In the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, the cover of a vintage brochure features a Victorian bathing beauty. "Anna Maria Beach, Florida's Famous Year-Round Resort!" trumpets the headline, ambitiously declaring it the greatest resort city in the state.
In the early 1900s, investors — including cookie maker Charles Roser, who anted up part of the $1 million that the National Biscuit Co. (later renamed Nabisco) reportedly paid him for the Fig Newton recipe — had big plans to turn Anna Maria into a Gulf Coast Miami Beach. Then fate, in the form of the Depression and the end of the Florida land boom, stepped in to stop them.
Lucky for us.
Today, Anna Maria Island, a twig-shaped scrap of beach and mangrove swamp near Bradenton, retains its barefoot, laid-back Old Florida charm. And it's still little-known.
I first encountered the island when my sister bought a house here a few years ago. I've been visiting whenever I can ever since. Last year, it seemed like a good place to unwind after the holidays.
It took about an hour to drive from Tampa International Airport to Bradenton, where two bridges link Anna Maria to the mainland. Winter sun from a cloudless sky bounced off Tampa Bay. I see Anna Maria Island seven miles southwest of the soaring Sunshine Skyway Bridge. However, because it's only 5 feet above sea level, it takes a keen eye.
It seems remarkable that such a fragile ecosystem continues to survive in a state so often ravaged by violent storms, but Anna Maria is generally sheltered from the worst of them. Last fall, despite close calls, the island's luck held again, and it was unharmed by the hurricanes that caused billions of dollars in damage in other parts of Florida.
January is usually the coolest month, with temperatures averaging in the high 60s, so I was pleased to arrive in time for a heat wave. Although already late in the afternoon, it was nearly 80 degrees when I dumped my bags, shed my shoes and headed for the beach as fast as I could.
Miles of sugary sand
The beach is what Anna Maria is all about.
It stretches virtually uninterrupted for the length of the island, a wide, white expanse of sugary sand punctuated by fingers of salt grass and sea oats and lapped by the Gulf of Mexico.
This beach, fringed with palmettos, sea grapes and feathery pines, stood in for the desert island in "On an Island With You," an Esther Williams-Peter Lawford picture that was one of MGM's top grossers in 1948.
A few more buildings may be visible these days, but little else has changed in the 57 years since. For one thing, the beach is still almost deserted.
A few days into the new year, the shore population was largely made up of tolerant, approachable birds. A small crowd of common gulls, oyster catchers, sandpipers and orange-billed royal terns, their black crests flattened by gulf breezes, made way for me as I trailed a pair of snowy ibises with long, curving beaks. Settling on the sand to watch pelicans dive, I was rewarded with the sight of a pair of leaping dolphins.
That night at a local restaurant called the Sandbar, I downed a plateful of gulf shrimp and an ice-cold Corona while a live band serenaded diners with a medley of 1970s easy-listening beach music that would have been corny anywhere else. The great blue heron that paraded on the beach deigned to accept a shrimp from my hand.
Next morning, after a breakfast of feather-light pancakes at the Gulf Drive Café, I set out to explore the island. Although only seven miles long and less than half a mile wide for most of that, Anna Maria is shared by three separately governed communities — rather grandly called "cities" — each with a distinct personality that reflects a different era of Old Florida.
The city of Anna Maria, a tree-shaded settlement on the northern end with a population of 1,876, was the site of the island's first homestead in 1893 and retains much of its turn-of-the-last-century origins. Clustered around Pine Street are a handful of houses, made of blocks of coquina, a common early building material in western Florida that incorporates seashells. They date from the first, short-lived real-estate boom, between 1910 and 1916. The nondenominational Roser Church, built with some of the Fig Newton fortune in 1913, lends the village center its naive, pioneer charm.
On the way to the City Pier on the Tampa Bay end of Pine Street, I stopped to look around the historical society's compound, which includes a tiny museum in a converted ice house; the original one-room (and roofless) jail; and Belle Haven, a cottage with more lives than a cat. It was built in 1911 as an end-of-the-pier ice house, saw service as a cannery and then was converted into a rental cottage, which in 1926 fell — with its tenant, who swam out a window — into Tampa Bay. Salvaged, the building was floated around the island and became a gulf-front house. Facing demolition in 2003, it was moved again. Remarkably, the house (now with two rooms) has remained sound. I walked around it in the deep shade of palmettos and dracaenas while salamanders slid out of my way and fish splashed in a nearby canal. The first homesteads, hacked out of the wilderness must have felt a lot like this.
The City Pier, built in 1911 for the steamships that brought Tampa day-trippers to the beach, now supports a seafood restaurant and a bait-and-tackle shop. A few hundred yards north, the privately owned Rod & Reel Pier is newer (circa 1953) but funkier and more fun. I ate a grouper sandwich and some sinfully good onion rings in the upstairs restaurant, then rented fishing tackle and joined the anglers below.
Nothing was biting, although seabirds hovered expectantly.
"Well, it's not always about catching fish, is it?" one man drawled as a pelican dived and emerged with a flapper in its beak. The fisherman saluted the bird and cast into the dappled jade bay.
I may not have caught any fish, but it didn't matter: Excellent seafood is seemingly everywhere on Anna Maria. Even the island's only supermarket sets out a display so tempting you want to tuck a napkin under your chin and pull up a chair.
Nevertheless, that night I skipped dinner, hopped on a free trolley bound for Bradenton Beach, population 2,000, at the southern end of the island, and indulged in a major diet blowout at Joe's Eats & Sweets.
Joe Spallino is a man with a passion. Fourteen years ago, he bought an old surf shop and turned it into an extravagant ice cream circus — "parlor" is too tame a word to describe it. The list of ice creams he makes runs more than 50, and that's not counting the specialty varieties such as low-fat, low-carb, sugar-free. Doilies taped to the glass counter describe dozens of sundaes, such as the Raspberry Truffle Sundae and the Apple Pickers Sundae. These change whenever Spallino is inspired.
"There are so many combinations, I can't even put them all up," Spallino told me. "Last Thanksgiving, I made a holiday special. I cooked up some cranberries and spiced apples and oranges, and it was nice."
Next morning, I returned for a daylight look at Bradenton Beach, a slightly ramshackle assortment of pastel-colored houses, small condo developments, restaurants and hotels.
The town grew up around Anna Maria's first bridge, completed in 1922. The rickety structure, designed by an electrical engineer who had never built a bridge, was made of wooden planks that reportedly rang out like gunshots every time a car drove over. Until it was replaced in 1955, it was the island's only link to the mainland. Its western end is preserved as the Bradenton Beach City Pier, a confection of white railings and red-roofed shelters that reaches out into Sarasota Bay.
I strolled out to the end, where it widened into a broad, roofed pavilion, complete with picnic tables and a resident great white egret. From there, a panoramic view of the shoreline disappeared behind the knobby roots of red mangroves.
Later, I cycled over to the Coquina Bay Walk at Leffis Key, a 17-acre shallow-water habitat with a boardwalk over tidal lagoons and tangles of mangrove. Although a small nature reserve, it's cleverly laid out so that within seconds of leaving the sandy parking area, the modern world vanishes. During a quiet, hourlong ramble, I listened to the watery slap of leaping mullet; watched a spider weave a shining web; spotted a crane; and saw snook and striped sheepshead feeding in the mangrove fringe. The only humans I met were a pair of silent bird-watchers. In the summer months, manatees feed here, and thousands of fiddler crabs hatch.
By mid-February, the water around Anna Maria warms to above 70 degrees, but in early January it was only 61. Even so, I spent part of every day on the magnificent beach.
I looked for colorful, fingernail-sized coquina shells. I waved at my friends back home in London over a live beach-cam at the Cedar Cove Resort. I let the breakers nibble my toes, and I belly-flopped in the sand to take eye-level pictures of the terns.
But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get into water that felt as cold as a plunge pool outside a sauna. It was time to get on the water instead. Four days into my trip, I went to Holmes Beach in search of a boat.
Holmes Beach is the island's biggest town (5,040 people) and its commercial center. Mainly developed in the 1940s and '50s, it has a slightly off-kilter, Middle American retro feel; imagine Beaver's mother choosing it for the Cleaver family summer vacations. It also has one of Florida's best restaurants, the Beach Bistro, and a public marina where Captain George Glaser was waiting for me on his 28-foot, double-hulled pontoon boat, the Mystic Dolphin.
A bearded, barrel-shaped man in shorts and T-shirt, he was also sporting a straw cowboy hat with the word "Captain" on the crown. Glaser came down from Buffalo, N.Y., for a family visit about 25 years ago and decided he could live without all that snow back home. Several people told me he would be a font of knowledge about local life — wild and otherwise — and he didn't disappoint. He took me to see a pod of frolicking dolphins, spotted a swanlike white pelican and told me about the feud between two local hamburger joints.
In the late afternoon, cruising the canals that lace the northern half of the island, we spotted a great blue heron poised atop a mangrove not more than 10 feet away. As we both fell silent, it eyed us coolly. Even after more than two decades on the island, Captain George seemed as awestruck as I by the bird.
On Anna Maria, familiarity does not breed contempt. Already, as I write, I'm plotting my return.
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From LAX, Delta, Air Tran and US Airways have connecting service (change of plane) to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $248.
To Tampa, Delta has nonstop service; Northwest and Southwest have direct flights (stop, no change of planes), and American, Continental, US Airways and United have connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $248.
WHERE TO STAY:
February to April is high season. Hotel rates are lower from May to January.
The Harrington House Bed & Breakfast, 5626 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; (941) 778-5444, https://www.harringtonhouse.com . Chintz-stuffed 1925 beach house with period features. Doubles from $139.
Cedar Cove Resort & Cottages, 2710 Gulf Drive N., Holmes Beach; (941) 778-1010, https://www.cedarcoveresort.com . Eighteen cottages and suites, some facing the gulf. Doubles begin at $110.
Bridge Walk, 100 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach; (941) 779-2545, https://www.silverresorts.com . Re-creation of a Jazz Age resort. Doubles from $138, two-night minimum.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; (941) 778-6444, https://www.beachbistro.com . Prize-winning "Floribbean" cuisine — fresh seafood with Caribbean-Latin influences — including grouper in a coconut and pecan crust, roast oysters and seafood gumbo. Main courses $34-$60.