A Florida (Sea Turtle) Secret
Why is an island peninsula community of 15,000 residents on the Florida Gulf Coast considered by many to be a best kept secret? Maybe it is unusually accessible subtropical nirvana and a 30-year old Florida Keys charm without going all the way there? Maybe it’s the spectacular sunsets not available on the Atlantic side, or solitude without remoteness sprinkled with secluded beaches, hatching sea turtle egg nests, dolphins, and manatees everywhere?
South of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and north of Sarasota and glitzy Siesta Key, the secluded and cozy barrier island of Anna Maria is ripe with an enriching community of small family businesses, artists, culture, and big-city escapees offering a quirky Mayberry mix among palm trees. The Island’s namesake town of Anna Maria doesn’t even have any fast food or convenience franchises, chain stores, high rises, or even a stoplight.
With easy bike riding, friendly people, exemplary dining opportunities, and a free local trolley, it is easy to forget you are within easy reach of Tampa and numerous famous attractions without schlepping all the way to the over-visited south. A word of caution though – if you are prone to excessive scheduling and planning, then this is not the place for you.
The winter and spring throngs do affect the area with a surprising multitude of German-speaking visitors who agree with me. And while not as crowded as other popular Florida destinations, mainland traffic access during this time along the single causeway can occasionally gridlock. Waiting for some popular restaurant seating can be a challenge. For these reasons, northerners may best appreciate this eclectic community during the slow season of June through October.
I know, I know – Florida in the summer? Please. But perceptions of overly-hot experiences do this paradise a great disservice since summer temperatures are no worse than many other North American cities. The Gulf of Mexico is even bluer and warmer then, but more important, that is when the most sea creature action is, with one of the country’s most accessible sea turtle hatching experiences available to visitors during August and September (see sidebar).
A typical lazy day starts out sunny and clear but can have afternoon or evening showers so schedule your outdoor beach time in the mornings and midday. Sea turtle hatching is best experienced just after complete sunset darkness. The most challenging part of your stay might be deciding whether to go anywhere else. If so, then feel free to sprinkle some low maintenance excursions on your vegetative experience among the palms.
Popular choices are detailed below but include the Bradenton science center and planetarium; Siesta Beach (rated one of the world’s best); the Ringling Museum and Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota; St. Armand’s Circle shopping district in Siesta Key, and the Leffis Key Baywalk nature preserve near Coquina Beach. My favorites are the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium which began as the nation’s first shark research center 60 years ago, and Myakka River State Park – Sarasota County’s own smaller version of the Everglades with easy viewing of wild alligators.
When exploring Anna Maria Island, the Gulf of Mexico will be to the west and Tampa Bay and Anna Maria Sound to the east. The best way is by foot and bicycle. Rent some near one of the general stores and beach shops to enjoy the flat and scenic terrain. If you feel adventurous, do it with motorized carts or even roller blades. The prime activity is walking around the beach to soak in the warm and gentle blue waters, beach combing, looking for unique seashells, and of course nature and the critter appreciation. A couple of need-to-know cautions: be careful with the deceptive and dangerous water currents at the northern tip of the island and the midday sun. It may feel the same as up north but rays are near equatorial intensity.
Try your hand at fishing on the Bay’s historic Anna Maria City Pier with a meal at the pier’s over-water restaurant. Almost all accommodations have a pool, and don’t forget to watch the magnificent Gulf sunsets each evening along with everyone else. A hot tip is to observe it from the beach-accessible deck at the Island’s Sandbar restaurant, where guessing the sunset time may net you complimentary drinks. My favorite hangout in the region is the Gulf Drive Cafe & The Kokonut Hut. Why? Go find out.
The Best (but no worst) of Anna Maria
Best one-hour experience – any Jet Ski rental. The friendly staff will direct you to secret and remote dolphin and manatee frolicking areas when not zooming around the Bay on these aquatic motor cycles for about $65 for an hour.
Best adrenaline rush – parasailing (yikes).
Best rainy day activity – Mote Marine Aquarium, Sarasota. Actually part of the Mote Marine Laboratory founded by Dr. Eugenie Clark who is one the most world famous marine biologists and shark researchers in history, this prime experience for naturalists and budding marine biologists is a must for those interested in fish, reefs, sea turtles, marine mammals and science. Children will also like the hands on touch tank.
Second best rainy day activity – the South Florida Museum, Bradenton. Home of Snooty™, the Manatee, born in 1947 and a de facto mascot for the region, this educational complex includes a natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium.
Best fishing without a boat – almost anywhere there is water. The easiest is definitely from either the Bradenton public pier on the Gulf or the Anna Maria city pier on the Bay
Easiest and most exciting outdoor attraction for young and old naturalists – any beach just after sunset in August and September to watch marked sea turtle nests randomly hatch and spill forth willy nilly (this inspired the topics of many of this writer’s subsequent nature tourism features).
Best longer outdoor attraction for budding young and old naturalists – Coquina BayWalk at Leffis Key. Three miles south of Holmes Beach opposite the shaded pine barrens of Coquina Beach, lurks an under-utilized nature preserve of wetland boardwalks and observable wildlife.
Best longest outdoor attraction for budding young and old naturalists – Myakka River State Park, Sarasota County. A smaller version of the Everglades and diverse natural area, this pristine Wild and Scenic River park flows through 45 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands attracting a myriad of wetland creatures. Mingle with wild alligators – but don’t touch!
Best day trip – Egmont Key. Numerous boat charters operate excursions out to this uninhabited Gilligan’s Island jutting out at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Having uncompleted relic walkways and building foundations left over from turn of the century Spanish American War, the place is surreally overrun with large tortoises and lizards. The Bay side of the island has the best snorkeling opportunities in the region among the sea grasses. Just float and look down to catch glimpses of fish and bottom dwellers such as mollusks and rays.
Best local beaches – Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach
Experience the serenity of what Florida was like many years ago off-season. When crowded in winter, parking can be difficult, but well worth the spectacular sunsets.
Best regional public beach – Siesta Beach, Sarasota. Actually considered one of the best and beautiful beaches in the world on many best-of lists, the beach’s sand is 99% quartz so even on the hottest days the sand is so reflective that it feels cool. Estimated to be millions of years old from Appalachian sediment deposition, Siesta Beach has a vast near-shore shallow water depth with year round lifeguard protection, play areas, bath houses, fitness trails, and parking (but get there early).
Easiest relaxation – hanging out with local anglers on the historic Anna Maria pier anytime near sunset. Despite the human presence, wildlife abounds due to the discarded fish parts of the regulars who capture the Zen of a pristine experience. Wild birds look for scraps during sunset while dolphin pods come eerily close to shore along the pier actively herding fish schools for elegant dining.
Best dining tip for visitors from the Mid-Atlantic U. S. – avoiding crab cakes. Superior seafood dining is everywhere, especially the abundance of grilled fish and stone crab claws (the seasonal pride of the Coast). Blackened Grouper, Roughy and Snapper are favorite fish entrees along with Conch stew or soup. But be warned – although not necessarily bad, even the best restaurants fail to completely replicate Blue Crab cakes indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay region. Sigh. You will see these on some menus but order the regional equivalent, Conch Fritters, instead.
Best shopping – Lido Key, Sarasota. OK – if serenity is actually getting on your nerves, there is only one place to go. Created from a group of islands in the 1920s by John Ringling of circus fame into an elegant attraction, the international and world class destination of St. Armands Circle provides contemporary architecture, superb shops, galleries, exotic boutiques, gourmet restaurants and nightlife. Sort of a more affordable and less pretentious Beverly Hills of Southwest Florida, this continental market place of 130 stores can reduce your charge card to crumbling debris in no time.
A Sea Turtle Summer
Many years ago on a quiet stretch of Anna Maria Island beach with my now grown children for a visit with grandparents, we noticed a fenced off endangered see turtle nest directly in front of our oceanfront room at the height of the lazy August hatching season. What luck. With a professional background in the biological sciences, I encouraged my kids to learn about this endangered resource, their unfortunate artificial light-induced sea turtle hatchling migrations away from the ocean, and how the mother sea turtle returns to their same place of birth to lay eggs. They must hatch in the total absence of artificial light to navigate to the ocean – but never in the day so as to avoid being sea gull food.
We learned that these already endangered species would be a lot worse off if it weren’t for an army of diligent volunteers assuring that the eggs hatch properly. They return to count all the hatched eggs, rescue any stragglers, and report all the results to the governing regulatory agency which gives them permits. The latest account of a light-induced misdirection of hatchlings to their vehicular death made our room-front nature preserve that much more valuable.
The local conservation organization inducted my kids into their organization as temporary nest monitors, and armed with their deputized mission, they diligently checked “our” nest for signs of activity every night. As we were talking about how cool it would be if it hatched while we were here, two nights before we left, we observed afternoon surface sand movement. Residents and visitors joined us for the baby sitting well into the evening. By 8:00 PM, a sunken hole had formed in the sand and little subsurface flippers could be seen twitching at intervals.
Building lights were strategically off and one was quickly reminded how even starlight, the turtles’ beacon, provides ample illumination once the eye can adjust. What amazed me the most was my kids’ ability to voluntarily sit quietly and motionless for hours. Turtles were able to do what I could not. Under turtle-invisible red beam flashlights, the creatures increased their bouts of fits and starts, and after triggering the threshold needed to begin the instinctive chain reaction of a nest-synchronized exodus, at about 9:30 PM, labor finally ceased and delivery occurred.
On cue, they spilled forth from their sandy womb like a heard of tarantulas to the squealing delight of children and adults alike. My son likened it to a horror movie without the horror. While spreading into a fan-shaped flow of crawling reptilian carpet, the new sea turtle hatchlings enveloped many of the bystanders requiring everyone to stand where they were to avoid accidentally stepping on the tykes. We will always remember the tickling of their proportionally large flippers as they crawled over our bare feet toward their awaiting refuge.
While interaction with humans is kept to a minimum, some stragglers needed redirecting and coaxing in the right direction. My daughter, very diligently led one apprehensive turtle in particular to its appropriate destination by pretending to be its mother. Other bystanders herded the rest as necessary, and in about 20 minutes, all that was left on the beach was the occasional ghost crab, the gurgling of the surf, and a silent breeze.
Make it happen
Anna Maria Island is not immune to peak winter and spring travel, so book your accommodations ahead of time if visiting then. The region is efficiently served by the extremely visitor-friendly Tampa International Airport where a plethora of daily flight choices abound for most cities in the U. S. June through October requires less planning with the best values. Plenty of customary and popular condo and beach house rentals are available, especially in the contiguous communities of Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, and online realtors in the area are the best way to get them. Many only rent for a week (best value) and weekends. Daily stays are best done at traditional hotels.