In my home state of Florida, it is often difficult to come by a square foot of land that is not occupied by a tourist. Whether I’m taking a stroll in my neighborhood, braving the sea of people at Disney World, or driving on Hellish I-4, it’s almost impossible to escape the droves of people flooding into our small peninsula by the minute. So it’s been hard to have a quiet, relaxing day at the beach- at least until I discovered Anna Maria Island.
Now I am trusting you, dear reader, that you will not tell too many of your friends about this hidden gem of Florida islands, as I really don’t want to have to look for another uncrowded beach.
Initially, when your car exits the final causeway at Manatee Beach, it doesn’t feel so different than any other Florida beach. But take a right on Gulf Drive to head further north on the island and the entire atmosphere completely transforms. This is where the locals reside, the roads too twisting and numerous for the stereotypical tourist to navigate.
The golf-club-shaped Island of Anna Maria is located on Florida’s west coast on the Gulf of Mexico- an area sometimes unknown to many tourists visiting Florida, who generally stick to the east coast beaches of Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Daytona, Cocoa, Vero, Jupiter, Palm, and Miami. But the west coast is a completely different landscape- islands of all shapes, sizes, and forms twist and turn among shallow, picturesque blue-green waters. The beaches are often blindingly white, the sand hugging your feet like a dense cloud (not that I would know what that feels like, but still). And finally, you get an awesome sunset over the Gulf. Granted, beaches like Clearwater and Siesta Key have gained fame for their beautiful settings, and have consequently become tourist meccas. But lots of beaches still remain local secrets, and they are simply heavenly.
Anna Maria is on the south side of Tampa Bay, west of the city of Bradenton. It’s a 2 hour and 15 minute trek from where I live (which I’m guessing is a reason why the Orlando tourists never venture here), but it’s so worth it that I’ve driven down there after lunchtime to catch the afternoon and sunset, and driven back in the same day.
What makes me so giddy about this place? Two words: Bean Point. Situated at the northernmost tip of the island, this beach is the furthest away from the crowds of Holmes and Bradenton Beaches. Parking is sparse (but present), and the walkway to the beach is difficult to come by if you’re not searching for it- meaning that you won’t have a problem with crowds on even the loveliest summer day. There aren’t any facilities save for a couple of benches and a trash can, but that’s a price you have to pay for the absence of people.
The sand at Bean actually wraps around the point, from the northeastern side on the bay (that has a great view of the Sunshine Skyway) to the stretch of sand that runs on the western side of the island all the way down to Coquina Beach at the south. At Bean, the sand literally makes a point, so you can swim from the bay (possibly watching some huge ships sail out of the passage) to the Gulf proper. The beach here makes a sort of cove, a rarity among the long expanses of Florida sands, sheltered by a sandbar further out to sea. At low tide, the water recedes so far out that parts of the sandbar become islets themselves: gathering places for seagulls and pelicans and great places to look for sand dollars. The sand has the consistency of sifted flour, and is the perfect place to go shelling.
A walk further south of Bean Point brings you to where the waves actually break onto the shore. Here, I’ve seen groups of stingrays swimming along the sandy bottom, and even dolphins leaping from the water further out to sea. Wildlife abounds over on the bay side, too, with cranes, rays, and even crabs scurrying across the sand. Sunsets at Bean Point are up there with the outright prettiest in Florida, and it’s really special to watch them from the inches-deep water of the sandbar.
After an idyllic day in the Florida sunshine (look at me- what am I writing, a travel brochure?), it’s a long drive back. But is that such a bad drawback to visiting an unspoiled paradise? Certainly not in this state, where places like Anna Maria are utter treasures. Even though I’ve now shared Bean Point with the world, perhaps the scarcity of parking will keep the level of tourists to an acceptable level; and I’ll continue to enjoy eating Cheetos on the beach, as the sun with a similar color sinks below the Gulf waves.