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
SLOW DOWN AND SAVOR THE SIMPLICITY OF LIFE ON ANNA MARIA ISLAND
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.
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, aparadiserentals.com, 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.
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.