Once in a lifetime

Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria island
Anna Maria is an island, but only just. Cradled in the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it clings to the coast of Western Florida by a few bridges and a long spit of keys that stretch past Grassy Point Bayou to Sarasota Bay.

The central regions of the island are completely taken up by residential neighbourhoods, generally single family or semi-detached homes, many of which are rented to visitors for much of the year. You will not find any skyscraper condos or hotels on Anna Maria Island. Through the constant efforts of its permanent residents and Historical Society, the city has navigated the stormy waters of modernization to rest quietly somewhere between the turn of the (2oth) century and the Age of Aquarius.
Once you've arrived at your cottage of choice, you can enjoy your stay fully without ever getting back in the car. From almost any location, the beaches that encircle the island are within walking distance. So too are several cafés, boutiques, and diminutive general stores, as well as surf shops where you can procure anything you might be missing for seaside amusement - sand-buckets, parasols, windbreakers, and especially flip flops. Flip flops are Anna Maria's signature, probably because they're almost all you need to appreciate this little slice of paradise.

There is white sand everywhere. In fact, Anna Maria is mostly sand, and it has been slowly disappearing into the waves about 10-15 feet per year. Some coastal dwellings are built on stilts. In 2014, a major beach renourishment project will employ bulldozers and a dredge barge to replenish eroded sand.

Islanders have also endeavoured in recent years to replace exotic plants from far-flung geographical regions with native plants, which need less water and fertilizer, and create less waste. Some examples of trees suitable for coastal planting are: the gumbo-limbo tree, buttonwood, firebush, Christmas berry, Florida privet, Jamaican caper, and native palms. Groundcover may include beach elder and sunflower, Jessamine, coral honeysuckle, golden creeper, railroad vine, sea oats, and yellowtop.

The Timucua were the first residents of the Bradenton area east of Anna Maria Island. Sarasota Bay also served as an important waterway for the Tocobago and Calusa tribes until the 14th century. Middens they created out of large mounds of shells can still be seen. According to legend, the Manatee River was named for the gentle sea cows that have been swimming in its inlets for as long as anyone can remember. The first European homesteader arrived in the area in 1842.

It isn't difficult to rise with the sun and take a run along North Shore Drive, then saunter over to Ginny's and Jane E's for a delicious coffee and perhaps some breakfast. Or if you weren't up at dawn, perhaps some lunch. The bakery café contains an eclectic collection of art and antiquities created, purchased, or beachcombed locally. Established by two sisters, the café breathed new life into the Olde IGA, which had been owned and operated by Ernie Cagnina for over half a century. Mr. Cagnina's contributions to Island life were significant. Cigar in hand, he could often be seen chatting with his neighbours about what was happening around town. He volunteered in the community, provided families with food when they hadn't groceries for the week, and served as mayor.

One of the best ways to appreciate the scenery and geography of Anna Maria Island is to rent a bike and ride south along Gulf Drive until you reach the beginning of the keys, where there is little to separate you from the sun, sand, and ocean breezes. You may want to take a detour into the Historic Fishing Village of Cortez, where mullet, grouper, stone crab claws, and shrimp are fished for export and sold to local restaurants. You will also come across a few surprises in the neighbourhood, not the least of which is the Sea Hagg, another storehouse of nautical treasures. With so many manatees in the vicinity, it isn't uncommon for mermaids to make an appearance also.

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