exciting to be a chef of the 21st century," he added. "There's so much out there, such fantastic products and ways of preparation. What I'm beginning to see is greater attention paid to health. People are increasingly aware of what they're eating; where the food came from. We are meeting this interest with vegetarian menus, with organic products, with beef that is certified humane."

"That's one of the directions we are going in," said Michael Welly "and when we get into things, we go all the way."  Suntanned and silver haired, the general manager of Longboat Key Club has been in the business for yearly thirty years having worked in resorts out west and in Puerto Rico before coming to southwest Florida. He stresses the multi-faceted aspects of the property. "How diverse we are with the tennis, golf, wellness, marina, beach, the green stuff," he told us.  "Longboat Key Club was the first resort and private club to become certified in Sarasota.  Instead of plastic, we use utensils, cups, even straws made from corn. They're 100% biodegradable, would melt if left in the sun. A great deal of attention is paid to environment here.     

"Nowadays there are lots of copies of our concept: a combination destination resort and country club. But this was one of the first. And then we are very private, very exclusive, beautifully maintained, with a wonderful open beach."

General Manager Michael Welly - click to enlarge
General Manager Michael Welly

It was a beautiful evening. We were standing on the edge of the wooden walkway that leads from the swimming pool area to the beach. All through our time here, the moon had been getting rounder. Now, our last night, a full moon had formed at last. It had risen high in the sky. The waters of the Gulf were illuminated and shimmering.

In the few days, we had spent here, we had discovered what kind of a place Longboat Key Club and Resort is, and it is indeed a multi-faceted, many-splendored thing.

Longboat Key Club and Resort
301 Gulf of Mexico Drive
Longboat Key, Florida 34228

Phone: 941-383 8821

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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