Longboat Key, the glitzy island just south, grabs all the buzz. That sits fine with Anna Maria Island residents who are more than content to hang out on the seven mile stretch of powdery white sand or kayak alongside a pod of bottle nosed dolphins in the Gulf's teal-colored waters.
Tucked on a slim barrier island 40 miles from Tampa, Anna Maria Island is dominated by palm trees and low slung Crayola-colored beach cottages. The ladle shaped island is actually three small communities-- Anna Maria to the north, Holmes Beach in the middle and Bradenton Beach to the south. It feels like the type of beach town that you visited when you were a kid. No fast food joints or buildings higher than three stories. There are scores of renovated old-timey motels, one grocery store, and no cinema. So go catch a gorgeous sunset.
Legend has it that a Spanish explorer discovered and named the place Ana Maria Cay in honor of the Virgin Mary and her mother Anne. The island’s first homesteader, George Emerson Bean, purchased a tract of land on the north end of the island in 1893. Two decades later Charles Roser-- the man who invented the legendary Fig Newton-- sank his million-dollar windfall into developing the town. Home sites were hacked out of a jungle. Built in 1912, Roser's original clapboard home still stands next to the Siam Garden Resort.
It's easy to spot residents. They slap those oval, European style AMI stickers on their car bumpers. Gulf Drive is the main thoroughfare, cutting through the center of the island, while canals branch off from the interior creating a myriad of waterfront homes. But be forewarned, during the winter season traffic really spikes on weekends compared to weekdays. Hop aboard the free trolley (actually a bus designed to look like a trolley) that ferries visitors up and down Gulf Drive. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the terrain where colorful boutique shops and mom and pop restaurants add charm at both ends of the island.
Drop into Ginny's and Jane E's, a funky cafe/store owned by a pair of sisters, a favorite breakfast place where locals come to jaw and joke. A former IGA grocery store, it now houses a maze of mismatched tables, books and beach "collectibles." Try an egg sandwich or a scrumptious blueberry muffin. If you want to indulge, opt for the freshly baked cinnamon roll smothered with glaze.
There are an array of laid back, watch-the-sunset kind of eateries and watering holes. The Sandbar anchors the north end of the island. Park in the wispy shade of Australian pines and bring your appetite. Try the crunchy, pepper dusted calamari or a flaky mahi-mahi sandwich paired with a local brew. Guests are invited to guess the exact time the sun drops. The winner earns a bottle of champagne.
The Beach House Restaurant is located on the south end of the island. A quintessential beach bar, it sports a stylish, recent renovation as well as the most waterfront footage of any restaurant on AMI. Sip on a tropical drink while noshing on peel-and-eat shrimp, conch fritters or seasonal stone crab claws and listening to a hand-picked stable of musicians as the sun slowly dips into the Gulf.
Anna Maria Pier juts 776 feet into Tampa Bay delivering a panoramic view that includes the striking Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Packs of anglers turn up all day long pulling in redfish, snapper, mackerel, black drum, snook, trout and amberjack. On-site bait shops are ready to supply your tackle needs. Or just kick back and watch manatees and dolphins put on a show. The shallow waters provide an abundance of rich sea grass and fish on which dolphin pods thrive.
The entire island is blessed with spectacular bird life, in part due to its sanctuary status. It's home to roseate spoonbills, green parrots, snowy egrets, majestic ospreys and wood storks to name only a few. AMI Bird Nerd Nature Tour provides free mobile apps that feature local birds, birding tips, the importance of Florida ecosystems, and navigation instructions through local nature viewing locations. Through their binocular rentals visitors can experience wildlife up close though from a distance which helps alleviate the disturbance to species in their habitat.
We bunked at the Tortuga Inn Beach Resort located near the southern end of the island. Tucked amid palm trees and garden oases, it’s a modern resort with relaxed charm and an old-fashioned Florida beach feel. Across the road from the newly replenished beach, Tortuga offers stylish suites (some the size of luxury apartments), comfortable accommodations and is pet friendly. Each day we walked from the sparkling swimming pool through a lovely palm court and garden to our spacious second story unit that overlooked the Intracoastal Waterway.
Travel a little further south on Gulf Drive and go east over the drawbridge to Cortez Village. Hugging the northern shore of Sarasota Bay, A.P. Bell Fish Company is the oldest surviving Florida fishing village in Florida, dating back to 1880. The company owns eight boats that dock at the pier, another five independent fishermen bring their daily catches to the fish house. Bell's large fish packing and distribution building ships seafood all over the world.
Owned by Karen Bell, the dockside Star Fish's outdoor eatery is as bare bones as it gets. You'll find a tiny kitchen, cash only counter, and eight picnic tables that sit out back of a superb retail seafood market. Stroll up to the right side of the bar to place your order through the window and pick it up in paper boxes. The plump, blackened grouper sandwich is a thing of beauty. Other fresh-off-the-boat delights include pompano, shrimp, scallops and oysters. Team your choice with their famed cornmeal hush puppies and cheese grits or coleslaw and French fries. Top it off with the creamy sweet tart key lime pie.
As you munch away gaze out at the natural splendor of a sanctuary of mangroves, stilted fishing sheds, and the mesmerizing white pelican with its pink bill gliding across the bay.