Have a great vacation in Florida ... somewhere

  • Monday, May 12, 2014

The Howard Brothers circus model. COURTESY OF THE RINGLING ESTATE


When Judy and I moved to South Carolina in 2005, our friends and colleagues from up north, the Midwest and California all called to keep in touch and to ask us how we were enjoying life in North Carolina. It took several years to make it clear to all that we were living in South Carolina. Our guess is that they thought of Carolina as being one state with North and South being simply different sections – much like the North End in Boston, North Beach in San Francisco and the Northside and Southside in Chicago.

Eventually, we straightened all that out. So we were completely surprised by the reactions of our friends here when we told them we were planning a little vacation on Anna Maria Island. They all responded enthusiastically, “Wonderful! You’re going to love Amelia Island!”

OK. Amelia Island is better known, and, to compound the confusion, both are located in the state of Florida. But, they’re on opposite sides of the state, with Amelia on the Atlantic Ocean not far from Jacksonville and Anna Maria on the Gulf of Mexico south of Tampa and across the bay from Sarasota. Our destination was also much farther away, a 10-hour drive compared to five. It took us one entire audiobook and enough rest stops to not want to see another McDonald’s dollar menu cheeseburger for a long time just to get there.

We had set our sights on Anna Maria Island after a close friend – the Moultrie News’ own “Globetrotter,” Sharon Lieb – had touted our destination on the basis of a trip she’d made there years ago. She told us that Anna Maria Island was “the real, old Florida” and that we’d enjoy it.

Sharon was right. Like the Isle of Palms, Anna Maria is a narrow barrier island. Also like the IOP, Anna Maria encompasses several different entities – Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key. Bradenton is more business and residential; Longboat Key is more upscale. Holmes, where our “hotel” was located, is in the middle and features numerous small, older beachfront hostelries, many of which wouldn’t look out of place in a movie about the Eisenhower era.

But, of course, all of them have one major compelling feature, the pristine beaches and the warm, calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Our destination of choice turned out to be located smack-dab in the middle of this largesse of lodgings. It turned out to be simple, yet clean and spacious. Our suite included a full kitchen with breakfast bar, sitting room with HDTV and bedroom with another TV and sliding windows looking right out onto the beach.

When we slid those windows open for a breath of brisk sea air, we discovered something else we hadn’t counted on. Running the length of the beach, as far as the eye could see, was a giant, rusty tube, about six feet in diameter, halfway between our back door and the water.

The innkeepers apologetically explained that the authorities had decided to replenish the beach’s sand and had put the necessary pipes in place after we had already made our reservations, many weeks before. They noted that the workers on the project had bulldozed sand “ramps” along the beach to allow swimmers and sun worshippers access while the work went on. They also noted that they’d be giving us a big discount on our bill because of the inconvenience. Suddenly, both the hotel and the giant, rusty pipe took on a whole new luster for us.

There’s plenty to do in the area, from bike riding to fishing cruises to parasailing, but our mission was more to relax and enjoy our time in a part of Florida we’d never visited before. Eating and doing nothing were pretty high on our priority list.

Aside from just exploring this new area for us, one attraction we wanted to see was the Ringling Estate and Circus Museum located just over a causeway in Sarasota. We’d heard good things about this place, and we weren’t disappointed. C’a d’Zan – “House of John” in an Italian dialect – dates from the 1920s when it was the winter home of John Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus fame. With its bayfront gardens, landscaped grounds and art museum, the estate is truly palatial and worth a visit.

The biggest draw for us, though, was the famed Circus Museum. It takes an hour or two to see and experience everything at the museum, from a sprawling scale model of everything involved when the circus came to town – railroad cars carrying hundreds of workers and just as many animals, enormous canvasses for the huge tents, colorful wagons for show parades as well as for lodging and performances and more.

It’s a one-of-a-kind look back on a phenomenon that was a prominent feature of Americana through the 1950s when the traditional and much anticipated arrival of the circus tents yielded to the pressures of taste and economics and the “Greatest Show on Earth” moved from fairgrounds to indoor arenas.

Back on Anna Maria Island, we found plenty of opportunities to indulge our other objective, dining. On our section of the island, we found Peach’s, a sunny coffee shop that offered a range of good sandwiches but excelled at large, satisfying breakfasts. Not far down the road, we dropped into the Olympic Diner on the theory that a diner owned by Greeks and staffed with waitresses that looked to have been born in the place couldn’t be all bad. The food was delicious and their gyros were as good as any we’ve had.

For more upscale cuisine, adjacent Longboat Key offered numerous options, among them The Lazy Lobster, where we feasted on – what else? – lobster, and Eugenia Haye, named for the chef’s mother, a magnificent old home turned into an elegant restaurant and bar that’s packed every night for four-star dishes such as veal piccata and smoked salmon over blini with caviar.

So despite the confusion among our peers, our trip to the lesser known Anna Maria Island was well worth the ride. Only now, we’re thinking of cancelling a proposed trip to Zanzibar. We’re afraid all our friends will be asking us how much we enjoyed Zambia.

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