An island oasis, a day-trip away

Maybe because it’s an island.

Or, maybe because it’s close to home, but feels so far away.

Or, maybe because Anna Maria Island lulls you with its watery beauty and makes you forget the world outside.

Maybe, for all these reasons, this island is an ideal place for a day-trip.

Anna Maria City Pier, looming out into Tampa Bay, can be seen from this spot in Bayfront Park, a popular place to set up umbrellas and stroll the beach. (Karen Haymon Long)

For years, Tampa families have escaped to their second homes on the island on weekends just to get away. Most were nothing fancy, white cottages an easy stroll from long stretches of sandy beaches. If they got up early enough, they might be the only ones on the beach for miles.

Some modest cottages and little houses are still there. But, more and more have been torn down and replaced by much larger homes on the water, more often owned by out-of-staters than by Tampa Bay area locals. Many new and old homes are now vacation rentals, which gives the island a more transient feeling than ever before.

That didn’t hurt the vibe, though, on our recent day visit to Anna Maria, the northernmost of the three cities on the island. (The others are Bradenton Beach to the south and Holmes Beach in the middle).

It was enjoyable to watch other tourists like ourselves fishing and sitting on the city pier, riding bikes down the middle of South Bay Boulevard, or lining up for a first-come, first-served lunch at the popular Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar.

The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar offers indoor and outdoor dining with water views.

Before noon, retirement-aged couples sat at picnic tables on the city pier chatting and drinking canned beer, while an older man fished from his wheelchair, using shrimp as bait. A little boy in a red baseball cap sat watching a sheriff’s boat with deputies aboard idling beside the pier. A young couple fished under the watchful eyes of hungry pelicans.

On land, groups of families and lots of couples walked the beaches, rode rental bikes up and down narrow, sea grape-lined streets, and ducked in and out of shops.

We enjoyed strolling past homes, some named: “After All,” “Serenity Now,” “Casa del Mar,” “Starfish,” “Three Palms,” “Manatee House …”

A man on a bike wore a T-shirt that said “Island Bum,” an enviable statement on such a pretty day.

No one seemed in a hurry. No one seemed the least bit interested in what was going on in Washington D.C., or anywhere else.

A woman in a little shop called Just Beachy shopped for an Anna Maria Island T-shirt, but sounded conflicted about buying one or not.

Anna Maria, the northernmost town on Anna Maria Island, offers picturesque views of Tampa Bay.

“I don’t want more people to come here,” she said. “I want to keep it our secret.”

“Too late for that,” another woman said. Then they laughed.

The secret’s long been out.

But, Anna Maria still isn’t too crowded to make it stressful on an off-season weekday in May. Weekends, though, are another story.

One of the best things about Anna Maria is that once you park, you don’t really need a car. Water – the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa Bay, the Intracoastal Waterway – are all an easy walk from anywhere inland. If you tire, you can hop on the free trolley, rent a bike or sit a spell in a cozy bar, cafe or ice cream shop.

Or, you can shop in one of the local boutiques or gift shops. I particularly like The White Egret, at 10006 Gulf Drive, specializing in an array of coastal home decor and gifts, and its sister store, The Egret’s Nest, at 10010 Gulf Drive, a high-end women’s and baby boutique.

Both stores have friendly service and attractive gifts hard to find in chain stores. They’re also a fun place to eavesdrop on other visitors.

Anna Maria Pier is a popular place for locals and tourists, alike.

“I wish I could move here,” one young shopper told the sales clerk. “My hair always looks so much fuller and better in this humidity than it does at home.”

When the clerk asked where she lived, she told her, “Orlando,” which sounded funny, considering all of Florida seems so humid and muggy in late spring and summer.

Many visitors head to the beach and stay all day, a smart idea, since it’s sometimes tough to find a parking spot. We drove up and down the beach-side streets and never found a place that didn’t require a local permit. Those who came early got the free, no- permit spots. We figured most people who aren’t staying on the island in one of the houses or at an inn or hotel must go to Holmes or Bradenton beaches to the south that both have large parking lots.

We ended up parking in a free spot near the city pier and walked from there down the pier, then along Bayfront Park, a spit of beach on Tampa Bay. Then, we headed to lunch at The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar, where we sat outside with a view of the bay.

Anna Maria stretches along the Gulf of Mexico, drawing visitors during the day and later for sunsets.

We had been before, and remembered the good food and watery views. This time, I had excellent crab cakes, loaded with lump crab, atop a tropical salad for $15. My husband enjoyed his carnitas, pork braised in orange juice and seasonings, and served on tortillas with cheese, avocado, chimichurri and lime for $12. Another diner raved about her steamed mussels, $12.

It’s such a peaceful setting, with kayakers gliding east and west, with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as a backdrop. If they time it right, kayakers can paddle to Bean Point Beach to watch the sun set over the Gulf with others gathered there.

Or, they can just paddle around, enjoying the green, tranquil waters of the bay and maybe even see a dolphin or two – all on island time.

Tips for the Trip
How to get there: Anna Maria is in Manatee County. Once over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Interstate 275 South, take U.S. 19 south to south Tamiami Trail. Go left (south) on the trail, then go right (west) on State Road 64. When that dead ends at the beach, turn right on Gulf Drive, which leads to Anna Maria.

Where to eat: We liked The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar, at 111 South Bay Blvd., that offers indoor and outdoor seating and a dark-wood bar that serves 13 craft cocktails. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Visit TheWaterfrontRestaurant.net or call (941) 778-1515.

We’ve also enjoyed eating at The Sandbar Restaurant, at 100 Spring Ave., on the Gulf of Mexico, a wonderful place for sunsets and grouper sandwiches. Call (941) 778-0444.

Anna Maria has many other restaurants, cafes and bars as well. Find them, along with places to rent kayaks and paddleboards, at AnnaMariaIslandChamber.org.

Where to stay: If you want to stay overnight on the island, there are lots of options – from homes to inns, motels and resorts. For listings, see VisitAnnaMaria.com.

Fun fact: According to legend, Anna Maria Island was named by a Spanish explorer for the Virgin Mary and her mother, Ann.

By Karen Haymon Long

Published August 9, 2017

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