Once upon a beach far, far away ……..
My “Passport to Inspiration” column is beginning to sound like a tale of fiction , but I assure you, it is not . You see, I recently found my fairytale escape on Anna Maria Island. This 7-mile barrier island jewel is nestled off the Gulf Coast of Florida and provided the perfect backdrop for a truly relaxing long weekend filled with quaint, friendly ambiance and loaded with natural beauty.
The true fairytale began in 1539 when the island was discovered and named “Anna Maria” by Spanish Explorer Hernando DeSoto who was seeking gold in the New World. What he discovered was 7 miles of the most beautiful uninterrupted white sand beaches and the true treasure of the island in its perpetual golden sunshine, warm blue waters, peace and tranquility that provides a unique sanctuary for both man and beast.
Currently a nationally registered wildlife sanctuary, Anna Maria Island fosters a philosophy of sustainability where humans and nature can cohabitate in perfect balance. On my recent visit during turtle nesting season (May through November), “Do Not Disturb” signs marked turtle nests in the pristine sand and a “lights out” curfew was observed along the shoreline to keep turtle hatchlings heading toward the Gulf waters. But be assured, vacationers can enjoy the natural environment in an abundance of activities like kayaking, boat tours, paddle boarding, biking and walking. It is truly a place where birds and turtles nest, manatees and dolphins swim, and people relax.
There’s a wonderful sense of stepping back in time to “Old Florida” on the island, as people and traffic move slowly, and there were no signs of chain restaurants or high-rise hotels. I was fortunate to stay in a beautiful boutique rental managed by a company called “Once Upon a Beach.” Mike and Nicki Kaleta are the husband and wife management team that pride themselves on providing unique properties with an attention to details and a high level of hospitality. My two-bedroom unit with private pool was within walking distance to the beach and a convenient stop on the local free trolley route. The recently renovated duplex was named “Fishful Thinking” and was decorated with nautical creativity. It truly provided every thinkable amenity down to the beach chairs and towels.
A golf cart rental provided the perfect transportation to explore the island and its 3 distinct cities, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria City. A vibrant arts and culture scene was revealed as I stopped in Island Gallery West, a local artists’ cooperative filled with original and affordable art. After a stroll along the Pine Ave. Shopping District, called by some “the sweetest little main street in America,” I learned that the tiny island has its own historical society, live theater company and orchestra. Each month, the Chamber of Commerce event calendar features festivals focusing on art, music, and food, including the annual “Symphony in the Sand” with fine dining provided by local restaurants and exquisitely played music beside the sea.
Dining by the sea was a highlight of my trip. An elegant sunset dinner at the Zagat rated “Top Restaurants in America” Beach Bistro was truly unforgettable. The restaurant sits feet from the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The atmosphere was magical, the meal delicious, the service topnotch, and the hospitality of owner Sean Murphy was like that of an old friend. The evening was completed with an after dinner “prescription” at Murphy’s sister property The Doctor’s Office, a fun pub with cleverly themed craft cocktails . An equally memorable meal by the sea was a burger and beer lunch time stop at Skinny’s Place, an old Florida original since 1954. Located next to Holmes Public Beach, this rustic hut with a sand floor was loaded with locals and provided the “simply classic” atmosphere just right for flip flops.
At the end of each day, I enjoyed the truest magic of the island . . . sunset. It is celebrated on Anna Maria Island as Mother Nature paints the sky each evening and never the same way twice. The Sandbar Restaurant was the perfect setting on my last night for sipping champagne and watching the sun go down to create a cotton candy sky. It was a view I could never tire of and a truly happy ending to the story . . . where they lived happily ever after . . . or at least until Monday.
If you go:
Once Upon a Beach Vacation Rentals onceuponabeachami.com
Island Gallery West islandgallerywest.com
Beach Bistro beachbistro.com
The Doctor’s Office DoctorsOfficeAMI.com
Skinny’s Place skinnysplace.com
Sandbar Restaurant islanddining.com
Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce annamariaislandchamber.org