Just back from a week's vacation, and I can't get Anna Maria out of my head.
Just so you'll know, this is not one of those trip reports that are basically just lists of recommendations. Yes, I have some favorites, but I feel compelled to write about the impression this special place left upon me--more so than just recounting the "here's where to go" stuff.
This was my first time on the island, but undoubtedly not my last. I found in AMI a place that resonated with me on many different levels.
The places I went and the people I encountered seemed to have a distinct kind of grace and charm that I think must be unique to the area. Yes, it was beautiful--no question about that. But it was also REAL. There was a genuineness and unpretentiousness that I spotted right away.
Things seemed comfortable and accessible on AMI--as opposed to some other locations that are deed-restricted and manicured to within an inch of their lives. I've visited parts of Florida that seemed, I don't know, kind of soul-less to me. Everything was magnificent, to be sure, but somehow a little too perfect, if you know what I mean. I like for signs to be hand-lettered (and even creatively spelled) every now and then. I celebrate the individual, the interesting, and the innovative.
Nowhere on the island was I intimidated. Everything (and everybody) seemed really open and accepting. People were inclined to generally reject the strict and suffocating conformity that plagues so many of those cookie-cutter communities. I never felt as if things were "off limits" without a membership or without "proper attire." This laid-back attitude really goes a long way toward making visitors feel welcome; indeed, it encourages total strangers to quickly strike up conversations that may eventually lead to friendships.
Instead of restricting myself to the most well-known places on the island, I spent a little time poking about some of the neighborhoods. I think my favorites might have been the teeny-tiny but neat-as-a-pin houses in the Bradenton Beach environs. My eye delighted in the obvious pride these homeowners took in their properties. Close observation yielded clues about the occupants, from a ham radio antennae to a sign on a house (the place looked to be about the size of a large shoebox) that read "As the Prop Turns."
Here are just a few of my impressions, in no particular order...
I loved that the staircase leading up to the restaurant at the Rod and Reel Pier lists ever so slightly--as befitting a waterfront establishment that has been around since the 1940s. I love that the free trolley is used just as much by locals as by tourists--and that the regular passengers greet the driver with genuine affection when he's been off for a week. I love that Ginny and Jane E's really IS "at the old IGA." I love that someone missed "Princess Patty" enough to place a memorial bench in her honor at the edge of a property line at Bean Point. I love that the person standing in line in front of you at the Star Fish Company is wearing a tee-shirt that lists the all-stars of the Manatee Little League baseball team. I loved that I saw mailboxes and mailbox supports in the shape of dolphins, seahorses, cats, and pelicans. I love that the volunteers with the AMI Turtle Rescue are so completely dedicated to (and justifiably proud of) their work. I love that ancient boats in various stages of disrepair (the kind that can't have seen more than rainwater for many years) don't seem to be truly abandoned; oftentimes they appear to be gathered on a spot of land--rather reverentially, it seemed to me--to sort of be "reclaimed" by nature.
So there you have it. Just a few of the reasons this place has become incredibly special to me in the span of seven all-too-short days.
As I write this, I can't help but think of the folks who are sleepless there tonight--long-time residents watching the path of the impending tropical storm and deciding about whether to stay or go. I mentioned that Anna Maria is in my head. But she's also in my heart. God bless them and the island home they love--and shared so willingly with me.