Anna Maria Island
Relax—That’s What You Do Here
Thank goodness I didn’t drive nearly three hours to stand on a horse in 4 feet of brackish water off the causeway leading to Anna Maria Island. It’s called “horse surfing,” but it should be called “horse standing” since the aquatic equine remains still while the rider stands up, then slips off it. That’ll be $120, please. I don’t see much repeat business coming from this gimmick.
That’s not the case a few miles farther west, where the Gulf of Mexico comes into view and a 7½-mile stretch of sand and shell called Anna Maria Island quietly goes about its business of doing as little as possible, not that anyone’s complaining. No gimmicks, no chains and no five-star resorts with tanning butlers. Anna Maria Island is as low-key as a Florida coastal destination gets, a tree-hugging hippie colony in spirit but a family-oriented beach village in practice.
Its claim to fame is that it’s the wedding capital of Florida, a boast I couldn’t independently verify but found hard to dispute while watching a golden sunset pose as a backdrop for a wedding arch on the white sand. Certainly it’s a picturesque sliver of paradise to get married on—and come back to with the kids or with friends for a weekend of loafing and eating seafood plucked out of the Gulf.
But if you visit, don’t expect anyone to make a big deal out of you being here. Visitors vastly outnumber year-round locals.
TIME TO GO: Early May, when the Anna Maria Food and Wine on Pine event takes place. Details will soon be available at annamariaisland-longboatkey.com
What to Do
Relaxation, that’s what you do here. Park the car (you won’t need it) and rent bikes (pedal or electric) at BEACH BUMS (beachbumsami.com) on Pine Avenue, or take the free trolley so you can get around this tiny island, which is easily walkable, too. The beach is why you come here, so pack for sun, sand and water. Beach Bums also can set up a kayak eco-tour of the island’s nooks and crannies. The 100-year-old ANNA MARIA CITY PIER on the east side of Pine offers views of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and it is a popular fishing spot. Near the pier is a collection of boutiques, including the retro-cool-looking TWO SCOOPS ICE CREAM SHOPPE AND COFFEE CAFÉ, (right) a great hangout for families.
Who to Meet
Walk over to the Village Café at Rosedale on Pine Avenue and ask British expatriate LIZZIE THRASHER (right) what she’s done to lessen her carbon footprint. Thrasher’s café is part of the ANNA MARIA HISTORIC GREEN VILLAGE (annamariahistoricgreenvillage.com), a project she and her husband, Mike, are developing as a shining example of environmental stewardship. It’s being built with sustainable materials and is entirely powered by renewable resources with the hope of being recognized as Florida’s first LEED Platinum and Net Zero Energy retail park.
Where to Eat
Seafood comes fresh out of the Gulf and onto your plate at Ed Chiles’ (son of the late U.S. Sen. and Gov. Lawton Chiles) very casual SANDBAR SEAFOOD & SPIRITS (right) restaurant (sandbar.groupersandwich.com). Sandbar is on the northern end of AMI, with outdoor seating on the beach. Reserve a table for a sunset dinner and be sure to order the Key Lime pie for dessert. You can take your surfside dining experience up a few notches at Sean Murphy and Susan Timmins’ charming BEACH BISTRO (beachbistro.com) in Holmes Beach, at the southern end of the island. Pan-seared, oven-roasted Colorado lamb (to die for; above, right), Maine lobster, Gulf grouper with goat cheese mashed potatoes (incredible), bacon-infused ice cream . . . cuisine like that doesn’t come cheap. The well-traveled owners may even visit your table for a chat, a treat in itself. For breakfast, GINNY’S & JANE E’S BAKERY CAFÉ & ISLAND COASTAL STORE (in an old IGA store; annamariacafe.com) wows ’em with crème brûlée French toast.
Where to Stay
AMI being a second-home hamlet, there is a plethora of vacation rentals. Hotel lodging is of the mom-and-pop variety, with beach cottages also available. I spent a weekend in an ANNA MARIA GUEST HOUSE RENTAL (right; annamariarental.net), a three-bedroom luxury guest cottage with a boutique under it. It was built as part of the Pine Avenue Restoration project, an eco-endeavor that speaks to some Anna Maria residents’ devotion to the environment. You can book a full week at a two-bedroom unit for as little as $1,000 until Dec. 15.