Florida Travel – Anna Maria Island Unplugged

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BY CINDY COCKBURN

I first discovered Anna Maria Island while meandering along the Gulf of Mexico preparing to write my first book.  My Frommer’s Guide to Florida assignment featuring the West Coast was published over 20 years ago.  Not much has changed. Back then, the seven-mile-long, eco-friendly Anna Maria was way, way off anybody’s radar. Today, it’s been rated the third best island in the U.S. by Trip Advisor.

While only an hour south of St. Pete, it’s a gigantic step back in time. My description from years ago is still the same: “Give yourself a gift and visit in the afternoon, end up at the Beach Bistro for a fabulous sunset happy hour on the beach and make reservations well in advance for a spectacular gourmet dinner.”

There’s nothing more romantic after a fab dinner overlooking the Gulf than a night at the charming Harrington House (5626 Gulf Drive), located a short walk away from the Beach Bistro.

BEACH BISTRO

The restaurant is located on Holmes Beach (6600 Gulf Drive) and has consistently been awarded the highest ZAGAT scores in the state of Florida for “Best Food,” and has been honored with inclusion in ZAGAT’s “Top Restaurants in America.” The Bistro also boasts a long-standing Wine Spectator Award.

The Bistro’s beachfront location on the beautiful white-sand beaches of Anna Maria Island, overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, makes this an evening to be remembered.  Applause for the fresh grouper, Prime American beef, domestic lamb and the “best Smoked Salmon in the free world.”

Accolades over three decades include:

Los Angeles Times – “One of Florida’s best restaurants”
New York Times – “Remarkable smoked salmon…perfectly cooked grouper…beautiful wine list…fabulous sunsets over the Gulf”
Food & Wine – “Exceptional…almost like being at Sea”
Gourmet Magazine – “Most Romantic Restaurants in America”
Southern Living – “There’s not a more magical spot”

The Beach Bistro was opened by Sean Murphy and his wife, Susan Timmins, in the fall of 1985. The opening was dramatic and traumatic, having emerged from the throes of a hurricane that pounded the windows. Today, it’s survived many storms.

I love sitting at the intimate bar watching Murphy (a mini-celeb in his own right) hosting locals and visitors who have been repeat customers for years.  Brit super star golfer Tony Jacklin was dining there during my recent visit and I saw his name on the menu – The Tony Jacklin Bombay Sapphire Martini with Maytag blue cheese olives.

 HARRINGTON HOUSE

You won’t find valet, room service, golf, tennis or a spa, but you will find a charming family-run bed and breakfast inn with a casual, comfy atmosphere that brides in particular fall in love with.  On weekends, you can usually expect a wedding setup on the beach fronting the inn.

 Jo Davis is the owner of the Harrington House offering what she calls “casual elegance on the beach.” She turned her home into a B&B in February 1989, and is still working there. You’ll find her greeting repeat guests in the lobby by name, from all over the US, Canada, Europe and beyond.  

 The inn has expanded over the years and now offers guests the options of beach house, motel, bungalows, and condos, with lots of renovations in 28 years. You can count on breakfast and afternoon tea served inside the original home.  

 The Harrington House does a big business catering to small beach weddings.  I call it bare bones weddings.  All romance.  No glitter. Back to basics!