Gazing at the Gulf of Mexico on a blue-sky Saturday afternoon at the Helmsley Sandcastle Pool Bar on Lido Key, I sip on a perfectly mixed and delightfully potent Golden Margarita filled with Cuervo Gold and Grand Marnier. It takes me back. My mind drifts on a balmy breeze to another view of another ocean at another time and place.
Margaritas with Grand Marnier first came to my attention a day or two after I moved to Newport Beach in 2009. One sunny afternoon I found myself thirsty and ducked into the Cabo Cantina. It’s a typical Orange County tourist and surfer-dude spot with views of the bustling, concrete “boardwalk,” Pacific Ocean and Balboa Pier. The guy next to me ordered his margarita with a Grand Marnier floater.
At the time I don’t think I’d even tried Grand Marnier, but it sounded good and sophisticated and like something I should try now that I lived among many of the richest – and I would soon learn, snobbiest – people in the world. The orange-flavored brandy liqueur dating back to 1880 did wonders for my margarita and, feeling awfully lonely, I must have had four more. I sobered up quick when my tab came. Those drinks were $18 each.
I’ve been drinking Grand Marnier-topped margaritas ever since, but not at those prices. Back in Florida, the state I love and will likely never leave again, a good one usually costs $10. At the Helmsley Sandcastle Pool Bar, I’m paying a mere $7.50.
My amazing wife Kristin married me next door at the Ritz-Carlton Beach Club. All my family and many of hers stayed at the Helmsley. It’s an enchanting, old-school resort with no rooms higher than four stories, a palm tree-lined pool area, and a 600-foot swath of private beach in front of a pool bar that’s open to the public.
The Helmsley also offers some of the best service you’ll find anywhere. Just ask my mom. She has stayed at many of the finest hotels from here to China and couldn’t stop raving about her experience at the Helmsley.
Kristin and I liked it, too. Kristin’s uncles did some damage at the pool bar while we were gearing up for The Big Day but it would take us until now to discover the joys of this hidden drinking spot. Tourists and locals alike fill the 20 or so seats that surround the covered bar that includes a pair of large-screen TVs and some ceiling fans. Our bartender – Kelly Firestine – is witty and funny and quick and first rate. She makes everyone come together and feel like old friends.
“That’s an excellent margarita you made me,” I tell Kelly.
“What’s next?” she asks.
Kristin orders a banana daiquiri and Kelly denies her. Explains that the strawberry one (same price: $6.50) is much better so that’s what we happily split while noshing on a tasty steak sandwich called the “Sirloin & Cheddar” ($10).
Long before the tab arrives, Kristin and I decide that in the near future we need to book a room at the Helmsley. It’s cozy and welcoming and reminds me of everything Orange County wasn’t. Plus, it will give us the opportunity to take full advantage of the highly pleasurable pool bar.
The Helmsley Sandcastle Pool Bar; 1540 Benjamin Franklin Drive, Sarasota; 388-2181; helmsleysandcastle.com