Thursday, December 2, 2010 – Life With Lisa by Lisa M. Ruth, The Washington Times

Anna Maria Island, Fl., 

In our hectic, tense, sometimes even unpleasant lives, Anna Maria Island is an oasis. 

Although the island is only seven miles long, it has an expansive heart.  It is a place where entrepreneurs value hand-cut, hundred-year-old logs and historic chimneys over bank accounts. Where real estate developer’s brag about friends and tropical plantings rather than profits, and world-class restaurateurs retain a sense of humor and whimsy.  Resort managers sincerely overextend themselves to calm nervous brides and exclusive galleries welcome elderly women who visit daily to listen to the music and talk. 

Aerial view of Anna Maria Island. Photo credit: Bradenton Area CVB.

In the City of Anna Maria, there are no mailboxes – residents walk to the post office to get their mail, and there are no chain restaurants or stores on the island.  Largess and generosity are the norm, whether you are a resident, a first-time visitor, or a repeat traveler.  Everyone is embraced on Anna Maria.

This amazing culture is only half the appeal of the island.  

Located on Florida’s west coast, only 1 hour from Tampa International Airport, Anna Maria boasts some of the most pristine beaches in the world.  Beautiful white sand meets clear aqua water, and it’s all clean. 

Without the shadow of boring fast food looming over the skyline, small, individual establishments flourish and create high quality, interesting food. Restaurants are plentiful and extraordinary, from wonderful breakfast quiche to juicy hamburgers to perfect bouillabaisse. 

 There is also limitless opportunity in the “things to do” category.  Water sports include kayaking, sailing, boating, parasailing, and jet skiing, you can fish in some of the best fishing waters in the world, walk on the beach, ride bicycles, visit museums, attend dog costume contests, or large art festivals. 

Visitors enjoy an abundance of water sports, such as paddle boarding, around Anna Maria.

Shopping ranges from the usual beach-goer fare to eclectic and interesting. Where else can you find specialty olive oils and bulk herbs and a mural of Elvis as a saint within a few blocks of each other? 

There are no go-karts, water slides, roller coasters, or extreme sports on the island.  No drive through fast food or cookie-cutter restaurant chains. 

Anna Maria Island begs one to ask, “Who needs the mundane when you can have the extraordinary?”  Residents and visitors alike celebrate breathtaking sunsets with cheers and bell ringing.  Every day.  Out loud.  They talk to each other and smile and enjoy the day.

From sitting on white sand beaches, to dining at the finest of white tablecloth restaurants, there is plenty to do at Anna Maria Island. 

Although it lacks noise and bluster there no shortage of activities.  Foremost, there’s the beach.  It’s hard to be bored when you can spend the day frolicking in the water and the sand, finding shells and body surfing, or reading a book and relaxing.  Anna Maria also has a full-calendar of special events, including a major art festival (Arts Hop) and the always popular Bayfest, as well as several other festivals and parades throughout the year. 

White beaches of Anna Maria.

Anna Maria’s location, on the Gulf and the Bay, lend themselves to other water sports.  It has some of the best fishing in the world, and you can fish on the shore, from a boat, or from the beach.  The three Anna Maria piers, the Bridge Street Pier, the Rod & Reel Pier, and the City of Anna Maria Pier, are generally filled with anglers fishing and talking and spending the day.  Many private companies rent boats for half or full day fishing trips, shore fishing or deep-sea fishing.  You can also parasail, jetski, or tube.

Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures has kayak trips for all skill levels allowing for solo or multiple guided tours including the South Lido Mangrove Tunnels, the Myakka River, the Siesta Key/Turtle Beach, the Longboat Key, the Anna Maria Island, the Egmont Key, the Fisheating Creek , the Rainbow Springs, the Cabbage Key, and the Cayo Costa tour. 

Tour guides are Master Naturalists and avid kayakers, expertly narrating while pointing out flora and fauna and explaining the history of the location. 

While all the tours are beautiful, the South Lido Mangrove Tunnels are a unique activity well suited for all ages.  The two-and-a-half-hour trip starts in Little Sarasota Bay, where kayakers are likely to see manatee, dolphin, pelicans, herons, and osprey, as well as other wildlife. 

It then loops around to the South Lido Mangrove Tunnels, which originally were “mosquito ditches” dug in the 1950s to eliminate standing water which were breeding pools for mosquitoes.  The efforts were abandoned, but they created several “tunnels” through the red mangroves, where kayakers can see the complex root systems of the plants and the animals who live in the tunnels. 

The tour is relaxing and quiet, a true up-close encounter with nature.  Because there is little currant, it is a perfect family kayak trip in an exclusive location.

The easiest, best way to see all the island has to offer is by bike.  If you didn’t bring your own, you can visit Beach Bums Bike Rentals, where Diane and Lauren will happily rent you bike, Go-Pets, three-wheeled bikes, surrey bikes, or golf carts. 

They also rent kayaks and baby equipment.  Diane and Lauren will also point you in the direction of interesting destinations and give you advice about what to see and where to go.  The island-colored store is conveniently located downtown and is a great place to start your tour of Anna Maria.

Anna Maria oozes charm and elegance and embraces its history even as it moves forward. 

Change is evolutionary, not revolutionary, and it does happen, even in this protected enclave.  Part of that evolution includes newer shops aimed at meeting the needs of residents and tourists.  The downtown area recently benefited from a redevelopment project that maintained the cultural identify of Anna Maria while upgrading the shops and implementing “green” policies. 

That effort highlights high-quality, interesting businesses, such as Kelly Karry’s Anna Maria Olive Oil Company.  You can also head back to Ginny’s and Jean E’s, where you can find a huge selection of gifts, or go toward the pier for more downtown shops.  Most stores have a beachy/nautical theme, and there are several excellent T-shirt shops where you can pick up Anna Maria souvenirs.

Anna Maria Olive Oil Company.

The Anna Maria Island Historical Society hosts a wonderful museum that includes three buildings, the museum itself, the Belle Haven Cracker Cottage, and the original City Jail.  The building narrates Anna Maria’s history in displays, photos, and historical items.  

Director Betty Yanger had in-depth knowledge of the history of the island, as well as current day happenings, and is exuberant in sharing information.  Guests can walk through Belle Haven Cracker Cottage, famous for falling off the City Pier where it was originally built, and view the house the way it was originally set up with numerous period items. 

As an added bonus, the historic society bakes fresh bread on certain days of the week.

Just a few doors down from the historic museum is the Studio on Gulf and Pine, the cultural art center on Anna Maria.  Owner Rhea Chiles and curator Tommy Fagan have created an outstanding center, with artist exhibits from across the spectrum, classes, and lectures. 

The breathtaking 8×12 “Myakka Fork” by Jake Fernandez invites guests to gaze literally for hours at the 24-panel wood mural, depicting the natural Florida landscape.  The surface of the wood blocks is uneven, reflecting light differently from every angle, giving it a sense of being alive. 

Many of the other artists in the gallery, such as Ann Abgott, are local, and all the art is original.  Tommy Fagan has several bells on display in the gallery, which he makes from old dive tanks.  The former blacksmith heats the tanks to just the right temperature to create the perfect sound, making the pieces both beautiful and audibly pleasant. 

The 5,000-foot gallery includes not only some of the best art on the island, but also one of the best sound systems on the island.  Tommy welcomes residents and visitors to stop in, enjoy the art, talk, listen to the music and relax.  The studio is open Tuesday through Saturday from 1pm to 5pm.

Anna Maria is truly one of the last great unspoiled family vacation spots, welcoming, warm, and wonderful. 

“People on Anna Maria are genuinely happy because they want to be here, whether they are residents or visitors,” says Bert Schaefer of Ginny’s and Jane E’s.  She adds, “I do see some sad people here — they are the ones at our Internet Café printing out boarding passes to go home…I feel so sad for them…they always look miserable.”

To fully enjoy Anna Maria, you have to downshift.  There’s no room for frantic or exasperated.  Relax.  You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, with some of the nicest people in the world.  Take a minute to enjoy.