We had SUCH a great time on AMI! It was so nice to finally get to see the little slice of paradise I had read so much about in the months leading up to our trip. I got so much helpful information from all of you -- especially the reviews and trip reports -- that I wanted to post a report of my own in the hopes others might find it helpful in their vacation planning. So here goes!
Friday, 5/22 --
We flew into Tampa on a direct flight (Southwest) from Buffalo. We left Buffalo at 6:30 a.m. (which meant leaving our home at 3:00 a.m. to get the airport in plenty of time!) and got into Tampa around 9:00 a.m. We got our rental car through Budget (great deal with stackable coupon codes I found online!) and were on the road by 10:00. We have never had a direct flight for a vacation before and we LOVED getting on and off ONE plane and being at our destination. I am now spoiled forever and hope to never have to take a connecting flight ever again! We arrived on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, so we were a bit worried about traffic heading into the island. We stopped at the Publix on Manatee Ave. on our way into AMI, and also picked up a few things at the Dollar Store in the same plaza. We stocked up on some basic food items, including our lunch for that day. We then headed to Mike Norman Realty to pick up our keys, grateful that they allowed us early checkin! There was zero traffic and we realized our worries were for nothing!
We rented one side of a duplex at 2302 Gulf Drive. I wish I could say the property was great, but truth be told it was beyond tired. We knew from the photos that it had not been updated (which we really didn't mind), and also that the property was for sale. From what we read online in advance of our trip, the property is up for a zoning change to turn it from a duplex (both sides with 2 BR, 1.5 BA) to a 4 BR, 4.5 BA single family home. It appears the seller has pretty much given up on maintaining the property as a rental, as the carpet on the stairs leading from the garage/entry up to the living area was filthy, the living room furniture had a lot of stains, the bed linens didn't match and clearly had not had attention in quite some time, and overall the property was just not great. But it was very inexpensive for a gulf-front rental, and we knew going into it that the weekly rate must mean the property was not going to be perfect. So we picked up some cleaning supplies on our own (surprised there were NONE at all in the rental we could use) and we spent some time on the first day cleaning what we could, including re-washing all the dishes, linens, towels, deck furniture, etc. Not how we wanted to start our trip, but what can you do?
We had bought lunch fixings at Publix (nice cheese, ham, baguette, fruit and wine!!) and enjoyed a very nice lunch on our balcony. Afterward we went for a long walk on the beach (one of MANY during our week!), and later took a drive down to check out Bridge Street. We were there right around 8:00-ish and the restaurants were all fairly busy. We decided on Bridge Tender Inn because we liked the live music and were able to get a table right near the water. I had my first grilled grouper sandwich of the week (pretty good but not great) and my husband had the blackened mahi-mahi tacos, which came with black bean soup. He thought the tacos were "meh," but he LOVED the black bean soup. We walked the pier for a bit, talked to the nice folks at Cast-n-Cage, and because we were both exhausted from the very early start to our day we called it a night fairly early.
Saturday, 5/23 --
We were up early on Saturday, and every day that followed. Most mornings we were up between 6:30 and 6:45. Despite the early mornings, we were so well-rested the entire trip. The bed in the master was SO comfortable, and waking up to the beautiful gulf each morning was true perfection. We ended up having breakfast in our condo all but one of the mornings, followed by a walk on the beach that usually lasted 1.5 - 2 hours. Most days we also took a second long walk either late afternoon or during sunset.
For lunch on Saturday we headed to Star Fish Company in Cortez, where we split the hearty portion of grilled grouper, with french fries, cole slaw and hush puppies. Oh, the hush puppies!!!!! I had never had them before and I'm pretty sure I have found true love. I will most definitely be looking for a recipe to match those amazing little lumps of fried goodness! The grouper that day was perfectly cooked, and the hearty portion was perfect for the two of us to split. We enjoyed a nice glass of wine (for me) and a beer (for DH) and were surprised there was NO wait at all to order and our food was served in about 20 minutes. After reading all the horror stories of 1.5 hour + wait times there, we were so surprised to get waited on and served so quickly on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend!
We went to the fish market at Star Fish and bought fresh gulf shrimp to cook for our dinner that night. I made fresh guacamole, DH cooked the shrimp perfectly, and we enjoyed fresh fruit and chips/salsa/guac alongside. The shrimp was OK, but we've been spoiled in the past by amazing shrimp in the Carolinas, so it left us "wanting" a little bit. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset that night right from our upper balcony off the master bedroom (the first of many!).
Sunday, 5/24 --
Another breakfast in our condo, another long and beautiful walk on the beach. For lunch we turned leftover shrimp into shrimp tacos, which were actually better than our dinner the night before. Later we took a drive throughout the island, ending up in Anna Maria at the Rod & Reel pier. We had lunch at the Rod & Reel Pier Restaurant, intending to have grilled grouper sandwiches. A nearby table had the fried grouper sandwich and it looked so amazing we changed our minds! I loved the fried grouper, but DH wasn't impressed (he's not a fan of fried foods to begin with and thought the fish lacked flavor). Again, we were seated immediately and the food came out FAST. Another surprise given the holiday weekend and popularity of the restaurant we chose. It started to rain as we were walking back to our car, and we had a bit of a downpour as we were driving back to our condo. Traffic seemed to be getting a bit heavier at that point, but still it didn't seem as bad as I imagined it would be. That night we took another long walk on the beach and enjoyed nachos at our condo as a late-night snack. Another perfect end to another perfect day!
Monday, 5/25 --
Beautiful, sunny day and we were on the beach early! Later we headed back to Bridge Street for some shopping and we ended up having lunch at the Freckled Fin. There was a band playing right out front, so we sat outside and enjoyed watching all the people and traffic. It was sunny and HOT, but a very nice day to honor our fallen heroes. I had another grilled grouper sandwich, and DH enjoyed a grilled chicken ceasar salad. Food was good, service was attentive. All in all we enjoyed the Freckled Fin.
We ended up driving around Cortez after lunch, and hit up a few second-hand and antique shops. It was fun talking to the locals, and we ended up at a tiny produce market where we bought fresh white corn, zucchini, summer squash, and fresh basil and parsley. We stopped at Publix and bought more shrimp, as well as half a key lime pie! We loved the pie, but hated the shrimp. It had a very strong iodine flavor, and we decided that we're just not fans of gulf shrimp! Oh well. The pie more than made up for it!
Tuesday, 5/26 --
This ended up being the BEST morning walk of the entire week. We were on the beach by 6:45 that morning, and this time headed north toward Holmes Beach instead of our usual walk south toward Bridge Street each morning. So glad we decided to go that way! As we were walking along, I looked at the sand and noticed turtle tracks leading up to the dunes. Sure enough, the Anna Maria Turtle Watch volunteers were up at the dune line investigating what we hoped would be a turtle nest. As I posted on the "They're Back!" thread earlier in the week, this one was a “false crawl” -- the mama turtle made her way from the surf all the way up to the dune line (which is pretty far as the beach is huge in that area), and then she got caught up in a mix of lounge chairs that had been left strewn about in front of a little hotel. Apparently the guests did not heed the signs about stacking chairs at night, and it appeared the turtle got confused by all the chairs and ended up not leaving her eggs there. But the kind volunteers that morning told us there were two other possible nests further up the beach. We continued our walk and ended up seeing the volunteers again later at what turned out to be the first of two actual nests. We watched as the veteran volunteer (who was training two new volunteers) dug into the nest to locate eggs so that they could verify the turtle had actually left her eggs. We were lucky enough to be there when they found the eggs, and my husband was able to snap a few photos (which I will try to post later). The new volunteers were a couple who had moved to the island within the past year and this was their first live nest. The woman was so excited to have her first real nest, and we were so fortunate to have been able to witness it. Such a great way to start the day!
We ended up at Tide Tables for lunch that day. Another sunny, hot day and this time I had a grilled mahi sandwich, which was AMAZING! I know the island is known for the fresh grouper, but I have to say I liked the mahi so much better! DH had mahi tacos, which he enjoyed. Again, we were seated immediately and served very quickly. Loved the setting there, but I have to say we enjoyed the setting at Star Fish Company just a bit more than Tide Tables. Really, though -- we're splitting hairs. Both places are lovely spots on the water with the freshest seafood we enjoyed during our entire stay.
We ended up at a yard sale that afternoon and had a lot of fun digging through the odd collection of what had to be a hoarder. The number of dishes, glasses, cookware, books, lamps, etc. – from one woman! – was staggering! We did find a few very nice things that we managed to get home safely on the plane. Fun finds for us! We finished the afternoon at Joe’s Eats & Sweets, where DH had ice cream and I had shaved ice. Both were very good and a nice cooling finish to a very hot afternoon.
We went back to the Star Fish Market and this time bought a beautiful piece of fresh swordfish for our dinner that night. DH grilled the fish and we enjoyed it with the fresh corn, zucchini and squash we bought the day before. We had a beautiful dinner on our balcony, enjoying the sunset followed by a massive thunder/lightning storm. We managed to ride out most of the storm on our lower balcony, and it was wonderful watching the lightning through the clouds as the storm grew closer.
Wednesday, 5/27 –
We were up early and decided to take our walk as soon as we got up, rather than wait until after breakfast. We decided to go out to breakfast, and after our walk headed north to Ginny’s & Jane E’s. What a quirky, fun place! We both had eggs and toast (mine with bacon) and while it was good we both thought it was a bit pricey. DH really disliked the coffee, but my fresh-squeezed orange juice was fantastic!
After breakfast we made our way over to Pine Avenue and spent the better part of the morning visiting all the shops along the way to the City Pier. We walked up the Pier and spent a good half hour sitting at the end of the pier watching the fishermen/women and wishing we would get to see a manatee. While we had seen dolphins daily from our condo and on our walks, we had yet to see a manatee. Unfortunately, no such sighting at the end of the pier. We started making our way to the end of the pier, and just as we were almost to the shore, DH spotted something dark in the water making its way to the pier. I just happened to have my iPhone in my hand, and I was lucky enough to shoot video of a huge manatee swimming right up and under the pier right beneath us, and out the other side! We couldn’t believe our luck. Little did we know that was only the beginning of our manatee excitement for the day!
We ended up going back to Pine Avenue and had lunch at Poppo’s Taqueria. LOVED this place! We both enjoyed chicken tacos, chips and salsa, and an ice cold beer. Food there was incredibly fresh, very tasty, and all the young girls working there were very sweet. A great little place with very reasonable prices. Very happy with this choice.
We ended up going back to the beach for a while, and ended up swimming and floating for a bit on a raft and tube-float that were left in the garage of our condo. We met some nice folks who live not far from us and had a great time talking with them for a while. We decided to take another walk, this time back up toward the Bridge Street area. As we were making our way back to the condo to get ready to go out to dinner, a woman walking toward us stopped us and pointed to a group of five or six people, telling us that if we hurried we would see a group of six manatee in the water near that group. We could see from the beach that the manatee were very close to them, so we ended up wading into the water a bit, but staying far enough away so as not to disturb them. We ended up being about 8-10 feet away from several manatee (not sure of the exact number), and we saw them come up multiple times for air. Such an amazing sight. The other folks in the water were close enough to touch them, but we did not want to get that close – and now we’re glad we didn’t. We read up a bit online that night and learned that it’s illegal to disturb the manatee in the water. But we felt incredibly fortunate to see them up close like that.
After getting cleaned up, we ventured out to our third restaurant meal of the day (yikes!) and decided on Island Ocean Star’s new location overlooking the yacht club. What a gorgeous setting! We arrived just at dusk, and dined outdoors on the deck. Service was a bit quirky (our waitress was an odd duck to be sure), but the food was fantastic. DH had a spicy tuna roll, and then we shared shrimp tempura and an order of gyoza (pan-fried pork dumplings). They were out of this world. We shared a very nice bottle of wine and really just enjoyed the evening. We hadn’t originally planned on dining here, but we’re so glad we did. Highly recommend it! (Again, no reservations, we were seated immediately and food came out fairly quickly.)
Thursday, May 28 –
Hated waking up and realizing we only had two full days left of our wonderful vacation. I hate that I count down days when I’m on vacation, but I just can’t help it. Anyway, we were up and out on the beach early again, and this time we saw a manatee from the beach on our morning walk. We were so surprised to see it so close to shore. This time we knew not to get in the water, and just enjoyed watching as it swam north toward Anna Maria.
We decided to go back to Star Fish Company for lunch, and this time shared the hearty portion of mahi-mahi, again with fries, cole slaw and those amazing hush puppies! The mahi was fantastic – easily the best fish we enjoyed all week. No wait at all this time. Decided this was definitely our favorite place to eat on/near AMI. We bought swordfish again to cook at our condo that night, knowing we were going to have a late dinner.
We had booked a sunset cruise with Kathleen D Sailing Catamarans for Thursday evening. We had tried to book a sail with Spice Sailing Charters as his reviews on TA and elsewhere were fantastic, but he was booked solid and said he was also having some engine problems, so he couldn’t promise he would actually be sailing by the end of our trip. So we booked with Kathleen D. We ended up sailing with two sisters and another couple, and our captain was Kit. We loved Kit, and had a fun time talking with the other visitors during our cruise. It was a very nice night with a beautiful sunset, but the water was a bit rougher than I would have liked. It was really the only true activity we scheduled during our entire trip but we were very glad we did it. The cost was $110.00 for the two of us (and we tipped Kit as well) – a bit steeper than some sunset cruises – but we felt it was worth it. We had a very nice evening, and then went back to the condo and cooked swordfish. This time we did not enjoy the fish as much but we didn’t let it ruin our evening!
Friday, 5/29 –
Our last full day on the island. Sigh. Another very long walk on the beach, another manatee sighting from the beach! We couldn’t believe our luck at this point with all the manatee sightings. At this point the only thing we hadn’t seen in the water was a stingray, but we were so impressed by the number of dolphin and manatee we saw throughout our week. Amazing. We decided to head back to Poppo’s for tacos again, and they were just as good the second time around! We then drove 2.5 hours to Ft Myers Beach to see a very dear friend whose life partner passed away from cancer a week ago. We spent a few hours with him before driving back to AMI that night. It was a LOT of driving for DH, but we’re so glad we got to see our friend and pay our respects. We had dinner at Castaways in Ft. Myers Beach. Surprisingly good pizza that DH is still talking about!
Saturday, 5/30 –
Thankful to Mike Norman Realty to allowing us a late check out at 2:00 p.m. (instead of the normal 10:00 a.m.). We had enough time for one last walk on the beach before we had to clean up, pack and vacate the condo. We stopped one last time at Star Fish Company for another mahi dinner, and this time we waited on line to order for about 20 minutes, and then waited another 40 minutes for our food. We were really fearful we were pushing it time-wise to get back to TPA on time to drop our rental car and get through security, but we managed to get there in plenty of time.
We got back to Buffalo around 9:00 and arrived home a little after 11:00 p.m. It is COLD here at home and we are missing the beach for sure. We had an amazing, relaxing time on AMI and I can honestly say it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had. We never managed to take the trolley, and we never made it to the Sandbar for sunset, but those were really the only two things we had planned on that we didn’t manage to accomplish during our trip. I really hope we can make it back to AMI someday. It was a wonderful belated (milestone) birthday celebration for me and we loved every minute!