Anna Maria Island, a seven-mile stretch of silver sand on Florida's Gulf Coast, has built a devoted following despite, or perhaps because of, its location between the better-known and more touristy towns of Clearwater and Sarasota.
Free of high-rise developments and full of locally owned boutiques and businesses, the barrier island barely measures a mile at its widest. Its three small towns are connected by a colorful hop-on, hop-off trolley bus and a desire to preserve the charm of what the tourist office calls "authentic Florida."
That has grown increasing elusive as the Sunshine State packs in visitors seeking turquoise water and velvet sand. But I was pleased to find the descriptions in the brochures matched my experiences this past fall during a press trip to the Bradenton area, which is south of Tampa Bay and includes Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.
I made my visit just a week before Hurricane Ian slammed Florida's Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm. While Fort Myers and Captiva and Sanibel Islands suffered catastrophic damages to the south, Anna Maria Island was far more fortunate, I was told.
On the island, which has a population of about 6,500, popular pastimes include sinking beach chairs into the sand and letting the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico tickle toes. Paddlers hop in red plastic kayaks to search for lumbering manatees in the Intracoastal Waterway. Shell collectors forage for unusual specimens along pristine beaches often ranked among the best in the world. Golf carts transport shoppers to the vintage stores along Pine Avenue.
When it is time to eat, they (OK, me too) pile plates with grilled grouper, oysters raw and baked, mussels dripping in white wine and heaps of crusty coconut shrimp. Key lime pie was featured prominently on dessert menus at every restaurant I visited.
Dining options on or near Anna Maria Island vary from funky coastal cafes to sustainable seafood restaurants. What all have in common is close proximity to water - either the frothy waves on the Gulf of Mexico or calmer bayside seas. Many are locally owned, and most reflect the area's "authentic Florida" vibe.
Oysters served three ways at the Anna Maria Oyster Bar on the pier at Bradenton Beach. Photo Credit: Barbara Redding
• Anna Maria Island Oyster Bar. We wandered into this dockside restaurant after a virtually dolphin-free dolphin-spotting cruise on the Intracoastal -- the acrobatic mammals mostly eluded us until the dorsal fin of a single sea creature broke the surface as the boat puttered into port. We were ravenous for seafood at that point and so were grateful when plates of mussels arrived promptly along with mango salads topped with grilled grouper and orders of coconut shrimp. Then managing partner Lynne Horne insisted we try the signature oysters -- raw and Rockefeller. How could we resist? Sadly, we were too stuffed to consider ordering the key lime pie. The restaurant is located on historical Bridge Street Pier at Bradenton Beach.
• Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe. Dining with your feet in the sand is encouraged at this funky cafe known for its all-you-can-eat breakfast of pancakes and sausage. But visitors and locals also return later in the day to this Holmes Beach institution, when live music often complements stunning sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
• Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub. Located on the bayside of North Longboat Key, the Mar Vista is worth crossing the bridge from Anna Maria Island. The Chiles Group, which operates three area restaurants, offers diners an impressive farm-to-table and sea-to-table experience. My four-course dinner with wine pairings included red snapper "wings" slathered with buffalo sauce and pulled pork from locally curated wild boar. About the only items executive chef Aaron Kulzer did not procure nearby were the organic California wines. Sheltered among palm trees on a sandy beach, the restaurant's views pair delectably with fresh, flavorful dishes.
Need to stock up on some souvenirs? The Pineapple Marketplace on Pine Avenue is a collection of eclectic shops where visitors can discover island treasures and funky gifts. Other nearby shops include Pink & Navy for women’s and men’s beach attire and Anna Maria Rocks for shark teeth charms. (The kids can make their own necklaces out of fossilized teeth.)
There's no shortage of charming, laid-back hotels and resorts on or near the seven-mile-long island on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Local history is recounted at two tiny museums. There isn't much to report, actually. The Anna Maria Historical Society Museum resides in a former icehouse built in the 1920s. Artifacts and maps trace the island's history back to a lonely fish camp accessible only by boat. The museum's most popular feature is the old city jail, a roofless structure once a holding tank for drunks that is now irresistible to selfie snappers.
At the Florida Maritime Museum, I perused a shell collection amassed by a former commercial sea captain and some battered fishing boats that once plied the waters around Cortez, one of the last remaining fishing villages on Florida's southwest coast.
Just as informative was a stop at the commercial and charter boat fishing dock in Cortez, which is on the mainland across Sarasota Bay from the island. Pelicans and seagulls perched on tall pilings overlooking several men in work clothes repairing the engine of a rusty trawler. Piles of fishing nets tied up with battered buoys littered the docks, while a local artist pasted seashells over the breasts of a metal mermaid sculpture.
We were too late for lunch, but the picnic tables in front of Star Fish Company looked like "authentic Florida" to me. I wish I'd had another day to order a grouper sandwich and a cold beer and to watch the fishing boats return with their catch.
Contact the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information.