Idyllic beach hideaway: Anna Maria Island, Florida

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Simple living is an appealing trend: shed stuff, gain peace. In the midst of school runs, long work days, and household chores, I found myself wishing for the simple life. Then, I happened across a quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh: One learns first of all in beach living the art of shedding; how little one can get along with, not how much. My husband and I – along with our two boys Jack (10) and Benjamin (7) – immediately threw swimming suits and flip flops into a suitcase and planned our escape to Anna Maria Island, a seven-and-a-half mile stretch of land off the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Anna Maria Island boasts a bounty of beach bungalows for rent, where cribs, high chairs, bikes, and even golf carts can be rented and ready to go before arrival. After flying into Tampa, we drove a scenic hour south to Anna Maria Island where we promptly parked the car, boarded tandem bikes that Beach Bums had neatly stowed in our garage ahead of time and cruised to the beach in time for sunset.

Afternoons at the various beaches on the island were a family favorite, from Bean Point in the north — which was the choice for my shell-collector Benjamin — to Coquina Beach in the south – where Jack loved scooping up the tiny coquina clams and watching them burrow back into the silky smooth sand. The sand was like talcum powder, and as a collector of sand from various beaches, I can confirm that the sand on Anna Maria Island is whiter than what you’ll find in Montego Bay, Grand Cayman, or Cozumel.

Sea, sunsets and family: loving the simple life

We quickly found the simple life agreed with us. My boys spent the week in their swimming kit, while my husband and I needed only a fresh pair of shorts before wandering in to any number of local beachside restaurants where we could watch the waves as the seafood melted in our mouths. Rod and Reel was our favorite, perched at the end of a pier frequented by dolphins and manatees. If you like fishing, bring your rod because you can fish right off the dock before heading in for some grouper.

To satisfy their sweet tooth, our boys requested multiple trips to Two Scoops for freshly churned ice cream as well as the Donut Experiment that served up out-of-this-world cake donuts made fresh while we waited and finished with our choice of glaze and toppings. Ginny’s and Jane E’s had the best brownies I’ve ever tasted and a gift shop full of quirky art by local artists.

Trying the Donut Experiment

Anna Maria Island and nearby Bradenton also boast plenty of family-friendly activities for thrill seekers. Our whole family loved Tree Umph! Adventure Course, an obstacle course complete with treetop rope swings, climbing nets, wonky bridges, and zip lines. Jack felt like Tarzan climbing through the treetops with his dad, while Benjamin and I stayed on the children’s adventure course which offered just the right amount of thrill without the spill.

To get some vitamin sea, we went on a tandem kayak tour with Beach Bums around Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island’s version of Venice, where every home sits upon a canal leading to the Gulf. We paddled through a mangrove forest and paused at a bird rookery, which was heavily populated with herons, egrets, osprey, pelicans, and even Amazon and African Grey parrots. None of us could believe our luck when we witnessed a pod of dolphins playing fifteen feet away in the gentle waters of Tampa Bay. Our tour guide was a knowledgeable local with loads of stories and suggestions for attractions on the road less traveled. He tipped us off to the secret path at the west end of Oak Street where Gopher Turtles like to burrow, and he sent us to the Cortez fishing village for a look at old Florida, where the Starfish Company and Tide Tables serve the choicest seafood fresh off the boat.

On quieter days we wandered the Robinson Nature Preserve, roamed the Village of the Arts, and explored the boutiques on Pine Avenue, called the greenest little main street in America, due to the LEED certified buildings and shell pathways. Here the boys painted sand dollars at the Shiny Fish Emporium while I visited Poppo’s Taqueria more times than I’d like to admit for the homemade tortillas and honey-lime slaw.

Since my husband and I both teach at universities, we couldn’t resist a little local culture. At the South Florida Museum, we were impressed with the Paleo-Indian and Cortez exhibits, and our boys were overjoyed to watch manatees swimming and eating up close in the rehabilitation facility.

Meeting a local at Wildlife, Inc.

What a thrill! Paddling beside a pod of dolphins

We finished off our trip with a visit to Mixon Fruit Farms, a family-owned orchard where visitors can sample fresh orange juice, ride a tractor through the orchard, and pet an alligator housed with Wildlife, Inc., the onsite rehabilitation and wildlife preserve.

This is our family’s new favorite beach hideaway, where the locals treated us like we were tourists they enjoyed having and the weather remains mild year round. In fact, no hurricane has made landfall since 1950, which one local attributed to the prehistoric Native American burial mounds on the island. The next time we’re ready to shed our worries and responsibilities in favor of peace, fun, and family time, we’ll be back to the laidback vibe of beach living on Anna Maria Island.

The lowdown

Anna Maria Island

How to get there: British Airways flies direct from London to Tampa, with return flights from £472 per person. The Bradenton area is just a 45 minute drive from Tampa airport.

Alternatively, land just 15 minutes from the beach and fly straight in to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, with a flight from London via Atlanta with Delta from £702 per person.

Where to stay: Discover the best Bradenton and Anna Maria rentals

What to do: See the best things to do with kids in Bradenton

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