For the past 25 years, Peter Sokell and Graham Murrin have made an annual pilgrimage with their families from Devon, England, to tiny Anna Maria Island, just west of Bradenton.
Why make that 4,500-mile trip year after year? To them, it's simple. The beaches on this barrier island just seven miles long and only a few blocks wide are like no others in the world.
Yes, there are the white sands and turquoise water of the Gulf of Mexico that gently washes ashore here. But to the Sokells and Murrins, it's the look, feel and atmosphere of Anna Maria Island, a place they call "the true old Florida."
"The beaches are superb and they have kept the quality the same ever since we started coming here," Murrin says as he and Sokell enjoyed a seafood lunch outside the Sandbar Restaurant facing the Gulf of Mexico. "There's none of the high-rises, the massive hotels or T-shirt shops. You really feel like you're on a remote island here."
"It's just a quiet, beautiful place in the sun," Sokell adds. "And we hope they keep it that way."
Drive west about 10 miles from downtown Bradenton on Manatee Avenue and you will discover Anna Maria Island. Strict regulations govern the type of buildings and businesses allowed on the island. After traveling through the urban landscapes of Bradenton, you might feel you have journeyed back in time once you arrive here.
There are three communities: Bradenton Beach on the southern end of the island, Holmes Beach in the middle and Anna Maria on the northern end. The total number of full-time residents tallies up to fewer than 9,000 and most structures are shorter than 37 feet. Anything taller was built before the law prohibiting high-rises.
Drive-through restaurants are also prohibited. There are two fast-food joints: a sub shop and pizzeria. Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach are the more densely populated spots on the island, and most of the family-owned restaurants, lodging and shops are found there. But even here, life moves at a tangibly slower pace than what most visitors are accustomed to back home.
"Once you come over that last bridge from the mainland, you just breathe differently on the island," said Julie Quinlivan, who moved to Anna Maria with partner Sally Woodward to escape the snows of Colorado and open a sandwich shop called Rudy's Subs & More. "You can almost feel the tension lifting off of you once you're here."
Walk about 100 yards west from Quinlivan's restaurant and you'll be immersed in what she is talking about: sugary white sands, unspoiled dunes and sea oats, and the shimmering waters of the Gulf. Public parking and restrooms are available, though easier to find on Holmes and Bradenton beaches.
Locals says there's rarely a day when they would call it "crowded" on any of the three beaches.
"I think it's just the nature of the island here," Murrin said. "You just don't find crowds here most days, especially this time of year (fall)."
Still, there's plenty of things for families to do here and loads of places to stay. Difference is, the majority of the businesses on Anna Maria Island are locally owned and operated. From parasailing to fishing charters, boat rides to scooter rentals, you'll find it here with someone who knows the lay of the land.
Accommodations range from the 1930s wood-frame bungalows at the Bungalow Beach Resort on the Gulf side of Bradenton Beach to a clean, split-level 1960s motel like the Blue Water Beach Club on Holmes Beach.
Quaint, family-owned shops and businesses can be found up and down the island. On Pine Avenue, near the northern end of Anna Maria, you'll find French-milled soaps, specialty olive oils, handmade clothing and small art galleries.
Walk northeast on Pine Avenue to Anna Maria City Pier, first built in 1911. Try your luck at fishing, eat at the City Pier Restaurant, or sit and watch sailboats glide by with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to St. Petersburg as their backdrop.
Pine Avenue is also home to the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, Artspace Studios and Gallery, Anna Maria Accommodations (which can help you find a place to stay) and Beach Bums, which rents bikes, kayaks and paddleboards.
Wherever you wind up on Anna Maria Island, chances are you will eventually wind down.
"There's such a wonderful, laid-back feel here," Quinlivan said. "When someone drives by and honks the car horn, they're honking to say 'hi,' not to say 'get out of the way.'"
- Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce: annamariaislandchamber.org
- Anna Maria Accommodations: annamariaparadise.com
Bill Ward is a longtime Florida journalist, having reported for the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune.