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Florida: Anna Maria Island, A Gulf Coast Secret Family Vacation Spot. Why is an island peninsula community of 15,000 residents on the Gulf Coast considered by many to be a “best kept secret”?  For those in the know, it is affordable subtropical nirvana with Florida Keys charm of 30 years ago, spectacular sunsets, solitude without remoteness, secluded beaches with sea turtle egg nests, wildlife, easy bike riding, friendly people, exemplary dining opportunities, and a free local trolley.
 
Just south of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, west of Bradenton and north of Sarasota, glitzy Siesta and Longboat Keys, the town of Anna Maria is definitely a Gulf Coast Secret Family Vacation Spot. The most remote and outlying town on the island of the same name, it combines with two other municipal communities to the south, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, for the total Anna Maria Island experience.  The secret: The town of Anna Maria does not have any fast food or convenience franchises, chain stores, high rises or a stoplight and the community intends to keep it that way.  I share a word of caution - if you find yourself prone to excessively scheduling and planning, then this is not the place for you. 

The late winter and spring throngs do affect the area somewhat and you might be surprised to hear a multitude of German-speaking visitors who seem share my tastes.  While not as crowded as other popular Florida destinations, mainland traffic access along the single causeway to and from the nearest city, Bradenton, can occasionally gridlock and waiting for restaurant seating can be excruciating. For these reasons, northerners may best appreciate this eclectic community in August - the coastal climate is cooler (high eighties) than many North American regions and the sparse attendance is just right. 

Enjoy prefect beach days. A typical summer day starts out sunny and clear with an afternoon or evening thunderstorm like clockwork so schedule your outdoor time in the mornings and midday.  The most challenging part of your stay might be deciding whether to go anywhere else.  If you do, then sprinkle some half-day family excursions on your vegetative experience among the palms. Popular choices include the Bradenton science center and planetarium; Siesta Beach, rated one of the world’s best beaches; Mote Marine Aquarium; Myakka River State Park - great for viewing alligators in the wild; the Ringling Museum and Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota; St. Armand’s Circle shopping district in Siesta Key and the Leffis Key Baywalk nature preserve near Coquina Beach.

In most areas, the Gulf of Mexico will be to the west and Tampa Bay to the east. The best way to explore Anna Maria from here is by foot and bicycle - rent some at a shop near the general store and enjoy the flat and scenic terrain.  If you feel adventurous, do it with roller blades.  Some local and low maintenance activities within walking distance begin with going to the beach to soak in the warm and gentle blue waters; reading a book and beach combing; looking for unique seashells and letting man made world fade. Need to know:  Be careful with the deceptive water currents at the northern tip of the island and the midday sun - it may feel the same as up north but rays are near equatorial intensity. 

Try your hand at fishing with your kids on the Bay's Anna Maria City Pier and eat at the pier's over-water restaurant.  On your stroll back, stop at Mama Lo's, considered the best ice cream parlor in the area.  Have a family cookout at the Anna Maria beach front park and play area on the Bay. Lounge by the pool but don't forget to watch the Gulf sunsets each evening along with everyone else. Need to know: If you observe it from the beach accessible deck at the area's most popular beach front restaurant and bar, the Sandbar, guessing the sunset time may net you complimentary drinks.
 
The Best (but no worst) of Anna Maria:

Best one-hour experience - Bay View Jet Ski. Sharing an office with the Anna Maria Boat Club marina, this modest operation is the closest Jet Ski rental facility to Anna Maria.  For about $65, you and a companion can zoom around the Bay for an hour on these aquatic motor cycles at your leisure.  Do not be surprised if you see a frolicking manatee in the marina on your way out or dolphins frolicking in the Bay.  This is a great opportunity for parent/child quality time - but you may enjoy it more than your child. (Bay View Jet Ski 5323 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778 7990 or boatclub.net/boatclub)

Best adrenaline rush – parasailing. I must confess I passed on this so far, but my son's cajoling will make the inevitable happen with a future visit. You can arrange one at the rental facility near the general store or numerous other places around the island - consult your visitor's literature and pick the closest one. Consider the option where you release the boat tether at the end of the ride to glide back to the water under your own control - I will try.

Best rainy day activity - Mote Marine Aquarium. Actually part of the Mote Marine Laboratory founded by Dr. Eugenie Clark one the most world famous marine biologists and shark researches in history, this prime experience for naturalists and budding marine biologists is a must for those interested in fish, reefs, sea turtles, marine mammals and science. Children will also like the hands on touch tank. (Mote Marine Aquarium 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, (941) 388 4441 or www.mote.org)

Second best rainy day activity - the South Florida Museum. Home of Snooty™, the Manatee, born in 1947 and a de facto mascot for the region, this educational complex includes a natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium.  You can discover Florida’s story from the prehistoric to the present including fossil exhibits, Florida’s First Peoples and local maritime history. Don't miss the planetariums laser shows created around musical themes such as the Beach Boys. (The South Florida Museum 201 10th Street West, Bradenton, (941) 746 4131 or www.southfloridamuseum.org)

Best fishing without a boat - almost anywhere. The easiest is definitely from either the Manatee public pier on the Gulf or the Anna Maria city pier on the Bay

Best outdoor attraction for budding young (and maybe old) naturalists - Coquina BayWalk at Leffis Key. Three miles south of Holmes Beach opposite the shaded pine barrens of Coquina Beach, is an underutilized nature preserve of wetland boardwalks and observable wildlife - an excellent family walk.

Town of Anna Maria Family Vacation Secret - Anna Maria Elementary School. I threw this in the fray because, if you are visiting when school is not in session because this bay front public school provides a delightfully secluded park and playground area with a memorable water view - and a screeching population of feral parrots and other non-indigenous tropical birds that were once pets. (Anna Maria Elementary School 4700 Gulf Dr. N., Holmes Beach, (941) 708 5525 or ame.annamaria.net)

Best slightly extravagant day trip - Egmont Key State Park. For those of you comfortable operating a motor boat, from the Siam Garden, walk over to Island Marine marina and boat rental at 412 Pine Avenue, (941) 778 1260 and rent a 17' five person outboard for the day.  Motor out to Egmont Key, an uninhabited island in the Gulf at the opening of Tampa Bay.  This Gilligan's Island has uncompleted relic walk ways and building foundations left over from turn of the century Spanish American War fortifications for possible attacks and is presently overrun with large tortoises and lizards.  Home of the only manned lighthouse in the U.S., this island is a wildlife refuge managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.  In addition to soaking in the blue waters, the Bay side of the island has the best snorkeling opportunities in the region. Bonus points: Budding young marine biologists will appreciate the three to five foot deep calm water over vast expanses of turtle grass beds. Just float and look down to catch glimpses of fish and bottom dwellers such as mollusks and rays. Make sure to take plenty of drinking water, a picnic lunch and sunscreen. (Egmont Key State Park www.dep.state.fl.us)

Best frugal day trip - Myakka River State Park. Boasting one of Florida's largest and most diverse natural areas, this pristine Wild and Scenic River park flows through 45 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. The river and its two shallow lakes attract a myriad of wetland creatures such as alligators, turtles, and an amazing number of different types of birds and a boardwalk out on the Upper Lake enhances wildlife viewing opportunities making birding, canoeing, fishing and wildlife observation popular activities. A seven-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. Bonus points: More than 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior. (Myakka River State Park 13207 S.R. 72, Sarasota, nine miles east of I-75, (941) 361 6511 or www.dep.state.fl.us)

Location on the planet. Prominent destinations such as the Tampa, Clearwater or Sarasota areas are only 45 to 90 minutes away. 

Make it happen. Anna Maria is not completely immune to peak travel, so book your accommodations ahead of time as well as your flight and car rental (a must) if you are coming via the extremely visitor friendly and efficient Tampa airport.  The smaller community airports of Sarasota and St. Petersburg/Clearwater are also available but may require an additional plane change.There are plenty of customary accommodation options especially in the contiguous communities of Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach to the south but I recommend that for your first visit you make the total commitment of residing in the Town of Anna Maria itself. Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce 5313 Gulf Drive N., Holmes Beach, Florida 34217 (941) 778-1541 or www.annamariaislandchamber.org
 
Feature by Andrew Der. Images provided by VisitFlorida and Sherri's Island Photos. Copyright 2012.
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