Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla
Florida is a clever little sucker. Let me tell you why. As a self-proclaimed “weekender,” I regularly study maps of Florida in search of my next mini getaway. My eyes tend to gravitate towards the peninsula’s coasts, hoping to lay themselves on our next beach-town adventure. I have never seen Anna Maria Island (AMI) marked on any of the maps I’ve carefully analyzed, which is why I was caught off guard when my boyfriend gifted me with a weekend stay on the island for my birthday. Had my eyes failed me? Was this a premature sign of ageing hitting me in the wake of my 28th birthday? I quickly grabbed my laptop for validation. Although AMI was not listed on any map, I soon learned a lot about this hidden paradise and the state it resides in: they are both really good at keeping secrets.
Another Day In Paradise
Approximately 40 miles south of Tampa, tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, sits this subtropical nirvana. The teeny island houses less than 15,000 residents and 3 tiny communities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (middle) and Bradenton Beach (south). With only one main road running north to south of this 7-by-2 mile island, AMI is the epitome of a small town. It proves, however, that big things really do come in small packages.
Our journey to paradise began very early. I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Before allowing my mind to go to a really dark place, I quickly reminded it that in just a few hours, we (my mind and I) would be laid back on a beach adding color to that wonderful tan we work 104 days a year for.
Since we were extremely excited about exploring the island, it wasn’t long before we arrived. We didn’t even stop for coffee, a common occurrence in all of our road trips. Catching sight of the Cortez Bridge, we knew we had arrived. The bridge is the only thing that connects the real world to this magical oasis. An old, historical fishing village is sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if it was left there to remind incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain. We drove directly to our hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge, our eyes slowly adjusting to the colorful beach cottages that served as a backdrop.
Our place wasn’t ready when we arrived– apparently even housekeeping live on island time. It didn’t faze us. We were in no rush to take refuge in our hotel room anyway. The property manager and his buddy were taking a break from the island’s heat in the inn’s office. After finding out it was our first time visiting AMI, they excitedly advised us of local eateries, bars and shops to check out. For the remainder of our stay, we used their informal itinerary as a guide for our exploration of the island. I’ll be forever indebted to them for leading us to some of the most perfect places I’ve ever visited. I hope this article does the same for you. Here’s what you should do:
Ditch Your Cottage, Explore The Landscape
A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate the island’s landscape. The most challenging part of your day will be deciding on your transportation. You can hop on the island’s FREE trolley, rent a bike or scooter from one of the local rental shops, or use your very own two feet. Whatever your choice is, you will find plenty to look at. One thing you won’t see on the island is high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its true old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s as if time was paused here 30 years ago and never started up again.
But don’t let my description confuse you. Not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although they are no higher than 3 stories tall, jaw dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Though beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo. Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.
Overload On Island Grub
Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. You will not find any golden arches here. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp, fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.
But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular gem known by every local can be found just off the main road on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment, a tiny boutique donut shop, allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based dunker. From key lime glazes to maple bacon or Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this island shop.
Drink Like A Local
Bars can be found all over the island, ranging from rustic beachside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops displaying tropical motifs. Best way to describe AMI’s nightlife: A Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” In a land where flip-flops and shorts are standard and overloading on piña coladas is expected, packing should never be a cause of panic. Always choose comfort.
The main thing to look for when bar hopping is live music. Be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to a live rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl or a funky version of Rapper’s Delight. Unlike Key West, the local musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a buck–they truly get to know their audience. We went from nervously calling out requests, to taking shot after shot with our entertainers and fellow escapees. Definitely check out AMI’s popular Bridgewalk area. Some of our favorite bars were located there: Bridge Tender Inn and Waterfront Bar.
Experience A Golden Hour – West Coast-Style
Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. As long as you’re on the west side of the island, you can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the island. Establishments like Sandbar crowd up just as the sun is about to set, prizing lucky guessers with a complimentary drink should they predict the correct sunset time. If there were ever a photo opp on the island, it would be during sunset. After all, sunset lighting is the best lighting, right? I’ll let the pictures work their magic.
Soak Up The Rays
The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. You won’t find many beach goers catching rays earlier than 10 a.m. There is plenty of space on the sugary white sand, so don’t worry too much about reserving a spot. The translucent turquoise water is just the right temperature to refresh those in need of a cool down. Swooping pelicans plunge into the pristine water in hopes of catching their next meal, while bottlenose dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen and yummy drinks to get you by, but be sure you leave all alcohol behind in your cottage. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on AMI’s beaches, unless you’re sipping it while sitting at one of those cute oceanfront tiki bars.
Anna Maria Island turned out to be a very special place. If you’re looking for a slower, simpler Key West, this is the place for you. Something else I learned from this vacation: I apparently can’t keep a secret.