A trip to Florida can mean different things to different people, and though you may put most Florida vacations into one category, nothing could be further from the truth. While the Sunshine State is best known for its beaches, a visit to Anna Maria Island made me realize this barrier retreat is in a category all its own.
Anna Maria Island isn’t just another beach haven but a hidden treasure, and it’s quickly becoming a popular travel destination. With its laid-back atmosphere and “old Florida” feel, this island is truly special. If you traveled to Florida in the 1960s or ’70s and want to return to the time before commercialization, a trip to Anna Maria Island and Cortez will take you back 40 years to see its natural beauty without the intrusion of high-rise condos or touristy venues.
Sitting across the bay from the town of Cortez, Anna Maria Island is a barrier island nestled in the Gulf of Mexico and includes the small municipalities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach for a total population of 8,500 people. The residents and business owners of this beautiful area have worked hard to maintain its unique visual appeal. Everything from the design and height restrictions of the buildings to the absence of many of the chain restaurants helps create a beautiful and inviting area. The island is free of chain hotels and instead has quaint private beach cottages, bungalow motels or villas with lush tropical settings. With abundant choices, residents and visitors head to locally owned cafés for island cuisine and enjoy the character of small shops and art galleries.
On a recent trip we stayed at Holiday Cove RV Resort, located just over the Bradenton Beach Bridge, which connects Cortez to Anna Maria Island. Cortez, just 50 miles south of Tampa, is a sleepy little town of fewer than 5,000 permanent residents. Cortez got its start as a Gulf Coast fishing village, and it even has a Florida Maritime Museum to help you trace its roots.
As you wander across the bridge and its walkways, the connection between Cortez and its history is seen through the marinas and piers, old fishing relics found in the landscape and even the skeleton of the old fishing cannery. Today, you can go to the Cortez Fishing Village and buy freshly caught shrimp or fish, chat with the fishermen and experience pride in the community’s rich history.
Thanks to its prime location and excellent facilities, Holiday Cove was a pleasurable part of our trip. Not only is it located less than a mile from the beach, it also includes a waterway providing Gulf access and a boat launch area with slips. All the amenities that one would expect such as a pool, paved sites with 50-amp electrical, cable TV, and water and sewer hookups were included, as well as a professional staff with a pet-friendly approach. After spending more than a week here it is easy to see why the resort is so highly ranked in the Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory. The resort is small but the facilities are extraordinarily clean and occupied to a large degree by site owners who adhere to strict covenants to maintain the facility in tiptop condition. The grounds were impeccably landscaped with a variety of colorful and flourishing tropical specimens that added to the beauty of the surroundings.
There’s plenty to do in the area should you want to venture away from the resort. Though I’m admittedly a Major League Baseball fan, there’s nothing purer than Minor League Baseball. If you also enjoy the game, you won’t have to travel any farther than Bradenton, just 10 minutes from Cortez. Bradenton is home to the Bradenton Marauders, a Class A Advanced affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Marauders play at McKechnie Field, a beautiful park that should not be missed by serious baseball fans.If you prefer something more educational, check out Mote Marine Laboratory in nearby Sarasota on City Island. Mote is a working research center focused on dolphin research and other nonprofit ocean and forensic aspects of marine life, plus an accredited aquarium that is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face. The aquarium includes exhibits showcasing Florida Bay habitats, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, sharks and stingrays.
Sarasota is also home to another entertaining and educational attraction. The G. WIZ Science Museum (currently under renovation) is an interactive center with exhibits on topics such as renewable energy and an actual racetrack to test your sprinting ability against the clock. If you prefer a more cerebral challenge you can play Mindball, which lets partners compete to see who can move more matter with their mind.
For those who enjoy shopping, you needn’t go farther than the south end of Anna Maria Island into Longboat Key, where you’ll find upscale European-style shopping and dining at St. Armand’s Circle. On a historical note, the inner circle of St. Armand’s honors circus greats such as P.T. Barnum and John Ringling in the Circus Ring of Fame. For bargain hunters, Bradenton boasts one of the largest indoor flea markets in the region. The Red Barn Flea Market Plaza offers a wide variety of discounted merchandise as well as food and seasonal produce. With more than 600 stores and booths it’s no wonder the market attracts about 2 million shoppers a year.
Sampling local restaurants is part of the fun of RVing, and this area certainly provides a range of choices. A trip to Cortez starts with breakfast at Cortez Café, which sits just across the street from Holiday Cove. The café, voted a top breakfast choice in many local contests, has been open for 50-plus years and is a staple of the community for locals and visitors alike. If you go, make sure to try an omelet, created with fresh ingredients and served with a smile, likely by the owner or a family member. A number of other cafés feature everything from local seafood to specialty menus suited to anyone’s taste.
If something more upscale is on the agenda, take a quick trip across the bridge and enjoy a curvy scenic ride down Gulf Drive to Holmes Beach. There, at the end of a sandy lane, your culinary experience at Beach Bistro will be second to none. The bistro consistently ranks as one of Zagat’s top restaurants, so you will need to plan ahead to get reservations. This small beachside restaurant has been in operation since 1985 and enjoys national and international praise for its incredible food.
We were smitten as we stepped through the front door. As we moved into Beach Bistro’s main dining area, we were impressed by the breathtaking view of the Gulf and the elegant dining atmosphere. As the menu choices were presented in rich detail, it was evident this would be a dining experience like no other.
With an island inspired menu and a focus on local, seasonal foods, we made our selections with ease, knowing that any choice would be a great choice. Our delectable appetizers of Lobstercargots and sweet melon salad were followed by scrumptious entrées of a fresh rack of domestic lamb and the Bistro’s classic Floribbean Grouper, a sweet, delicate combination of flavors. We finished our special evening with two Happy Endings desserts, the Berry Celebration Cinnamon Crepes and the Praline Alexander. The food was delicious, the atmosphere perfect, and combined with the attention to detail and the professional staff, this was an evening to remember. If you have a special occasion to celebrate or simply want to enjoy a world-class meal, Beach Bistro is the place to go.
Anna Maria Island really is about quiet strolls on the beach, pedaling a bike down picturesque paths, charming little shops and restaurants, one-story beach cottages and the tropical beauty that surrounds them, and enjoying the pristine sandy space between you and the ocean. Though small, this 7-mile island offers a free trolley service to help you venture about from north to south. It makes stops along the way at the beach, or for shopping on Bridge Street or to the city proper where you can find popular spots for eating, shopping, or even attending cultural events. Last but not least, you can stop at the Historic Anna Maria City Pier to catch a glimpse of the dolphins or a vibrant sunset at the end of the day.
If you’re looking for a beautiful place that offers warm weather, great food, a mixture of old and new, and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, then as the locals say, Anna Maria Island is your “island in the sun.”
For More Information
941-778-6444 | www.beachbistro.com
Florida Maritime Museum
941-708-6120 | www.manateeclerk.com/historical/maritimemuseum
G. WIZ Science Museum
941-309-4949 | www.gwiz.org
Holiday Cove RV Resort
800-346-9224 | www.holidaycoverv.com
Mote Marine Laboratory
941-388-4441 | www.mote.org
Red Barn Flea Market
800-274-3532 | www.redbarnfleamarket.com
St. Armand’s Circle
941-388-1554 | www.starmandscircleassoc.com