Frisbees to Fossils

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Beach bums and history buffs find plenty to like about Bradenton area beaches on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.

When you're sitting at the beach, do you ever wonder who else might have roamed these sands, or just what might be swimming in the water? Bradenton area beaches on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key offer plenty of opportunity for contemplating these questions, and places where you can find the answers.

Explore History in Anna Maria

Start off at the northern end of Anna Maria Island. After lounging on the powdery white sand of Anna Maria Beach, head to The City of Anna Maria Historic Park. Originally an icehouse, this circa-1920 structure now holds artifacts relating to early island inhabitants – everything from vintage clothing and Indian arrowheads to the mouth of a hammerhead shark caught off the Rod & Reel Pier.

Also on site are the 1920s-era Belle Haven Cottage, which sat at the end of the City Pier until it fell into Tampa Bay in 1926, and the former Anna Maria City Jail. Built in 1926, the now roofless, windowless, doorless jail building is a popular spot for photos.

Lunch Served with Priceless Views

When lunchtime rolls around, Anna Maria offers several dining spots with history. Find prime views of Tampa Bay and a sophisticated menu featuring plenty of local seafood at the Waterfront Restaurant. It's housed in a cottage that dates to 1922, lovingly restored after a 2004 fire to reflect the original structure.

At the well-known Sandbar Restaurant, diners can dig their toes into the sand while lunching on buffalo burgers or wasabi-encrusted salmon. Locals and visitors have been coming to this site since 1913, when it was home to The Pavilion, a popular meeting place.

You can find everything from salvaged sideboards to wireless Internet access at Ginny's & Jane E's at the Old IGA. One part vintage furniture store, one part florist and one part coffee shop, it's a funky little place for a slice of quiche or a cup of soup.

Head Out on Aquatic Adventures

The afternoon calls for more exploration. Off of Bradenton Beach, snorkel or scuba dive the wreck of the Regina, a tanker that sank 75 yards off the coast in 1940. Or kayak around the island with companies like Native Rentals or Island Kayak Tours. Out on the water, you may find yourself imagining what it was like to be one of the Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago.

You'll likely spot plenty of wildlife on these excursions. To learn more about the area's natural side, head to the South Florida Museum in downtown Bradenton. The largest museum of natural and cultural history on Florida's west coast, it features exhibits that chronicle Florida's prehistoric days, including a cast of the largest mastodon ever found in North America. Other displays focus on current-day flora and fauna. A big draw is the museum's Parker Manatee Aquarium, home to 60-year-old local celebrity Snooty the manatee.

While on the mainland, pay a visit to the De Soto National Memorial. This site commemorates the 1539 landing of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, and the significance of the first large-scaled European exploration of La Florida. Interpreters in period clothing conduct talks and demonstrations at Camp Uzita, the Spanish replica camp daily from mid-December through mid-April. The Bradenton area further fetes the conquistador throughout April during its De Soto Heritage Festival, which features a seafood fest, ball and parade.

Fishing Village Has Authentic Charm

Just east of Anna Maria Island is Cortez, a commercial fishing village since the late 1800s. The Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez celebrates this history, while restaurants like Star Fish Company serve up fresh catches from local waters.

When it comes time to call it a day, you can dream of the past at several Anna Maria Island accommodations. In Holmes Beach, the Harrington House Beachfront Bed and Breakfast occupies properties dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, including the restored, circa-1925 coquina-block Main Inn. Situated right on the Gulf of Mexico, the inn's lush, tropical landscaping creates a feeling of seclusion.

In Anna Maria, the circa-1926 Anna Maria Beach Cottages boast sunny yellow paint, crisp white furnishings, beadboard walls and hardwood floors. A similar vibe can be found at the Bungalow Beach Resort in Bradenton Beach. Just steps from the Gulf, the 1930s-era cottages are updated to suit the needs of modern travelers, but also hark back to the past with touches like pedestal sinks and wicker furnishings. It's just the right mix for this island, which aims to preserve its Old Florida feel.

This article is brought to you by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. For more information, call 941-729-9177 or visit www.floridasgulfislands.com.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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