Sun, sand, sustainability: Anna Maria Island excels at ecotourism
Reach out and grab a leaf. Go on. Now pop it in your mouth. It's the moringa plant, ounce for ounce one of the most nutritious plants on earth, which tastes like a cross between a bean and a pea.
Now look over there. It's a Seminole pumpkin. You can pick that, too, and tuck it into your handbag before you walk into this boutique. Perfectly legal, in fact encouraged.
It's like Willie Wonka, an edible landscape just daring you to munch away (although no snozberries).
The Pine Avenue Restoration Project, 11 modest low-rise cottages, residences over retail, has catapulted Anna Maria Island to the center of the nation's sustainable tourism, eco-travel conversation. Recently, AMI was named one of the world's top islands by Condé Nast Traveler readers (No. 26), and a group from the United Nations and emissaries from the Patel College of Global Sustainability visited Anna Maria's Pine Avenue to use it as a model for successful green tourism.
Green, eco, sustainable: Each of these terms has a subtly different focus, but the overall idea is that an increasing number of travelers want to make only a positive impact on the environment, the host community and the economy, carefully maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
I just wanted to have a birthday weekend with my mom, drink a little wine with our feet in the sand (a prescription that if administered effectively inoculates against all manner of family discord). I wanted to book a cute little cottage and start my Christmas shopping, rent a sturdy beach cruiser and get in some vitamin D therapy.
A PITCHED BATTLE
In 2007, Ed Chiles, Michael Coleman and Ted LaRoche started the investment group Pine Avenue Restoration to purchase historic cottages along the street. Their vision was a residential/office/retail half mile that harkened back to old Anna Maria. The street was at risk of going all residential (seriously prime real estate), and with only 1 percent of the land in the city of Anna Maria zoned commercial, they couldn't afford to lose the small business district.
Sounds innocuous, but Anna Maria residents have a reputation for being feisty. They are skeptical of "progress," leery of hordes of tourists, adamant that their island not become Disney-fied like those impossibly perfect towns of the Beaches of South Walton. A political brouhaha ensued, with City Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus leading the charge against PAR: "They are destroying our town!"
Stoltzfus ended up being the city's first commissioner to face a recall, and Chiles and company got their way, completing their vision for Pine Avenue in 2013.
We rented Guest Cottage 218, one of nine lovely second-story rentals above shops and restaurants, with vibrant local art, a nice private pool and wide-planked floors made from 100-year-old logs found on river bottoms from when the area had virgin-timber logging operations. Dumping our overnight bags we headed downstairs to Poppo's for a tremendous taco and quesadilla, the pork in them sourced from trapped nuisance hogs, the beef organic and grass-fed.
Time for a walk. Pine Avenue has done away with sidewalks and lawns, soft sand beneath your flip-flops and the landscaping 100 percent native and "a little on the scruffy side," admits landscape designer Michael Miller. Dotting the path are 16 community edible gardens bristly with tufts of Okinawa spinach and Ethiopian kale (Miller says landscape with natives, garden with exotics), and toward one end is something called the Anna Maria Historic Green Village.
This is the vision of Mike and Lizzie Thrasher, one of only 100 developments worldwide to achieve platinum LEED certification and Zero Net Energy (generating more electricity than it uses). There are three 100-year-old cottages, plus a 1935 Sears Catalog cutie, that have been retrofitted with crazy eco bells and whistles: A dozen spots on the campus post signs and pictures to illustrate the details of the solar panels, rainwater collection system, native landscaping and more. Even if "green building" leaves you cold, there's a charming jewelry and gift store, an art gallery and Anna Maria Outfitters, a manly-man shop that sells fishing gear, outdoors equipment and even indestructible dog toys. (Turns out, not not-entirely-indestructible for my poodle.)
We waffled on bike rentals on this chilly November day, leaving the village to wander by Beach Bums and admire the fat-tired cruisers before deciding to hoof it instead. We tasted cheese at Anna Maria Olive Oil Outpost, the maiden tenant of PAR, then noodled through the "beach glam" merchandise at Shiny Fish, flipped through the funny illustrations and cards at Emerson Quillin's shop, looked at the painted home goods at A Room With a Hue and then hung out for a bit at the coffeehouse/flea market/watering hole called Ginny and Jane E's around the corner from Pine Avenue on Gulf Drive, with its "nothing succeeds like excess" aesthetic.
Still on foot, we took the requisite selfie at the open-air Anna Maria City Jail, pressed our noses against the historical museum windows (rats, closes at 1 p.m.), and then went back to our guest cottage for a bath and a nap. Refreshed, we grabbed a shawl and ate a satisfying fried shrimp dinner at one of the beach-view outdoor tables at the Waterfront Restaurant, located at the end of Pine right at the foot of the city pier.
Too chilly for a cone from the much-loved Two Scoops, we vowed to save up those calories for a doughnut from Anna Maria Donuts the next morning before flipping downward dog in beach yoga. (It's free on Sunday mornings at 8:30 on the beach near the Sandbar, donations only.) One thing I like about my mom is her willingness to go with the flow. After eating said early-morning confection, perhaps the best cake doughnut I ever ate, yoga didn't quite work out. But we did not cave and get a second doughnut (Mom's idea).
Instead we ambled over to Ed Chiles' Sandbar for brunch on the beach. The setting sublime, it sits precisely where in 1912 a pavilion was built to accommodate the 400 or so folks who came over every day by steamer ferry to go to the baths and order nickel Cokes they called "dopes." This was just a year after the city was platted and the city pier built by Charles Roser, the Fig Newton baron.
There are no nickel Cokes these days at the Sandbar, but a menu of organic produce from Chiles' Gamble Creek Farm, local bottarga and fresh gulf finfish and shellfish makes a few things clear: Progress is not all bad, and even if the Pine Avenue Restoration Project represents a 21st century vision of this beach town, it is one that pays careful homage to its Old Florida roots.