In Sarasota, Amish snowbirds

Yoder’s Restaurant & Amish Village is an outpost of the Amish snowbird community in Sarasota, Florida. | Adam Cellini of Visit Sarasota County

As with elsewhere in Florida, snowbirds are a regular sight here.

But intermixed with the more stereotypical visitors to Sarasota, a city and county on the Gulf of Mexico coast in southwest Florida, is a large community of Amish.

Like other snowbirds, the Amish come from locales with cold winters. Think central Ohio, northern Indiana and, of course, the unofficial Amish capital of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.

At the height of the season, about 5,000 winter-weary Amish and Mennonites call Pinecraft, an enclave about 20 minutes from the popular St. Armand’s Circle, home. In the summer, the population numbers just 50.

Most of the Amish arrive after taking a 22-hour ride on chartered buses that are collectively called the Amish Express. By contrast, Mennonites often drive themselves — an illustration of how the two Protestant traditions differ, despite a shared cultural and religious heritage.

To discover everything about this fascinating community of snowbirds, I took the uncreatively named Amish Experience tour from guide Kendra Cross.

Cross, a native of Indiana, isn’t Amish but has a connection to the denomination, which arose out of the Anabaptists in the 17th century, through her Amish grandmother. Today, she attends a Mennonite church.

An Amish woman quilts inside Alma Sue’s Quilt Shop in Sarasota, Florida. (photo by Dennis Lennox) | Dennis Lennox

Her tour runs about two hours and stops at a couple of Amish-centric businesses, including Alma Sue’s Quilt Shop and the Carlisle Inn, a family-friendly hotel located next to the popular restaurant Der Dutchman.

“The Amish are Christian, but their culture is Amish,” Cross made a point of telling the group of about 20 tourgoers as an old-fashioned trolley navigated the streets of Pinecraft. “Their culture is separate and not of the world.”

The biggest houses in Pinecraft are around 800 square feet. Some have architectural details complete with driveways and white picket fences; others are plain block houses. Most sell for about $300,000, Cross said.

“We want to respect the culture and the fact that this is their community,” she said. “We don’t want to be commercialized like Lancaster County.”

What struck me was just how normal that community looked.

Married couples rode tricycles and electric scooters in the direction of Sarasota’s world-class beaches, a large crowd of spectators gathered around a beach volleyball match at Pinecraft Park and several Amish or Mennonites sunbathed at the pool of the Carlisle Inn. Over at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency, I did a double take at two bikini-clad girls talking in Pennsylvania Dutch and drinking what were presumably virgin cocktails. Then again, I suppose what happens in Sarasota stays in Sarasota.

If you go

The Amish Experience tour runs every Thursday through May 12. Tickets cost $44.99 for adults and $29.99 for children under 12.

Eat at Yoder’s Restaurant & Amish Village or Der Dutchman. Both restaurants are closed Sundays.

Stay at the Carlisle Inn and Conference Center.

Churchgoers may want to attend the Sunday service at the Mennonite Tourist Church, 3440 Bahia Vista St. in Sarasota, at 9:30 a.m. Alternative churches outside the Amish and Mennonite traditions include First Sarasota (Southern Baptist) and the Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal).

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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