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Good Holiday Ideas | August 20, 2017

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Florida at its finest

Florida at its finest
James Hill

Nigel Blundell, fishing rod in hand, files from one of the world’s beauty spots.

The causeways that jut out from the Florida mainland and island-hop westward over a series of bridges are a magical scene-setter for what lies along the state’s Gulf Coast.

The string of keys (not to be confused with the more famous Florida Keys pointing southward towards the Caribbean) face the sunset, with nothing between them and Mexico 1,500 miles away.

There’s Marco and Sanibel Islands, Siesta and Longboat Keys, among many stretching from the Everglades to Tampa Bay. But the gem on this necklace of glittering silver sand is, to my mind, the tiny northern tip named Anna Maria.

It’s a laid-back picture-postcard paradise that has studiously avoided the over-development that has taken the magic out of some of its southern neighbours.

The lifestyle of Anna Maria Island is un-showy, with restricted low-rise, pastel-painted, wooden, clapboard-faced homes. The mode of transport is bicycle or the free trolley buses that run the isle’s seven-mile length.

Less than 100 yards wide in parts, Anna Maria Island, with a population of under 10,000, gets quieter the further north one stays. At that top end, the most exciting pastime is to laze away the day at the end of one of the two wooden piers, possibly casting a fishing line while watching the wildlife circle around you.

I’ve sat at the end of century-old City Pier with a fishing rod in one hand and a beer in the other, with a pelican standing on one side of me and a heron on the other, watching a pod of dolphins frolic only a few yards in front of me.

It is amazing to think that this slender slither of land south of St Petersburg is only an hour’s drive from Tampa Airport but a million miles from the more bustling delights of the Sunshine State. This is Florida without Disney – and I’m not taking the Mickey when I say that it has been voted one of the 30 top islands in the entire world in an international survey of travel experts.

Getting to Anna Maria is now extra-easy thanks to British Airways direct flights from Gatwick to Tampa. Once on the island, there are plenty of small hostelries but my recommendation is easygoing White Sands Resort, family run for decades and sitting right on the beach. Or for vacation apartment rentals, talk to the friendly island experts at Sato Reality, just by City Pier.
So if you fancy laid-back Florida far from the theme parks, hop over to paradise, hire a bike and a fishing rod and join me on that very pier. The joint may not be jumpin’ … but the fish surely will be!

WHAT YOU’LL SEE…

WILD LIVING: Depending on the time of year you visit, you may see:

  • Pods of dolphins, all year round.
  • Manatees, right from the shore.
  • Turtle Nests – from May to October, you’ll see beach areas roped off to encourage mother sea turtles to venture onto the shore to build their nests and lay their eggs. There are early-morning Turtle Watch tours that celebrate this annual tradition.
  • Nesting birds – roped-off areas for nesting Black Skimmers, Least Terns and Sanderlings.
  • Bald Eagles, Osprey, Pelicans and Seagulls.
  • Sand Dollars, a type of flattened sea urchin, are in the Gulf. It’s fun to dive for them but please leave them there – they’ll die if out of the water for more than a couple of minute.

And, of course, sand as fine as white pepper, a myriad shells to collect and clear turquoise water.

For more info about Anna Maria Island, check out Bradenton Area Convention Centre () and Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce ()

British Airways flies direct Gatwick to Tampa from £494 return, including all taxes and charges  or 0844 493 0787.

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