Need to get away? Florida is a popular destination, but we found a paradise not far off the beaten path that is an adventure you don’t need a ticket to enjoy. Welcome to the Bradenton Area!
Hello Mama Challenge readers! My name is Debra Muccio and you’ll usually find me over at FindingDebra.com, a lifestyle blog where I focus on my day to day adventures at home, on the road and in the air. From holiday recipes to Disney secrets, I’m your go-to girl. Recently. Autumn sent me to cover a travel destination for her, the Bradenton Area of Florida. It was there that I joined 3 other bloggers for an adventure I’ll never forget.
Anyone who knows me will testify to the fact that I spend A LOT of time in Florida. In fact, if you looked at my calendar recently, you’d find that this Texan visited the state four times this fall. But I have a little confession to make. Most of the time when I visit Florida, it has something to do with a certain mouse we all love. So when I had the opportunity to visit the Bradenton Area on behalf of Mama Challenge, I jumped at the chance.
What did I discover? That there is WAY more to Florida than my favorite theme parks and characters. Shhh! Don’t tell Mickey!
Follow along as I take you to a Florida beach destination that will surprise you, one set along Florida’s West Coast.
Bradenton Area Florida
Truth be told, I’d never heard of the Bradenton Area before, but one quick look at a map and I knew exactly where it was. Nestled between Tampa to the north and Sarasota to the south, you’ll find this area which includes the more city-like area of Bradenton, Longboat Key and a little known tourist destination called Anna Maria Island.
Whether you are looking to plan a family beach vacation or trying to add on a little rest and relaxation after a busy Orlando trip, this is the spot for you. It’s one of those destinations where you’ll find families coming back year after year. How do I know? I met many of them.
Let’s start with why people visit Florida year after year…the beaches!
The Beaches to Visit
The Bradenton Area has many beaches and they are all so very different. I’m talking about 16 miles of sand in this area. While the rain kept us from spending more time at the beach and from actually getting in the water (seriously, Mother Nature did not cooperate those 3 days), the moments spent visiting the beaches were amazing. These are just 3 of the beaches in the area. One beach in particular had me in awe.
Manatee Beach – Located in the heart of Anna Maria Island, this beach is close in proximity to everything and is more for families with kids. It has many amenities perfect for families, including a cafe, restrooms, water fountains and gift shop. The playgrounds are incredible and located right on the sand!
Bean Point – Located at the very northern tip of Anna Maria Island, this beach is for those wanting a more serene and quiet spot. It will not disappoint.
Coquina Beach – This is the beach that stole my heart. Why? Well, I’m from Texas and let’s just say I’ve always been enamored with seashells. I’ve visited a few Florida beaches before and there were shells here and there, but let me tell you that Coquina Beach blew me away. At one point I was walking on nothing but shells. It was incredible and I cannot wait to take my daughter back. She would literally spend all day collecting shells.
Where to Eat
Food. It’s at the heart of nearly every vacation you take. You not only want a great destination but you want to experience amazing and unique food. The Bradenton Area did not disappoint!
The Sandbar – From the very first night on Anna Maria Island on, we were spoiled rotten by the generosity of the restaurants we visited. In fact, that very first night could not have been spent on a more beautiful beach. Yes, our dinner was spent watching the incredible sunset with our toes in the sand. That’s not something you can do every day. You’ll want to make room for a visit to The Sandbar restaurant for sunset dinners. I’ve also heard the Sunday brunch is pretty incredible.
Owner Ed Chiles’ commitment on serving locally harvested seafood and local produce makes this restaurant top notch. One can see why The Sandbar is consistently chosen as a top spot for weddings and receptions by brides everywhere.
Seafood Shack – If you are looking for somewhere a little more casual, you’ll want to head over to the Seafood Shack. Located at Cortez Fishing Village, this restaurant, which opened in 1971, has gotten a new look and updated menu thanks in part to Chef Gerard. Locals and tourists alike will love the seafood offerings here. A special menu created for our visit included an outstanding spread of seafood complete with lobster and even turtle soup. (Yes, I tried it – delicious!!)! I have to say the Chef outdid himself and the meal ended with Bourbon Pecan Pie, family style!
Pier 22 – When it comes time for an upscale meal or perhaps a date night, you’ll want to head off the island and back into Bradenton for a stop at Pier 22. It was at this restaurant, sitting outside along the water’s edge, where we spent 3 hours enjoying the cuisine.
Yes, 3 hours!
Pier 22 served us more than a meal. It was an experience.
From the unexpected sushi boat that arrived on our table to the homemade fudge slices that came directly from the recipes of the Chef’ Campbell’s Grandma, each bite was superb. The seafood. The sides. The incredible service. They wow’d us and for that reason alone, I will be back!
TIP: Pier 22 is in a great section of Bradenton and within walking distance to several area attractions, including the South Florida Museum I mention below. So definitely make a point to grab a reservation here.
Restaurants Off the Beaten Path
We all know it’s those small restaurants and locations off the beaten path which can make a destination memorable. Anna Maria Island has several of them worth noting!
Ginny’s and Jane E’s – This funky gift store actually has a cafe in the back where they serve the most amazing cinnamon buns that are approximately 6 inches wide! Do not miss this. You know it’s great when locals and tourists alike are standing in line!
The Donut Experiment – Kids and grownups alike will be smiling upon entering this small storefront off Pine Avenue. This is the island’s only donut shop and what a donut shop it is. Donuts are made to order with so many icings and toppings to choose from, but you’ll find a few specialties as well. TIP: Try the Key Lime Donut with a coffee to go!
Poppo’s Taqueria – Looking for a quick meal, one with affordable prices and organic ingredients? Look no further than Poppo’s Taqueria on Pine Ave (right next to The Donut Experiment). We grabbed a quick dinner one night after enjoying the annual Bayfest event. Don’t miss the fresh tacos and gourmet craft soda!
What to Do
Now that you’ve seen all the amazing restaurants in the area, you might think you’ll be eating the entire time you’re visiting. Oh no, you must make time for all the non-beach and non-food activities too!
You won’t be lacking in things to do while you are in the Bradenton Area, but here are a few of my favorites!
South Florida Museum – A short walk from the the upscale restaurant Pier 22 you’ll find the South Florida Museum. The museum houses not only the Parker Manatee Aquarium, but also the Bishop Planetarium. We experienced both. I have to say that the show in the planetarium was stellar!
It doesn’t take long before you realize that manatee’s are a big part of the Florida landscape here. No trip to the Bradenton Area is complete without meeting Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee, located right here at the Parker Manatee Aquarium. He’s so famous that they even named a drink after him at Pier 22 restaurant!
Mixon’s Fruit Farm & Wildlife Rehab Tour – Another stop worth making in Bradenton, especially if you have kids, is Mixon’s Fruit Farm. This is Florida, so you can expect orange groves and it was a fun experience to get up close at this farm during a tram tour. It wasn’t exactly the time of year for harvesting, but you can bet we took advantage of the homemade orange swirl ice cream offered inside the gift shop.
Surprisingly the farm is also home to a wildlife tour, where we learned about how they rehabilitate Florida wildlife for release back into the wild. We met all types of animals like skunks, tortoises, a gigantic snake and more. You also can bet there were a few alligators. I even touched one of the smaller ones!
Dolphin Watch Tour – You’ll want to head over to Historic Bridge Street to catch a dolphin watch tour with Paradise Boat Tours. The team there took great care of us and though a fast, incoming storm forced our trip short, we ended up spotting two dolphins upon our return. Due to the rain, they promised another boat tour to those who are able to take advantage, even if it’s not for months. Great customer service!
Shopping along Pine Avenue – Pine Avenue is Anna Maria Island’s main street, running from the Gulf to the city pier. The island in general is very committed to “green” and the shops are no exception here. You’ll find unique, one of a kind boutique shops along Pine Avenue and I dare you not to find something you must have! A few fun favorites included Junktion and Olive Oil Outpost.
How to Get Around
Whether you are coming in from Tampa, Orlando or Sarasota, chances are you’ll have a rental car at your disposal, which is great for getting to and from Anna Maria Island and back to Bradenton Area attractions, but don’t miss the fun of getting around this island.
You’ll want to check out Beach Bums, a great rental shop offering an assortment of transportation for your stay, including bikes, kayaks, paddle boards, and more. You’ll find that many tourist on the island use street legal electric golf carts to get around on the island and many use scooters & pedal cars too!
Free to those on the island is the trolley, which makes a continual loop from the Pier on the north to Coquina Beach on the south. The trolley is air-conditioned and runs daily from 6:00am to 10:30pm.
Where to Stay
There was one thing I quickly learned during my visit to Anna Maria Island – this wasn’t a place where you’d see your favorite hotel chains. Anna Maria Island is unique in that many of the tourists stay in vacation rental homes, though you’ll find several boutique inns and motels seaside.
We were hosted in an 8-bedroom house on Anna Maria Island, complete with 7.5 bathrooms, courtesy of Anna Maria Vacations. The Malibu Beach home was spectacular both inside and out, complete with every modern convenience you can imagine. Though this house was meant for a large number of people, Anna Maria Vacations has rental homes to fit every traveling party size.
I don’t know about you, but I love the advantages of staying in a rental home. Having a full kitchen can save on meals and with a pool in the backyard (one with an amazing rock slide), there was build in entertainment! I did the math, and my extended family (which would fill up 8 bedrooms) could easily stay here and split the cost for much less than typical resort stays we are used to. Love that!
Overall, I have to admit that I fell in love with the Bradenton Area and I dare you to do the same!