It only takes about three minutes for the sun to disappear after it touches the horizon, but perhaps nowhere on the planet is that time celebrated with more passion than Anna Maria Island.
Watching the sunset is a cherished ritual on this sleepy barrier island, about 20 miles west of Bradenton in Manatee County. Visitors and locals alike gather on the beaches to savor the dimming of the day, an ordinary event extraordinary enough to inspire spontaneous applause.
"In Anna Maria, the sunset is a celebration," says Kathy Wooten, manager of the Queen's Gate Resort, one of the many mom-and-pop hotels that dot the three towns — Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria — on the seven-mile slip of island. "If you come here, it's the one thing you have to do."
Clapping is optional, of course.
It always seems to happen, though, whether on a secluded stretch of sand or at the iconic Sandbar restaurant on the north end of Anna Maria. In this spot, diners have gathered to watch the ritual since 1913, when a restaurant known as "The Pavilion" entertained guests who could only reach the island by boat.
Nowadays, the Sandbar features dining either indoors or on an outdoor deck with some of the tables perched on the sand itself. Employees and patrons alike stop to watch the show on the horizon, which is acknowledged by the ringing of a bell — and applause, of course.
Such simple pleasures are the essence of the Anna Maria experience, which offers few concessions to the era of high-rise development or flashy tourist gimmicks.
"I think it's been relatively undiscovered until recently, maybe the past five years," says Charlotte Mansur, co-owner of Mr. Bones, another landmark restaurant that melds Indian dishes and barbecue in a setting with funky art, a coffin-shaped beer cooler and a strict policy of no condiments in the dining room.
"It's always been a very sleepy little island," says Mansur, adding that city officials watched the explosion of development in nearby St. Petersburg and took a different approach. "There's no chain stores, no buildings over three-stories high. The charm is that it's like Old Florida and that's the way we want to keep it."
A slice of Anna Maria's history can be found at Skinny's Place, a weathered wood-and-screen shanty known for its burgers and beers since 1952. It was the vision of Carl "Skinny" Freeman, who first visited Anna Maria on his honeymoon in 1936 and later ran the place when he wasn't busy racing cars and fishing. Pictures of his adventures line the cluttered walls of the tiny one-room bar, where the wait for a Skinny burger is measured by beers (1 and 3/4 beers) on a tiny blackboard.
It's cash-only at the burger joint, as it is for the daily all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage breakfast tradition at Café on the Beach, across main-drag Gulf Drive at the public Manatee Public Beach at Holmes Beach.
Pancakes and palm trees are an odd combination, but since the island is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the west, Tampa Bay on the north, Longboat Pass on the south and Sarasota Bay on the east, there's nothing to do here that's too far from the water.
Sailing, parasailing, snorkeling, shelling and kayaking are popular diversions. Or rent a scooter to explore the north end of the island, where there's shopping at an assortment of cute boutiques such as Ginny and Jane E's at the Old IGA, a bakery café with smoothies, sandwiches, antiques and island-related art.
To the south, a side trip to the Mote Marine Laboratory, across Sarasota Bay, is well worth the short drive with its fun and educational exhibits featuring sharks, manatees, dolphins and endangered sea turtles. A good rainy-day option.
On the Tampa Bay side of Anna Maria, there's a fine view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at either of two rustic landmarks, the Rod and Reel Pier or the Anna Maria Island City Pier. The latter boasts more elbow room in its restaurant, but the cramped space at the Rod and Reel has a salty personality of its own.
When my waitress asked, "Maybe I should bring you a quarter to decide?" as I lingered a bit too long over the menu, I detected a little edge to the humor.
Not far from the City Pier is the AMI Historical Society Museum. It's worth a short visit if only to appreciate that Esther Williams filmed part of her 1948 film On an Island With You on Anna Maria, although the famous swimming pool scenes were done at Cypress Gardens.
Next to the museum is the historic Roser Memorial Community Church, a nondenominational worship house built in 1913. The sanctuary is still open weekdays for meditation and prayer, with a list of prayer requests by visitors on a podium by the door.
The church is a popular site for weddings, which have become a budding business on the old-fashioned island.
Sunsets illuminate charms of Anna Maria Island
Watching the sunset is a serious ritual in Anna Maria Island. (BRADENTON AREA CVB)