Insider's Guide to Anna Maria Island
Anna Maria Island
I dreamed that I had escaped to the perfect getaway. As I slept, I visualized swaying palms, beautiful beaches, and not a high-rise condo in sight.
Colorful shops and local restaurants added charm, and a laid-back vibe erased all cares. I awoke smiling but shook my head. Surely there was no such piece of paradise left. Then I discovered Anna Maria Island.
About the Island
Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa Bay, and the Intracoastal Waterway, Anna Maria Island is an easy 1 1/2-hour drive from Tampa.
It's only 7 1/2 miles long and less than a mile wide and, for starters, boasts not a single towering condo. (No building over three stories is allowed.) Chain restaurants? Very few of them. The restaurants are delightfully local and extremely good. In other words, you've stepped into the Florida of decades ago, with one major difference: New amenities enhance the old charm for a winning combination.
Favorite Place to Stay: Tortuga Inn Beach Resort
Accommodations can be as upscale or as casual as you like. Once again, a no cookie-cutter mentality reigns here. On the south end of the island I discovered Tortuga Inn Beach Resort, tucked amid palm trees and garden oases and the perfect image of my dreams. Tortuga's feel is more modern resort, although cozier and with greater character than many contemporary, sprawling complexes. While staying here, I walked just across the road to the resort's private Gulf beach, where it seemed the sea and sand were all mine to enjoy. I had the choice of studio, apartment, or more standard hotel room; I picked the apartment. This proved perfect, with plenty of room to enjoy a morning cup of coffee after waking up to a water view in a tropical garden setting. The kitchen, living, and dining areas added so much to the experience. I also luxuriated in a fountain-fed heated pool. Free Internet brought in the real world (but I learned to ignore it).
Contact Information: 1325 Gulf Drive North, Bradenton Beach; www.tortugainn.com or (941) 778-6611. Rates start at $170.
Favorite Restaurant: Rod & Reel Pier Restaurant
A girl's gotta stop for food (thank goodness). My favorite was Rod & Reel Pier Restaurant at the end of the pier. I learned to go early to beat the crowds, which consist of locals and visitors. While I dined on fresh grouper just pulled from the Gulf, I watched a stunning sunset, along with a grand view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, festively alight at night. My evening entertainment was a more serene version of Vegas acrobatics, consisting of manatees and dolphins putting on a show, while people fished off the pier, pulling in redfish and mackerel.
Contact Information: (941) 778-1885, 875 North Shore Dr, Anna Maria, FL 34217
Restaurants With a View
For toes-in-the-sand dining, the Sand Bar Restaurant wins out. Everything tastes better if you're sitting at a table on the beach, with waves gently splashing nearby. No reservations are accepted, but you'll dine on such delightful entrées as freshly caught grouper and top sirloin, starting at $14. Contact information: 100 Spring Avenue; www.sandbar-restaurant.com or (941) 778-0444.The Waterfront Restaurant. Ask to sit near the porch, and you'll have a grand view of the bay. If the white chocolate-raspberry cheesecake shows up on the menu on your visit, give in. Contact information: 111 South Bay Blvd.; www.thewaterfrontrestaurant.net or (941) 778-1515.
Most Colorful (and Tastiest) Breakfast Spot
Ginny's & Jane E's At the Old IGA. The cinnamon rolls are Frisbee-size but taste much better.
Contact Information: 9807 Gulf Drive; (941) 778-7370
Best Burger Joint/Dive
Skinny's Place. They serve Coke in frosty 8-ounce bottles and make a mean grilled chicken sandwich.
Contact information: 3901 Gulf Drive North; (941) 778-7769. (Cash only.)
No malls here. But I found delightful buys in dozens of spots dotting the island. My favorite shopping area is Bridge Street on Bradenton Beach (the southernmost city on the island). There's another pier here and a shopping street with Bridge Street Jewelers (I didn't resist the beautiful silver bracelet adorned with a palm tree.) And the winner of my Most Kitschy contest is Bridge Street Bazaar. This charmer features fun wall plaques and pink flamingos galore, plus pirate and other nautical items. Any wife would love the sign reading, "Old fisherman lives here with his best catch."
Shopping Information: Art Attack, The Sailor's Knot, Bridge Street Jewelers, Bridge Street Bazaar. All located on Bridge Street.
Explore the Island
After a couple of days of living my dream of sanctuary and sun, sun, sun, I wanted to see more of the island. Hopping on board the free trolley (which circles every 20 minutes) was a terrific way to get an overview of Anna Maria. I watched people bicycle in pretty Bayfront Park, located next to Anna Maria City Pier. And I jumped off to visit the Anna Maria Island Historical Society, with its long-vacant and amusingly grafitti-covered City Jail.
Day Trip: Village of the Arts
One day I took a little side trip off the island to Bradenton to explore Village of the Arts. This artists' colony covers several 1920s Crayola-colored cottages, each featuring a variety of artsy offerings, most open Friday and Saturday. My favorite was Dancing Crane Gallery, with its sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics. I especially loved the gem shop inside, where an artist designs your own piece of jewelry on the spot. I also enjoyed Village Voices & Eclectic Art Emporium, with its Florida author-written books, an art gallery, and local woodwork.
Best Bike/Kayak Rental:
Beach Bums. 427 Pine Avenue; (941) 778-3316. Bike rentals start at $5 per hour or $14 per day.
Best Cottage Rescued From Tampa Bay: Belle Haven Historical Cottage. It was built on City Pier in 1920 and fell into Tampa Bay in 1926. Rescued, reclaimed, and renovated, it looks none the worse for wear and sits alongside the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum. 402 Pine Avenue; (941) 778-0492.
The Top 5
Here's a recap of our favorite places on Anna Maria Island:
1. Favorite Lodging: Tortuga Inn Beach Resort, www.tortugainn.com
2. Favorite Restaurant: Rod & Reel Pier Restaurant, (941) 778-1885
3. Best Sunset Dining: Sand Bar Restaurant, www.sandbar-restaurant.com or (941) 778-0444.
4. Best Shopping Area: Art Attack, The Sailor's Knot, Bridge Street Jewelers, Bridge Street Bazaar. All located on Bridge Street.
5.Best Convenience Shopping: Pine Avenue General Store. 307 Pine Avenue; (941) 779-9200. Buy groceries, sunscreen, and deli items, just down from Beach Bums and City Jail.