Saturday, May 4, 2019 - by Ann N. Yungmeyer
Sugar-white beaches and aqua blue waters have drawn sun seekers to Anna Maria Island for more than a century. Yet, the seven-mile-long barrier island off the coast of Bradenton, Florida, seems to be a well-kept secret among loyal visitors for whom it reflects a bit of “old Florida” with understated charm.
Notwithstanding recent growth, Anna Maria has intentionally kept its local flavor, respectful of the natural habitat and with an eye towards sustainable development. There are no high-rise hotels or chain restaurants; the island character is a blend of retro bungalow and Key West chic – with an element of funky flair.
Thanks, Fig Newton
The first wooden bridge was built from the mainland in 1922, but development on the island began in 1897 by the family of homesteader George Emerson Bean and Charles M. Roser, inventor of the Fig Newton. Roser sold his would-be famous cookie recipe to Nabisco, and reportedly funded early building and infrastructure on Anna Maria.
Three towns, three vibes
Surprisingly, the narrow stretch of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay comprises three distinct municipalities: the town of Anna Maria at the north end, Holmes Beach at mid-island, and Bradenton Beach at the south end near the bridge to Longboat Key. There are countless small hotels, resorts and vacation rentals in each township.
The north end is mostly residential and quiet, but its charming Pine Street is a village hub with great restaurants, boutiques, and LEED-certified buildings. The middle of the island is the main commercial area and further south, Bradenton Beach is the hot spot with lively restaurants, Tiki bars, and the historic Bridge Street, where the original wooden bridge once stood and is now a popular fishing pier.
You can explore the island by bike or car (be forewarned that car parking is limited in busy areas) or take the free island trolley that operates daily. Another option is the Monkey Bus, a color-schemed minibus that offers rides for tips only.
A three-day jaunt
Despite frequent visits to Florida’s west coast, I only recently discovered Anna Maria Island on a weekend getaway, thanks to Allegiant’s new flights to Sarasota/Bradenton from Nashville. The island is a 30-45 minute drive from the airport (or one hour from Tampa/St. Pete).
Even a short stay allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the pristine beaches and activities such as biking, fishing and kayaking. My husband and I stayed at the new Anna Maria Beach Resort at Holmes Beach (formerly the Blue Water Beach Motel) which is completely renovated and well appointed with luxury upgrades, a lovely walk-in pool, Jacuzzi and beach access. Some suites have full kitchens and living space with mesmerizing views overlooking the Gulf.
We set off to explore the island on colorful cruiser bikes available to motel guests, heading north to the town of Anna Maria, which has bike paths and quiet roads along the bay side. After passing several beach access points we finally propped our bikes against a picket fence and walked through a nearly hidden tunnel of palms before the wide expanse of beach known as Bean Point opened before us. The tip of the island is stunningly beautiful and a favorite spot for beach walks and watching sunset.
Out on the water, we took a guided kayak tour with AMI Paddleboard Adventures, a wonderful outing which led us through mangrove tunnels, bayous and lagoons. We also signed on with Paradise Boat Tours to see dolphins, manatee, herons and other wildlife that inhabit Sarasota Bay. Our knowledgeable captain shared interesting tidbits about the habits of the various species we spotted; even my skeptical husband was most impressed with the eco-tour.
Seafood and champagne sunsets
You’ll find front row seats for sunset at several beachfront restaurants, but the place to be for toes-in-the-sand dining and the fresh catch of the day is The Sandbar, where “sunset is our big event every night,” our waitress told us. If you correctly guess the exact minute of sunset, you win a bottle of champagne. Another dining favorite for fine food and a romantic experience is Beach Bistro, top-rated by Zagat.
Gulf Coast seafood reigns on Anna Maria, though there are plentiful culinary options. We found wonderful choices for brunch or lunch, including Eliza Ann’s Coastal Kitchen, the Waterfront Restaurant for new American cuisine and delicious salads, and the irresistible Poppo's Taqueria for a healthy, fresh take on Mexican. Don’t miss the Donut Experiment – fun for families, where every donut is your creation and choices range from plain Jane to glazed keylime and Sriracha.
Make sure to stop in at The Doctors Office, creatively themed after the actual doctor’s office it once was, and now serving craft cocktails and fresh, ingredient-driven bar fare. The Painkiller – made with Pusser’s Rum, fresh pineapple, orange juice and cream of coconut – cures what ails you.
Anna Maria has not lost sight of its greatest assets and experiences – from beachcomber mornings to nature activities and the celebrated sunset hour. Even the locals say, “Anna Maria Island is where old Florida still exists.” https://www.bradentongulfislands.com/
Ann Yungmeyer is a travel writer and frequent contributor to print and digital publications.