The 'Old Florida' feel of Anna Maria Island

Island visitors leave behind rowdy crowds, high-rise condos and Starbucks.

ByABC News
December 11, 2008, 9:48 PM

ANNA MARIA ISLAND, Fla. -- "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.