Drink in the laid-back atmosphere of Old Florida

In the second part of a two-centre break on the Sunshine State’s Gulf coast, Ruth Brindle explores Anna Maria Island’s maritime history..

In Tampa the Cuban connection makes for exciting nightlife, superb dining and the historic area of Ybor City. But just a 45-minute drive south to Anna Maria Island I was surprised to find that this gorgeous and quiet piece of land in the Gulf of Mexico has its own story of a link with Cuba.

I make no secret of the fact that I love it here. But on my latest trip I had time to delve a little into its past.

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One of the many reasons why visitors come to Florida is the superb seafood. You can eat it in restaurants, buy it from the vast fish counters in the supermarket, but more fascinating is to buy it super fresh and straight off the fishing boats of nearby Cortez village. Just across the Cortez Bridge, one of two used to get on and off the island, is Cortez itself, a working fishing village.

Taking the time to wander around I discovered the fascinating Florida Maritime Museum housed in a former schoolhouse. There’s a wonderful shell collection and many seafaring artefacts to illustrate how the native Calusa Indians once used dugout canoes to fish in these abundant waters. Later Cuban fishermen established seasonal camps or Ranchos where they dried and salted fish to sell. This was the beginning of the fishing industry that was properly established in the 1880s by fishing families from North Carolina. Well worth a visit.

There are a handful of excellent eateries here serving fish directly off the fishing boats and you can also buy fresh seafood to cook back in your apartment. While I wouldn’t normally know my snapper from my swordfish I settled on generous portions of giant shrimp and grouper. As I was cooking later it I realised I might have overestimated our hunger, but it was delicious and memorable and a fraction of the price of going out to eat.

I was also lucky to visit the annual local Stone Crab Festival in Cortez to enjoy a few tasty claws and enjoy the music and fun stalls at the same time.

Anna Maria, this Gulf gem is just seven miles long and at some points so narrow you can see from one side to the other. Its beaches with pure white sand and its old Florida charm with no high rise buildings or chain restaurants are a magnet for both winter travelling ‘snowbirds’ as well as families looking for laid-back holidays.

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Staying right on the beach with sand and sea just steps away is always the ideal and the family-owned Bungalow Beach Resort on Bradenton Beach added charm to the equation.

These sympathetically and prettily converted bungalows offer a little oasis of peace and tranquility and some strategically placed loungers from which to watch those all-important sunsets. Small touches such as leaving your dirty towels out in a quaint wicker basket are fun too.

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Amazingly there are three local government areas on the island, but all areas are united in setting ‘quiet’ rules that apply after 10pm and until 7am. If you are looking for all-night partying this is not for you, but it’s precisely why others, like me, love it.

In recent years, just as in Tampa, dining out is becoming ever more sophisticated. One of the island’s favourite venues is the Beach House, which enjoyed a major refurbishment in spring 2017. Sit inside or out to enjoy the beach view while you eat.

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On Anna Maria’s Coquina Beach and park we were also lucky enough to attend one of the most sought-after events of the autumn – Symphony on the Sand. It’s a fundraiser where you can choose to buy a ticket for a sit-down meal or just bring your beach chair along to enjoy the excellent musical treats from classical to pop.

Featuring the Anna Maria Island Concert Chorus and Orchestra it was at times a really moving event as tribute was paid to America’s servicemen and women. The standard of entertainment was wonderful. As the sun went down and I sipped a glass of bubbly, it was magical and truly classy, which in a nutshell also sums up Anna Maria Island itself.

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Where to shop

The two main shopping streets are Pine Avenue at the northern end of the island (Anna Maria) and Bridge Street at Bradenton Beach. Here you can browse the independent shops, stop and eat and also enjoy the water views of the back bay. There are also many other eateries and shops near the island’s central marina. Along Pine Avenue learn about the Anna Maria Island Historic Green Village with award-winning energy efficient credentials. Enjoy a coffee at the excellent café.

Where to eat

There’s something for all tastes and pockets, apart from any chain restaurants. The ultimate combo is to dine beachside and enjoy the spectacular sunset – the Beach House and Sandbar restaurants offer this, but tables are much in demand. Better to watch the sunset on the beach, then go and eat! Americans like to eat early, so you can beat the crowds. We also loved the Blue Marlin Grill in Bridge Street. Beautiful dishes, sometimes with a twist – even Brussels sprouts. A great place to eat breakfast is Anna Maria island Beach Café on popular Manatee Beach where you can feast on all-you-can-eat pancakes. Just over half an hour’s drive south towards Sarasota is the upmarket shopping area of St Armands Circle. Here you can indulge in authentic Cuban food at another Columbia Restaurant if you missed the chance to visit the main restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa.

What to do

I enjoyed a fun but rainy dolphin watching trip in the back bay with Paradise Boat Tours. I learnt from Captain Mike and Erin that there’s a non-migratory group of dolphins here 160 to 180 strong one of only two places in the world where this happens. The oldest Nicolo is 68 years-old and has a white fin tip. On the 90-minute trip I also learned that Cortez was once known to be the home of Michael ‘Bugsy’ Moran, Dale ‘Murph Murphy and Frank ‘Billy’ Tyne Jr, three of the six crew members lost aboard the Andrea Gail, a true story told vividly in the 1991 film Perfect Storm.

Also enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, fishing and many other watersports on the island. Get your equipment from a number of outlets around the island including Beach Bums in Pine Avenue.

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How to get around

Hire a golf buggy or a bike to make getting around easier, there’s also the free island trolley which is excellent. Call up the Monkey Bus, with a slightly hippy vibe, and travel door to door for the cost of a tip.

For details about Bradenton and Anna Maria, visit www.bradentongulfislands.com

For more information on Tampa, visit www.visittampabay.com

How to get there

Prices from £1,289 per person for a 10-night holiday staying in Tampa and Anna Maria Island. Price includes direct flights from London Gatwick to Tampa, room only accommodation based on 2 adults and economy car hire for the duration. Travel in June 2018. Subject to availability. For more information or to book call 020 3355 2957 or visit www.myamericaholiday.co.uk

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