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Place: Anna Maria Island, Florida
A Florida Secret
By Andrew Der
There is a place in Florida that does not have the very best in beaches, the most Caribbean-like climate, the best recreational opportunities or the hottest resorts or nightlife in the State. So, why is an island peninsula community of 15,000 residents on the Gulf Coast considered by many to be a “best kept secret”? For those in the know, it is affordable subtropical nirvana.
Just south of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway bridge, west of Bradenton and north of Sarasota and glitzy Siesta and Longboat Keys, the town of Anna Maria holds this honor. The most remote and outlying town on the island of the same name, it combines with two other municipal communities to the south, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, for the total Anna Maria Island experience. The secret is that the town of Anna Maria does not have any fast food or convenience franchises, chain stores, high rises or a stoplight and the community intends to keep it that way. Prominent destinations such as the Tampa, Clearwater or Sarasota areas are only 45 to 90 minutes away.
What Anna Maria does have is a Florida Keys charm of 30 years ago, spectacular ocean sunsets, solitude without remoteness, secluded beaches with sea turtle egg nests, wildlife, easy bike riding, friendly people, exemplary dining opportunities and a free local trolley. The late winter and spring throngs do affect the area somewhat and you might be surprised to hear a multitude of German-speaking visitors who seem share my tastes. While not as crowded as other popular Florida destinations, mainland traffic access along the single causeway to and from the nearest city, Bradenton, can occasionally gridlock and waiting for restaurant seating can be excruciating. For these reasons, northerners may best appreciate this eclectic community in August - the coastal climate is cooler (high eighties) than many North American regions and the sparse attendance is just right. This allows you to experience the otherwise camouflaged and friendly local beach populace of year-round residents - best described as a blend of small family businesses, artists, commuters, retirees and escapees from big cities with a slow-paced Mayberry quality and a smattering of international flavor.
Bring paperbacks, sandals, shorts, swim wear and plenty of sunscreen but leave most of your clothes at home. A typical summer day starts out sunny and clear with an afternoon or evening thunderstorm like clockwork so schedule your outdoor time in the mornings and midday. The most challenging part of your stay might be deciding whether to go anywhere else. If you do, then sprinkle some half-day family excursions on your vegetative experience among the palms. Popular choices include the Bradenton science center and planetarium; Siesta Beach, rated one of the world’s best beaches; Mote Marine Aquarium; Myakka River State Park - great for viewing alligators in the wild; the Ringling Museum and Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota; St. Armands Circle shopping district in Siesta Key and the Leffis Key Baywalk nature preserve near Coquina Beach.
As noteworthy as regional attractions are, the reality is that after numerous visits, I am seldom drawn out of the subtropical cocoon of Anna Maria even during the winter and spring seasons. Anna Maria is not completely immune to peak travel, so book your accommodations ahead of time as well as your flight and car rental (a must) if you are coming via the extremely visitor friendly and efficient Tampa airport. The smaller community airports of Sarasota and St. Petersburg/Clearwater are also available but may require an additional plane change. There are plenty of customary accommodation options especially in the contiguous communities of Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach to the south but I recommend that for your first visit you make the total commitment of residing in the Town of Anna Maria itself.
If beachfront accommodations are not a requirement, cut your costs without cutting comfort and amenities by staying at the Siam Garden Resort. Created and designed by an enterprising couple - she from rural Thailand, this exotic lodging oasis of southeast Asian themes and foliage will envelope you in a bubble of slightly surreal seclusion in a quiet residential neighborhood of occasional pastel pink and purple homes. Room selections range from smaller studios to efficiencies and a honeymoon suite all surrounding a placid swimming pool sprinkled with Thai sculptures, antiques and flora. The compact and efficiently designed Resort, is one of the best ways to experience Anna Maria because it is strategically located within walking distance of both sides of the island shoreline, the community's best restaurants, a small museum, a video rental, dry cleaner and a small general store. The owners' thoughtfully leave laminated guides and maps to local attractions and a vendor list in each room, which you can consult regularly for information.
Lodgings, including house and condo rentals, are usually available by the week. If being at the seashore is your goal and you deserve more pampering, stay farther south in the Bradenton Beach area - a little more bustle but still an enriching experience. A cutting edge recently opened resort is the BridgeWalk - a good value since you are right at the Gulf beach. Rooms vary in style and capacity from studios to townhome-like suites. The BridgeWalk includes a restaurant with the best view in the area, shops and a spa. Partake in their spa packages (including massage) and the only time you leave might be to watch the sun set.
In most areas, the Gulf of Mexico will be to the west and Tampa Bay to the east. The best way to explore Anna Maria from here is by foot and bicycle - rent some at a shop near the general store and enjoy the flat and scenic terrain. If you feel adventurous, do it with roller blades. Some local and low maintenance activities within walking distance can begin with going right to the beach to soak in the warm and gentle blue waters. Read a book and beach comb. Try to find prize seashells and discover how this total focus makes the real world fade. Be careful with the deceptive water currents at the northern tip of the island and the midday sun - it may feel the same as up north but rays are near equatorial intensity. Try your hand at fishing on the Bay's Anna Maria City Pier and eat at the pier's over-water restaurant. On your stroll back, stop at Mama Lo's, considered the best ice cream parlor in the area. Have a family cookout at the Anna Maria beach front park and play area on the Bay. Lounge by the pool but don't forget to watch the Gulf sunsets each evening with everyone else - if you observe it from the beach accessible deck at the area's most popular beach front restaurant and bar, the Sandbar, guessing the sunset time may net you complimentary drinks. A word of caution - if you find yourself excessively scheduling and planning, you don't belong here.
The Best (but no worst) of Anna Maria:
Best overall activity
Favorites among most visitors are the numerous boat charters (both sightseeing and fishing), ultralight air tours, kayak, jet ski and boat rentals and parasailing. The visitor literature in your hotel room or lobby as well as the below web sites list numerous vendor sources. Select whatever is closest to you.
Best restaurant - Sign of the Mermaid
9707 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria, (941) 778 9399, reservations recommended.
Sparsely advertised and modest in appearance, this secret and restored historic 1913 cottage serves the best food on the island and probably the region. The menu boasts an extensive and unusual variety of Florida and European selections as well as wines and beers - not inexpensive but well worth it. In case you are curious, the varied menu selections are based entirely on what customers request the most and the name of the establishment came to the owners in a dream.
Best beach front restaurant and bar - The Sandbar
100 Spring Avenue, Anna Maria, (941) 778 0444
Probably, the most popular restaurant on the island due to excellent dining as well as an outdoor beach-accessible bar with music - also a popular spot to buy souvenir tee shirts. If dining by sunset is your goal, inside or out, this is the place to be. Long lines and large crowds in peak seasons can sometimes make this experience a formidable challenge.
Best dining tip for those of you visiting from the Mid-Atlantic U. S.
I have yet to have anything but superior seafood dining experiences in the region especially the abundance of grilled fish and stone crab claws, which I recommend the most. Blackened Grouper, Roughy and Snapper are my favorite fish entrees and Conch stew or soup is my favorite appetizer. But be warned - as much as they try, bless their hearts, even the best restaurants fail to replicate Blue Crab Cakes indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay region. You will see these on almost every menu but do not get them. Order, the regional equivalent, Conch Fritters and you will not be disappointed.
Best slightly extravagant day trip - Egmont Key State Park
For those of you comfortable operating a motor boat, from the Siam Garden, walk over to Island Marine marina and boat rental at 412 Pine Avenue, (941) 778 1260 and rent a 17' five person outboard for the day. Motor out to Egmont Key, an uninhabited island in the Gulf at the opening of Tampa Bay. This Gilligan's Island has uncompleted relic walk ways and building foundations left over from turn of the century Spanish American War fortifications for possible attacks and is presently overrun with large tortoises and lizards. Home of the only manned lighthouse in the U.S., this island is a wildlife refuge managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition to soaking in the blue waters, the Bay side of the island has the best snorkeling opportunities in the region. Budding young marine biologists will appreciate the easy three to five foot deep calm water over vast expanses of turtle grass beds. Just float and look down to catch glimpses of fish and bottom dwellers such as mollusks and rays. Make sure to bring plenty of drinking water, a picnic lunch and sunscreen.
Best frugal day trip - Myakka River State Park
13207 S.R. 72, Sarasota, nine miles east of I-75, (941) 361 6511
Boasting one of Florida's largest and most diverse natural areas, this pristine Wild and Scenic River park flows through 45 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. The river and its two shallow lakes attract a myriad of wetland creatures such as alligators, turtles, and an amazing number of different types of birds and a boardwalk out on the Upper Lake enhances wildlife viewing opportunities making birding, canoeing, fishing and wildlife observation popular activities. A seven-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. Over 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior.
Best one-hour experience - Bay View Jet Ski
5323 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778 7990
Sharing an office with the Anna Maria Boat Club marina, this modest operation is the closest Jet Ski rental facility to Anna Maria. For about $65, you and a companion can zoom around the Bay for an hour on these aquatic motor cycles at your leisure. Do not be surprised if you see a frolicking manatee in the marina on your way out or dolphins frolicking in the Bay. This is a great opportunity for parent/child quality time - but you may enjoy it more than your child.
Best adrenaline rush - Parasailing
I must confess I passed on this so far, but my son's cajoling will make the inevitable happen with a future visit. You can arrange one at the rental facility near the general store or numerous other places around the island - consult your visitor's literature and pick the closest one. Consider the option where you release the boat tether at the end of the ride to glide back to the water under your own control - I will try.
Best rainy day activity - Mote Marine Aquarium
1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, (941) 388 4441
Actually part of the Mote Marine Laboratory founded by Dr. Eugenie Clark one the most world famous marine biologists and shark researches in history, this prime experience for naturalists and budding marine biologists is a must for those interested in fish, reefs, sea turtles, marine mammals and science. Children will also like the hands on touch tank.
Second best rainy day activity - The South Florida Museum
201 10th Street West, Bradenton, (941) 746 4131
Home of Snooty™, the Manatee, born in 1947 and a de facto mascot for the region, this educational complex includes a natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium. You can discover Florida’s story from the prehistoric to the present including fossil exhibits, Florida’s First Peoples and local maritime history. Don't miss the planetariums laser shows created around musical themes such as the Beach Boys.
Best public beach in the region - Siesta Beach
Siesta Key, Sarasota
Actually considered one of the best and beautiful beaches in the world on many Best Of lists, the beach's sand is 99% quartz - so even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot. Estimated to be millions of years old from Appalachian sediment deposition, Siesta Beach has a vast near-shore shallow water depth with year round lifeguard protection, playgrounds, bath houses, beach volleyball, fitness trails, athletic fields and parking (but get there early).
Best beach close by - Anna Maria Beach
If staying at Siam Garden, stroll west along Spring Avenue past the Sandbar eatery to experience the serenity of what Florida was like many years ago. While not crowded, parking can be difficult, but the sunsets can be spectacular.
Best shopping - St. Armands Circle
Lido Key, Sarasota
OK - if serenity is getting on your nerves and you simply must activate your suburban yearnings - there is only one place to do it. Created from a group of islands in the 1920s, by John Ringling of circus fame, into a major and elegant attraction, the international and world class destination of St. Armands Circle provides contemporary architecture, superb shops, galleries, exotic boutiques, gourmet restaurants and nightlife. Sometimes described as a more affordable and less pretentious Beverly Hills of Southwest Florida, this continental market place of 130 stores can reduce your charge card to crumbling debris if you are not careful.
Best fishing without a boat - Almost anywhere along the seashore.
The easiest is definitely from either the Manatee public pier on the Gulf or the Anna Maria city pier on the Bay
Best outdoor attraction for budding young (and maybe old) naturalists - Coquina BayWalk at Leffis Key
Three miles south of Holmes Beach opposite the shaded pine barrens of Coquina Beach, lies an under utilized nature preserve of wetland boardwalks and observable wildlife - an excellent family walk.
The best historic park - De Soto National Memorial
The regions only U.S Park is less of a recreation area and more of historical display of artifacts and reenactments with period costumes describing the life of expeditions of Hernando De Soto.
Web Sites of General Interest
annamarianetwork.com - excellent starting point
Getting there - the simplest and most efficient way I prefer is to book air tickets to Tampa and a car rental combination package directly on Southwest airlines' web site at www.iflyswa.com. They do not participate in travel web site directories and seems to be the most economical.
Siam Garden Resort
512 Spring Avenue, Anna Maria, (941) 778 2000
100 Bridge Street, Bradenton Beach, (941) 779 2545
Island Trolley - free and efficient transportation throughout the entire Island
Groceries and Other Items - Since most visitors stay for a week and all accommodations have kitchen facilities, visit Anna Maria Island's only grocery store as soon as possible. Without fail, you will also probably need something like sunblock, pharmaceuticals, film or a beach toy conveniently available at the area's only drug store.
Publix grocery store
3900 E. Bay Dr, Holmes Beach, (941) 778 5422
Right next door to Publix
Art Galleries and Cultural Arts - Anna Maria Island also has a unique and under appreciated artistic community worthy of investigation.
The Island Players (941) 778 5755
Anna Maria Art League (941) 778 2099
Artists Guild of Anna Maria Island (941) 778 6694
amisland.com/gallery (941) 778 6648
Anna Maria Historical Society (941) 778 0492
Anna Maria Community Center (941) 778 1908
Other locations of interest in or near the Town of Anna Maria
Island Community Center
407 Magnolia Avenue, (941) 778 1908
Stop by to check out local activities and events.
Island Library - this is the place to surf the net, check your email and get some books for the kids and yourself.
Holmes Beach, (941) 778 6341
Anna Maria Elementary School
4700 Gulf Dr. N., Holmes Beach, (941) 708 5525
I threw this in the fray because, if you are visiting during the local school closing season, this bay front public school for the local population provides a delightfully secluded park and playground area with a memorable water view - and a screeching population of feral parrots and other non-indigenous tropical birds that were once pets.
A couple more activities to consider
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
811 South Palm Avenue, Sarasota, (941) 366 5731
Billed as the best public garden in the south and once a private estate, this showpiece of tropical flora now comprises eight and a half acres, seven greenhouses and 20,000 species and is a leading research and exotic species identification center.
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 359 5700
The Ringlings acquired the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1919 to create the Greatest Show on Earth. The museum not only houses the Circus Museum but the products of other Ringling family efforts such the Museum of Art, Cà d'Zan (their winter gothic mansion),
Archives and Library, sculptures, musical performances and public education programs.