Slow down and savor the simplicity of life on Anna Maria Island
- Last Updated: 5:24 PM, February 10, 2012
- Posted: 4:52 PM, January 30, 2012
You know a beach town is a find when the residents aren't sure they want you there.
Even though it's just 33 miles across the water from the skyscrapers of Tampa, Anna Maria Island is on a slender spur of land at the southernmost lip of the Tampa Bay, so driving there (no ferry required) requires 90 circuitous minutes. JetBlue flies direct from JFK twice daily to Sarasota, 45 minutes down the beach, but Anna Maria's removal from hubbub makes it a placid town that's both easy to reach yet not spoiled by Floridian concrete, chain restaurants, and condos.
And it's not likely to be, because locals are starting to think tourism has been a little too good to them. In a flurry of city meetings, they're rushing to dampen a vacation home boomlet by deterring a McMansion invasion and policing noise after the adorably early hour of 10 p.m.
As it is, the speed limit is a lethargic 25 mph, lights are dimmed so hatching turtles don't get disoriented, and the only hotels are motels. So most visitors choose to spread out: About half the houses in town, as well as in the adjoining (and indistinguishable) Holmes Beach, are available for tourists to rent by the night. (A Paradise Rentals, aparadiserentals.com, is one of the main players).
Florida's southeast coast gets the spotlight, but the western coast — along the Gulf of Mexico — remains the place to wade far from the sand in ripple-light (and of course, oil-free) waves. Anna Maria, though originally developed by a man whose company became part of Nabisco, which built Manhattan's Chelsea Market complex, hasn't given in to rampant construction. There's one grocery store, old wooden houses, no cinema — that's what the nightly sunset is for, although there is a cute little theatre company — and you can count the stoplights on one hand.
It's Key West for grown folks. Like the Conch Republic, it even has its own fantasies of unique autonomy: Residents distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi in nearby, unremarkable Bradenton by slapping those oval, European-style national stickers on their car bumpers: "AMI." Call it polite irreverence.
Instead of booze slushies and tees at Fat Tuesdays, this low-density town classes it up, tropics-style, with James Bond martinis at the bamboo-and-ceiling fan lounge Martini Bistro (5337 Gulf Drive). A few blocks away, Beach Bistro, the most Zagat-endorsed table within a ride radius, takes up residence in an unlikely concrete waterfront motel. The restaurant is foie gras-ified, and it's the area's big-spending romantic night out, but it's better to squeeze in at its tiny Murphy's Bar, where the menu's signature hits, such as warm duckling salad and a sublime tomato soup with sweet cream, are served to customers who require closer access to professionally crafted cocktails — and less post-suntan grooming (6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach).