The 'Old Florida' feel of Anna Maria Island

"Please be sweet and rinse your feet," hand-painted signs over troughs of water outside rooms at the beachfront, 23-unit Cedar Cove Resort & Cottages gently urge.

Tanned owner Eric Cairns makes his rounds in Jimmy Buffett-style tropical shirts and oversees the resort's "Queen for Your Stay" program, in which the name of a lucky woman staying a week or more is picked from a hat. She gets a crown, massage and other royal perks during her visit.

Down the 7-mile stretch of white sand on the Gulf of Mexico, waves lap and sea oats sway in the dunes. Two bridal parties and a few dozen tourists assemble by The Sandbar lounge/restaurant for Anna Maria's nightly rituals: sunset weddings and guessing which minute the red orb will drop below the horizon. The Sandbar winner typically gets a bottle of Champagne (dessert or T shirts for teetotalers).

Unlike similar sunset celebrations in Florida tourist meccas such as Key West, there are no rowdy crowds, wall-to-wall bars or panhandlers. Also absent on Anna Maria are high-rise condos and chain hotels. You'll have to drive off-island for a McDonald's or Starbucks fix.

"We've been all over Florida, but we love Anna Maria Island because it's so oldy-worldy," says Glynis Bayles of England, who is here with her husband, Robert, a retiree. Europeans and the value-minded favor this getaway, where low-rise is the rule. (Just one condo complex stands more than three stories high, and no more tall buildings are allowed.)

In the age of $400-a-night beachfront resorts and mondo-condo high rises, it's hard to find an unassuming, wallet-friendly "Old Florida" vacation spot. Anna Maria, an easy drive from Tampa and Sarasota and just north of more developed Longboat Key, is one of few remaining. It's just 7 miles long and has about 8,000 permanent residents.

Those who own the mostly modest cottages or return to stay year after year in no-frills mom-and-pop lodgings (rates at some oceanfront ones start below $100) include millionaires who love the laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Some live at the ritzier north end of the island, where you might see herons crossing the road undisturbed.

Residents and visitors gather for lattes at Ginny's and Jane E's, a funky cafe/store in a former IGA grocery owned by two sisters. Chatting with a stream of friends at the cash register, co-owner Ginny Dutton, 62, grins from under the brim of her pink baseball cap and explains the eclectic jumble of antiques, purses from Bali and works by local artists. "I have dreams at night about where to place things, and what (color) to paint" the whimsically hued shop.

"There's a spirit here," she says, explaining what made her exit the broadcast ad-sales rat race in New York, Boston, Chicago and L.A. and put down roots here 15 years ago. "I can run a business and look at the Gulf of Mexico and stand on my tippy-toes and see Tampa Bay."

Local historians can't say for sure how the island got its name — one theory is that it was named by a Spanish explorer — but Anna Maria was settled by a homesteader named George Emerson Bean in the late 19th century. Home sites were hacked out of jungle; residents and visitors came by boat until a bridge was built in the 1920s. In later years, communities here had more success than most in Florida in keeping out developers.

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