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 boys, Jack, 10, and Benjamin, seven – immediately threw swimming suits and flip-fops into a suitcase and planned our escape to Anna Maria Island, a 7½-mile stretch of land of the Gulf Coast of Florida.
The island boasts a bounty of beach bungalows for rent, where cribs, highchairs, bikes, and even golf carts can be rented and ready before arrival. After flying into Tampa, we drove a scenic hour south to Anna Maria Island, where we promptly parked, boarded tandem bikes that Beach Bums had stowed in our garage 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 – the choice for my shell-collector, Benjamin – to Coquina Beach in the south – where Jack loved scooping up tiny 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 the sand on Anna Maria Island is whiter than what you’ll find in Montego Bay, Grand Cayman, or Cozumel.
We soon found the simple life agreed with us. My boys spent the week in their swimmers, while my husband and I needed just a fresh pair of shorts before wandering into any of the local beachside restaurants where we watched the waves as seafood melted in our mouths. Rod and Reel was our favorite, perched at the end of a pier frequented by dolphins and manatees.
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 of treetop rope swings, climbing nets, bridges, and zip lines.
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 on a canal leading to the Gulf. We paddled through a mangrove forest and paused at a bird rookery, heavily populated with herons, egrets, osprey, pelicans, and even parrots. And none of us could believe our luck when we witnessed a pod of dolphins playing 15ft away in the gentle waters of Tampa Bay. Our guide was a knowledgeable local with loads of stories and suggestions. He tipped us off to the ‘secret’ sidewalk at the west end of Oak Street where gopher turtles like to burrow, and sent us to the Cortez fishing village for a look at old Florida, where the Star Fish Co. and Tide Tables serve seafood fresh of the boat.
On quieter days, we wandered the Robinson Nature Preserve, roamed the Village of the Arts, and explored the boutiques on Pine Avenue. 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 university, 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 loved watching manatees swimming and eating up close in the rehabilitation facility.
We finished of 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 at Wildlife Inc., the on-site rehabilitation and wildlife preserve.