The Last Best Beach Town

Photography by J.B. McCourtney By Robert Plunket & Su Byron October 1, 2010

Florida has a short list of beach towns that are world-famous for their fantasy tropical lifestyle. Key West, for instance, symbolizes raffish hedonism. Palm Beach epitomizes the perfection and style that only great wealth can bring. Sarasota represents culture and sophistication co-existing quite nicely with golf and boating.

To get on this list is a rare honor, and to have a newcomer added at this late date is even more unusual. But the tiny town of Anna Maria—population 1,500—is increasingly being mentioned. Anna Maria started life as a modest resort and second-home kind of place for Midwesterners and Canadians. Not exactly the hippest situation. Now things have gone full circle. The town’s peace and quiet have been reconsidered. Suddenly, Anna Maria has been recast as one of the last perfect places in Florida.

Anna Maria’s emergence as the town of the moment has a lot to do with Florida’s economic recession. It’s taken a couple of years, but the fancy gated communities with the enormous Spanish Mediterranean houses are starting to seem dated. They represent a time that has ended—and ended painfully. They’re not what people aspire to anymore. Ostentatious is out. Simplicity is good. Family is crucial.

These are Anna Maria’s values. It has a strong emotional pull, a return to a simpler time and place. This is the town where you vacationed with your grandparents when you were a kid. Those who summered on the Jersey shore back in the 1950s and ’60s will feel right at home. So will those whose vacation was on the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan. Or the lakes of Wisconsin. All the rituals of summers past are still present—you can walk or bike anywhere, there are plenty of places to buy ice cream, and the long, sunny afternoons mean playing on the beach or fishing in the pond.

Andrés Duany and the New Urbanism have been recreating places like Anna Maria, in the guise of Seaside up in the Panhandle. But Anna Maria is not an imitation. There is nothing forced about it. It really is what Seaside is pretending to be.

Most people don’t even know where it is, so a little geography may be in order. Anna Maria is the northernmost town on Anna Maria Island, one of the barrier islands that line the Gulf coast. (The island’s other “cities” include Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach.) Its setting is spectacular in a quiet sort of way; located at the southern tip of Tampa Bay, it’s been a landmark for centuries, back to the days of the pirates. Ponce de Leon dropped by in his search for the Fountain of Youth.

What makes it so special is a gorgeous white sand beach facing the Gulf. Of course, the same could be said for a few other favored places in the area. But Anna Maria has a surprise up its sandy sleeve. Just several blocks away from the gorgeous white sand beach is another gorgeous white sand beach, facing in the opposite direction, toward Tampa Bay with the Skyway Bridge off in the distance. All this sand, and all this water, give Anna Maria a lightness of being that is, well, incredible.

The town makes a sleepy first impression. You first notice what isn’t there—no fast food, no high-rises, no crowds. Its heart and soul is the beach cottage, in all its various forms. Most are simple but substantial and have a 1950s feel to them—a green lawn, fresh paint, a grapefruit tree. Others are so big they are not really cottages at all (yes, a few McMansions slipped in, but luckily very few). Most of the newer homes are built in the “Key West” style, a catchall phrase meaning a large house with Victorian and Queen Anne references, elevated because of the building codes, with myriad porches and verandahs. But in spite of the new homes, Anna Maria looks pretty much the same as it did 30 years ago.

How come? Anna Maria owes much of its luck to the fact that it’s slightly inconvenient. The drive to downtown Sarasota or Bradenton isn’t bad, but other beach communities are quite a bit closer.

“We’re at the end of the road,” says resident and former Florida first lady Rhea Chiles. “Longboat was easier to get to. Sarasota was more in demand, being known as an arts community. As a result those places developed quicker.” Anna Maria’s character has been so well preserved that it seems like a time warp: a shot of authentic, 100-proof Florida in all its funky splendor.

But how long can it stay that way?

Anna Maria, residents and visitors agree, has a lovely lifestyle, and much of it is lived outdoors. Practically every home has a dedicated outdoor area for just sitting with the morning coffee. Lizzie Thrasher, who with her husband, Mike, moved to Anna Maria from England a few years ago, remembers locking herself out one morning and waiting for the locksmith. “I sat in the garden and marveled at the wildlife—spoonbills and osprey and pelicans. I felt like I was in an aviary or botanical gardens.”

Activities are the classic vacation pastimes. First is the beach, of course. In the mornings the most common sight in town is a family in flip-flops, heading for the water. Everybody carries something: a beach chair, the cooler, towels, inflatable toys. In the afternoon, after a day of playing in the turquoise water and building castles in the sand, they head back the other way, exhausted, sunburned, but very, very happy.

Other activities include biking around town or tennis at one of the courts available to the public. And while it’s not really a boating town, Anna Maria has plenty of boats, particularly in the northeast section, where mangrove-lined canals lead to secret inlets where each house has a dock. One thing virtually absent is golf, except for a small private course. In fact, Anna Maria may be one of the few places in Florida that has escaped the tyranny of golf. There are courses not too far away, on Longboat or the mainland, but on the island itself people aren’t all that interested in Florida’s favorite sport.

There really aren’t any attractions per se. Two piers—the City Pier and the Rod and Reel Pier—boast killer views of Tampa Bay and are great places to while away an afternoon. Fishermen catch and clean fish; kids run squealing up and down the wooden planks; prehistoric pelicans sit in patient wait. Both piers have outdoor dining, so you can perch above the gloriously green water and watch the dolphins, manatees and sea gulls do their thing.

Of course, your day might also include getting married. Anna Maria is one of the “destination wedding” capitals of the country. Couples who dream of getting married on a beautiful beach come down with friends and relatives, rent a house or two, and take advantage of the many wedding vendors who have latched on to this business opportunity. And Anna Maria’s geography—the beach faces west, providing a sunset backdrop—makes it a venue second to none.

Shopping in the town itself is limited. There are a few galleries, boutiques and sandwich shops on both Gulf Drive and Pine Avenue—just enough to make it worthwhile for those locals who like to drive over occasionally and make an afternoon of it, or to occupy the visitor on a rainy day. Basic shopping for everyday needs takes place in Holmes Beach, adjacent to the south, where there are a Publix, several banks, Ace Hardware and that vacation essential, the liquor store. But in Anna Maria itself, it seems that the major commercial activity is the buying and selling of ice cream cones.

Of course, this being Florida, it’s really the buying and selling of real estate. This is a beach town economy, and that means those houses you see for rent are the town’s major industry. Depending on how long you’ve owned it, that beach cottage can be a cash machine; yearly income of $100,000 is expected from some of the larger places. And the people who rent tend to get hooked and come back every year. A surprising number of Sarasotans have places there and drive out almost every Friday evening for the weekend, thus giving Sarasota its own East Hampton. Imagine—we’re a beach town with its own beach town.

Sarasota attorney Bill Partridge and his wife, Debbie, spend about three weekends a month at their Anna Maria vacation home. “When you get to Anna Maria, the speed limit drops to 25 mph, and everything slows down. It’s so relaxing,” says Debbie. “The houses are close together, and neighbors are close, too. We do a Fourth of July party that’s grown to about 100 friends and neighbors. Bill cooks five or six Boston butts all night long and chops them up. We provide the meat and buns and everyone brings a side dish and their own drinks and chairs. You don’t a buy a beach house there—you buy the neighborhood.”

Anna Maria may be a vacation town, but it also has plenty of permanent residents. There are still many retired couples, holdouts from the original settlers. Some come for the winter; others stay year-round. There are young families, attracted by the excellent primary school and the opportunity to raise a family in such a kid-friendly atmosphere. Then there are the people who fall in love with the place and move here full time and—perhaps—start a business. They are the fastest-growing population segment.

Mike and Lizzie Thrasher divide their time between their farm in England and Anna Maria. In the U.K., they sold their successful organic baby food company for a small fortune several years back. They searched America’s coast for a slice of heaven and found it in the town of Anna Maria.

The Thrashers put their money behind their passion. They’ve bought and renovated several cottages, transforming them into upscale vacation villas. They’ve also poured time and cash into Pine Avenue, beginning with the renovation of Beach Bums, a popular rental store specializing in island gear, and the Anna Maria General Store. After fixing up both buildings, they sold the businesses back to the original owners.

They’ve got another project in the works, called the Anna Maria Historic Green Village. It’s also on Pine Avenue. Lizzie envisions it as a mixed-use complex, featuring a café and art gallery, a wellness center and a community meeting space. She says its design will “mirror the island’s historic buildings both in scale and styling, but with some modern touches, most notably solar and ground heat pumps, so that the complete development will be powered by green electricity.”

The Thrashers hope that the complex will be a draw for both visitors and residents. “We feel strongly that people should be able to live and work here,” says Lizzie.

She knows that her project is a hard sell to many residents, who fear such development will threaten the long-established character of their beloved little town. But selling is one of her strong points.

“We want to bridge the gap between people who want absolutely no change and those who do,” she says. “Development can be good if it respects the surrounding character, traditions and architecture and brings jobs and tax income. Once we explain that, people are less likely to fear change.”

In 1986, Gene and Janet Aubry moved to Anna Maria from Houston after “burning the candle at both ends,” in Janet’s words. Both had been partners at a high-powered architectural firm; he was an architect and Janet was the firm’s marketing guru. They didn’t come here to retire (Gene is best known in Sarasota for his design of downtown’s Selby Library), just to slow down.

Why Anna Maria? Janet had vacationed here since she was seven; her parents finally made the move here full time later on. “As I grew older, they kept urging me to buy a house,”

she says, “and I finally did.” The house was one of the

original beach cottages on North Shore Drive, given to Anna Maria founder George Bean on a land grant from President McKinley.

They haven’t slowed down that much. Gene has designed a number of island residences—including his own, a unique duplex that he built with his best friend, surrounded by a little tropical jungle. (See page 64.) And he’s now working on the Thrashers’ and other redevelopment projects on Pine Avenue. Gene, who this summer announced his candidacy for the Anna Maria city commission, says that sterile gentrification isn’t his vision. “Anna Maria Island is funky. Island people are different from mainland people. I grew up in Galveston, Texas, so I know what I’m talking about,” he says. “But you can keep the funk and still make it nice. You don’t have to sacrifice character. A city is a living thing. It has to grow—not necessarily more and bigger—but it has to change. Change is the first sign of life.”

Rhea Chiles agrees. Her philosophy about Anna Maria reflects her experience as the former first lady of Florida. Her late husband, Lawton Chiles, was Florida’s governor from 1991 to 1998. In addition to his long walks across the state, he was famous for his support of intelligent growth and resistance to blind growth.

The Chileses have owned property here since the late 1950s. Today Rhea lives in a spacious Gene Aubry-designed house on Bimini Bay (see page 65.) Two of the island’s most popular eateries, the Sandbar and the Beach House, are owned by her son, Ed Chiles (who also owns the old-Florida-like Mar Vista on Longboat Key). Her other son, Lawton “Bud” Chiles Jr., briefly ran for governor this summer.

Rhea Chiles loves her community, and she can’t stand the explosive growth she’s seen in other barrier island communities. But neither does she want the town to turn into some kind of Colonial Williamsburg on the Gulf.

The change that Chiles envisions is people-friendly. She wants to see development in keeping with the city’s laidback character and history. An artist herself, she also wants to encourage the growth of the town’s arts and cultural amenities. The new Studio at Gulf and Pine, a cultural arts center, was her brainchild. During season, the 4,000-square-foot space provides a forum for artists, poets, musicians and writers to exhibit their talents and exchange ideas.

Islanders argue—often vehemently—about whether or how Anna Maria should grow, but on one topic, everyone agrees. Anna Maria has the best sunsets in the world. Every evening just as twilight starts to dim the bright, bright sun, it seems the whole town heads over to the beach. Visitors and old-timers alike sip a glass of wine as the sky turns dusky shades of pink and orange, finally fading to a deep and glowing purple. Children run on the sand, honeymooners stroll hand in hand, and local residents take a deep breath and relax.

For an hour or so the whole community comes together and realizes just how special Anna Maria is.

Filed under
Show Comments