For many, Florida's Gulf Islands on the Southwest Florida coast conjures up lazy times on the beach on Anna Maria Island or a seafood dinner in Cortez. It is all that, but a few more things. Here are 10 of my favorites around Anna Maria, Longboat Key, Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch:
1. Downtown Bradenton
Two attractions here get all the attention, the South Florida Museum and the waterfront. The South Florida Museum is actually three museums, including the Bishop Planetarium, Parker Manatee Aquarium and South Florida Museum. While the beloved manatee Snooty gets all the attention, don’t forget to see the native archeological artifacts of the late collector Montague Tallant. The Spanish mission style marina building on the waterfront, which dates from 1928, has a small relief of DeSoto’s ship on the front and houses a Mattison’s restaurant. Just upriver is Courtyard by Marriott.
2. Village of the Arts
Funky would be an understatement for this vintage area of frame cottages near McKechnie Field, the winter home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Many of the bungalows west of downtown Bradenton have art-oriented shops. Most amusing? Divine Access Folk Art.
3. Manatee Segway Tours
An easy way to breeze through downtown and the waterfront is by Segway, courtesy of Manatee Segway Tours. It’s easier than you think. While they are tipless, a result of their electronic balancing, you still will need to be sensible. They even have to remind against high heels!
4. Roadside Fun
On Route 64 (4500 Manatee Avenue West), find ice cream and sandwiches at Sweetberries Frozen Custard and Eatery. It’s the modern version of the local ice cream and sandwich shop, and there you’ll find tasty light lunch items like chicken salad and hot dogs that will leave plenty of room for their “concretes” which are frozen custards and fruit. Their Cape Cod Tuna is a fresh twist; it is albacore, apples and walnuts. And just north of Sarasota Bradenton SRQ Airport on Route 41 is Kreissle Forge, an old world metal foundry that makes museum-quality patio benches, light fixtures and other metal furnishings. If you see the Bradenton Donut Shop, ignore the old Mister Donut building and head inside to taste their old school potato-flour donuts.
5. Downtown Palmetto
Just across the Manatee River is a jewel of an old Florida river city. Here, the Palmetto Historical Park, dedicated in 1997, sits behind the town’s old Carnegie Library, and has a half-dozen early 20th century buildings including a school, post office, church and Manatee County Agricultural Museum. A few blocks south, along the Manatee River on Riverside Drive West, admire the outside of the circa-1899 J.A. Lamb house and eat at Riverside Café and Waterfront Deck or Riverhouse Reef and Grill.
6. Emerson Point Conservation Preserve
West of Palmetto on Snead Island is Emerson Point. Around the time of Charlemagne, natives along the Manatee River built what is now known as the Portavant Temple Mound out of shells for ceremonial worship. You can still walk up on the mound, but don’t mess with the shells as they are protected. The scenic overlook at the tip affords expansive views of the Sunshine Skyway.
7. Palma Sola Botanical Park and Robinson Preserve
West of downtown at the end of 17th Street near the De Soto Memorial is Robinson Preserve, which is acres of restored lands. Across the road, see Palma Sola Botanical Park, where an allée of royal palms leads to the encyclopedic collection of the Manatee Chapter of the Rare Fruit Council, including jackfruit, Panama red passion fruit, kumquat and black sapote trees.
8. De Soto National Memorial
This is Florida’s Plymouth Rock, where Hernando De Soto encamped in 1539 before his ill-fated trip. The National Park Service has built a visitor center and a replica Spanish camp. The 20-minute film is first-rate, and National Park Rangers love their subject and know every detail. Don’t miss the photo of the Colonial Dames which sits on a plaque under the gumbo limbo trees. It was the history-loving society matron “Dames” who saved the site in 1939.
9. Palma Sola
This area out Route 64 (Manatee Avenue West) is home to The Palma Sola Scenic Highway that takes you to Anna Maria Island. While so many causeways have restricted parking, this one still allows you to open up the trunk and have a tailgate right on the water. On the east end, Great World Nature Tours offers up horse surfing, where visitors get to swim bareback and can stand as the horses swim, hence horse surfing.
10. Anna Maria Restaurants
Few travelers go to Anna Maria without visiting the Sandbar and it's tables on the sand. But a new favorite just around the corner is Ginny’s and Jane E’s. It’s a bakery and deli in an old supermarket (the old IGA), and it’s open from breakfast to late afternoon. The atmosphere fits the eclectic and casual nature of Anna Maria; its pastries, however, are quite gourmet. Another (pricier) favorite is Beach Bistro, and its top Zagat rating.
This article is brought to you by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. To plan your own getaway to Florida’s Gulf Islands of Anna Maria, Longboat Key, Bradenton and the Lakewood Ranch area, call 941-729-9177 or visit www.floridasgulfislands.com.