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Anna Maria's barefoot charm

The tiny Gulf Coast island is little-known, which accounts for its laid-back appeal. In winter, the water is cool, but the atmosphere is warm.

January 16, 2005|Ferne Arfin | Special to The Times

Anna Maria Island, Fla. — In the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, the cover of a vintage brochure features a Victorian bathing beauty. "Anna Maria Beach, Florida's Famous Year-Round Resort!" trumpets the headline, ambitiously declaring it the greatest resort city in the state.

In the early 1900s, investors -- including cookie maker Charles Roser, who anted up part of the $1 million that the National Biscuit Co. (later renamed Nabisco) reportedly paid him for the Fig Newton recipe -- had big plans to turn Anna Maria into a Gulf Coast Miami Beach. Then fate, in the form of the Depression and the end of the Florida land boom, stepped in to stop them.

Lucky for us.

Today, Anna Maria Island, a twig-shaped scrap of beach and mangrove swamp near Bradenton, retains its barefoot, laid-back Old Florida charm. And it's still little-known.

I first encountered the island when my sister bought a house here a few years ago. I've been visiting whenever I can ever since. Last year, it seemed like a good place to unwind after the holidays.

It took about an hour to drive from Tampa International Airport to Bradenton, where two bridges link Anna Maria to the mainland. Winter sun from a cloudless sky bounced off Tampa Bay. I see Anna Maria Island seven miles southwest of the soaring Sunshine Skyway Bridge. However, because it's only 5 feet above sea level, it takes a keen eye.

It seems remarkable that such a fragile ecosystem continues to survive in a state so often ravaged by violent storms, but Anna Maria is generally sheltered from the worst of them. Last fall, despite close calls, the island's luck held again, and it was unharmed by the hurricanes that caused billions of dollars in damage in other parts of Florida.

January is usually the coolest month, with temperatures averaging in the high 60s, so I was pleased to arrive in time for a heat wave. Although already late in the afternoon, it was nearly 80 degrees when I dumped my bags, shed my shoes and headed for the beach as fast as I could.


Miles of sugary sand

The beach is what Anna Maria is all about.

It stretches virtually uninterrupted for the length of the island, a wide, white expanse of sugary sand punctuated by fingers of salt grass and sea oats and lapped by the Gulf of Mexico.

This beach, fringed with palmettos, sea grapes and feathery pines, stood in for the desert island in "On an Island With You," an Esther Williams-Peter Lawford picture that was one of MGM's top grossers in 1948.

A few more buildings may be visible these days, but little else has changed in the 57 years since. For one thing, the beach is still almost deserted.

A few days into the new year, the shore population was largely made up of tolerant, approachable birds. A small crowd of common gulls, oyster catchers, sandpipers and orange-billed royal terns, their black crests flattened by gulf breezes, made way for me as I trailed a pair of snowy ibises with long, curving beaks. Settling on the sand to watch pelicans dive, I was rewarded with the sight of a pair of leaping dolphins.

That night at a local restaurant called the Sandbar, I downed a plateful of gulf shrimp and an ice-cold Corona while a live band serenaded diners with a medley of 1970s easy-listening beach music that would have been corny anywhere else. The great blue heron that paraded on the beach deigned to accept a shrimp from my hand.

Next morning, after a breakfast of feather-light pancakes at the Gulf Drive Cafe, I set out to explore the island. Although only seven miles long and less than half a mile wide for most of that, Anna Maria is shared by three separately governed communities -- rather grandly called "cities" -- each with a distinct personality that reflects a different era of Old Florida.

The city of Anna Maria, a tree-shaded settlement on the northern end with a population of 1,876, was the site of the island's first homestead in 1893 and retains much of its turn-of-the-last-century origins. Clustered around Pine Street are a handful of houses, made of blocks of coquina, a common early building material in western Florida that incorporates seashells. They date from the first, short-lived real-estate boom, between 1910 and 1916. The nondenominational Roser Church, built with some of the Fig Newton fortune in 1913, lends the village center its naive, pioneer charm.

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