Anna Maria Island

By Christina Silva
Published September 30, 2007

Geography: The island is split into three quaint towns. Bradenton Beach, at the southern end of the island, is home to many condominium units, luxurious resorts and waterfront rentals. Holmes Beach, a collection of small-beach houses and hotels, sits in the middle of the island. It's most familiar spot is Manatee County Beach, which is the first thing most visitors see when they cross the bridge to the island. At the northernmost tip lies the city of Anna Maria. With its killer view of the Skyway Bridge, and cute little shops and restaurants, Anna Maria is the island's best kept secret.

A little history: The island was first discovered by the Timucan and Caloosan American Indian tribes and then by Spanish explorers (including Hernando DeSoto) in the name of the Spanish Crown. George Emerson Bean, a world traveler from Connecticut, became the first permanent resident on the Island and homesteaded what is now the city of Anna Maria in 1893. Through the years, famous residents have included Charles Roser, creator of the Fig Newton.

The beach: The 7-mile shoreline feels and looks like what we imagine a beach would look like if you spread vanilla pudding all over the place: the sand is awash in a creamy, pale color, cool to the touch even on a sweaty August day and soft between your toes. Playgrounds dot the sand, providing something to do for the little ones. Sea gulls coast over a sea of beach umbrellas staked into the sand.

Amenities: There are so many great places to pick up unique souvenirs, stuff your belly and spend your cash it's hard to know where to start. Start your day with a bellyache at the Cafe on the Beach on Manatee Beach, where for $5.99 you can stuff your face with as many pancakes and sausages as you can stomach. Drive over to Anna Maria Beach and marvel at how teeny the cars look as commuters make their way across the Skyway Bridge. Whisper under your breath, "suckers." At the nearby Rod and Reel Pier, ask the locales about the legend of the sharks who fight back. Blame only yourself if you suddenly develop a fear of water. Just before sunset, head over to the Sandbar in Anna Maria. Correctly predict the time the sun will slip into the horizon and you'll earn your table a free bottle of champagne. Oo la la. Also, the Sandbar has the best conch fritters. Ever. Best of all there isn't a single franchise or high-rise building on the island. Anna Maria is so low-key, residents have to pick up their mail from the post office because there is no home delivery. For those seeking spiritual guidance, there's the nondenominational Roser Church, built by Charles Roser in 1911, and cheekily referred to as the house Fig Newtons built.

Some drawbacks: Somewhere during the hour-long ride from St. Petersburg to Anna Maria Island, you might whine to yourself, "This is such a drag. Are we there yet?" Fight the urge to turn around. Also, Anna Maria isn't really dog friendly, so leave Fido at home or at the hotel. And keep a close eye on your kids. The Anna Maria city beaches have no lifeguards or restrooms, and swimming is at your own risk.

Parking: Parking on the island can be tricky on the weekends. If you live or rent in Anna Maria, you can walk to the beach -- otherwise, be mindful of the areas where parking is not allowed. Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach offer plenty of parking (some in shaded areas), but whatever you do, do not park in a residential area. You could be towed.

Bottom line: When locals say Anna Maria Island is paradise, believe them. Everyone is super friendly, the food is excellent and the usual swath of McMansions prevalent in so many beach communities is noticeably absent. In fact, it's easy to lose yourself in the fantasy of ditching whatever it is you do, moving into one the picturesque cottages along the shore, and never leaving again.