A Travellerspoint blog

April 2017

Anna Maria Island, Part 1: A Freaki Tiki Good Time

Locals call it the "Florida Easy Button." Coastal Living magazine calls it one of their "dream towns." And Travel and Leisure dubs it a "quiet escape" and touts its "sandy seclusion." Why all the fuss over a simple 7-mile stretch of shoreline, one of dozens along Florida's west coast?

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Maybe it's Anna Maria's wide, pristine beaches, dotted with towering Australian pines. Maybe it's a vibe that's decidedly more artsy and outdoorsy than yacht clubby. Maybe it's the quaint waterside seafood shacks, or the dozens of candy-colored beach houses, or the free rides on the island-wide trolley.

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Or maybe it's the location. Anna Maria is just minutes from Longboat Key and St. Armand's Circle, two places where we could indulge our inner snobs with good wine, gourmet cuisine, and upscale shopping when the mood struck.

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The funny thing was . . . the mood never really struck. That's how charming Anna Maria is.

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But to immerse ourselves in all this charm, first we had to get there. Although Sarasota's airport is the closest one to Anna Maria, we decided to take an early morning flight into Tampa instead, which would allow us time for a leisurely lunch in Ybor City, a mid-afternoon snack in St. Pete Beach, and a scenic drive over to Anna Maria, all timed to coincide with check-in at the house we'd rented for the week.

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Our first stop was Tampa's Ybor City, a historic neighborhood founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

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And because it was Christmas, the neighborhood was decked out in its festive finest for the holiday.

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Some folks even came bearing gifts.

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Although I've been known to travel great distances -- even to foreign countries like Anguilla and Brooklyn -- in search of the ultimate cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza, it's not my usual M.O. to seek out . . . a salad. But when I heard about the famous "1905" salad at the also-famous Columbia Restaurant, I knew we had to give it a try.

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The Columbia Restaurant is the oldest in Florida and has been owned by the same family since 1905, now in its 6th generation.

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The restaurant has also expanded over the years, now encompassing numerous dining rooms spanning an entire city block.

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And of course a sizable bar, for sampling the mojitos and sangria.

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We were seated in the main dining room, which is crowned with a spectacular skylight.

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Tossed tableside, the 1905 salad was inspired by the immigrants who worked in Ybor's cigar factories: Romano cheese from the Sicilians, garlic dressing favored by the Cubans to marinate fresh roast pork, baked ham to represent the Spaniards' beloved Iberico, plus Florida tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and Swiss cheese.

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The salad was fantastic -- cheesy and garlicky and perfectly crisp -- but man cannot live on Swiss alone, so we had some other stuff, too.

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After lunch we made our way down to St. Pete Beach for "dessert."

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With its beachfront patio and huge selection of drinks, Bongo's at the Grand Plaza Hotel seemed like the perfect choice.

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Though it was crowded with holiday revelers, we managed to snag two seats near the soothing fountain.

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Refreshing, too, since we had our own little "sprinkler."

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We even had our choice of bands -- Latin-tinged pop at the bar, or a full-on marching band on the beach.

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By mid-afternoon, it was time to head over to Anna Maria. The drive was lovely, particularly as we approached the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, which connects St. Petersburg to Terra Ceia, near Bradenton.

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The place we rented was one of "The Saints," a group of four bungalows in Anna Maria's southernmost neighborood, Bradenton Beach.

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I was a bit nervous about our bungalow, the 2-bed, 2-bath St. Barths unit, since it was brand-new and therefore had only a handful of reviews, and scarcely more photos. Any hesitation fell away, however, as soon as we set foot in the spacious, spic-and-span home decorated with beachy touches throughout.

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They even left us a welcome bag of snacks and a gift-wrapped tin of homemade Christmas cookies.

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Though late December in Anna Maria can be a bit chilly for swimming, I'd nevertheless made sure to rent one of the two bungalows with a private pool, hoping for the best.

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As it turned out, the entire week was gloriously sunny and unusually warm, with highs in the mid-80s each day.

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Not that it was enough to get Big Baby Angel into that "frigid" 82-degree water.

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That evening for Christmas dinner, we had reservations at the Chart House on nearby Longboat Key.

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We kicked things off with a pomegranate mojito for me, and a Bold Manhattan with chocolate bitters for Angel.

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After gobbling up that calamari, we moved on to the snapper Hemingway topped with lump crab and lemon-shallot butter, and the macadamia-nut mahi with warm peanut sauce and a mash of gorgeous purple Peruvian potatoes.

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We awoke the next morning to greet our first full day on the island, and didn't waste any time ticking the #1 item off our to-do list: Gorging ourselves on stone crabs.

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With our much-beloved Moore's closed due to the owner's retirement, we set off for SandBar, a beachfront spot that prides itself on its purveyors, many of whom are local.

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There was a wait for a table, but the warm sunshine, stunning view, and frozen rum-runners kept us well-occupied.

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Soon we were led to a "front-row" table in the sand, where it was clear that SandBar was a place where everyone can make themselves comfortable.

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Really comfortable.

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Though many spots on AMI have stone crabs, most serve them cold with a mustard dipping sauce. But butter beats mustard (and everything else) any day of the week, so SandBar wisely serves their stone crabs warm with drawn butter.

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Of course, a pile of stone crabs wasn't going to cut it for lunch, so we threw in some blackened grouper tacos with corn and black bean salsa, along with the succulent Gulf shrimp baked with crabmeat stuffing.

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After lunch we decided to do a little exploring, and were treated to a rainbow of adorable cottages and businesses.

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That evening we were scheduled to meet up with some folks we met online through this blog, Steve and Liza, who offered to give us a "barstool tour" of the area. We happily agreed and made plans to meet up at their favorite local watering hole, Clancy's, which was just across the bridge in Bradenton, but might have been an entire world away.

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Only in Bradenton can you end up dancing to a zydeco band at an Irish tiki bar with a couple of strangers you found on the Internet.

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The band, Gumbo Boogie, bills itself as a unique stew of rock, blues, country, and soul flavored with a pinch of New Orleans. All I know is, they were perfect to (gumbo) boogie down to.

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We ended up befriending the accordion player, Ryan, who invited us out to see the band later that week.

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At an old folks' home.

In a trailer park.

On New Year's Eve.

Of course, I accepted. I mean, I was already hanging out with the only accordion player in Florida under the age of 80 playing Creole-tinged favorites at an Irish tiki bar. How much weirder could things really get?

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In fact, we liked Clancy's so much that the "barstool tour" we'd been promised never actually materialized. When I teasingly mentioned this to Steve, he slid down one stool and said, "See? I was on that barstool, now I'm on this one. It's a tour!"

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While Liza and I tore up the dance floor, Angel and Steve were deep in conversation. As it turns out, Steve, also known as "Dr. G," spent his career teaching and mentoring the most forgotten students in the New York City school system -- those kids, like many Angel himself went to school with, who have a better chance of ending up in a gang, in prison, or dead than graduating high school, let alone college.

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Which explains how one can imbibe too many syrupy rum & Cokes at a kitschy roadside tiki bar and end up being brought to tears by the heartwarming stories of one man's lifelong dedication to making the world a better place.

And just to keep things from getting too sappy, it was at that moment that a motorcycle gang rode up on a bunch of Harleys, and I signaled to Angel that we should probably get out of there before the place turned into "Roadhouse."

It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that what I'd thought was a biker gang was, in fact, a bunch of former NFL players who happen to like zydeco.

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As if the night couldn't get any weirder.

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The next day we decided to do some exploring around Anna Maria, hoping for a bit of normalcy after our nutty night at Clancy's. Apparently, it was not to be.

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And we were still a week away from crashing that New Year's Eve party at the old folks' trailer park.
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CLICK HERE for Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 09:34 Archived in USA Tagged tampa bongos chart_house st_pete_beach anna_maria_island columbia_restaurant Comments (8)

Anna Maria Island, Part 2: Shackin' Up

The next day we decided to do a little shopping in AMI's northernmost neighborhood, Anna Maria village.

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Our favorite among the shops was the charmingly twee Shiny Fish.

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In addition to beach dresses, jewelry, candles, and housewares, the store features a sand-dollar painting area and a little ice cream stand.

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Even the fitting rooms were adorable.

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The owner's husband creates much of the shop's artwork, including these cuter-than-cute magnets.

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After spending the morning oohing and aahing over Shiny Fish's beachy wares, it was time for lunch, so we made the short drive down to the Lido Beach Resort and their oceanfront tiki bar.

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There, we ordered up two fish sammies with key lime aioli on luau bread, along with some peace and quiet.

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The rest of the afternoon was a tough one.

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That evening we had plans to meet up with our friend Sara, who'd recently moved to Sarasota after serving her time in New York City.

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We settled on Jack Dusty, the elegant waterfront bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, which turned out to be the perfect place to relax and get caught up.

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The cocktail list was sophisticated and creative.

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As the sun began to set, the palm trees twinkled with tiny lights while the sky turned a delicate pink.

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Soon it was time to make the short walk over to Social Eatery & Bar for some dinner.

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Social's unique indoor-outdoor setting was perfect for the warm evening.

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Even the water at Social was pretty. But those strawberry torpedoes were another story.

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But I hadn't picked Social for its trendy scene, or its expansive outdoor lounge, or its cozy fire pits, or its scary-shaped fruit. I picked it for The Volcano.

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That, my friends, is a gigantic meatball, surrounded by a mountain of paccheri pasta and filled with bubbly hot lava. (Fine, it was Bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese, but don't ruin this for me.)

As if The Volcano weren't enough, Social's menu has an entire section called the "Meatballeria."

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The old saying is true: You can never be too rich, or have too many meatballs.

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Or too much mac & cheese.

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After dinner we took our drinks -- a blackberry julep, the grapefruit Old Fashioned, and one of the best cocktails I've ever had, the puckerlicious vanilla-bean lemonade martini -- to the outdoor bar, where we got comfy on one of the fireside sofas.

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In addition to great company that night, we'd also gotten a great tip from our waiter at Jack Dusty: Go to Tide Tables in Cortez, where we could find the best fish tacos he'd ever had.

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The forecast promised another day of perfect weather, and Tide Tables was just a short bike ride over the Cortez Bridge, so we gave it a go.

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One of the last working commercial fishing villages on Florida’s Gulf coast, Cortez is replete with quaint waterside seafood shacks, and although Tide Tables is the newest one on the scene, that waiter's advice turned out to be spot-on.

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With its cheery yellow exterior, crushed-shell parking lot, and open-air tiki bar offering a front-row seat to the bustle of activity on the dock, we were already smitten before we even saw the menu.

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And by the time we took one bite of those heavenly fish tacos, it was a full-blown love affair.

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But we shouldn't have been surprised, seeing as how it would be difficult to get fish any fresher.

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As the resident pelicans well know.

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We capped off our perfect lunch by sharing a slice of creamy key lime pie.

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And smuggling out some fish tacos in my purse.

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That evening we headed to SandBar to take in the sunset.

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It had been a long day of biking, so that night we stayed close to home for dinner, at Blue Marlin in Bradenton Beach.

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Housed in a 1920's cottage, Blue Marlin is done up in nautical blue-and-white, with maritime-inspired touches in every nook and cranny.

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The menu included stone crab-stuffed shrimp; lobster and shrimp scampi with leeks and sun-dried tomatoes over linguine in a garlic and white wine sauce; and a classic seafood boil with andouille sausage.

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After dinner we took the remainder of our wine outside to the Trap Yard, Blue Marlin's outdoor garden and live music venue.

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It had been such a nice evening that we weren't quire ready for it to end, so we wandered around a bit to admire the Bradenton Beach Christmas lights.

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We'd enjoyed five days of fun in the sun on Anna Maria, and we still had three more left. Surely that would be enough time to squeeze in another Volcano . . . wouldn't it?
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CLICK HERE for Part 3!
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Posted by TraceyG 11:45 Archived in USA Tagged sandbar ritz-carlton shiny_fish anna_maria lido_beach_resort jack_dusty social_eatery tide_tables mar_vista blue_marlin wicked_cantina Comments (6)

Anna Maria Island, Part 3: A New Year's Rockin' Eve

The next day we took a spin around the island on our bikes, starting at Coquina Beach and ending up in the canal-front neighborhoods on Key Royale.

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We'd worked up quite an appetite, so for lunch we decided to take it easy with a little bit of "Old Florida" at Mar Vista, on the northernmost end of Longboat Key.

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Mar Vista is one of the twelve oldest surviving structures on Longboat Key and is the former residence of one Rufus Jordan, who played a significant role in settling Longboat during the early 1900s.

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The large shade trees created the perfect setting for a relaxing lunch.

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We split an order of lightly fried calamari, then moved on to the burrata and arugula focaccia sandwich with truffle-balsamic glaze for me, and the blackened grouper sandwich for Angel.

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By the time evening rolled around, we were still feeling pretty stuffed from our lunch at Mar Vista, and pretty lazy from our around-the-island bike ride. And so, in lieu of a proper dinner, we decided to pop over to Wicked Cantina for a snack.

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The next day brought another perfect blue sky. We decided to take advantage by squeezing in a little beach time before lunch.

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We chose the beach in front of SandBar, with its white sand, clear water, and proximity to rum drinks.

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When it was time to eat, we simply moved a little further up the beach to the restaurant, where we kicked things off with a slab of focaccia dipped in spicy oil, along with an order of crunchy fried conch fritters.

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Blistered heirloom cherry tomatoes + fresh basil + balsamic syrup + creamy dollops of ricotta = the best thing to come out of a cast-iron skillet since macaroni & cheese.

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After lunch, we did a little more shopping. Or, rather, I shopped, while Angel politely pretended to be interested in sundresses and beach coverups.

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We also stopped by one of AMI's most unique spots, the Rod and Reel Pier.

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A working fishing pier combined with an over-water restaurant that serves $3 beers, Rod and Reel is about as casual as you can get without venturing out in your undies.

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We took a long walk on a short pier, slowing our pace to enjoy the glorious breeze off the water.

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Starfish Company was on the agenda for dinner, but a two-hour wait was not, so we headed back to Social in Sarasota for my new favorite cocktail (the vanilla-bean lemonade martini) and my new favorite entrée named for a potential natural disaster (The Volcano).

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Afterwards, we poked around St. Armand's Circle for a bit, then called it a night.

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The next morning marked our last full day, which means I had gone an entire week without a cheeseburger. That's like going a week without brushing your teeth: It can be done, but it's not recommended. And so we jumped on our bikes and raced over to Skinny's Place, an island institution known for its good old-fashioned burgers.

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The place was pretty crowded, but eventually Angel was able to move to the big kids' table.

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Me, I'd have sat on a kid for one of these burgers.

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Those colossal onion rings weren't too shabby, either.

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After lunch we rode around Holmes Beach for a bit, where we came upon this little path to the beach tucked among the palm fronds.

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At the end of the path was the most magical tree house I'd ever seen. (No offense, Dad, the one you built me was nice, too.)

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Suddenly the skies began to cloud over, so we snapped a few pictures and then pedaled away as fast as we could, hoping to avoid getting caught in a downpour.

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We made it home with time to spare, and as soon as the sun returned, we headed over to the Bridge Street area in Bradenton Beach for a little mini golf.

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Of course, I couldn't hit one of those holes if I was playing with a wrecking ball, but at least I am a good sport about it.

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By the time Angel was done thoroughly annihilating me, it was late afternoon, so we headed across the street to The Beach House for sunset.

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The restaurant was decked out in hundreds of balloons for New Year's Eve.

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But we only had time for one quick cocktail, because we had New Year's Eve plans of our own.

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Those plans involved crashing a BYOB New Year's Eve party at an old folks' home in a trailer park in Palmetto, where a zydeco band we'd seen earlier in the week would be playing. The accordion player, our new friend Ryan, had told us he'd put us "on the list," even though we weren't sure there would actually be a list at this shindig.

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Sure enough, there wasn't, and so we found ourselves in the unusual position of trying to talk our way into a party where the hot single guys were the ones with all their original teeth and at least one of their original hip joints.

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We somehow managed to charm our way in and saw ourselves to a festively decorated table, where we popped open the wine we'd brought and took in the scene.

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What we found was not a room full of decrepit old folks with canes and walkers, but a crowd of attractive, vivacious retirees who danced, flirted, and drank like it was spring break in Daytona circa 1991. It gave us hope, yes, but more importantly, it gave us courage: It wasn't long before we joined them on the dance floor, relishing the opportunity to show off our 45-year-old knees.

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In fact, at the end of the evening, we surprised ourselves by accepting a handful of the community's brochures, impressed by how lively and spirited everyone had been.

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And I am not even going to mention that the gate code was 6969.
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Where to next? Come along on a "best of" tour of Philly, a fritter-eating contest in the Conch Republic (the smart money's on yours truly!), one very hoppin' hula hut in the Hamptons, a luggage-less trip to Anguilla, and a "journalistic" trip to...Cuba! Click here to subscribe and you'll receive an email from Travellerspoint when a new post goes up.

Meantime, follow me on Instagram @escape.from.new.york to see what we're eating and drinking in the Big Apple!

Posted by TraceyG 08:54 Archived in USA Tagged beach_house anna_maria_island mar_vista skinnys_place bradenton_beach Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]