For a trip back to a time before super-deluxe resort hotels and towering condominiums captured Florida's prime waterfront real estate, head for the Gulf Coast's Manasota Key, a 15-mile-long island near Englewood, south of Venice.
Half of the key is in Charlotte County and half in Sarasota County, this second half being a conservation district with lush canopies of gnarled live oaks punctuated by cabbage palms and cushioned by thick undergrowth.
Tucked into those trees, hidden by exotic tropical coverings, is Manasota Beach Club, a rambling 25-acre complex of cottages, cabins and a few modern houses clumped into an unspoiled campus of the kind that was not uncommon in Florida a few decades ago. Hillsborough Beach Club still survives, but it's private; Manasota is open to the public.
Manasota started out as a nudist camp during the Great Depression. But when a third-generation New England innkeeping couple, Bob and Sydney Buffum, arrived in 1960 and bought a century-old home and a pair of cottages to convert, their guests had to wear clothes. The Buffums added a few more cottages during the years, and made some improvements, but never disturbed the natural surroundings.
The Buffums are still in charge, rendering the kind of personalized care and comforts prized by their guests, who come back year after year.
There are 15 different houses, containing a total of 29 rooms, most of them cypress cabin-style accommodations with good old-timey furnishings that are perfect for the beach.
In addition to swimming, sailing, shelling and sunning, guests also have bocci, croquet, shuffleboard and tennis courts -- with a teaching pro in season -- plus table games in the main hall with an adjacent library that's surely the smallest in the state if not the nation to still use the Dewey Decimal System to catalog its holdings.
There are nature trails to walk, looking for turtles and birds.
The retreat has an American Plan during the season, which lasts this year until April 2, at which time a modified American Plan takes over for a few weeks. The meals at Manasota are an important part of the day and the total enjoyment of the experience. Breakfast is casual and lunch a little less so, with coverups required. Dinner for the men means coat and tie; there's a distinct country club tone to the dining rooms and to the clothing of the guests, pampered by a staff well aware of individual likes and dislikes. The menu changes nightly, and there's not a great deal of choice, but certainly enough, and the caliber of the kitchen is first class.
There's no bar but, in keeping with the overall spirit of Manasota, guests bring their own spirits and wine, labeling the bottles and keeping them on a little shelf out of the way. Soft drinks and setups are available, and guests merely sign a chit and pay later.
Most of the guests at Manasota pay later, adding daily chits and charges to the tariff for a stay of a week or two or three. Just as they and their families have been doing for the past many years, ever since the Buffums made Manasota into a class destination, run by ladies and gentlemen for ladies and gentleman who put a premium on getting off the beaten path.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: From Interstate 75 take Exit 35 Southbound (not 35A) and go west on Jacaranda Boulevard 5.2 miles to the intersection with County Road 777, turning left at the traffic light and going 1.6 miles to the next traffic light. There, you turn right on Manasota Beach Roaad, going 1.7 miles, crossing the bridge over Lemon Bay and turning left on Manasota Key Road, going another 1.7 miles to the club entrance to the right. It's approximately 18 minutes from the Interstate to the club.
Rates: $400 double occupancy in the December-April high season, this year ending April 2; then reduced on modified American Plan until May 1 when the club kitchen closes. There are a variety of room rates and accomodations during the off season.
Information: Contact the Manasota Beach Club, 7660 Manasota Key Road, Englewood, FL 34223; call 941-474-2614. Web site: www.manasotabeachclub.com