Anna Maria Island: World Class Beaches with Old Florida Charm

Bradenton Beach, Florida
Beautiful Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island–pristine and peaceful place to spread out, relax, breathe.

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The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.Jacques Yves Cousteau

What can I say? I’m a Pisces and was caught in the ocean’s net long ago.

When my spring break trip to Sicily was cancelled by Covid and borders began closing, I planned an escape to another island–this one in the US.  My sister and brother-in-law love Anna Maria Island, Florida where they vacation (and Sarasota where they married just down the road).  We grew up doing summer sojurns with Mom and our grandparents to Panama City, then took our own children to build sandcastles in Destin, also on Florida’s northern “Emerald Coast.” I’ve explored Florida’s east coast from Daytona to Miami to the Keys so began last year chasing the legendary sunsets on beaches in  the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida. 

I’m drawn to all kinds of water–whether it laps the beach gently or crashes against its rugged rocks.  While living in Morocco I escaped the city to inhale, exhale with the tide in Essaouira, Agadir, Taghazout, Asilah and Tangier.  I’ve been thrilled by coasts in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France, Monaco, Greece, Italy…Costa Rica and the Bahamas…California, Hawaii, Tybee Island, Folly Island, and Hilton Head.

But if you want an island escape with sand, white and soft as powdered sugar, and clear, green/blue waters,  check out the Cies Isles in Europe; The Dominican Republic, where I lived for a year in the Caribbean, and Anna Maria Island. This US destination provides gorgeous sunsets; major shelling; live music; dolphin and manatee sightings; no high rises or food chains, a trolley to take you all the way to Sarasota, and a laid-back Old Florida vibe.  I now understand why residents call it Paradise and travelers become pilgrims who return yearly. Woman on shore of Bradenton Beach

Beaches on the 7-mile island include Anna Maria City, Bean Point, Holmes, Bradenton and Coquina. We stayed on a private section of Bradenton Beach where there was plenty of room for social distancing.

I went with my friend, Traci, also a teacher, who has to plan vacations around school. When our spring breaks were cancelled, we made plans for June, then postponed them to July thinking Covid would calm down. It didn’t.  Florida became a hot spot, but we’d chosen an area that wasn’t. We’d booked a condo which had a kitchen for meals and deeded  beach  property. We also drove rather than flew, did dinners in restaurants with outdoor/open spaces maintaining social distancing, and wore masks in the few enclosed public spaces we went. We also stayed in touch with friends who are Florida residents and kept us current on the situation. There was no heavy traffic or long waits at restaurants. As with any vacation in the pandemic era, be sure to check the latest information on health-related sites. This one might also be useful for  Covid-19 Travel Information for Florida.

Where to Stay

Location. Location. Location. Our comfortable, spacious condo was located in Bradenton Beach on a bay beside Cortez Bridge.  It had paved paths both to its deeded beach property across the street and to Historic Bridge Street a couple of blocks away where the clock tower calls locals and tourists to a hub of fun. Owner Morgan Henderson is an amazing host who after months of staying in touch now feels like an old friend! She had everything we needed in the 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom space including a wagon to carry coolers, an umbrella, beach chairs, and towels to the beach. If you book with her, please say hi for me!

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We enjoyed the calming decor of the condo– blue hues of the Gulf. The living area windows and sliding doors to the lanai illuminated the space with a view of the bridge and bay.
Bradenton Beach Condo overlooking bay
Here mornings begin with a cup of coffee and evenings with a glass of wine. On a rainy afternoon, a dolphin joined me.

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Where to Play and Relax

The Beach of Course!

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Entrance to Historic Bridge Streeta couple of blocks away

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My favorite hangout was  listening to music on the water dockside at Bridge Tender Inn..

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Dan Signor IS a “big shot” the way he tears up the keys and strings at Bridge Tender Inn. He had me from the moment he played Van Morrison’s “The Mystic.”
Anna Maria Oyster Bar–great raw oysters outside on the water with a view. This place was so good we went twice!
Surround me with water!
Loved walks in the quirky local neighborhood between our condo and Bridge Street.
Meanwhile, back at the condo…
Next door was a GREAT place for Mexican food, Wicked Cantina. They also have a restaurant in Sarasota. We went away with leftovers and stuffed.
MUST DOs are the margaritas and guacamole bites –freshly made guac rolled in a fried tortilla chip crust served with Jalapeño Ranch sauce
The shrimp burrito was so good!
Gulf Drive Cafe was across the street on the beach. Great place for ocean view, drinks, “food, and fellowship” as we say in Kentucky and Nashville where we’re from.
After a rough 2020 we were in a girl trip crash-at-the beach and relax- near- the- condo mode. We saved the north end of the island for the last day and did get to places below, but rain thwarted plans to do Bean Point (named for the first permanent resident ), then a late lunch or dinner at The Sandbar . Though the restaurant has a parking lot, getting to the northernmost beach is daunting due to lack of public parking near there. Better to take the trolley rather than a car unless you can hike, bike, or golf cart it . Traci is  bringing her family to AMI later this year, I can’t wait to be back with mine, so no worries… next time.
Cutest store ever is the Shiny Fish Emporium where you can paint a sand dollar for $15, find a bohemian or vintage frock, and eye the green velvet couches for an island nap. We enjoyed chatting with Grace who works there and gave us the scoop on navigating Pine Avenue and her end of the island. In addition to popular restaurants, like The Donut Experiment and Poppos Taqueria next door, there’s Beach Bums for renting bikes, golf carts, and water gear.
This Latin dancer’s dream…cha cha cha
Shiny Fish Emporium
Our last night we went for more live music at Island Time. I enjoyed my lobster tail and steak and hearing Robert Garcia play favorites by Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart while heckling the audience.
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Traci’s friend, Pam, who recently moved to Florida joined us for beach time, dinners on Bradenton Beach, and on our excursion to Sarasota. She suggested for future stays Lazy Lobster and Dry Dark Waterfront Grill in Longboat Key. We’d already tried Mar Vista there and loved eating by the water under the trees. The scallops were amazing! Down the coast (a 30-minute drive from AMI) we took a quick spin around St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, bought by Charles and John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1917. In 1927 they moved the circus to Sarasota as their winter headquarters. John Ringling’s permanent art collection was left to the public. Guests can tour the galleries, now the State Art Museum of Florida, and the Ringlings’ Mediterranean Revival-style mansion on the Ringling estate. I can’t wait to further explore “Florida’s Cultural Coast”--hopefully during the Sarasota Highland Games and Celtic Festival celebrating Scottish roots. I want to know more about Sarasota’s intriguing history and that of Anna Maria Island.

So what have I learned in the year of the Great American Road Trip after being grounded from Europe? I’m told in Sarasota I’d normally hear languages from around the world as I do there. I miss that! But I’m discovering incredible natural beauty in my home country–a place of diverse, gorgeous landscapes; immigrant influence; and indigenous roots. So much more to see…

2020 has been a stormy year. None of us can know when this pandemic will end–when borders will open and global travel resume. We keep watching the sky, but I believe with God’s help, we can weather the storms–even find beauty in the midst of them– and more than we dare dream on the other side.

Disclosure: I received a discount on my accommodations, but as always, the opinions on this blog are my own.