Sparkles doesn’t hesitate and walks straight into the bay.
The sprightly mare seems to enjoy the water. She and the other horses on our beach ride are accustomed to the sea. After all, they live on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Bradenton and Anna Maria Island. They’re part of a unique riding experience offered by BeachHorses.
The horses seem to find the water a relief in the summer heat, and so do I. They splash through the water, and then swim out further, drawing air into their lungs for buoyancy. I feel weightless as we ride through the sea. Back near shore, they meander through knee-deep water. One horse has discovered that she can blow bubbles in the water, and I laugh as she does it again and again.
Anna Maria Island
Riding horseback is just one adventure during our trip to Anna Maria Island. The tiny barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast is an excellent place to enjoy the great outdoors. Just two miles wide and seven miles long, Anna Maria Island is lined with golden sand beaches and clear warm waters.
Though it’s just a 2.5-hour drive from Orlando, 45 minutes from Sarasota, and an hour from Tampa, Anna Maria Island feels a world apart. There are no big chain hotels or box stores, and buildings are restricted to three stories tall. Old Florida lives on here, with old-fashioned fishing piers, hometown restaurants, and local shops.
Anna Maria Beach Resort
The island is popular for family vacations, and vacation rental homes of all sizes are available; small hotels and inns also dot the island. My husband, Benjamin, and I make our base at Anna Maria Beach Resort, a boutique property on Holmes Beach. The resort has undergone a stunning renovation, retaining Old Florida charm, while adding modern touches. Its 31 rooms are large, with comfortable beds and colorful design.
Although the hotel has a cozy pool, we spend much of our time on the beach; the hotel provides chairs, towels, and umbrellas. Nesting sea turtles often lay their eggs on the beach. One morning, we sit outside on our private balcony with coffee and watch as local volunteers cordon off new nests that turtles have laid overnight, to protect them.
Beaches on Anna Maria Island
Holmes Beach is just one of the many beaches we explore on the island. Manatee Public Beach is a favorite with families, and has a concession stand, picnic tables, grills, showers, and a playground. There are lifeguards on duty and a café on the beach.
Anna Maria Public Beach is also kid-friendly, but parking, though free, can be a challenge due to its popularity. As with other beaches on the island, it’s clean and has soft golden sand with great local restaurants nearby.
We also stop at Coquina Beach, which has similar amenities to Manatee Beach (lifeguards, concessions stand, restrooms, and more) and wish we had more time to spend there.
Be sure to take care when entering the water; watch for riptides and note the water conditions before going out. Dolphins and manatees can sometimes be seen from shore.
Kayaking With Beach Bums
We experience the sea in a different way during a kayaking tour with Beach Bums the next day. The water is so clear that we see horseshoe crabs, oyster beds, and lots of seagrass as we kayak along a fringe of red mangroves. Then, our guide points out a baby great blue heron in a large bird rookery that is home to roseate spoonbills, blue herons, and white egrets.
“Be very quiet,” our guide says, “and you’ll see him.”
Sure enough, we see a large dark gray fluff in a platform nest in the trees. He can’t fly yet, but he eyes us warily as we float past, trying to conceal our excitement.
At one point, we stop and cool off with a dip in the turquoise water. The sea temperature is almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes for a comfortable swim. Finally, we head the kayaks into Tampa Bay, where we can see Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Tropicana Field in the distance.
Dining on Anna Maria Island
All that outdoor fun can work up an appetite. Fortunately, the tiny island has many excellent restaurants, from family-run establishments to fine dining.
For breakfast, we join the quick-moving line of locals and visitors who stop at Ginnie and Jane E’s Café for huge, affordable breakfast plates. Another day, we stop at The Donut Experiment, where donuts are made to order. You can select your own icing and topping to create everything from simple glazed to fully-decked maple bacon. My favorite is vanilla icing with chocolate chips; Ben’s is the Reese’s pieces.
Over the next few days, we visit several recommended restaurants, and we’re not disappointed. Located in a 1922 cottage house, The Waterfront Restaurant has sweeping beach views. We sit on the outdoor patio and sip island cocktails while savoring grouper tacos and jerk-style Gulf shrimp. The restaurant does its own butchering, smokes its own salmon, and even bakes its own bread.
Situated on Historic Bridge Street Pier and decorated in a nautical theme, Anna Maria Oyster Bar is a family-run establishment that fits our beach vacation perfectly. Sitting on the covered outdoor patio, we have a refreshing breeze and views of the water and marina on three sides. Entrees feature fresh seafood and American favorites and are affordable and tasty.
One evening, we head to Eliza Ann’s Coastal Kitchen. Located at Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club, the restaurant specializes in southern-style seafood. Popular dishes include wood-grilled oysters, crab hushpuppies, and pecan-crusted snapper. I decide on the seared sea scallops and pork belly on butternut squash, and it’s a winning combination.
Anna Maria Island has attracted top culinary talent, and chef Gerard Jesse at The Seafood Shack Marina, Bar & Grill is one example.
Born in Germany, Jesse went to culinary school in New York and trained in New Orleans. He went on to work at top restaurants in the region, including The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. His expertise is evident in dishes like blue crab cakes with key lime aioli and coconut shrimp with pineapple sweet chili sauce. Truth be told, we also like the restaurant’s signature Shack Rum Punch, although a word to the wise—drink slowly.
You can’t visit an island without having at least one toes-in-the-sand dinner. For us, that meal is at the Gulf Drive Café, which is right on Bradenton Beach. Anna Maria Island is famous for its sweeping sunsets, and tonight’s should be a beauty. We watch with delight as Mother Nature paints bright orange and yellow swaths across the sky. Then, the sun slowly sinks and disappears into the sea.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.
The author was a guest of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.