There may be no better endorsement for Anna Maria Island as a destination for kids than the reaction of my son on the day he arrived. Just five hours after disembarking a Disney cruise that was as remarkable as expected, 5-year-old Gabriel was in a kayak drifting through a sheltered lake surrounded by mangrove trees and ibis nests. No mouse ears or super-hero encounters or virtual role-playing games. Just nature, quiet and refreshing.
We had driven across the state from the port at Cape Canaveral to the beautiful island that neighbours the city of Bradenton, a suburb of Tampa. On the drive, I worried if Gabriel would be disappointed about the activities ahead, given his utter amazement with his Disney experience. I felt he might be bored with the itinerary, but both my son and our destination surprised me.
Anna Maria Island turned out to be a quaint, historic, and blissfully charming oasis that is distinct from other parts of the Sunshine State. It reminded us of the Canadian Maritimes, with sublime coastal scenery and plenty of opportunities to spark a child’s imagination. Beginning with the glass-bottom kayak tour.
The unique two-person vessels are owned by Get Up and Go Kayaking, a tour operator that guides groups through notable inland waters of the southern U.S., including at Robinson Preserve on Anna Maria Island. Sitting in front of me as I paddled, Gabriel kept an eye out for aquatic wonders both below his feet and swimming around the boat. Or, leaping in front of it. The silver-scaled mullet, a favourite fish of the Bradenton area, is known to fly out of the water to increase its oxygen intake and then cause a commotion when it splashes back in. On the kayak tour, the mullets kept the sense of excitement going through the trip, which led us to Tampa Bay for views of the St. Petersburg skyline across the water. It was an exhilarating introduction to a destination that left our family utterly bemused by the end of our stay.
Anna Maria Island is a thin seven-mile stretch of sandy land shaped like a sailfish. It has five beaches, a long and eye-catching wooden pier, and the fishing village of Cortez that is famed for the volumes of stone crab it harvests, sustainably. Despite the fact that it is only an hour’s drive south of Tampa and 30 minutes north of another significant city, Sarasota, Anna Maria Island is void of urban bustle. The streets are tidy and quirky, with inspired local shops that you can’t find anywhere else. Kids will adore the Shiny Fish Emporium, where they can make crafts like decorated sand dollars and collect souvenirs of the island.
Beyond the isle, there is more to explore in Bradenton — all of it wonderfully educational and a parent-pleasing change from the theme parks of Orlando. I was mesmerized watching my son being educated about net fishing and coastal sea life by John Freeman, who operates Around the Bend Eco-tours. Freeman, an environmental scientist and professor at the University of South Florida, specializes in teaching school groups about the natural world of the state’s Gulf Coast.
“I think what we do here is offer a viable service to the community by showcasing the nature and sustainable efforts being made in Manatee County,” says Freeman, who has recently expanded to offer small group tours to the public. “Eco-tours like ours complement the traditional theme park experience and we can show the other side of Florida that isn’t as well known. What you can experience by engaging with nature is really so important, especially for kids. As an educator, I know that it’s important to be balancing their screen time with hands-on nature experiences. You can’t do this in a game. Just being out here can make them feel like they have the urge to change their daily activities and their lives.”
Bradenton is located in Manatee County and that namesake mammal is a star attraction at the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, a marvellous three-in-one facility that can easily fill a child’s day with play and learning. Along with the museum that features a woolly mammoth bone and 4,000-year-old Indigenous artifacts, Bishop includes a planetarium where attendees can lean back and watch films about the heavens play on an IMAX-style screen above their heads. And then there is the manatee rehabilitation centre that has a pair of the “sea cows” swimming in a tank and taking advantage of the dozens of pounds of lettuce their caretakers provide for them each day. Once each manatee weighs 600 pounds, it will be evaluated for release back into the wild.
As you can imagine, the questions from Gabriel that followed exemplified a child’s thirst for knowledge and security: What’s “rehabilitation” mean? How did the manatees get hurt? Where’s their mommy? The encounter broadened his understanding of the world, including the tricky issue of the relationship between humans and the planet. It provided a chance for a meaningful conversation about where he might fit into civilization’s aspiration to nurture the earth and sea.
At the end of his Florida adventure, he declared his first day on the Disney Wish as the best day of his life and the three days of hands-on learning about the natural world on the west coast of the state as the best experience of his life. That declaration caused my eyes to bloom and left me convinced about the virtues of the Bradenton area. I arrived hoping that the destination would balance the dizzying entertainment of Florida’s most famous company with doses of traditional analogue fun. During our stay, it did that and much more. My kindergartener returned home to nature-filled British Columbia having connected with a part of the planet that enriched his sense of what it means to explore. While Disney, in many ways, focused on an escape from reality, Bradenton immersed Gabriel in the present. He innately seemed to understand that both experiences are worthy of appreciation, equating them in one basic yet vital way: Disney and Bradenton, miles apart from each other and completely separate in what they offer, made him feel happy. And that is why he can’t wait to return, and neither can I.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE BRADENTON AREA
Where to Stay: Compass Hotel Anna Maria Sound is located just outside of Anna Maria Island, allowing the property to exceed the height restriction for buildings of that destination. The six-storey property features 123 rooms, each attractively appointed, making for a pleasant and inviting visit. The amenities include an outdoor pool and a Margaritaville restaurant on the lobby level. There is also the excellent Floridays eatery next to pool (try the meaty Virginia oysters and the grouper bites). Room Rates: A weekend night in March starts at $409 USD (about $555 CAD), based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine.
What to Do: Get Up and Go Kayaking: The glass-bottom tour also includes the chance to climb a wood-framed tower that offers a scenic view of the Tampa Bay area. Cost: $59.50 (adults), $54.50 (kids, 3-12 years old).
Around the Bend Eco-Tour: Come in shorts or roll up your pants, and let John Freeman lead you into the shallow water with a net for catching-and-releasing tiny sea life. Freeman educates the kids about the creatures they bring up. Cost: To book a private tour, email Freeman at email@example.com or telephone 1-941-228-5938 for custom pricing.
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature: Plan for at least a half-day visit to the facility. The 4D planetarium shows are roughly 20 minutes long. Cost (when booked online): $25 (adults), $16 (kids, 5-17); free (kids 4 years old and younger).
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Disclosure: Visit Bradenton and Visit Florida supported the visit by Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi and his family. Neither Visit Bradenton, Visit Florida nor any business or organization reviewed the article before it was published.