Anna Maria Island -- a slender 7-mile slip of Gulf sand balanced atop the crooked crab claw of north Longboat Key -- is a slow-motion kind of place.
Sit a spell and taste the brine of the sea air as it bites softly at the back of your throat. Kick off your shoes and feel the sand sucked from under your feet as the lapping surf is pulled languidly back to sea. Spread a beach towel and watch the glide of the sun as it disappears behind water that looks as if it's dancing under the spangled light of a disco ball.
Take a deep breath. Turn off the cell phone. You're here, and that's enough.
Anna Maria introduces itself with the long sigh of a causeway that carries Manatee Avenue to its flank from mainland Bradenton. Near the water, two towheaded boys toss a football; fishermen bow their heads over their lines; and a large man holds a stout white cross against his shoulder -- "Jesus loves you" is scrawled on it. When he waves, passers-by wave back dutifully, as if heaven is taking note.
The road glides onto the island, T-boning into Gulf Drive in the town of Holmes Beach, where a sign flaps in the sea breeze above the entrance of Cafe on the Beach, a long, lean building spread upon the sand: "We're glad you're here."
And you should be too.
Park in the wispy shade of an Australian pine and bring your appetite inside for crisp Belgian waffles, grill-fresh hot dogs and flaky grouper sandwiches. Savor a first glimpse of the island's Gulf shore, which spreads like a lumpy carpet beyond the cafe's plastic tables and chairs, sloping down to vivid emerald water in a swoop of blinding white.
The scene is postcard perfect: Families cluster around the spread of beach towels; a couple huddle in the scant shade of a hibiscus-red umbrella; a small blond boy runs with a kite that flutters like a gull in his wake.
With its pristine beaches, diverse restaurants and eclectic shops and galleries, Anna Maria could drown itself in advertising hyperbole. Yet a visitors guide sums up its allure simply: "Paradise without attitude."
It is a family's playground, a couple's getaway, a fisherman's haven. Poets find rhapsody among the island's sea oats; artists discover inspiration in its unique creatures; power brokers let its rhythm slow their heartbeats.
Even Gulf Drive, the island's main drag, forces visitors to ease up on the gas. The road begins with a lazy 25-mph roll through the sleepy residential city of Anna Maria, stair-stepping south through a maritime forest of realty signs posted in front of Holmes Beach rentals. The hot asphalt straightens like a line drawn in the sand as it crawls south, bisecting the town of Bradenton Beach before sliding over a drawbridge to Longboat Key.
Entrepreneurs have staked out their dreams along the road's shoulders and cross streets. Mom and Pop are a tour de force, making livings off small hotels, galleries and concession stands. Most who live here are transplants in paradise, some with accents acquired in such places as England, Asia and the Midwest.
No matter their backgrounds, they are island folk now, open and friendly. Shop workers ask your name. Resort owners work behind their reception desks, greeting guests like old friends with a smile and firm handshake. Waitresses stop to chat.
Even wining and dining is done on a first-name basis. There is Charlie's on the Island, Duffy's Tavern and Jane E's Coffee & Tea Bar. And Skinny's Place, Joe's Eats & Sweets, and Mama Lo's By the Sea.
Restaurants grab some of the island's best real estate, because when it comes to dining, the view's the thing. Dining and drinking often is shooed out the door, onto beachside wooden decks and patios studded with umbrella-shaded tables. Only a summer-afternoon thunderstorm can put a damper on the alfresco party.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner come with a side of sea breeze that teases the skirts of plastic tablecloths into a dance. Enticing smells lure everything within 100 yards. Stiff-legged gulls gather just out of arm's reach on small dunes spotted with sea oats, hoping for a tidbit from plates that, depending on the time of day, might be laden with syrup-soaked pancakes, a platter-sized hamburger or a moist blackened grouper fillet.
A BEACHSIDE BUFFET
The island's biggest appetite is for seafood, with the day's catch the ultimate draw. Order your pleasure at myriad restaurants such as the Sandbar in Anna Maria, where a no-nonsense waitress points you to the freshest fish with the stab of a finger -- "no, no, no" -- that rules out anything else on the menu.
Catch your own, if you're so inclined. Translucent shrimp -- $2 a dozen -- ride a roller coaster of bubbles in the Rod & Reel Pier's bait tank, presided over by Bob the bait man, whose office is a dimly lighted cubbyhole on the pier's first floor. "All I got is them little ones right now!" he barks out of the hole to a would-be angler. Blue runners and tarpon can be caught off the pier, where manatee sightings thrill kids into wide smiles.
For turf instead of surf, there are legendary burgers at Skinny's Place, an island fixture since the '50s. Mr. Bones BBQ is known for remarkable spare ribs and baby backs and -- a curveball here -- Indian food.
Mr. Bones, where skeletons dangle and beer is iced down in a makeshift coffin, is just part of the island's fun. Gaiety is found in garden whirligigs that spin in the breeze like liquid rainbows; in clothing hanging like a tropical forest in Bradenton Beach's Bridge Street shops; in the vibrant colors pulsing from steel-drum art on the walls of The Museum Shoppe in Anna Maria.
Humor is here too, as overt as the pun of the Passing Wind Manor, as subtle as the comedy found in the whimsical clocks in the Autumn's Whims gallery.
Shops lure with variety -- Anna Maria ashtrays, meticulous model ships and pottery swirling with color. At Pine Avenue General Store, pick up a six-pack of Bic razors or Michelob Light. Or a copy of The New York Times or the New York Post. Select a novelty cone from the humming Circus Man Ice Cream fridge, and don't forget a cuppa -- Starbucks is the brew of choice.
A SANDBOX FOR ALL AGES
For accommodations, think low-rise, but not necessarily low rent. Upscale is here, but you'd hardly know it. Studios, cottages and apartments rule, but bow to the islands' "two-stories above parking" height limit. Hotel chains are mostly absent.
Resorts are small but distinct. Siam Garden Resort is tropical luxury with an Asian accent; eclectic Haley's Motel and Resort hails from the remodeled '50s; Tortuga Inn Beach Resort has an elegant but homelike ambience.
Recreation harkens to simpler days. Borrow a bike, or bring your own. Pedal to the beach, glide to a restaurant, slide to a stop at the Rod & Reel Pier, where pelicans crash headfirst into the water as they fish for dinner.
Beaches invite use but lay out rules. Bayside, at the Rod & Reel Pier, a sign instructs, in a long breath devoid of punctuation: "No animals litter fire excessive noise alcoholic beverages vehicles overnight camping."
Swimming? Sure. "At your own risk."
For kids, the island is a big, wet sandbox, a place to encounter extraordinary creatures; to express artistry in the sand; to try out flippers, mask and snorkel for the first time.
Critters especially fascinate. Spring-summer turtle watches take in the nests of loggerheads, which lumber ashore in darkness to lay eggs. In full light, crabs skitter across wet sand, and black skimmers glide along the breaking surf, scooping up meals in long, gaping beaks.
Outside Mama Lo's, Stephanie Turner, a visitor from Celebration, watches a tiny crab climb the arm of her daughter, Rowan.
"This is a great place to be a kid," she observes.
Not a bad place, either, for a kid who just happens to be an adult.