These days, it's getting harder and harder to find a taste of old Florida. Miami is a perennial favorite for the glitz and nightlife, and the Palm Beach social scene can't be beat, but if you're looking for an unpretentious beach town without a celebrity or a velvet rope in sight, head to Anna Maria Island.
Located off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria Island is just seven miles long, and it has the look and feel of the Florida Keys 30 years ago. Beach cottages are painted in pastel colors with gingerbread trim, and hardly any buildings are higher than a palm tree. And forget about cruising around in a blacked-out SUV -- most people get around by bicycle or the free trolley.
Unlike most places in Florida, there are no high-rises, no chain hotels and no chain restaurants. Even the island's top-rated restaurant, the Beach Bistro, doesn't take itself too seriously. One of the starters is called "One Helluva Soup." This unpretentious attitude is pure Anna Maria -- the island isn't even remotely chic, which is exactly its appeal.
Anna Maria Island actually consists of three towns. Anna Maria at the northern end has the most residential and has some of the island's largest homes. Holmes Beach in the middle has the island's supermarket and a few shops, and Bradenton Beach to the south, the most developed area, but it's still far from being crowded.
Access is easy. The island is 40 miles south of Tampa International Airport and 19 miles from Sarasota, and it's connected to the mainland by a causeway. Once on the island, a car isn't necessary, but it can come in handy for day trips.
Most people come to Anna Maria Island for the beach. The island is surrounded by miles of powdery white sand, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are warm, calm and blissfully quiet, meaning you can swim in the sea without the buzz of jet skis roaring by.
This being Florida, fishing is a big activity. Take a cue from the locals and head to the Rod and Reel Pier at the northern end of the island and cast a line. Depending on the season, you might catch mackerel, pompano or snook. You can buy all your bait there, and the pier also has a decent restaurant (try the fried grouper sandwich). Or simply stand waist-deep in the water and cast off. I caught a baby shark and a few mackerel this way.
If you'd rather fish for the big ones, like tarpon, plenty of local companies offer deep sea fishing trips, or you can rent your own boat. And to ease any shoulder pain from casting, unwind with a massage at the local Aveda salon, Acqua.
For something farther afield, head inland to Myakka River State Park, and hop on one of the world's largest airboats for an alligator-spotting cruise in the lake (tickets are $10 per person). Or take the kids to the nearby Parker Manatee Aquarium to see and feed manatees. If you'd rather see them in their own environment, head north to the Crystal River area and book a manatee tour. Also, nearby Sarasota is home to the excellent Ringling Museum of Art or the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
The island has only a handful of hotels, and they tend to be mom-and-pop operations. However, most people choose to rent an apartment or house by the week or month. Choose carefully because a lot of the apartments' are decorated in the style of the "Golden Girls"set.
One of the newest places to stay on the island is Palm Isle Village, a small cluster of tastefully decorated one- and two-bedroom cottages just a block from the beach. Rates vary but are usually under $1,000 a week, depending on the season, and bookings are available from Island Real Estate. For something even grander, try the beachfront Sunshine Cottage ($10,000 a month) or Villa Florence ($2,700 a week), available through Duncan Real Estate.
Anna Maria has plenty of great places to eat, but visitors have to remember that they are coming to the restaurants for the food, and not the decor, which is often dated or unabashedly quirky. Keep in mind that most places shut by 10 p.m., so get there early if you can. In addition to the superb Beach Bistro, where dinner for two can easily run to $300, the island's other top fine dining restaurant is the Sign of the Mermaid, which is located in a converted house and has a ramshackle look. Try the Cuban black bean soup or the roasted mahi-mahi with toasted almonds.
For a taste of Floribbean cuisine, head to the Sun House and indulge in dishes such as plantain and yucca chips with pineapple salsa, classic conch fritters or pan fried grouper with a key lime butter sauce. For something less pricey, try Mr. Bones BBQ, where you can pick your beer out of a coffin, or Ginny's and Jane E's Cafe, which is a combination deli, coffee shop and antiques store. And best of all, you can wear flip flops and shorts to any of these restaurants and not worry about making it past a snooty doorman.