Many wonderful places are surrounded by not-so-wonderful places. Often these wonderful places have been preserved, and protected from development, but the development has sprawled all around them. Eventually the small preserved spots can start to feel more like museum exhibits than like places where real life takes place. They are isolated. It may be fun to visit such places, but in my opinion it would not be enjoyable to live in them.
Sometimes things happen in the opposite way. It’s the new development that is nice compared to the older surroundings. This is how it is when an upscale gated community is developed in an area that was previously undesirable. All is fine inside the gates, but outside there is not much of appeal.
Anna Maria Island is a gem of a place, and it is surrounded by a wide variety of other kinds of places, all of which are appealing. This is one of the island’s greatest assets in terms of being a wonderful place to live. Not only is the island a remarkably small scale, natural Old Florida area, but it also offers its residents easy access to many other kinds of places. This makes life here more interesting and colorful. Within a short distance, the variety of surroundings and activities is remarkable.
To the south, Longboat Key is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. The professional landscaping is reason enough to occasionally take a drive or trolley ride down Longboat. At the top of Longboat Key is the historical village where peacocks have roamed freely for years, and where the art center is now a part of the Ringling School of Art and Design.
“Old Florida” is a term people love to use when describing a place that has not been taken over by the development trends of the day. It has been a favorite way to describe Anna Maria Island for many years … both by residents and visitors who truly love the simple charms of the area. It’s also a favorite term of those whose main interest is selling the island to the public. “Old Florida ” is a great marketing slogan.
Unfortunately, even among those who think they love the Old Florida feeling of a place, it is challenging to know how to identify the details that give that feeling. And it’s even more challenging to protect them. Often the details that need to be protected do not sound very glamorous. But getting rid of things that are not glamorous is a sure way to destroy the sense of history and simplicity that are so much a part of Old Florida.
Who wants to argue that an old shack should not be torn down? Especially among those whose main priority is marketing. Who wants to argue against “beautification?” Or replacing an old bridge with a big modern bridge? Or getting rid of invasive, exotic plant species?
Anna Maria Island has many enchanting plants growing on it. Some are native, others are exotic. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention to trying to eliminate certain exotic plants, especially the ones considered invasive, from the Florida landscape. Although there is something to be said for this, it often seems ridiculous, when it’s in the context of locations where most landscaping consists of lawns, citrus trees, flower gardens, and plenty of pavement.
One plant that is not caught up in any controversy is the native sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera). The whimsical sea grape can be seen around Anna Maria Island in a wide range of sizes, from small shrubs, to hedges, to large trees. The most noticeable characteristic of this plant is the round leaves, which can approach ten inches across in diameter. The veins are often reddish. The shiny green leaves also turn red, and sometimes yellow, as they age.
On Anna Maria Island, this ageing often occurs at the end of winter, especially if cold temperatures stress the plant. The result is perhaps the closest thing to “autumn leaves” that occurs in the native vegetation of the island. Not only do some of the sea grape leaves turn brilliant colors as winter progresses, they eventually fall, covering the ground beneath them in the same way that autumn leaves blanket the ground up North. How nice it is to have the autumn leaves experience here on the island, even if it’s at the end of winter instead of at the beginning.
Sometimes at this time of year, the residents of Anna Maria Island begin to feel as if they are operating bed and breakfasts. One set of guests leaves and there is barely time to wash and dry the sheets before the next visitors arrive. It is no wonder friends and family from up North want to visit paradise at this time of year but, while the guests are reveling in paradise, their hosts can start to feel as if it’s “paradise lost.” A constant stream of even the most considerate visitors can hinder residents from focusing on their own favorite island activities. Before they know it, the best season is over and it’s time to turn on the air conditioning and retreat inside.
There are many ways to cope with living in a place everyone else wants to visit. One Islander, formerly of Chicago, sent a card to all his friends when he moved here, announcing that they were welcomed to visit in Anna Maria Island, but only if they had previously visited him in Chicago. This was the acid test to prove that the guests were not just using the friendship as an excuse to have free accommodations in paradise. If they really were visiting for reasons of friendship, they would have visited in Chicago, too.
Another way to cope with having too much company is to not have a guest room. Silly as this may sound, it seems to be a possibility that many islanders have seriously considered. They talk openly about it. In fact, in early years, when researching accommodations for guests at the island information center, I explained to the sweet ladies working there that I had no extra room for guests, but that we were planning to build an addition for this purpose. I was surprised to be sternly advised by one of the ladies not to add a room for guests, or I’d be sorry. Maybe she was just trying to promote more business for the island hotels and motels. But I had the feeling she was giving me a sincere warning.
Southern Living, the magazine about southern homes, wrote a very complimentary article about Anna Maria Island in the March, 2009, issue. The image of the City Pier on the opening spread captures perfectly the surprisingly untouched surroundings we islanders and island visitors get to enjoy. The pier is a real, unusually authentic historical attraction. It has not been created to promote tourism. It has been here and been enjoyed for decades. But because it is naturally so appealing, it does promote tourism.
Although it’s always nice to receive positive national publicity, such as that in Southern Living, the crowds on the island this season are evidence that we already have been discovered. Our businesses are full of customers. Our beaches are hosting many visitors, even as temperatures have remained unseasonably chilly this year.