Lofty Wonders on a Little Island
On Anna Maria Island, located off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a worthy blend of natural marvels, undoubtable charm and good vibes all around.
From Florida’s East Coast, traveling west on State Road 64, past Lake Okeechobee and through the quiet towns of LaBelle and Clewiston, we steadily make our way to a seven-mile-long barrier island located off the Gulf Coast.
After a short drive up I-75 and through the City of Bradenton, we finally arrive on Anna Maria Island with about an hour left till sunset. First impressions, and once we cross the AMI Bridge, is that the island is a mix of old fashioned and classic— pleasant, charming, and for the moment, free of crowds.
It’s also an easy-going kind of place. Time-worn, but quaint, shopping plazas line the roadside along with low-lying and stilted homes. Golf carts of all sizes and colors are noticeable, whether parked or driving on main or side streets. There is nothing overly commercialized here— no high-rise buildings or billboards; no chain restaurants. Even the Circle K looks like a picturesque island cottage.
Our lodging for the next two nights, the Waterline Villas & Marina, a boutique hotel with condo-style suites, sits on a quiet corner, overlooking the marina where sailboats and pontoon boats sit idle and pelicans rest in trees and mangroves nearby. Just beyond the marina is the bay, boasting expansive water views, a very beautiful sight and one in which we are immensely grateful for. But the real magic comes when we head over to the beach for the sunset.
With a smooth horizon straight ahead and a pristine shoreline below, the beach has a harmonious feeling to it all — responsive, even-tempered, accepting. At our feet, a soft, powdery sand, made up of white quartz crystals, is pure and free of coarse seaweed or broken shells. Whereas closer to the water, the sand is flat and hard and chilled and occasional footprints line the ground.
We find ourselves in the company of others, few and far between, who, like us, are taking in the last of the light, the laid-back waves, and the openness of the ocean. This is, in fact, the shoreline of Holmes Beach, a city district located in the heart of Anna Maria Island, with Bradenton Beach on the southern tip and the City of Anna Maria to the north.
A brief history shows this part of the island was first homesteaded in 1896 with a post office to follow a few years later. Soon a developer by the name of Jack Holmes set his sights on the area and eventually built a 600 acre community, as he chopped down and maneuvered through Sabal palmettos, banana and coconut trees, mangroves, sea grape, pine trees, and more — a dense jungle brimming with wildlife like snakes, panthers, birds, and wildcats — now a developed (some may say overdeveloped) and renowned tourist hub.
Even further back, and prior to European arrival in the 1500s, Native Americans inhabited parts around the island in addition to locations up and down the Gulf Coast and Florida peninsula.
Good views and vibes along the way
The next day, we rent a golf cart and explore the seven mile long island from Bayfront Park Beach and the Bridge Street Pier to the Bay View Plaza and sightseeing along the way. It feels like utopia, in a sense, where social cohesion and an immense feeling of safety create an undercurrent of harmony and good vibes— whether real or perceived. You won’t find the decadent mega resorts, pretentious restaurants or the masquerade of wealth and class distinction on Anna Maria Island. In fact, it is more like a hodgepodge of communities, all coexisting as one, where expensive homes with Gulf views mingle among miniature cottages, and trailer parks nestle between three-story vacation homes.
That is the beauty of this low-key island: though tourists initially come for sightseeing and attractions, they arguably return for the vibes. Which is not to say the sights, sounds and fun things to do aren’t enough to keep people coming back. But it does indicate that the spirit of Anna Maria Island adds a great deal to the appeal. Take the Rod and Reel Pier, for example, a super casual spot for fishing and a bite to eat. Other than the views and good food (like many other seaside restaurants) this modest eatery continues to be a major destination on the island since its inception in 1947, proving that the essence of a place often matters the most.
To fully live up to its hype, however, the island needs to be a safe haven for native Florida species, such as plant life and birds. And for the most part, it does deliver, despite the island’s prevalence of concrete infrastructure (all part of the previous and recent building booms). On our day journey, we do manage to see several brown pelicans, egrets, gull birds, sanderlings, white ibis, and herons.
Mangroves, which are essential to Florida’s coastal areas, are another common sight around the island. These salt-tolerant shrubs and trees support nearby marine ecosystems and protect the land from extreme weather events. They also provide life-sustaining resources and habitat to birds, reptiles and amphibians. Mangroves are protected by Florida law, and any attempts to remove or destroy the plant will result in an investigation and possible fines.
The highlight of our trip involved not only the sights and sounds of the island, but also its character. We simply took it all in: the natural marvels like crystal sand and incredible sunsets were but one of many layers that make this island so unforgettable.
It was a reminder of all the good things about Florida on one tiny stretch of land. Long live Anna Maria Island and every bit of good vibes it delivers.
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