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Buses bring Amish tourists to Sarasota

Image: Katie Troyer

Most of Sarasota’s winter visitors come for the beach, a little golf, and maybe some culture on the rainy days. But what about our Amish tourists? Thousands come down each winter; we’re a major resort in the Amish and Mennonite world. What’s their Sarasota vacation like?

Now, thanks to a new hotel right in the middle of Pinecraft—as the Amish part of town is known—you can find out. The Carlisle Inn is surprisingly upscale, with big rooms and tasteful Amish-inspired art. (Those abstract paintings you’re admiring turn out to be quilts.) There’s a pool but no bar. The general atmosphere is that of sincerity and strong family values. A female soldier in uniform checks in. A middle school baseball team, here for a tournament, wanders by. I peeked in the ballroom to see what that hubbub was. An embroidery seminar was in progress.

Pinecraft, for those new to Sarasota, has been around since the 1920s. During the winter it’s packed with Amish and Mennonites of every sect and stripe; then, just after Easter, they all get on chartered buses and return up North and the place becomes very quiet. Every true Sarasotan knows Pinecraft through its restaurants, which are wildly popular and always crowded.

But it’s one thing going for lunch and quite another to spend a weekend there. Would there be enough to do? Would you stick out like a sore thumb? Is there anything to buy other than pies? And isn’t everything closed on Sunday? 

It’s a little disorienting at first. You feel like you’ve been plunked down in a foreign country. Everything is different—those beards, the bonnets, the language they speak. Even the transportation is different. People walk everywhere or ride their famous adult-size tricycles.

But there are things to see. If you are at all interested in vernacular architecture, Pinecraft is a gold mine. Most of the homes are tiny, unornamented and do not have beautiful gardens. They are about as plain as you can get. But that’s their charm. The Amish take the sin of pride seriously and showing off just isn’t done. Their little homes are so modest they rise to the level of folk art.

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The Carlisle Inn opened in Pinecraft this season.

Pinecraft is only about half a mile square. The southern half (the community is divided by Bahia Vista Street) is the more interesting. Little vignettes are everywhere. Check out the clotheslines. Chances are you’ll see the same dress in the same color, over and over again.

Keep an eye open for the bird houses—another Amish specialty. Signs on telephone poles announce gospel concerts. There’s always a crowd at Big Olaf’s ice cream parlor, Pinecraft’s famous guilty pleasure. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see the arrival of the buses from Ohio and Pennsylvania, the day’s major event.

The hub of life in Pinecraft is tiny Pinecraft Park. Everybody gathers to socialize, play shuffleboard and sit in the sun. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the Amish culture, but it also presents the visitor with a moral dilemma. Maybe the park is best left alone. Tourists taking pictures of the “quaint” residents and their lifestyle—that would ruin everything.

Oh, well, there’s always shopping. Both major restaurants, Yoder’s and Der Dutchman, have gift shops, and Der Dutchman’s is huge. It’s like a floor at Macy’s. The merchandise is commercially made crafts, like scented candles and those rusticated signs that say things like “A Friend is a Friend but a Sister is Forever.”

Yoder’s gift shop is smaller and arguably more authentic. But nearby are the Yoder’s produce market and deli, which many Sarasotans already frequent and are always worth a look-see. You also might want to stop in the furniture stores, which sell custom-made wooden furniture, the kind that stays in the family for generations. And check out my favorite store, Martha’s Pantry, where you can get dented and squashed groceries at rock-bottom prices. A misshapen but still intact box of Cheerios goes for $1.

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Yoder's chocolate-peanut butter pie.

Image: Courtesy Photo 

Speaking of food, that’s the deal breaker of any weekend getaway, and here Pinecraft delivers the goods. I decided to have lunch at Yoder’s and dinner at Der Dutchman. I’ve always felt Yoder’s had slightly better food, and this visit just confirmed my belief. Amish food is famously bland, but it can still be satisfying. My meatloaf was delicious and so was my rivel soup (an all-white potato and dumpling comfort food).

But it’s the pies where the Amish go a little wacky. I had the chocolate peanut butter. The piece seemed like a third of the entire pie and it was extremely exciting. I never knew a piece of pie could thrill me this much.

Back to the hotel for a short nap. The couple across the hall was having a screaming fight, and it was reassuring to know that real life and its nasty problems exist in Pinecraft, too. But soon—too soon—it was time for dinner. The last thing I wanted was more food, but I take my work seriously and I had to eat dinner at Der Dutchman to do my article correctly. So I headed over.

Der Dutchman is totally different from the homey, small-scale Yoder’s. Here it’s like being on a cruise ship or in a college dining hall. I chose the all-you-can-eat buffet, figuring I could sample a couple of things. Well, four platefuls later I was still sampling. And when I got to dessert and discovered that the buffet only offered sheet cake and no pies, I never felt so cheated in my life.

It was good to lie down after dinner. One of the best things about Pinecraft is that it offers no nightlife whatsoever, so there’s no nagging feeling that you’re missing something. But as I lay there, something happened. My stomach was so full that I started to sweat. Then my heart began to palpitate. Then my chest tightened.

Was I having a heart attack? This went far beyond mere overeating. I paced the room. I sat on the brand-new couch. I splashed water on my face.

Nothing seemed to help. Was I going to die?

Around 10:30 p.m. I made a decision. I packed my bag and went home. Dying in the Carlisle Inn of too much Amish food was just too awful to contemplate.

I didn’t die, though. And the next afternoon, Sunday, I drove back to Pinecraft to see what I had missed. It was a clear and bright day in early spring. Everything was closed and the hustle and bustle of Saturday had vanished. Even the ice cream parlor was shut.

Old people were still riding their trikes or sitting on their porches. In the park the teenagers were playing volleyball, but the shuffleboard courts, so packed on Saturday, were now deserted. There was no traffic, no TVs or music coming from the open windows. The only sounds were the birds singing and the occasional overheard remark in a language I couldn’t quite place. It was peaceful in a way I hadn’t experienced in ages.

There are other ways of living, I realized. Ways that have nothing to do with the news or politics, or downtown growth or traffic on Longboat. To escape all that for a couple of days reveals a bigger picture. It’s calming and comforting and—dare I say it—inspirational. And that’s the paradox of a weekend in Pinecraft. On one hand it’s intrusive and a little bit awkward. On the other hand, it will make you a better person.

Just hold back on the pie.

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Der Dutchman

$$ American, Breakfast/Brunch 3713 Bahia Vista St.

Der Dutchman serves up classic American cuisine in Sarasota's Pinecraft neighborhood. You'll find staples like broasted chicken, roast turkey, meatloaf and b...

Yoder's

$$ American, Southern 3434 Bahia Vista Street

Famous for its homemade pies (more than two dozen flavors like Dutch apple crumb and chocolate peanut butter), Yoder’s also offers comfort food.