Do you like pristine white-sand beaches, turquoise blue water and gorgeous ocean sunsets? Do you dream about unwinding and experiencing a laid-back â€śisland timeâ€ť vacation? Do you enjoy good food with a water view?
If so, you are in luck.
The island paradise of Anna Maria Island in the Gulf of Mexico awaits you just across the intercoastal waterway from Bradenton, Florida. It has all of that and more.
Easily reached and close to Sarasotaâ€™s cultural attractions and the big-city amenities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Anna Maria is only a few hundred yards from the mainland but it has a vibe of its own that is unique to this side of the Caribbean. No wonder it attracts so many destination weddings and friends and family getaways.
The island has an old Florida feel. Wander around and take in its classic Florida cracker architecture, its kitschy shops, a welcome absence of high rises and several free public beaches.
While Anna Mariaâ€™s main drags and popular restaurants can be crowded, especially in the late winter-early spring â€śhigh season,â€ť the island abounds with nooks and cul-de-sacs and off-the-beaten-path places where solitude can be found with ease.
Anna Maria can be reached by air, highway, public transport, cruise ship and rail.
There is a free trolley that circulates between Coquina Beach and major points on the island. The Manatee bus system (MCAT) connects with the trolley from the mainland. From Sarasota, the Longboat Key Trolley runs from Coquina Beach to downtown Sarasota via Longboat Key and St. Armandâ€™s Circle. The fare is 75 cents â€” and less for seniors.
By car, Anna Maria can be reached from Interstate 75 and U.S. 41 in Bradenton via the Florida Route 64 and Cortez Avenue bridges. To the south, Gulf Drive South becomes Gulf of Mexico Drive via a bridge to Longboat Key, off Sarasotaâ€™s coast.
The nearest Amtrak station is Tampa, 58 miles away. Trains calling there serve the East Coast.
Among attractions that you should take in are:
Casual is the order of the day. Shorts and a sport shirt or blouse or even a bathing suit and a wrap will fit in almost anywhere on the island. Leave the T-shirts on the island. The mainlandâ€™s tonier places call for dressy resort casual.
Over 50 Advantage: Getting unplugged, whether at a luxury or casual resort. The laid-back lifestyle is perfect for relaxation but culture and fine-dining are available nearby.
Mobility Level: Low. The island is flat and most places are accessible. Crossing streets can be hazardous when traffic is heavy.
When to Go: Year-round. December, January and February can have cold days. November and March are usually gorgeous. Summers are hot and sticky with afternoon rain.
Where to Stay: There are scores of B&Bs, guest houses and small hotels on the island. A web search turns up possibilities from bargain to pricey.
Special Travel Interests: The seashore, museums on the mainland.
While there is no significant Jewish life or history on Anna Maria Island, a rich Jewish experience is close by on the mainland.
The first Jewish settlers arrived right before World War I. Until the population boom of the 1950s, the Jewish population remained small and there were few community-wide Jewish organizations and only two synagogues in nearby Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The United Jewish Appeal annual campaign grew along with the population in the second half of the 20th century and was the catalyst for todayâ€™s significant Jewish presence, anchored by the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation. Today, in addition to that organization, there are 13 large and small Jewish congregations on the Suncoast.
A history can be found in Kimberly Sheintalâ€™s book Jews of Sarasota Manatee. She traces Jewish life from the explorers of the 1840s, through Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjaminâ€™s brief exile there through the prominent Jews of todayâ€™s Sarasota cultural and commercial landscape.
Both Sarasota and Manatee (Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch) counties have attracted throngs of Jewish â€śsnowbirdsâ€ť (winter seasonal residents) and a rapidly growing community of permanent Jewish residents who have emigrated from the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.
The current observant Jewish population is estimated by BestPlaces.net to be about 1.5 percent of the total population and is about double the percentage than for the rest of Florida. The regionâ€™s Jewish population is generally affluent. There are also about 15,000 people in Manatee and Sarasota counties who identify themselves as Jewish but are not members of any congregation.
Jews are active in the political and community life of the region, holding elective offices and important community positions.
The Sarasota-Bradenton urban complex on the mainland has an active Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, a Jewish Family and Childrenâ€™s Service, a Jewish housing campus in Sarasota, and Jewish food and film festivals.
The two counties have synagogues covering the spectrum of Jewish life from Humanistic Judaism to Chabad. According to the Synagogue Council of Sarasota-Manatee, (11 including Humanistic Judaism, Kol HaNeshama, Ner Tamid, Jewish Congregation of Venice, Kehillah of Lakewood Ranch, Temple Beth El (Bradenton), Temple Beth El (North Port), Temple Beth Israel, Temple Beth Sholom, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Sinai) there are enough practicing Jews to support these congregations. Several Chabad congregations are also active there.
Kosher food to go can be found at Jo-Elâ€™s Delicatessen and Marketplace in St. Petersburg and large local grocery chains stock some kosher items year-round and kosher-for-Passover supplies. There are kosher-style delicatessens in Sarasota.
Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.