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Anna Maria Island offers a 'staycation' worth the stay


Vacationing in your backyard may not sound like anything special, but our backyard of Anna Maria Island is definitely special and worth the stay.

Anna Maria Island Trolley
The free Anna Maria Island Trolley can get you where you need to go. 

I consider myself a worldly traveler, having been to many places in the United States, Europe, Central and South America, and Canada. However, Anna Maria Island is on the top of my list of best places for a vacation. (Check out a photo album with more pictures.)

Maybe I am a little biased, but consider what we have on Anna Maria Island.

You can start with a clean environment. Maybe this sounds dull, but we have clean water to drink and swim in. Other countries are still dumping sewage not too far from where people swim. The wildlife likes it, too.

From swimming manatees to the snook, our clean waters help them survive. If you kayak on the beaches and in our bays, thanks to the efforts of our community there are pristine conditions to enjoy at our waterside environments. Take a paddle or stroll land-side through the Robinson Preserve and it reflects a commitment to our environment not found in many places.

It is easy to get around on Anna Maria Island. The free trolley runs north and south on a 20-minute schedule for most of the day. A connection at the southern end at Coquina Beach will take you to Longboat Key and St. Armands Circle, and it terminates in downtown Sarasota. This ride costs 75 cents and runs every half-hour. The islands have bike lanes along the road and a great paved bike trail under Australian pine trees goes through Coquina Beach. The trolleys also have bike racks for two bicycles if you decide you need a ride back. Of course, you may decide to run or walk the beach if you are looking at taking a hike or a run.

Anna Maria Island staycation
The fishing on Anna Maria Island can't be beat. 

We have music at many places on our island. Bradenton Beach has music at the Bridgetender, Drift Inn, Banana Cabana and the Beachhouse. The Anchor Inn, Cafe in the Beach, and D Coy Ducks Duffy's are on Holmes Beach. The Sandbar and Feeling Swell have music in the city of Anna Maria.

Great places to eat always make me rank a place I visit at the top of the list, and Anna Maria Island tops that list. Anna Maria Island not only has diverse eateries but it also has places that provide exceptional value from gourmet food starting at around $14 for an entree to a burger and beer for around $5. From Jamaican food at Jamrocks to gourmet at Beach Bistro there is something for everyone. Try some homemade Italian at Island Gourmet at its new location by the cell tower, and great pub food at Hurricane Hanks (a full bar with a family atmosphere).

My favorite old Florida place is the Rod and Reel Pier. It has fresh fish sandwiches daily for around $7. I like mine blackened there since it is not too spicy and the fish is fresh. The view overlooking Tampa Bay and out into the Gulf is incredible. It is also a great place to go fishing. They have all you need: bait, poles - and best of all there usually is a fish on the hook.

The restaurant is upstairs but downstairs is a small pub to have a drink or order some food. If you're on the boat you can stop off and start your morning with some of the best breakfast on the island.

Anna Maria Island staycation
A friendly manatee may even stop by to say hello.

Another old Florida place is the Sign of the Mermaid, which has awesome food at great prices in an old Florida home in the city of Anna Maria. I do not know what I would call my favorite, but the duck breast and crab cakes are some of the best you will eat. Save room for dessert because their award-winning desserts are not to be missed.

If you're looking for waterfront dining you can go to Rod & Reel, The Anna Maria Island Pier, The Waterfront, The Sandbar, Cafe on the Beach, Beach Bistro, Bridge Tender, Rotten Ralphs (on Anna Maria, and on Bradenton Beach), the Gulf Drive Cafe, The Moose Lodge (members only) and Coquina Beach.

Not on Anna Maria Island but close by is Starfish, which is a restaurant and a place to buy fresh seafood that comes right off the boats in one of Florida's last fishing villages. The restaurant is around the back on the water,there are great sunsets and it sits right in the middle of the fishing fleet. Other places to find food are Cortez Kitchen and MarVista on Longboat Key.

The Sun House has a third-floor location and a porch for exceptional views of the sunset. The food is Floribbean .and it offers great value. The Beach House and Sand Bar share the same owner but each has its own menu and music. The local hangout is Cafe of the Beach at the end of Manatee Avenue. Gulf Drive Cafe, The Beach Bistro, the piers on northern Anna Maria Island and the waterfront have great sunsets when the sun sets north of Anna Maria during the summer and parts of the fall and spring.

Anna Maria Island staycation
The Starfish Co. is one of the great places to eat in Cortez just over the bridge from the island.

Looking for French food is not a problem. The Island Creperie is open for breakfast and lunch but does dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. It is the best French food around and the value is incredible. You can get beef bourguignon to pork medallions with a special sauce for less than $17, and that includes a salad choice of potato or rice and a vegetable. This is another place to save room for dessert because if you like crepes they have a selection not to be missed. I had crepes in Paris and these are just as good. My favorite is the bananas and nutella. It's small and quaint just like a place in France, but make a reservation or you might have a wait awhile.

The most accredited dining is the Beach Bistro. It is the winner of Golden Spoon Awards and rated the highest for the best food and service in Florida by Zagat. Sean Murphy found his location from sailing literally to the beach one day. It has a friendly atmosphere, great food and fine dining. His bouillabaisse is incredible with fresh seafood and a great broth. While high end restaurants deserve high-end prices, the Beach Bistro also offers lighter fare with items costing below $20.

Another favorite of mine for breakfast and lunch is Minnie's. These ladies cook some special food at great prices. Check out their special board before you order or you may miss something really good.

The hash browns are nice and crispy, and complement any breakfast item exceptionally well. For lunch try the turkey with all the fixings. They cook the turkey fresh every day so it is just like you make at home.

Anna Maria Island staycation
Not only do you get tasty tapas at the Sunhouse Restaurant, you get a great view of the Gulf. 

As you can see, I get a bit caught up with eating places but there is more to do, from parasailing to charter fishing or kayaking the waters around the island.

Anna Maria offers all the things fancy resorts have but without the commercial feel. I was talking to Mac Gregory (809-5783), who charters from Holmes Beach, and he always seems to be catching all types of fish. From tarpon to snapper, Anna Maria Island's waters have some of the best action on the West Coast of Florida. The prices vary a bit and are around $350 for a half-day to $450 for full days. When was the last time you hooked a big one in your backyard? Maybe you should give it a try.

You can do more simple things like kicking back and floating around in the Gulf of Mexico or taking a stroll on a moonlit night. Best of all, it is safe. You can walk the beach before daybreak or 2 a.m. looking for turtles to lay eggs or hatch. The island is safe and there is something to be said for this. You can go to the Caribbean, only to be guided to a resort with armed guards carrying machine guns versus the laidback noncommercial accommodations on Anna Maria Island. Keeping a community safe has been a top priority and Anna Maria Island's law enforcement has done a great job.

Anna Maria Island staycation
A glorious sunset is a fitting end to another great day on Anna Maria Island. 

During my visit this past summer I walked the beach every morning as the sun rose. The beach is ever changing and every morning brings a new look. The blacktip skimmer floats in the air just above the water with a beak half in the water as it catches its food for the day. The porpoises jump in the Gulf and the snook and tarpon coast along the shore. If you're lucky enough you might even see some turtle tracks. This summer I was lucky enough to watch a turtle lay her eggs under a moonlit sky.

Tourists come from thousands of miles away to visit here. Maybe it is because we have one of the best beaches in the world, or the laidback atmosphere.

Whatever the reason, you do not have to travel but a few minutes and stay in a place that is, in my opinion, one of the best places in the world.


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