Manatee County’s two barrier islands, Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, offer a taste of Old Florida charm that’s fast disappearing. Instead of fast food franchises, mega strip malls with neon lit T-shirt shops and walls of condominiums blocking the ocean view, these two islands offer secluded beaches and real towns where people live year round.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of choices for snowbirds and tourists. But don’t look for cookie-cutter resorts and hotels. Seasonal and short-term accommodations blend in with the residential ambiance.
In recent years, the islands’ pristine beaches have drawn an ever-increasing number of international snowbirds. Anna Maria is divided into three towns — Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and the city of Anna Maria. The northern half of Longboat Key is home to the Village of Longboat, with its cluster of tabby block houses from the 1920s. Here’s a list of attractions deserving of exploration:
BEAN POINT: Bean Point sits at the northernmost tip of Anna Maria Island. Look for the narrow trail on North Shore Drive that marks the beach access. Wander through the pines and over the dunes to one of the most breath-taking views to be found of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
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ANNA MARIA PIER: This Old Florida pier is at the eastern end of Pine Avenue in the city of Anna Maria. By day a fisherman’s delight and by night a romantic spot to watch the sun set.
HISTORICAL SOCIETY PARK: The Anna Maria Historical Society park, also on Pine Avenue, tells the story of what the island looked like nearly a century ago.
LEFFIS KEY: Leffis Key, a county park across from Coquina Beach on the south end of Anna Maria, offers nature walks down shell paths and boardwalks along a natural seashore fringed with mangroves. An observation tower offers views of Sarasota Bay and beyond.
BEER CAN ISLAND: Beer Can Island, best approached by boat, is the curved beach that extends from the northern tip of Longboat Key across from Coquina Beach. Unspoiled, its surreal landscape of twisted driftwood and towering pines makes it look like a castaway island.
PARASAILING: Parasailing along Bradenton Beach: Strap into a harness and take sail over the Gulf of Mexico. Several beachside concessions offer the thrilling rides.
ANNA MARIA ART LEAGUE: The Anna Maria Island Art League Center, 5312 Holmes Blvd. in Holmes Beach, includes a large exhibit/classroom, membership gallery/conference room, photo lab, art library and picnic grounds.
LONGBOAT KEY CENTER FOR THE ARTS: Located in a tropical setting at the corner of Longboat Drive South and Hibiscus Way, it offers a wide range of classes and art exhibits.