Sarasota and Martha’s Vineyard may be 1,500 miles apart, but they have a surprising amount in common. Both are laid-back, informal resorts where the emphasis is on the beach, boating and family vacations. Both share a lifestyle that is rustic yet refined, with the arrival of ultra-rich newcomers threatening the old-fashioned ways.
And both even share many of the same people.
Stroll the streets of elegant Edgartown on a summer afternoon or head for the seafood market in Menemsha for a lobster dinner and you’re likely to encounter some of the most recognizable names in Sarasota. Arts patroness and Bird Key resident Elita Kane has a house in Edgartown — designed by Sarasota architect Gary Hoyt. And Bird Key residents Lisa Grain and her husband, David, are there every summer. David Grain grew up on the island and was a football star at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High. And rumor has it that rock star (and another Bird Key resident) Brian Johnson and his wife, Brenda, were recently on the island, looking at property for a summer home.
What makes Sarasota and the Vineyard so in sync? Are they mirror images of each other, one for the winter and one for the summer? Or do they complement each other in some mysterious way that, when combined, adds up to the perfect year-round way to live?
Like Sarasota, Martha’s Vineyard is a little hard to get to. You have to take the ferry from Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod, and once you complete the 45-minute ride, you find yourself on a bucolic island of 100 square miles. There are six small communities set amid the forests, flatlands and gentle hills. The ocean is always close by, and the atmosphere is determinedly old-fashioned — no high rises, no chain stores, no fast food.
Many of the Sarasotans on the Vineyard have been summering there for generations. Ralph Graves first went at age 12 when his stepfather, a prominent diplomat and government official, bought 45 acres of land in the hills of Chilmark. Now, after he and his wife, Eleanor, have retired from distinguished careers in publishing, the Vineyard is as much a part of his life as ever.
In taste and temperament, the Graveses are part of the classic Vineyard tradition, in which the style is old Yankee blueblood. Their home, which they built in the 1960s, is rambling and unpretentious, filled with art by island artists.
“The Vineyard is awash in artists,” Eleanor Graves says; she used to own a gallery nearby that featured their work.
Visual artists are not the only ones who find inspiration there. In addition to his work at Time-Life, Ralph Graves has written 11 novels, two of which (“August People” and “Champagne Wishes, Cyanide Dreams”) take place on the Vineyard.
The Graveses have what Eleanor describes as a “his, hers and ours” family, with six children between them and numerous grandchildren — including twins and a set of triplets.
“And they all come to visit — summer after summer after summer,” she says.
Indeed, inter-generational time spent together — fishing, swimming, boating, sharing big home-cooked meals with food from Eleanor Graves’ garden — is one of the many similarities that link life on the island with life in Sarasota.
Another long-time visitor is Lido Shores resident Phil Kaltenbacher, who has been coming to the island for more than 60 years. Today, he and his wife, Unni, own a house on Lake Tashmoo, a unique body of water that is part ocean, part river with four tides daily and great fishing and swimming. They have no pool.
“I want my grandchildren to swim in saltwater,” Kaltenbacher says.
Unni Kaltenbacher loves the natural beauty of their summer home. It reminds her of the topography of her native Norway, particularly the fishing village of Menemsha. The Kaltenbachers’ life on the Vineyard is a combination of high luxury and pristine nature. Days are spent walking in the woods, swimming and taking care of their dog and cats that travel with them.
“And we entertain a lot,” Phil says. “Every Friday night we have a cookout for the neighbors.” Helping them out is Douglas Noppe, their personal chef, who, during the winter in Sarasota, works for Michael’s On East.
And, sometimes, just for a change of pace, they have been known to get on their boat, a 32-foot Boston Whaler, and sail to Falmouth on the mainland for some Chinese food.
It’s not just the faces that a Sarasotan will recognize on the Vineyard. Even the signs will look familiar. Several local merchants, recognizing a similar customer base — affluent, sophisticated and seeking the unique — have retail establishments in both places. There’s Chappy on St. Armands, J. McLaughlin on Main Street and one of the oldest of all, Optional Art, the high-end Sarasota jewelry store.
“I was sitting in my old store on the Circle back in 1983 during the summer doldrums,” Optional Art owner Maureen Hoyt remembers, “thinking that, ‘If I were in Edgartown right now, the streets would be full of customers.’” This thought led to a test drive of an idea that not only paid off but is still going strong.
Hoyt has noticed subtle differences between her customers in Sarasota and those in the Vineyard.
“There are more professional women in the Vineyard and they buy for themselves,” she says. But shoppers in both locations are knowledgeable about jewelry and seek out the unique one-of-a-kind pieces in which she specializes.
Hoyt and her husband, Gary — the aforementioned architect who counts among his most recent Sarasota buildings the new Siesta Key Hyatt — are selling their 120-year-old home and plan to rent for a while. With their two children now college-aged, their lifestyle is in transition.
Another high-end jeweler, Nikki Sedacca, shares space in Hoyt’s store. She finds the wealthy Vineyard clientele to be great customers for her hand-crafted pieces, made mostly from pearls and intricately worked gold wire. Sedacca and her husband, Jeff, both high-profile members of the Sarasota social scene, entertain a steady stream of Florida friends each summer, further cementing the bonds between the two communities.
But the most quintessentially Vineyard-like of the Sarasota contingent are far from the wealthiest. Rick Baxter teaches at Booker Middle School and his wife, Rebecca (who took the photos for this article), is a well-known local photographer. These may not be the best-paying jobs in either community but the Baxters live on some of the most desirable — and valuable — land on the island. Their six-plus acres are what remain of the farm Rebecca Baxter’s British-born father bought back in 1940. It has changed hands several times since then, most recently in 1999, when it sold for $64 million.
“And we didn’t get a penny,” laughs Rebecca Baxter.
Today, the mansions of hedge fund moguls, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and David Letterman surround the Baxters’ rustic cabin. It’s an amusing, highly-ironic situation for the couple. Like many of the old-time Vineyarders, both have a strong counter-culture streak, and they enjoy both befriending and bedeviling their new billionaire neighbors.
This summer, like every other, they’ve spent time with their tribe of children and grandchildren, preparing picnics to be served overlooking their spectacular view of Edgartown Great Pond and fishing from their new 15-foot skiff.
But, as September approaches and the nights start to get chilly, it’s time to think about boarding up the cabin and returning to their home on Siesta Key. The season will soon be over.
But, in Sarasota, it’s just about to begin, with even the same characters.