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    Tuesday, 7 April 2015

    A Magical Family Vacation on Anna Maria Island

    It initially started as a family compromise…. a slightly begrudging, 'we’ll do the Disney thing for the kids', but then it’s a grown up beach vacation to relax and re-cooperate for the second halve.

    What we discovered, however was that the Anna Maria Island ( the grown up beach vacation) part was in fact the best family getaway we had ever had, and made for a truly magical time with us and our little ones that we didn't actually get in the magic of Disney.


    We can’t say we didn't have a great time at Disney - ignoring the long queuing for rides in the heat, the pure exhaustion of ten theme parks in seven days; it was so worthwhile seeing my three year old open mouthed and beside herself with excitement when Cinderella gave her a cuddle and told her what a beautiful Princess she was following her visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique! And hearing the screams and seeing the utter exhilaration on the face of my eight year old as she whipped around at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour on the Rocket Rollercoaster at Universal for the 17th time in a row!

    As you can imagine the girls I have to say, were a little disappointed when our seven days of theme park fun came to an end and we headed off for our beach stint on Anna Maria Island in Florida’s Gulf Islands.

    The drive itself along the I75 was so easy and we were there in less than two hours.  As soon as we arrived, we (the parents), could already sense the ‘300 miles an hour less speed’ that we had been ‘enjoying’ for the last week!

    Cherryfish Anna Maria Island

    We stayed at a Pineapplefish home, which are deemed to be some of the best and certainly the most unique rentals on the island. We were certainly not disappointed with Cherryfish! A really fantastic four bed rental on the edge of Tampa Bay Beach. The décor was just incredible, so much so I wanted to go home and try (and no doubt fail) to repeat it in my house!

    We loved the family environment that the villa provided with its open plan spacing. We discovered that Cherryfish was in fact the owner’s old home, so it was full of really fabulous furniture, a stunning kitchen, a massive top end plasma and some real high tech gadgets. Including speakers everywhere that played music in the house and outside, which I loved whilst we were enjoying a BBQ and the fantastic pool…which was a lot!

    Our Stay at Cherryfish on Anna Maria Island

    We were on Anna Maria Island for seven nights, and all four of us were united in saying that we wish we could have had longer and would have even sacrificed a couple of days at Disney to do that!

    Anna Maria Island Cycling

    One of our most favorite pastimes was probably the simplest of things…bike riding…! Anna Maria encourages a number of sustainable programs, one of which is green transportation. Bike riding is encouraged and supported by the island traffic regulations, there are cycle parks at every commercial property, and car speed is restricted to a maximum of 35mph and has to give priority to riders.

    This is fantastic for enabling an eight year old to have her own bike and for us parents to feel safe in that! We hired our bikes from Beach Bums, a very cute store on Pine Avenue that provide all sorts of rental products for families; bikes, golf carts (another great way of getting round the island!) and kayaks! They were brilliant in getting us all kitted out and with all the necessary safety gear for the girls.

    There is also a free island trolley bus, which is sponsored by a number of businesses. Arriving every 15 minutes at a number of bus stops, it travels the entire length of the island and is a great, fun and free way to get around!  You can even strap your bikes to the front, so you can carry on cycling wherever you go!

    Beach Bums on Anna Maria Island is the perfect place to rent golf carts, bikes and more!

    Anna Maria Beaches 

    We also absolutely loved the beach.

    Sandcastles and Ice Cream on Anna Maria Island's White Beaches

    White sand, clear blue, warm water, sunbathing, sandcastles and ice cream. Who doesn't love that! Our favourite beach was Tampa Bay, not just because it was so close to our rental, but because it was very quiet and had the City Pier as a backdrop, which we loved to walk along each morning and watch the fishermen at work.

    We would also often enjoy a drink at the little bar or some lunch in the restaurant. Although probably my favourite restaurant on the island, The Waterfront and Two Scoops ice cream parlour were also just across the road! Perfect.

    A real treat for the girls was a Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Tour! Loggerhead Turtles are a common species on the island and, as we discovered on our tour and play a vital role in the island’s ecosystem. Supporting the marine habitat by grazing on sea grass but also by providing key nutrients that promote the healthy growth of vegetation that is crucial for other marine life.

    Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Tour on Anna Maria Island

    Unfortunately this species of turtle are facing extinction, not just from boats, littering and fishing nets, but bright lights on buildings and cars which can cause disorientation when turtles go back to the sea after hatching and follow what they believe to be the moonlight.

    The Island Turtle Watch offer nesting tours at this time of year; whereby volunteers like us can arrive at 7am every Wednesday morning between June and July and wander the beaches learning about these beautiful creatures, searching for nests by analyzing the tracks an adult female has left and determining if it’s a false crawl or if it has resulted in a nest. We then helped in making the nest safe, placing bright yellow posts and taping around them to highlight them to the beach users. They then indicate on these posts the approximate hatch time of any nest on the island! It was such a cool thing to do! A fantastic hands on biology lesson in an incredible setting. Our eldest daughter Darcy even did a school presentation on the subject when she got home.

    Island Turtle Watch on Anna Maria Island

    Anna Maria Water Activities

    One of my most favorite activities while we were there was a Sunset Sail, a late afternoon two-hour trip around Tampa Bay on a beautiful Catamaran, culminating in watching what is a truly breathtaking sunset over the bay - what an experience! I cannot recommend this trip enough. We packed our own little picnic with beers and wine for the grown-ups, and sat at the front of the boat with nothing to spoil our view of the water (other than our feet) and just enjoyed the beauty of Mother Nature. It was wonderful, and the kids loved it, a truly magical experience!

    Enjoying a Sunset Sail on a Catamaran off of Anna Maria Island

    Sunset over Anna Maria Island

    We went with Kathleen D Sailing Catamarans. They were fabulous and also offer lots of other types of trips; including a Dolphin Watch and Egmont Key Adventure, a five hour round trip to remote Egmont Island an uninhabited island that divides Tampa Bay from the Gulf Islands. This trip includes kayaking, shelling, shelling, snorkeling and lunch.

    The kids preferred just a little more exercise on the water so we took a guided kayak tour around the Robinson Preserve, with Captain Scott from Beach Bums. The Robinson Preserve is a 487-acre peninsula that wraps around Tampa Bay’s southern tip into the Perico Bay. It is the largest habitat restoration in the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. After elegantly (not!) getting my behind into the kayak with my eldest daughter and my husband and youngest in the second; we began our group tour with a discussion of the mangrove ecosystem and its role in the Florida ecology whilst slowly maneuvering along a fringe of red mangroves where we saw lots of fish that are protected in the roots. Although we didn’t see any, the Anna Maria Sound that we passed through is where dolphins usually herd fish into the shallow waters. What I realized was so beautiful about this trip as I tried to keep my splashing oars to a minimum was how wonderfully quiet and serine it was as we meandered down the waterways. My girls absolutely loved being on the water, kayaking (although my husband and I were actually doing all the work), and halfway through the trip we were able to get out on a mangrove island and view fish eggs, hermit crabs and mullet jumping around. Our trip lasted two and half hours but can take up to three dependent on the season and skill level of the paddlers (nil, in our case!).

    There is so much to do on the water here. Deep-sea fishing, parasailing, jet skiing, paddle boarding, and kayaking to name a few. We heard good things about these two companies from people we met around the island…

    One of the things we didn't get to do, which was a real shame but is on the agenda for next time was horseback riding on the beach. Beach Horses in Bradenton Beach (about 10 minutes in the car) offer kids and adults the chance to ride horses along the beach and then into to the beautiful Palma Sola Bay. Sounds amazing and we can’t wait to try that next time!

    Sweet Treats 

    Being on Anna Maria Island, felt like a lifetime away from being Disney-fied merely a few days before. But, there was a little reminder of the sweet delights that adorned the stores in the theme parks by way of the Donut Experiment and the Candy Store. Both on Pine Avenue, they are actually quite good fun. Go into the Donut Experiment and fill out a card to indicate which donut type and what enormous array of toppings you are going to have on it. I’m a simple girl at heart, so a straight forward caramel glaze was perfect for me but the girls enjoyed seeing their donut get dunked in every topping available; fruity pebbles, Oreo cookies, chocolate sprinkles, rainbow sprinkles, peanut butter drizzle and M&M’s amongst others! Gross to a parent, but they loved it (and as a responsible Mum, I would like to point out we only went there once…OK, I went a second time, when I went on a bike ride early morning by myself, but that’s between us!).

    We cannot wait to go back to Anna Maria Island and do all the other things we just didn't have time to do. We tried things that none of us had ever done before and discovering them together as a family made it that extra bit special for all of us.

    We really did have a more family oriented and more magical time on Anna Maria, something that Disney would never be able to replicate!

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