Jaguar's XJL at rest near the base of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Pete.
Roaring '20s circus tycoon John Ringling might have been a little more buttoned up than his predecessor, P.T. Barnum, but we're still talking about a guy who named his Sarasota, Fla., waterfront retreat after himself (it's Ca' d'Zan, Venetian for "House of John"). And he built an imposing museum in the front yard to display priceless works from the Old Masters, including a set of room-size Peter Paul Rubens paintings.
So happening upon the Ringling estate on the way south from Tampa to Sarasota's barrier keys for a golf weekend in Jaguar's flagship XJL Super-sport was a bit of synchronicity. If Jaguar had built a pale-blue $120,000 luxury sedan in 1926, it would've been just the kind of car parked in John Ringling's driveway: elegant, fast and decidedly larger than life.
The biggest, longest and among the most expensive of the Jaguars, the XJL was designed for the person riding in the back more than for those occupying the front. The Leaper's back seats recline and offer a back massage. A polished hardwood tray drops from the back of the front seats for laptop work or snack time. The extended wheelbase offers leagues of rear legroom even with the front seats adjusted all the way back. But if that isn't enough, you can move up the front passenger's seat with a knob in the back while you watch a PowerPoint presentation on the integrated video screens on each headrest.
It's not like those in front are getting cheated, though. Chrome and black lacquer with Zebrano wood trim envelop the front cabin--including a striking stripe of unpolished hardwood along the entire base of the windshield--and the supercharged 510-horsepower motor offers the driver manifold joys. The XJL will hit 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds and used the passing lane on I-275 to seemingly materialize behind lagging traffic. The one caveat that comes with that bountiful power is silence--or lack thereof. A big Lexus or Audi is vault-quiet at 80 on the expressway. The not-unpleasant growl of Jag's supercharger will let you know you're arriving before the glow-in-the-dark Jag logo on the doorsills gives it away to everybody else.
The trailing edge of a tropical storm pushed our golf plans back a day, but the Ringling compound proved to be a can't-miss experience. Even if art isn't your thing, the $25 entry fee provides access to a circus museum filled with more than 100 years of big-top artifacts and to Ca' d'Zan, fashioned after an old-style Venetian villa.
The guest bedroom in the turret has 180-degree views of Sarasota Harbor and Longboat Key across the way--appropriate for our next destination and considering John Ringling's history. Ringling purchased some of the uninhabited key in the first decade of the 20th century. Planning to develop it into a luxury winter-home community, he was in the process of building a Ritz-Carlton hotel on the south end of the key to attract wealthy Northeasterners when the stock market crashed in 1929. The hotel was never finished and was eventually demolished to make way for the Longboat Key Club & Resort.
Ringling's vision eventually came to fruition 50 years later--condos on the key are routinely sold for seven figures--and the club was built to entertain those deep-pocketed snowbirds. But a bad economy and uncertainty over how oil spills in the Gulf would affect the area's pristine beaches have left plenty of hotel rooms and tee times for a budget-conscious traveler. Early in peak winter season, we stayed in one of the resort's newly renovated ocean-side rooms for less than $200 a night.
As a resort guest, you can play the 27-hole Harbourside course
for $85 during the week, cart included. The Blue Heron nine, updated by Ron Garl, is the best of the three, with five finishing holes that escape the standard confines of a Florida condo and stretch toward Sarasota Bay. The par 5s on this nine are the most striking holes on the property. The moon-shape, 550-yard fifth hole is framed by a sandy ridge of dunes to the left and a large pond on the right, just begging you to cut off too much. The Turnberry-inspired ninth squeezes you off the tee and punishes you with a challenging lay-up if you play short, straight and conservative.
Interstates 75 and 275 are the most efficient ways to cover the 60 miles between Sarasota and Tampa, but a leisurely late afternoon drive north along the Gulf from Longboat Key across the bridge to Anna Maria Island is infinitely more pleasurable, for the views and the food. Florida is afflicted with rafts of themed seafood traps, but the Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach is the opposite in every respect. Tucked behind a motel on a dark side street and labeled with a tiny sign, the restaurant is hard to find, but follow the hostess through the modest paneled bar and the small space opens to panoramic views of the Gulf. After the blazing red sunset, we started with "lobstercargots"--Florida spiny lobster chunks cooked like snails in seasoned garlic butter--and ended with bouillabaisse and a rack of lamb, wryly described on the menu as "famous" and "simply the world's best," respectively.
As the man who ran The Greatest Show on Earth understood better than anyone: If it's true, it's not hyperbole.