Anna Maria Island, Florida Anna Maria’s charming island life
Anna Maria Island is a seven mile long barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, between Tampa Bay and Sarasota, in Florida’s Manatee County
With the adjoining Longboat Key it forms the Bradenton Gulf Islands and offers long stretches of white sand beach and warm Gulf waters.
Laid back and relaxing, but with a lively entertainment scene around Historic Bridge Street it is becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination. There is a variety of fine beachside restaurants, bars and accommodation that is focussed on a number of delightful inns and guesthouses.
Dolphins also passing through
Dolphins are regular visitors to the clear Gulf waters here and there is also the chance to spot sea turtles, eagle rays and an abundance of sea birds.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are found in the Manatee river, opening to the north east side of the island. It is a real treat to see these gentle giants enjoying life in their natural surroundings.
Needless to say, the sunsets here are wonderful, with piers found at either end of the island, providing grandstand views.
Exploring this small island on foot is the first and most obvious option, particularly along the Gulf side.
Strolling in bare feet along the white sand or in the warm clear waters is a real pleasure, and although a trip from top to bottom is likely to take most of a day, that’s absolutely fine.
Take the trolley
Another great way to get around is to utilise the free trolley service that travels the entire island, from Coquina Beach to the Public Pier on the North side of Anna Maria
It runs between 6.30am and 10.00pm daily with trolley stops every two to four blocks. A trolley arrives every 15 to 20 minutes with the volunteer drivers all excellent ambassadors for the island and always willing to make recommendations and tell stories of island life.
And then there are the Anna Maria Beach Monkeys, a fleet of golf cart limos, mini-buses and a karaoke-equipped vehicle.
This great, funky, service can be called upon to provide a tour of the island or a lift to and back from the shops or from a dinner date.
The Monkey Bus service is not limited to the Island and it will go to Siesta Key, Cortez, Downtown Bradenton or the Ellenton Outlet mall.
All of drivers are island residents who have a wealth of insider information.
Finally the service is free with drivers working for tips only!
An island excursion from North to South
Using our Anna Maria Island map as a reference, we decided to take in the island from north (the top end of the island as we looked at it) to south.
The trolley will get you to the Anna Maria City Pier and from here one can easily walk to Bean Point Beach.
This is one of the most peaceful, pristine stretches of sand along the entire Gulf coast and, with access via relatively discrete pathways, it is less crowded than other beaches on the island.
Anna Maria itself is a short stroll from Bean Point, with Pine Avenue the heart of this community.
The Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare in the early days of Florida’s tourist boom.
Wealthy vacationers would arrive at the island by boat and disembark from the City pier, which is located at one end.
A gradual downturn in tourism saw Anna Maria decline with its buildings fall into disrepair.
A fundamental renaissance of the area, in more recent times, has seen the reconstruction of buildings and sidewalks in traditional materials.
One of a kind craft, clothing and general stores have opened with inviting planked front porches furnished with wooden benches and rocking chairs.
And many of the first floor areas of these buildings have been turned into much sought after, self-catering accommodation.
The Donut Experiment
Breakfast on Pine Avenue is an oh so enjoyable experience in itself if one likes doughnuts.
And what is there not like when they are made to order in front of you and flavoured with your choice from dozens of icings and toppings.
From early morning until lunchtime, when the place closes, there is a steady flow of locals ordering their favourites to take away.
Strolling to the end of the Anna Maria City Pier, which juts into the waters of the Intra Coastal Waterway is one of those things that is more enjoyable to do than to talk about.
Waters lap against the pier posts. Heron and cormorant look for a place to rest before our approaching encourages them to fly a little further along. Anglers fish languidly for grouper.
The Waterfront Restaurant, which overlooks the Anna Maria City Pier, is a fine example of laid- back waterfront dining.
Popular at lunchtime and during the evening if offers an extensive range of fresh seafood caught by the local fishermen.
The Rod and Reel Pier
Just up from the City Pier, on Shore Drive, is the Rod and Reel Pier whose restaurant has been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner since 1947.
They say this is one of the best places to catch the sunset although, from an island perspective, it is one of so many.
To get to the other end of Anna Maria Island it was back on the trolley and along Gulf Drive and the beaches that form the whole of the island on Gulf of Mexico.
There is any number of opportunities to hop of to hit the sand and sea or refreshments in the beachside bars, cafes and restaurants.
A focal point for the southern end of the island is Historic Bridge Street, which leads to its own fishing pier.
With a cluster of bars and restaurants, many with live music during the evening, this is the island’s downtown entertainment district.
Go any further and one will leave Anna Maria Island and cross over the bridge into Longboat Key, a destination in its own right.
A place to stay on Anna Maria Island : The Tortuga Beach Resort
Accommodation on Anna Maria Island tends to be by way of boutique inns and guesthouses.
These provide a stay very much in keeping with the ‘Old Florida’ charm that is so prevalent here.
The Tortuga Beach Resort is a wonderful example of this, offering a range of self-catering rooms, studios and large, stylish suites the size of luxury apartments.
Many have Gulf or bay views, and most come with private lanais, patios or walled gardens.
With a tropical feel to the décor one feels at ease as soon as the cases have been stowed.
A home from home
The inn has heated pools, a boat dock and its own private pagoda area of Gulf beech just across the road.
It does not have dining facilities but this is no hardship whatsoever as there is a choice of beach bars and restaurants and fine dining along Historic Bridge Street all within a ten or fifteen minute stroll.
Alternatively, if you enjoy cooking or fancy a take-away, the kitchen facilities and dining area will make eating in a pleasure.
The reception team at the Tortuga were warm, welcoming and efficient on arrival and ‘in the know’ throughout the stay, which at three nights was just not long enough.
Dining in style at the Beach House
Perfectly situated on beautiful Bradenton Beach, The Beach House restaurant has glorious views of sand and sea and is a great place to eat and relax.
In 1993, Ed Chiles purchased the old Harbor House, remodelled it and changed its name to the Beach House.
With some tables set directly on the sand, the restaurant has a spectacular covered deck area so diners can take full advantage of the wonderful setting whatever the weather.
The Beach House offers fine dining ‘Florida style’ and has an abundance of fresh sea food on the menu including tilapia, tuna, shrimp, scallops, scampi, grouper and red fish. The warm pineapple and coconut bread that came at the start of the meal was delicious!
Anna Maria Island is simply a joy!