A bit of old-fashioned Fla.
ANNA MARIA, Fla. - We spread our beach towels between two abandoned sand castles - their turrets and battlements undercut by a tide that had long since receded - sipped wine, and waited for the sun to set over the Gulf of Mexico. Others gathered on the quiet, uncrowded beach in anticipation. Two paunchy men of retirement age stood in calf-deep water and cast fishing lines into the surf. A family sat at water's edge, wavelets nibbling at their toes, while one of their kids searched the band of tiny shells at the high-tide line for a perfect specimen. There were no jugglers, performing cats, or vendors hawking refreshments. As the sun slid toward the horizon, a cargo ship headed out to sea from the Port of Tampa, its silhouette gliding across a sky that was changing from pale blue to pale gold. We drank more wine and ate cheese and olives as the sky turned a deeper gold and the sun narrowed to a line on the horizon. Then it was gone. We lingered in the dusk, savoring the unaccustomed stillness. Anna Maria is the antithesis of the modern Florida resort. An island off the city of Bradenton, it has no chain hotels and none more than two floors high; you're unlikely to find room service at most, but many rooms have kitchens. The island has just one chain restaurant that I could find - Domino's - and only a scattering of souvenir shops.Although it offers tourists plenty of recreational opportunities - parasailing, snorkeling and three fishing piers - Anna Maria's real allure is its laid-back ambience. As in Key West, watching the sun go down is the highlight of the day. But the scene here is nothing like the southernmost isles. "I came in search of paradise and found it a haven," a tourist from England had written in the guestbook at Bungalow Beach Resort. "Don't sell out to the condominium developers!" someone else wrote. It took us only until our first sunset on the island to appreciate that serenity. I had done my homework and found plenty of places to visit: the Ringling art and circus museums in nearby Sarasota; the fish market in Cortez; Sarasota's Myakka River State Park, where you can observe wildlife from an airboat or a trail hike; and the Parker Manatee Aquarium just across the causeway in Bradenton, where Snooty, the oldest manatee in captivity, lives. We never got to any of them. We read and played backgammon by the pool, swam, sat on the beach, debated which restaurant to try next, chatted with local anglers fishing off a public pier, and took a lazy tour of the island on the free trolley. One day we drove by the Historical Society's museum, but it was closed, so we just ogled the roofless one-room jail next door, long unused: "No roof, no doors, no windows, no bars, no guests for years and years," was painted on the tiny building. I got up early one morning to take a walk on the Coquina BayWalk at Leffis Key, a small nature preserve at the south end of the island. My feet clomped on the boardwalks and crunched loudly on trails paved with sun-bleached shells, scaring every bird and fish into hiding. I drove across the bridge to the more touristy Longboat Key in secret hopes of finding a Starbucks, but I was out of luck. Such are the tradeoffs for the charms of an island that has stubbornly resisted becoming a modern resort. One day, we took the trolley to the weathered and gray Anna Maria City Pier, which will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2010. Fifteen or 20 men and boys and a lone woman fished off the end of the pier. Four fish, each perhaps a foot long, lay at the feet of a boy who looked about 12. "They're red mackerels," he said, and yes, he planned to eat them. Inside the City Pier Restaurant, we saw but couldn't hear the excitement as a man grabbed his bobbing line. He fought, but then the line went slack. "It was a shark," he said afterward. "Someone said it looked like a tigertail." At City Pier Jewelry - a large table set up in a breezeway outside the restaurant - I bought a gator-tooth pendant, wrapped in silver wire, as a souvenir of this slice of Old Florida. In the off-season, most restaurants close at 9 p.m., a fact of life no one had warned us about and that was hard for late-dining Miamians like us to grasp. Twice, we arrived a few minutes after 9 p.m., only to find the restaurants closed. The first time, we drove along darkened streets until we stumbled on the Waterfront, near the foot of the City Pier, and lucked out with its creative, eclectic menu. The second time, a sheriff's deputy came to our assistance - clearly he had seen hungry tourists in our plight before. "Hurricane Hank's serves until 10," he offered. "It's by the only stoplight in town. You can't miss it." On our last night, we again took our wine bottle out to the beach and awaited the sunset on chaise longues set behind clumps of sea oats. I walked out to the high-tide line, marked by a wide band of tiny shells. The sand was smooth around them as if no one had picked through them yet. I found a perfect shell with red and orange markings about the size of my fingertip and presented it to my husband. "Mmm," he said, noncommittally, clearly unappreciative of this miniature beauty. I sat next to him and watched the people around us. A fisherman reeled in his line and proudly strutted up the beach, showing off a fish about 15 inches long. Two twentysomethings played a sort of tennis with ping-pong paddles, laughing as they ran back and forth on the sand. The sky darkened from pale orange to gold, and the sun sank below the horizon. On a nearby chaise, a woman snapped a picture with her cell phone, then dialed. "You just missed the most beautiful sunset," she said into the phone. Then she picked up her drink, sank back into the chaise, and watched the sea oats sway, silhouetted against the golden sky.