NEWS: LOCAL

Floridians say, ‘Come On Down!’

Ben Frank 3
Photo credit: Ben G. Frank.
A view of The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa, said to be Florida’s oldest and the nation’s largest Spanish restaurant.

"It's hovering around zero," my Chicago friend tells me. I don't dare inform him that where I'm sitting, it's 76 degrees… expected to rise to 81 by lunchtime. "Come on down," I yell in the telephone, thinking, "You'll be in good company in Florida."

Wherever I go in this winter in the Sunshine State, restaurants are crowded. Traffic increased more than usual. Shows are packed. I'm sure the polar vortex gripping most of the nation must have something to do with it. 

Most visitors head here for the weather, and this vacationland happily provides just that: sandy beaches, a beckoning blue ocean and gulf, palm trees… all accessed by smooth, flat, and ice-free highway system. There are also "time-warped" hotels, steeped in Art Deco kitsch, interspersed between sleek, modern, multimillion-dollar high rises. Land at any major airport here and walk outside- the warmth immediately seeps through to your bones.

A perfect introduction to the state is a drive along Florida's A1A, one of its most scenic roads. For diversion, this writer often takes a drive up A1A from Boca Raton to Manalapan in Palm Beach County. 

Vacationers should never get bored in Florida. For openers, they could try Miami Beach and Miami itself, Orlando, Key West and the other Florida Keys, and the Everglades. Millions also flock to Disney World, with its 25,000 acres encompassing over 20 resorts, four theme parks, and water parks. And more cruise ships sail out of Florida than any place in the world, according to Jay Shapiro of Las Vegas' Five Star Travel, who deals with luxury cruises and has an office in Ft. Lauderdale.

Seeking a Jewish neighborhood?  Florida has the third largest concentration of Jews in the U.S. after New York and California. Palm Beach County, especially Boynton Beach, ranks high as having the largest gathering of Jews outside of Jerusalem. And Jewish tourists head to Boca, Delray Beach and Ft. Lauderdale for sun and sand. Most movements of Judaism are represented here, including several hundred Orthodox synagogues and 157 Chabad centers. Israeli cafes, such as Aroma Espresso Bars, located in Sunny Isles, Miami Beach, Miami Gardens, and the city of Miami, draw many. I  counted more than 50 strictly kosher establishments in South Florida, including Sunrise Pita & Grill (Sunrise); Golda's (Boynton Beach), Shalom Haifa (Miami Beach) and Frill Time (North Miami). There are also the Jewish Museum of Florida, 301 Washington Ave, Miami Beach and the Holocaust Museum, 1933 Meridian Ave., Miami.

Of course South Beach (Miami Beach)- besides its Art Deco offerings- remains on the cutting edge of Miami's cultural and nightlife scene. And then of course there is that international city Miami, which boasts one of the world's most beautiful cityscapes. If you are a sports fan and love basketball, even if you cheer on the Chicago Bulls, you can take in a game with the Windy City's prime opponent, the Miami Heat, at the American Airlines Arena. 

Before leaving the East Coast of Florida, head to Route 1 to Key West at least for a few days for a sunset cruise, followed by a romantic dinner on the water. There, you can also visit President Harry Truman's Little White House and Hemingway House. Conventional wisdom has it that residents from the Midwest settle on Florida's west coast via I-75, while metro New Yorkers and New Englanders move into retirement on the state's east coast. That may be changing, according to Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa Jewish Community Center. 

Tampa and Clearwater contain about 25,000 Jews each.  Clearwater remains a popular winter resort, with its world class beach, amazing marine life, and festivals like the annual fall Jazz Holiday, featuring four days and nights of live music. Back in Tampa, one popular attraction is its Ybor City area. This is only two square miles, but it's got everything for a night on the town: restaurants, cafes, bars, cigar stores… even tattoo parlors. Here, you'll find Florida's oldest eatery, the Columbia Restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the US. 

Further south in Venice, between Sarasota and Naples, retiree Sy Waldman finds the Gulf Coast of Florida, "easier living than the east coast. We have opera and theater in Sarasota- only 20 minutes away- and the local Venice JCC sponsors many programs for seniors." 

So, as the Floridians say, "Come on down!" The temp is right. 

Ben G. Frank, travel writer, journalist, is the author of the just-published "Klara's Journey, A Novel," (Marion Street Press,); "The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond," (Globe Pequot Press).

Posted: 2/27/2014 11:12:40 AM
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