Photo By: Courtesy of Jack Elka Photography
Diners at Anna Maria Island’s Sandbar Restaurant enjoy scenic views of the white-sand beach and gather nightly to watch the sunset.
Anna Maria Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast offers a slower pace from glitzy Miami.
Pack shorts, T-shirts and some sundresses to throw over your swimsuit – there’s rarely a need to dress up. Rumor has it that celebrities like Jerry Springer and Stephen King, who has a home nearby, walk the streets and frequent the shops, but it’s a hidden, low-key setting.
The island comprises three cities: Bradenton, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. Tourists like to watch red sunsets from the white sand beaches and fishing shacks that offer downhome seafood sandwiches and picnic-table seating. The city governments preserve the “Old Florida” heritage by keeping buildings to three stories. Drive-thru restaurants are prohibited.
Anna Maria Island is an hour’s drive from Tampa, and approximately 30 minutes from Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. Until 1921, when the first bridge united Cortez to Bradenton, visitors could only reach the island by boat.
George Bean, a “world traveler from Connecticut,” according to the Anna Maria Historical Society website, first settled on the barrier island in 1892, developing the streets and sidewalks with the Anna Maria Beach Co. Bean Point beach, at the very tip of the island, is named after the settler. It’s a good place to watch birds and take in the panoramic view of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Where to eat
An Anna Maria Island mainstay, the Sandbar Restaurant (sandbar.groupersandwich.com), 100 Spring St., attracts locals who watch the sun set over the beach while sipping on tropical drinks. It’s thrilling to observe the sun drop into the turquoise water. An early-bird (4-5:30 p.m.) “sunset menu” includes $14.99 shrimp scampi made with large gulf shrimp sautéed in wine and garlic butter.
The beach wedding business is brisk, and The Knot website has voted the Sandbar the Best of the Best in wedding and reception venues on the West Coast of Florida.
Even if you’re not saying “I do,” the Sandbar is a good place to sample local grouper sandwiches, and the $14.99 wasabi-encrusted salmon on the dinner menu is tasty.
Two hot spots are the Bridge Street Bistro (bridgestreetbistroonline.com) and the Island Time Bar & Grill (www.islandbarandgrill.com), both located in the same three-story building at 111 Gulf Drive South in Bradenton Beach.
Island Time, on the ground floor, features live music on Thursdays through Sundays. It opens at 11:30 a.m., with daily specials after 5 p.m.
For an amazing view of the Gulf of Mexico, choose the somewhat fancier Bridge Street Bistro, which opens at 5:30 p.m. on the third floor. You can dine inside or outside on the terrace on seafood gumbo, veal piccata or lobster bisque. Chef Keith Daum oversees it all.
Where to stay
The newest upscale lodging – if you want to house wedding guests or just vacation – is the Mainsail Beach Inn (www.mainsailbeachinn.com). The 12 units range from $234 to $659 per night. The inn offers two- and three-bedroom luxury vacation suites complete with DVD players and full kitchens, many with gulf views. The beachfront resort also has a pool.
The island is home to an assortment of vacation rentals, which may make for a smarter choice if you’re traveling with family or plan to stay a while. Rentals range from luxury condos to rustic cottages. Try Island Real Estate (www.islandreal.com) or Anna Maria Island Luxury Condos (www.AnnaMariaLuxuryCondos.com).
Bicycles are a good way to go, and the area boasts some paved paths. Beach Bums Island Attitude (www.beachbumsami.com), 427 Pine Ave., rents bikes and stocks three-wheelers and a range of kayaks. For those with disabilities, electric bikes are available.
Island Pearl Excursions (www.amishuttleservice.com) runs the new Anna Maria Island water shuttle, $5 each way, which stops at the marina on Holmes Beach, Palmetto, Bradenton, Bridge Street and the Tortuga Inn.
A free trolley runs from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekdays, courtesy of the Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce and Manatee County Area Transit. The trolley runs every 20 minutes from the Anna Maria city pier to Coquina Beach, site of many sandcastle competitions, in Bradenton.
Fun on the beach
Bring your binoculars, because there are birds and wildlife to observe. Sea turtles swim around the island from May to October.
Erin Geraghty of Well-Rounded Fitness (www.well-roundedfitness.com) teaches yoga on Bradenton Beach, 4000 Gulf Drive, 8:30 a.m. weekends. You don’t have to make reservations, although she accepts donations.
Another favorite way to pass the time is shelling. Walk up and down the beaches and you’re sure to come home with treasures that will top any souvenirs purchased in the quaint shops.
For more information, visit annamariaisland.com.