Days are spent on the golf course, the tennis courts, the croquet lawns, and at the beach club; beyond the hotel are a few shops and restaurants. We fell in love with Sisters Restaurant for pizza and pasta (941-964-2002, from $11.50), and a photogenic lighthouse at Gasparilla Island State Park.
This is upscale old Florida, a glimpse of what life was like when the railroad (now a bike path) came through the island, bringing wealthy vacationers. That part hasn’t changed much.
ANNA MARIA ISLAND: Old-fashioned family fun
Drive over the causeway from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island, and feel the years slip away. Just beyond the colorful manatee welcome sign is an island that delivers retro family fun in a dazzling package of sand, surf, and sunsets. Anna Maria is all about the beach, and what a beach it is: baby powder sand dotted with tiny coquina shells, lapped by the aqua waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The sunsets are spectacular, with none of the hoopla of Key West, but all of the peaches and purples.
Accommodations here are delightfully low-key, mostly mom and pop “efficiencies” with kitchenettes, set on — or across the street from — the sea-oat-fringed beach. There’s a terrific beachfront bed-and-breakfast inn, the Harrington House (941-778-5444, www.harringtonhouse.com, from $159), but there are no high-rise hotels, since buildings over three stories aren’t allowed.
Island restaurants are gleefully quirky: Mr. Bones BBQ (941-778-6614, www.mrbonesbbq.com, from $9.99) offers everything from ribs to chicken tikka masala, plus beer, cooled in a coffin, while the classic Gulf Drive Cafe (941-778-1919, www.gulfdrivetiki.com, from $6.99) serves breakfast all day on the beach.
You could make plans to do things, like wander the Bird Walk on the bay side of the island, but better to simply let the lazy days unfold. For a little action, take the free island trolley to Rod & Reel Pier, where old-timers and little kids test their wits against the fish. On Anna Maria, timeless pleasures rule.
STEINHATCHEE: Woods and water
Never heard of Steinhatchee? Neither have most Floridians. Located in the wild, river-laced forests of north central Florida, also known as the “nature coast,” this village of 1,600 folks is incredibly quiet — until scallop season, from July to mid-September, when the population swells and the Sea Hag Marina (352-498-3008, www.seahag.com) is abuzz with activity.
Anyone with a Florida saltwater fishing license (easily obtainable) can be a scalloper, and it’s a blast. You don a mask, snorkel, and fins, carry a mesh bag to hold your scallops, and head out in a boat through the Steinhatchee channel to the gulf, and then go north or south for several miles until the inshore waters become clear. Then you look for scallops hiding in the sea grass. They move by snapping their shells and spitting water out — kind of a sandy spurt — and propel themselves in a zigzag motion. Local restaurants, like Roy’s (352-498-5000, www.roys-restaurant.com), will cook your cleaned catch.
Other pursuits are equally outdoorsy, lsuch as paddling the Steinhatchee River and hiking the trails at (totally unimpressive, but interesting) Steinhatchee Falls, following in the footsteps of Timucuan Indians, Spanish explorers, and Civil War troops. Things get a little crazy during the annual Fiddler Crab Festival, held on President’s Day weekend, when everyone turns out for events like the fiddler crab races.
There’s nothing posh about this place, and that’s just the way the locals like it. “Our fine mall is the dollar store,” says Dean Fowler, owner of Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Designed to resemble a typical north Florida community from the early 1900s, Steinhatchee Landing (352-498-3513, www.steinhatcheelanding.com, from $140) is the best place to stay in this fishing village.
The nearest airport, Gainesville Regional, is nearly two hours away, so there’s no danger that Steinhatchee will change anytime soon. “This is the anti-Orlando,” says resident Kevin Kizer. “It’s the country side of Florida, a real blast from the past.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.