Anna Maria Island is getting more and more national attention! New York Post author Jason Cochran likes AMI for its laid back and relaxed lifestyle:

The best place in Florida you’re not going


You know a beach town is a find when the residents aren’t sure they want you  there.

Even though it’s just 33 miles across the water from the skyscrapers of  Tampa, Anna Maria Island is on a slender spur of land at the southernmost lip of  the Tampa Bay, so driving there (no ferry required) requires 90 circuitous  minutes. JetBlue flies direct from JFK twice daily to Sarasota, 45 minutes down  the beach, but Anna Maria’s removal from hubbub makes it a placid town that’s  both easy to reach yet not spoiled by Floridian concrete, chain restaurants, and  condos.

And it’s not likely to be, because locals are starting to think tourism has  been a little too good to them. In a flurry of city meetings, they’re rushing to  dampen a vacation home boomlet by deterring a McMansion invasion and policing  noise after the adorably early hour of 10 p.m.

As it is, the speed limit is a lethargic 25 mph, lights are dimmed so  hatching turtles don’t get disoriented, and the only hotels are motels. So most  visitors choose to spread out: About half the houses in town, as well as in the  adjoining (and indistinguishable) Holmes Beach, are available for tourists to  rent by the night. (A Paradise Rentals,, is one of the main  players).

Florida’s southeast coast gets the spotlight, but the western coast — along  the Gulf of Mexico — remains the place to wade far from the sand in ripple-light  (and of course, oil-free) waves. Anna Maria, though originally developed by a  man whose company became part of Nabisco, which built Manhattan’s Chelsea Market  complex, hasn’t given in to rampant construction. There’s one grocery store, old  wooden houses, no cinema — that’s what the nightly sunset is for, although there  is a cute little theatre company — and you can count the stoplights on one hand.

It’s Key West for grown folks. Like the Conch Republic, it even has its own  fantasies of unique autonomy: Residents distinguish themselves from the hoi  polloi in nearby, unremarkable Bradenton by slapping those oval, European-style  national stickers on their car bumpers: “AMI.” Call it polite irreverence.

Instead of booze slushies and tees at Fat Tuesdays, this low-density town  classes it up, tropics-style, with James Bond martinis at the bamboo-and-ceiling  fan lounge Martini Bistro (5337 Gulf Drive). A few blocks away, Beach Bistro,  the most Zagat-endorsed table within a ride radius, takes up residence in an  unlikely concrete waterfront motel. The restaurant is foie gras-ified, and it’s  the area’s big-spending romantic night out, but it’s better to squeeze in at its  tiny Murphy’s Bar, where the menu’s signature hits, such as warm duckling salad  and a sublime tomato soup with sweet cream, are served to customers who require  closer access to professionally crafted cocktails — and less post-suntan  grooming (6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach).

If there’s one failing of AMI, it’s a dearth of quality mid-level places to  eat. After he cornered the high end, the Beach Bistro’s owner, Sean Murphy,  opened Eat Here, a more affordably gourmet place that has already aggressively  expanded into Sarasota, too. Here, the staples cater to a sort of “uptown  slumming” vibe that Anna Maria does so well: fish ‘n chips made with local  rockfish, hot dogs trickled with truffle butter, and “shrimpcargots” that  substitute shellfish for snails (5313 Gulf. Dr., Holmes Beach). Even in cuisine,  Anna Maria balances its self-image as a marginal paradise with its  upper-middle-class taste for nice things.

Which is not to say that Anna Maria can’t get loose. Some of it fulfills your  every fantasy of an anonymous beach getaway. Starfish Restaurant, on a nearby  fishing wharf, is the prototypical dockside seafood fry-up complete with  dilapidated boats and bossy seabirds for companions — show up well ahead of  dinner or wait for space (12306 46th Ave W., Cortez). The local brew house, the  low-slung concrete shack Bortell’s Lounge, hasn’t seen a facelift since the  Nixon Administration, but contrary to ragged appearances, neither has it  probably seen a brawl, since its typical clientele consists of Dads With Boats  and British holidaymakers (10002 Gulf Dr.).

Fortunately, there’s not much need to drive a car. Many locals toddle around  on bikes — the weirder ones use electric golf carts — and Manatee County runs a  free “trolley” bus service down the spine of the slender island (every 20  minutes, 6 am to 10 pm).

Pine Avenue is the historic drag, but don’t expect Worth Avenue in Palm  Beach. There are only four blocks, but they’ve been freshening up in the past  year. An original 1935 home purchased as a kit from the Sears Catalog has been  moved here and restored last year as Really Relish (505 Pine Ave.) a cheerful  and peerlessly curated shop selling cleverly redeemed vintage clothes (such as  re-tailored 1950s swank) and wry “upcycled” creations such as “Scrabble ring”  jewelry made of discarded letter tiles. It’s gathering a deserved following.  Next door, in a 98-year-old cottage, is the Village Cafe at Rosedale, a new  unhurried coffee lounge tarted up with giant photos of ’80s divas and a chill  outdoor deck with magnetic powers.

At the end of Pine, the City Pier, which turns 101 in May, juts 776 feet into  Tampa Bay but has long since been abandoned by the Tampa steamers it was made  for. Now, a shark tooth jewelry maker works weekends and families fish for  mackerel and mullet by lamplight. This month, dolphins have been frequent  visitors.

Still, the nearby ice cream store and end-of-pier diner are so low-key as to  go almost unnoticed. That well-groomed anonymity makes them, and this casual  upscale town on this tiny spindle of land, the rarest kind of attractions.