A Florida Secret

There is a place in Florida that does not have the very best in beaches, the most Caribbean-like climate, the most up-scale or 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 and Island 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. Yet, prominent destinations such as the Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg 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 visitors may hear a multitude of German-speaking visitors who seem share my tastes.

While not as crowded as other popular Florida destinations during peak travel season, mainland traffic access along the causeways 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 the summer – when the coastal climate is cooler (high eighties) than many North American regions and the sparse attendance and competitive pricing 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 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 so, 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 for a sampling.

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 if you are coming via the extremely visitor friendly and efficient Tampa airport. The smaller and closer community airport of Sarasota is also available but may require an additional plane change. A multitude of customary accommodation options await especially in the contiguous communities of Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach to the south but I recommend that for the first visit, make the total commitment of residing in the Town of Anna Maria itself.

If beachfront accommodations are not a requirement, cut costs without cutting comfort and amenities by staying just a bit inland and is the more economical way to experience Anna Maria - as 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, general stores, and gift shops. The most common lodgings, include house and condo rentals, are usually available by the week. Even more selections are available ocean front for a bit more of an investment. In most of this area, the Gulf of Mexico will be to the west and Tampa Bay to the east. The best way to explore Anna Maria and Holmes beach from here is by foot and bicycle - rent some at a shop near a general store and enjoy the flat and scenic terrain. If feeling 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 fishing on the Bay's Anna Maria City Pier and eat at the pier's over-water restaurant among dolphins and birds. 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 – observe it from the beach accessible deck at the area's most popular beach front restaurant and bar, the Sandbar. Correctly 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.

And now - the Best (but no worst) of Anna Maria:

Best overall activities
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 room or lobby as well as the below web sites list numerous vendor sources. Select whatever is closest to you.

Best over-water dining experience and nature appreciation - The Anna Maria City Pier and Restaurant (and “gift shop”)
This historic pier serenely thrusts one out deep onto calm waters teaming with critters and serves the best casual seafood on a pier enjoyed by view seekers and local surf fishing enthusiasts alike. Even if not eating there, the Pier is the best spot for an evening stroll to enjoy ogling the catches of the day, grabbing a beer, listening to music or watching dolphins play. Despite the human presence, wildlife abounds due to the byproducts of the surf fishing regulars who capture the zen of true relaxation. Wild birds look for scraps, dolphin pods actually come eerily close to shore actively herding fish schools for elegant dining just like a scene out of Discovery Channel.
Gift shop is in quotes above because it is actually a vendor table near the restaurant entrance teaming with nicely priced jewelry and fossils including pre-historic Megaloden shark teeth – hours are not rigid but just ask for the “shark tooth guy”. If visiting in summer, the position of the sun in the sky is just right for the most spectacular area sunset from the end of the pier facing north to the mouth of Tampa bay.

Best freebie ever - Anna Maria Island Trolley
Whether site-seeing, beach hopping or going to the store, take advantage of this especially efficient service as often as possible using the numerous marked stops from Coquina Beach all the way to the public pier on the north side of Anna Maria town. Trolleys run about every 30 minutes but make sure to sit at an official Trolley bench and not another type - trolley benches are painted green and say – of all things - Trolley on it. Most accommodations and stores have maps.

Favorite place to stay – The jointly owned and managed Seaside Inn Beach Resort, Tradewinds Resort and Tortuga Inn Beach Resort
Admittedly this is a tough one given the multitude of other outstanding accommodations – some more upscale and larger and some more rustic and simple. So while I have enjoyed other locations, this stands out for several reasons. Mostly it is a bargain in that you get very clean, very neat and comfortable lodgings with effectively used spaces and none of the bells and whistles a family or couple might not need or want to pay for – an excellent value. These beach front lodges are surprisingly isolated and devoid of crowds even in peak season while not far from anything. But rest assured you will not rough it with back porch Gulf access, rooftop patios, cable, and wifi. Unlike other arrangements, customers reserve rooms directly with owner and management leaving out cumbersome and customer service-lacking real estate rental agencies which tend to add overhead costs – without falling back on standard hotel fare. Even better is the absence of any requirement for minimum stays as well as the owner’s personal sincere interest in your satisfaction. Nothing will go wrong with your stay here. Make sure you reserve in advance for peak seasons though and don’t forget to ask for their seasonal packages.

Coolest all around general store and snacking hang out – Ginny's and Jane E's
9807 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria, www.annamariacafe.com
Previously the only local IGA store, this is a cozy one-stop-shop for café and bakery, collectibles and chatzkies, crafts, quirky gifts, furnishings, gourmet grocery, and free wireless internet and two PC work stations.

Best casual and short diversion for guys - Island Lumber & Hardware
213 54th St., Holmes Beach, www.islandlumber.com
A tropical trip back to an Andy Griffith type neighborhood hardware store quietly hidden among redundant beach and gift shops where no holding of spouses purses are required.

Best diversion for gals - Acqua Salon Spa
5311 Gulf Dr., Holmes Beach, www.acquaaveda.com
Already on some “best of” lists and billing itself as where surf meets sophistication, this is the place to pamper yourself while the hubby goes to the hardware store. Lest I be sexist, I confess they have men’s services and succumbed to a pedicure with foot massage. This Aveda (I am told this is the best) product salon not only throws every service your way such as hair, nails, cosmetics, exotically-named body treatments, and massage, but they have a decadent full body water massage steam tent I am told is the ultimate.

Best easy to miss restaurant - Sign of the Mermaid
9707 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria, (941) 778 9399, www.signofthemermaidonline.com
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 under appreciated casual dining – Jamrocks Jamaican Grill
1701 Gulf Drive North, Bradenton Beach, (866) 575-7184, www.jamrocksjamaicangrill.com
This outstanding and modest looking authentic taste of Jamaica is easy to miss and specializes in authentic dishes including jerk and curry chicken and goat with rice and peas. Enjoy the friendly patronage and relax at the tiki bar while listening to Reggae music every Friday night from local acts.

Best beach front Zagat rated restaurant that wouldn’t appear to be Zagat – Beach Bistro
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, www.beachbistro.com
Visible only from the beach, this small retreat is carved out of a hotel to provide a cozy yet semi-formal dining experience where one would not expect it. Incredibly, this boasts the highest Zagat rating for food and service in the state of Florida. The menu is a snapshot of the best of New York menus in one location with impeccable service. The owner, Sean Murphy, a Canadian native, might even recommend a wine for the specials.

Best beach front restaurant and bar - The Sandbar
100 Spring Avenue, Anna Maria, (941) 778 0444, www.sandbar-restaurant.com
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.
Subcategory – best overlooked quirk
See the “cat café in the back of the main parking lot – a doghouse-like dwelling fro perhaps the owner’s pet?

Best and most unusual wine tasting at a convenience store – Time Saver Food Store
5353 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-1524
Yes, that’s right - a popular convenience store tucked near some beach front condos, with an owner who marches to a different drummer, has a weekly wine tasting in the corner next to the soda dispensers – you gotta try it to believe it.

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, even the best restaurants unfortunately fail to adequately 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 economical beach dining – Cafe on the Beach
Gulf Dr. North, right on the public Bradenton Beach
Known for all-you-can-eat pancake and sausage breakfasts and walking up in a bathing suit, this old standby is a landmark for economical and casual family fare among the beach goers.

Best place ever for homemade ice cream, fudge and chocolate covered bananas - Joe's eats and sweets
219 Gulf Dr S., Bradenton Beach, www.joeseatsandsweets.com
Voted best dessert by AOL City Guide 2006 and 2007, this has the most awesome and decadent chocolate covered bananas, chocolate covered cheesecake, and all manner of ice creams ever. My favorite is a good old fashioned hot fudge sundae but choices abound from frozen yogurts, smoothies, fat and sugar free ice cream, and homemade fudge they ship all over the world.

Best barbecue and dining establishment rule – Mr. Bones
3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, www.mrbonesbbq.com
Give in to your inner carnivore with pulled meats, ribs and even some unique Asian style rice dishes done up right by Louisiana chef’s who are very proud of their sauces – so much so that a sign strictly prohibits requests for ketchup, salt, and pepper – quoting “don’t even ask” making it a popular tee shirt as well.

Lest you think I forgot, best pizza – Oma’s
201 Gulf Dr N, Bradenton Beach, www.omaspizza.com
While there are numerous pizza joints in the area, this regionally renowned little slice of NY and NJ among the palms has the best of anything Italian as a matter of fact – try their pasta dishes as well if burned out on pizza from home. With barely any room for in-seating dining, carryout and delivery is the staple of this eatery. Directly across from the beach, Oma’s won the 2007 "Reader's Choice" award for best pizza in the Anna Maria Sun. For over 25 years, Oma's also has served up its own specialties.

Best seafood chowder – Sharkey’s Grill
2519 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach, www.sharkysseagrill.com
While close to a “best of” restaurant in its own right for a smallish yet popular eatery with a casual atmosphere, the chowder stands out as an excellent meal alternative for the hungry who do not want to weigh themselves down with a big meal or need to deviate from grilled fish or meat. Add a bit of hot sauce while no one is looking.

Best little neighborhood bars offseason – Bortell's Lounge & D Coy Duck's Bar and Grille
Bortell’s, 10002 Gulf Dr., Anna Maria and D Coy Duck’s, 5410 Marina Dr., Holmes Beach
Bortell’s is truly local even among the occasional tourist throngs at the Sandbar next door. Not for everyone, this bar has been here since 1977 before anyone out of town heard of the island and offers cold beer, pinball and pool tables into late evening and is also a prime after beach happy hour. D Coy Duck's is a bit more of a contemporary favorite with dominoes tournaments Monday, Texas Hold 'em Poker matches Thursday, and live good music Friday through Saturday. Music includes local reggae, funk, and R&B.

Best houses of worship – all 26 of them
This was the only practical way I knew of to note an odd and surprisingly dense number of these places in a small community fully occupied only part of the year for those of you so inclined.

Best slightly extravagant day trip - Egmont Key State Park
For those of you comfortable operating a motor boat, get one of the local marinas to rent a boat and motor out to Egmont Key, an uninhabited island in the Gulf at the opening of Tampa Bay. Or as an alternative sign up for a guided charter and let others do the work. This Gilligan's Island is the area’s best snorkeling spot and still has uncompleted relic walk ways and building foundations left over from turn of the century Spanish American War fortifications and is presently overrun with large tortoises and lizards. Home of the only manned lighthouse in the U.S., this island is also a wildlife refuge managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. Budding young marine biologist snorkelers 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 up close, 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 and ecoadventure – any jet ski rental
For about $65, you and a companion can zoom around the Bay for an hour on these aquatic motor cycles at your leisure observing isolated mangrove wetland islands and bird rookeries – but here is the best part - do not be surprised if you meet frolicking dolphins come up to you or manatees. If this happens, just shut off motor and float while they jump. This is a great opportunity for parent/child quality time - but you may enjoy it more than your child. There are several great vendors around – I like Florida Discount Water Sports‎
4328 127th Street West, Cortez, (941) 798-3721, www.floridawatersportscortez.com . They have easy access to the calm bay waters, and an attentive staff. They may give you a bit more than an hour on a slow day – tips are welcome.

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 same facilities as jet ski rentals - 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, www.mote.org
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, www.southfloridamuseum.org
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
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, www.starmandscircleassoc.com
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
Leffis Key, www.floridahikes.com/coquinabaywalk
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
Bradenton, www.nps.gov/deso
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
www.annamarianetwork.com - excellent starting point

Getting There and Staying there

Air - the simplest and most efficient way I prefer is to book air tickets to Tampa and a car rental combination package directly on Airtran or Southwest airlines' web site. They do not participate in travel web site directories and seems to be the most economical.

Accommodations – the links above will steer you to excellent opportunities.
Most unique accommodations are privately owned condos or homes for rent through real estate agents – who also sell in case a visitor is so inclined. Many require weekly rental commitments and have outstanding family stay opportunities – but sometimes the units may need repair. Try www.paradiserealty.com, www.islandreal.com, www.annamariaparadise.com, www.gulfbayrealty.com, www.islandvacationproperties.com, and www.annamariaislandcondorentals.com for starters. There are some direct-rental hotels which may be a better buy but are more generic. In addition to my “best of” above, use the general interest websites or searches to find these. One exception to the generic category is the luxury Bridgewalk in Bradenton Beach, www.silverresorts.com

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

Eckerd's Pharmacy
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
www.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.
5701 Marina Dr., Holmes Beach, (941) 778 6341

Anna Maria Elementary School
4700 Gulf Dr. N., Holmes Beach, (941) 708 5525, www.ame.annamaria.net
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, www.selby.org
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.

Ringling Museum
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 359 5700, www.ringling.org/pages/a_main_frame.html
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

A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret
A Florida Secret