Sunday, March 6, 2011

Florida Part One (Beyond Disney World): Anna Maria Island

OK, I think Disney World is a wonderful place to go on a family vacation. However, Florida has far more to offer than the well known amusement parks that have made this American State a popular family destination. There are beautiful places to go where your family can spend idyllic days on the beach, encounter wildlife or enjoy "Old Florida Charm". 

So, if waiting in long queues and chain restaurants are not for you, but you are interested in visiting the Sunshine State, then check out Anna Maria Island. In December 2009, my family, my parents and my brother and sister-in-law spent a week on this lovey Florida island and had a "magical" time.  Anna Maria Island is a barrier island on the west coast of Florida -- it is a beautiful island that features clean, crystal white beaches that have the consistency of icing sugar, lovely homes and great restaurants. Bonus -- if you do want to visit the Magic Kingdom, it's only a 2 and a half hour drive.

There are many vacation rental companies on the island. We used Island Real Estate and were impressed by both their helpfulness and professionalism. The home we rented was 4808A Gulf Drive. The home was beautiful, immaculately clean, had a small but very warm and well maintained pool and good size bedrooms for the entire family (my parents, my husband and I, my brother and sister-in-law and the two kids). It was also a very short walk to the beach (30 seconds?). On the downside we found the front bedrooms to be a little loud as they faced the street. The noise was just street traffic, but not something that we are used to living in the wilds of Sudbury, Ontario where our noise is either wind, loons or frogs. I also found the bed we slept in a little uncomfortable.

Anna Maria Island's nearest airports are Tampa Bay and Sarasota (Sarsota is the closest airport -- Air Canada often has direct flights to Sarasota from Toronto). My family and I flew into Tampa Bay, and it took just over an hour to arrive at our rental home from the airport.

The food is not memorable, but the view is incredible. The restaurant is surrounded by windows so there is not a bad seat in the entire establishment. Lots of people fishing off the pier -- I believe you can rent fishing equipment from the restaurant. Great opportunity to view some of the seabirds. Great place to take the kids.

My Mum, sister-in-law and I tried to eat at this restaurant on a very busy Saturday night. According to the Beach Bistro website, it is rated by Zagat’s as one of the “Top Restaurants in America” and is lauded by the guide for “the best food on the Gulf Coast". Unfortunately, we neglected to make reservations so were unable to get a table. The restaurant looked very nice and the food smelled amazing. Obviously, it's rated highly by Zagat's for a reason.

We went here for an adult only meal. It's a quirky place, but completely charming. The food was lovely, though the portions tend to be on the larger size. 

Publix is a typical chain super market. There was one within walking distance to our rental house.

The Fish Market is an amazing, well, fish market. We bought beautiful shrimp, salmon and great local grouper. Should be a must do while on Anna Maria Island.

Mote Aquarium
Located in Sarasota, the Mote Aquarium is only a short drive from Anna Maria Island. The Aquarium features sharks, dolphins and lots of beautiful fish. My kids loved it, and it was also enjoyable for the adults.  

My husband, Dad, brother and oldest son went to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Great time had by all...and my husband was thrilled that my oldest son's first NHL game featured Sidney Crosby. 

Located on Longboat Key, St. Armand's Circle is a great place for shopping, eating and people watching. Approximately a half hour drive from Anna Maria Island, the scenic route down Gulf Drive South will take you past some pretty spectacular homes.

Seashell Collecting
Anna Maria Island is full of beautiful seashells. My sons spent many hours collecting them (and so did the adults) to add to sandcastles and other sand creations.

Sand Castle Building
My Dad is an engineer, so my sons spent many days building huge castles with moats and dams and other contraptions with "Poppa".

Bike Riding
We rented my son his first two wheeler (ever) on Anna Maria Island. He was thrilled to ride it and I was happy to let him as drivers do not seem to be in a rush and were cognizant of the pedestrian traffic. 

Anna Maria BayFront Park
Great playground to take the kids, if looking for something else to do. The Park features a children's play structure, picnic tables, pavilions (for rent), grills, washrooms and showers. The park is located at 316 North Bay Boulevard.


Fun and More Rentals
A fabulous rental company! Not only can you rent baby equipment, you can also rent bikes, beach equipment, kayaks as well as order food for delivery. We used this company to rent bikes, which included both adult bikes, a small child's bike plus a bike trailer for two kids. We also used their food delivery service which allowed us to relax our first day knowing we had diapers, breakfast food and other needed supplies. It was a pleasure to work with this very professional company.

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