A few things have happened this week that made me think of home.

First, Facebook thoughtfully reminded me that it has been 1 year since I moved to Thailand, and 2 years since I arrived in Guangzhou, China. Which also reminded me that I haven’t actually been stateside for 2 years now.

That might be a bit too long – I’m coming for Christmas! I promise!

Then I found out that my hometown’s manatee, Snooty, passed away.

As I was telling Simon about Snooty, I was aware that mourning a town manatee is not particularly a normal thing, but my hometown is not always the most normal place.

Although I am hoping to spend the rest of my life abroad, I do really love where I am from. I did not run to the other side of the world because I thought Anna Maria was boring, or because I didn’t like the people there, or even because I thought I’d find somewhere better (just different – I always want different).

And if you are traveling in America, I wouldn’t hesitate for second before recommending Anna Maria for a Florida island experience.

Want some insider information from a local? Here you are:

Let’s start with the manatees!

Anna Maria is in Manatee County, and it’s not difficult to spot our love for the giant sea creatures we’re named after. Snooty, the manatee mentioned above, has been our county mascot since 1979, and any child who also grew up in the area has celebrated his birthday and had a sleepover next to his aquarium.

Manatees are an endangered species, but they aren’t uncommon in our waters. Many houses (including plenty of vacation rentals) are on canals, so you can see these gentle beasts right from your backyard. Look for their noses coming up to surface – they are mammals so they rise up frequently to breathe.

A manatee sighting in my backyard

If you aren’t staying on a canal, going out on a boat on the bayside of the island can also bring you up and close and personal with a manatee. Make sure you drive slowly and carefully – manatees are hurt too often by propellers, and you will notice that we post many signs warning boaters to keep our manatees safe.

Enjoy some Old Florida charm.

Along with love for our manatees, we are also proud of our efforts to preserve Old Florida culture. It has always been important to the island’s residents and local government to keep our community authentic and different from the bigger popular beach towns. We want to be a quieter, homier, old-time alternative to Miami, Panama City, or Daytona.

To start with, you won’t see sky-high hotels lining the beaches. Laws prevent buildings higher than three stories anywhere on the island. You also won’t see too many franchises – most stores are locally owned and designed with Old Florida architecture as the inspiration.

Head to Pine Avenue if you really want a taste of Old Florida. You’ll find plenty of local shops, a small history museum, and a historical church. The avenue dead ends at the ocean, where you’ll find the city pier, built in 1910.

The Historical Anna Maria City Pier

How to find a quiet beach:

During tourist seasons, our tiny roads are often at a standstill and the beaches are packed – at least the beaches most tourists know about.

If you want a more peaceful beach day, I’d recommend you head to the northeast region of the island. There won’t be signs (or parking spaces) for these beaches, but if you look carefully you’ll see a few nearly-hidden paths between houses that will lead to beaches that are almost always empty.

At the northern tip of the island is Bean Point, a beach named after George Bean, the first permanent resident on the island. He believed it to be the most beautiful place on the island. Despite this, it rarely draws a crowd. Probably because it is not obviously marked, there isn’t a parking lot, and the waters aren’t very safe to swim in because of strong riptides. But it’s the perfect place to quietly watch the sunset.

A few more quick tips:

The entire island is actually a bird sanctuary. One reaction I’ve heard from every visitor is that they love all the different birds they see – some are beautiful and some look like something out of a horror movie, but we have quite a variety.

Skip the rental car. There is a free trolley that regularly circles the entire island.

It is also easy to rent a bike or a golf cart (which you can legally drive on all island roads) for your trip. Biking is very common, and most businesses have bike racks.

Bring your pets! Many businesses and accommodations are pet-friendly. It isn’t uncommon to see small dogs with their owners inside stores or at outdoor restaurants. But don’t bring them to the beach – you might get a fine.

Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, but they’ll enjoy our canals in a kayak!

October is the best month to visit. It is still warm enough to enjoy the beach, hurricane season is quieting down, and tourists are few and far between – this also means hotels and vacation rentals are cheaper.

Tourist season is late February through April, when most schools in America are on spring break.

The island is also busier in winter because of our “snow bird” community. A snow bird is a retiree who keeps a winter house in Florida, but lives up north during the warmer months.

Don’t discouraged if your beach day suddenly features a huge thunderstorm. Rain usually comes and leaves very quickly. Seek shelter for a few minutes, and you’ll most likely be able to carry on your day.

For breakfast, head to the Rod and Reel Pier or the Sign of the Mermaid.

For lunch or dinner, I recommend the Anna Maria City Pier, The Waterfront Restaurant, or The Sandbar.

It’s your turn – tell me about your hometown! If I came to visit, what would be your top tip most tourists wouldn’t know?

 

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