Anna Maria Island Evokes Memories of Old Florida

The Rod & Reel Pier’s restaurant serves fresh fish, shrimp, scallops and more.

The Rod & Reel Pier’s restaurant serves fresh fish, shrimp, scallops and more.

Story and photos by Charles Williams

Charles is the editor for Pursuits with Enterprise. Email the author.

The barrier island reminds us of the joy of living life in the slow lane.

On my way to Anna Maria Island, I stopped for lunch at the Star Fish Company in Cortez, Florida, which has been serving fresh catch since the 1920s. But the chalkboard indicated they were out of grouper, a local favourite. With that discovery, the foursome in front of me left in a huff.

Shortly afterward, a woman appeared from the back and erased “grouper” off the board. “We just caught some,” she said.

Good things come to those who wait — I had mine blackened.

Like Cortez, Anna Maria Island, which lies just across the bridge, is an easygoing destination — a sunshine-and-sand antidote to a stressed-out America.

Mom-and-pop restaurants rule here, and just about the only chain you’ll see is powering one of the ubiquitous single-speed bikes. Buildings don’t rise above three stories, and speed limits don’t top 35 mph.

I came to Anna Maria Island as part of my never-ending quest to discover “Old Florida,” ostensibly a place where progress paused in the Sunshine State. The phrase probably means something a little different to everyone, though.

I find it ironic that despite commercial improvements so many people yearn for the past. My dad once roamed Florida in the ’50s, armed with a Voigtlander camera and rolls of Kodachrome film. His images of Coral Gables, Biscayne Bay and Miami now seem like timeless relics. Maybe I’m searching for some of those memories, as well.

Anna Maria Island is a 11-kilometre long barrier island that lies between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Its three cites — Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach — each offer distinct advantages to visitors. Anna Maria has a great neighbourhood feel and popular restaurants; Holmes Beach contains the most stores and is located in the easy-to-reach centre. Bradenton Beach offers the best nightlife. All three areas feature great beaches, including Bean Point, Manatee and Coquina.

The island’s official motto is “Welcome to paradise without an attitude.” I left my winter-hating attitude at home, and with powder white beaches, photo-worthy sunsets and swaying palms, it’s hard to argue with the rest.

The Tortuga Inn Beach Resort in Bradenton Beach was my slice of paradise. Not only are the rooms beautiful, but the location also is convenient. A free trolley to major tourist destinations stops out front every 20 minutes. The island is so thin at this point that Anna Maria Sound is on one side of the small resort and the Gulf of Mexico is on the other. A heated pool, surrounded by palm trees, is wedged in between.

The Tiki-themed Gulf Drive Cafe is a five-minute walk from the resort. The popular restaurant serves some of the best breakfasts on the island and occupies a spot directly on the beach facing the Gulf of Mexico — perfect for sunsets. The adjoining Kokonut Hut bar is perfect for whatever comes next.

Stroll another 10 minutes to Historic Bridge Street with its lively shops, restaurants and pier. When I visited, Messenger, a band from Sarasota, cranked out classic rock hits to a beer-loving crowd at the Island Time Bar and Grill. Two more bands played to equally boisterous crowds farther down Bridge Street.

I spent the rest of my time on the north end of the island, which is dotted with outstanding restaurants.

The Sandbar Restaurant features indoor and outdoor seating and is a prime location to watch the sun set. Dating back to 1911, the restaurant serves everything from delicious seafood to sizzling steaks. I enjoyed Seafood & Grits, which consisted of Gulf shrimp, scallops, fish medallions, country ham, bell peppers and gravy, served over cheddar grits — a seafood feast on one plate.

Next door, My AMI restaurant serves tasty French cuisine in a bistro-like atmosphere. Try the fork-tender House Daube, Angus beef marinated in red wine for eight hours, served with a side of potatoes and carrots. Early risers can enjoy croque-monsieurs or croque-madames for breakfast.

My favourite place to eat was the funky Ginny’s & Jane E’s. Two sisters started the place. Ginny had an antique shop in Holmes Beach, and Jane worked on a farm and loved to bake. The result is a wonderful mashup of passions. A mermaid mannequin greets visitors who come to peruse local artwork or dine in back. The bakery is well known for its amazing breakfasts. I couldn’t decide between the crème brûlée French toast with blueberries or the homemade biscuits and gravy. So naturally, I ordered both — with no regrets.

Pastel-coloured shops line nearby Pine Avenue, which extends for 0.8 km from the bay to the Gulf. Stroll down and dart into the stores selling beach-themed gifts or the ice cream shops offering relief from the heat. For people with extra energy, Beach Bums rents bicycles, kayaks and paddleboards.

Perhaps no place symbolizes Anna Maria Island more than the Rod and Reel Pier. Its iconic hand-painted sign indicates that anything more than flip-flops are out of place. People try their luck with poles while landlubbers enjoy fresh seafood cooked at the pier’s restaurant. Nobody seems to be in a hurry.

The pier was built in 1947 — what’s old seems new again, or at least very popular. As the sun sets, cars jockey for the few spots in the dirt parking lot. Across Tampa Bay, the busy Sunshine Skyway Bridge glows as it transports people to the modern-day wonders of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

But today, I’m not interested in progress. I’m content just to relax and catch up on old times.