I’ve visited Florida’s Gulf Coast many times, writes Ruth Brindle.
It’s a favourite destination of mine, but I’ve always been searching for that perfect place in the sun, that little bit of paradise that has the best of both worlds – a laid back, unhurried atmosphere, perfect beach and sea plus a smattering of great dining and fun things to do. Now I’ve found it.
After a few days of full-on activity in the theme parks of Orlando, my husband and I set off for the coast and, while many Brits head for Clearwater and St Petersburg, Nick and I were keen to go further south to one of the Gulf’s barrier islands, Anna Maria.
Just two and a half hours from Orlando, this is near enough to the mainland to be connected by bridges, and makes a perfect retreat.
Anna Maria is seven miles long and in places you can even see from one side to the other. The sea is an inviting light green and the laid-back lifestyle feels like going back in time.
There are no high-rise buildings – three stories is the highest allowed, with white sand, clear waters, relaxed dining, superb seafood and the chance to do, well, absolutely nothing.
On our first visit to the island two years ago we stayed in a spotless and spacious, tropical-themed apartment at the Tortuga Inn Beach Resort (www.annamariaislandresorts.net) which overlooked the bay area and was just across the road from its own private beach.
With a large sitting room, lanai, large kitchen, utility room and even, my favourite, a spa bath, we felt pampered. You can also choose motel rooms here, and studios.
But we opted for the ultimate beach base in the penthouse apartment of sister property named, appropriately enough, Seaside.
Now luxury is different for each of us and it’s often difficult to define in accommodation, but, for me, the sheer luxury of an uninterrupted sea view through floor to ceiling windows and a purely private space on the beach with my own designated, cushioned lounger is luxury indeed. The ultimate chill-out zone.
This is definitely not a party island – quiet time between 10pm and 7am is written in law!
But it is a haven for US and Canadian ‘snowbirds’ – those lucky, retired older generation who come down for extended stays in the sun during the worst of the winter months.
That makes peak season here from mid-February to April, and not the summer months.
The apartment is the ideal place to watch the spectacular sunsets each evening. This is not only enjoyable, but a virtual commandment here on the island with one beachfront restaurant running a regular competition to guess the exact time the sun goes down.
Any number of excellent, casual eateries – such as the Beach House, The Sandbar or Bridge Street Bistro offer a ringside seat for this daily marvel, but make sure you book, as everyone has the same idea!
Then immerse yourself in the full panorama of pink and orange hues while sipping your wine and tucking into the freshest of seafood such as grouper, snapper, swordfish or coconut shrimp, steak or many other filling delights.
For a breakfast on the beach we had only a short walk to the Gulf Drive Café and Tiki, where I had fresh fish for breakfast too and we shared a plate of hot pancakes, the size of which threatened to defeat us both.
But the Tortuga Inn has a very handy place to eat, too – operated by chefs from the Island Crêperie on Bridge Street, another place to find small shops and more restaurants on the island.
Le Petit Café Tortuga offers takeaway breakfast, specializing in crêpes, lunchtime paninis, salads, and desserts as well as classic French-inspired main meals for the evening. It’s a great way to eat well if you don’t want to book a restaurant or cook for yourself.
But if you do want to go exploring and don’t want to drive, the free trolley service runs the length of the island, every 20 minutes, or as near as ‘island time’ allows.
This excellent service was the idea of businessman and owner of Anna Maria Island Resorts, David Teitelbaum.
Money from the trolley’s advertising goes to local charities within the close-knit community. And whenever you visit the island there is likely to be a community event going on.
Anna Maria’s first ever chalk festival was a great diversion from the delights of the beach with artists from all over the US creating art works on the road along Pine Avenue accompanied by music, food and fun pirate activities for the young at heart.
This was also an opportunity to have a look around the many small, independent shops in the area.
At AMI Outfitters I met lovely couple Steve and Yetta Traves, who have everything you need for the outdoor life here in Florida – clothes to protect you from all elements of the sun, clothes to go fishing in, fishing gear – even kayaks and paddle boards.
Steve, a former professional photographer and outdoor industry expert, told me he takes parties on fly-fishing trips and even yoga sessions on paddle boards. Great for those with good core muscles!
Just like me he and his wife had come to Anna Maria on holiday, loved it, and couldn’t wait to get back.
Now they live close by on the mainland and run a thriving store in a charming, former 1930s ‘kit’ home and it was here that I booked a fishing trip, something I’d been dying to do.
Steve came out, together with Captain Bill Ware Jr on the Damn Yankee. This is a great boat both for the less salty seafarer such as myself and the experienced fisherman alike as it is comfortable, has shelter and even a loo.
Bill takes four, six and eight-hour trips to spots he knows you’ll find fish in abundance. Other fishermen have been known to follow him to the hot locations.
We headed an hour out, which is seven miles from the island, and stopped over a man-made reef.
Bill cast out for me using live shrimp and small fish as bait and, after a time of just ‘feeding’ the fish without hooking them, I started to get the hang of this sea angling lark and pulled in some beauties.
Some, like the 10Ib Gag Grouper I battled to pull in, had to be put back in the sea as, they were not big enough to be ‘keepers’ and stocks have to be replenished.
My aim was to bring in enough Key West snapper for our fish supper that night. You can’t get fresher than that.
But I was also excited to catch a baby shark and a Puffer fish. Bill is used to much bigger specimens, but I was more than happy.
Bill filleted my brace of snapper himself, watched eagerly by some hungry-looking egrets back at the marina and then Nick and I set off for the Mar Vista Restaurant and Pub, a touch of ‘old Florida’ set in a pretty setting on the back bay of Longboat Key, where I handed them over for them to prepare.
It seemed a bit presumptuous to ask the chef to cook fish he hadn’t bought himself, but apparently this is a common practice on the island.
A short while later we were presented with our family-style meal with basket loads of fries and other goodies and, of course, our melt-in-the-mouth fish. Fantastic, and only a very short drive back to our accommodation.
In fact, nowhere is far away here. And with one main road you can’t get lost. A couple of minutes’ drive from the apartment is a big Publix supermarket for all your self-catering needs and lots of small shops dotted around the island.
There are three separate areas on the island, Bradenton Beach in the south, where Seaside sits closest to the waves, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria itself with its 100-year-old city pier.
You can explore the island on foot, on a bike, and even by kayak. As well as my fishing trip I ventured out in a kayak with my guide Captain Scott, on a gentle and relaxing trip along the island’s man-made canal and out into the bay, watched by some bored-looking, but ever-present pelicans.
We spotted a white ibis, plenty of jumping fish and heron along the way. But Scott told me he has also often spotted dolphins.
But you can’t come to Florida without indulging in some outlet shopping which we found just 20 minutes’ drive away on the mainland at Ellenton Premium Outlets.
Get your fill of bargains from 130 stores, everything from jeans and trainers to designer watches. Not a rival to Orlando’s offering of malls, but well worth a visit.
Stocking up on jeans and trainers was an unwelcome reminder that we were soon to fly home to a cold and grey welcome. It was so hard to leave this gorgeous barrier island. But we’ll be back.
The well-kept secret is out. But, please, keep it to yourself, as we don’t want Anna Maria to get too crowded!
To find out more about the four Anna Maria Island Resorts’ properties and how to book your stay direct at – Tortuga Inn, Seaside, Tropic Isle or Tradewinds, visit, www.annamariaislandresorts.net
A package for seven nights at Seaside Beach Resort on Anna Maria Island costs from £1,425 per person based on two people sharing on a room-only basis, including return international flights on British Airways from London Heathrow to Tampa and car hire. Valid for departures in May 2014. For more information or to book, visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com or call 020 8742 8299.
For more information on the area, visit: www.bradentongulfislands.com and www.VISITFLORIDA.com for information on the Sunshine State.
To book a fishing trip, contact AMI Outfitters Coastal Gear & Apparel. Captain Bill’s trips are booked through the shop, and the booking service is free. Damn Yankee Charter rates are: $450 (£270) for four hours, $650 (£390) for six hours and $850 (£508) for eight hours, for up to four people, www.facebook.com/AMIOutfitters, www.amioutfitters.com