By Andrea Sachs  – THE WASHINGTON POST
Sunday, November 8, 2009

LittleGasparilla-04Anna Maria Island: Low-key and all-natural

Anna Maria Island is Florida as a living diorama, with no chain hotels, a speed limit that never exceeds 35 mph and a building limit of three stories. It is also home to a genteel first lady.

“We are loath to go the route of Longboat Key, with condo high-rises,” said Rhea Chiles, the wife of former Florida governor Lawton Chiles, whose family has owned property here since 1958. “The look of the place has been passed down from one generation to another. It’s all of those words: quaint, neighborly, natural.”

Chiles was the visionary behind the Studio at Gulf and Pine, a multi-use space that exhibits local artworks, including a painting of her own, and holds classes, such as the book club I was making her late for. So I left Chiles to her plot twists for the turns of a kayak.

Shawn Duytschaver, whose family opened the first gift shop on Anna Maria, owns Native Rentals, where he rents boats and preps guests before pushing them off to fend for themselves. He suggested that I paddle Robinson Preserve, a 400-acre mangrove and salt marsh reserve that opened last year and is buffered from motorized traffic. (By comparison, he said that around nearby Lido Key, kayakers must contend with the din of boats and cars.)

At the put-in spot across the Intracoastal Waterway, he handed me a laminated map and said I could probably make it to the bald eagle nest before sunset. He also informed me about the black “bugs” in the mangroves. They’re not spiders, he said, but crabs. Underlying message: Don’t freak out and abandon ship.

I found the small entryway to the preserve but got my left and right confused. Instead of kayaking in the wider bayou (to the right), I ended up in the narrow tunnel where mangrove roots kicked out like chorus girls. In several areas, my paddle was wider than the channel. At one point, I was so wedged in, my only choices were stand up and pick up the boat or attempt an eight-point U-turn. Only the crabs know which option I took.

Abandoning the mangrove, I entered open water, where mullets were jumping so high and so close to my boat that I could feasibly have landed one with some clever maneuvering. I hadn’t gotten far into my laissez-faire fishing when I spotted a bald eagle sitting stoically in a tree. Having reached my goal, I turned back, a much easier trip now that I was wise to the tangle of mangroves.

On the Gulf Islands, sunset is a momentous occasion. At Sundown, a restaurant on the beach, waiters ask diners to guess the time of the sun drop. Those with the correct answer win a bottle of champagne.

The wait for a table exceeded the time left before sunset, so I watched the show from a dugout in the sand. At 6:58, a bell rang. Couples kissed and families snapped photos with the cranberry-streaked sky as a backdrop. I overheard a waiter consoling his customers for their losing time, trying to ease their disappointment with dessert. – The Washington Post

To read the entire article, click here.