Along the Gulf Coast is a small town with its own island, a place where new art and museums mix with orange groves and legendary beaches.
By Denise Seith
In 1539, when Hernando de Soto discovered the area around what is now the city of Bradenton, Florida, he brought along enough supplies to start a colony. In fact, the Spanish conquistador arrived with 600 soldiers, more than 200 horses, a herd of pigs, and packs of vicious war dogs, along with nine ships. He landed on the Gulf Coast of the peninsula with everything he needed to carry out King Charles V’s command to “conquer, populate, and pacify” while searching for gold.
But things turned out differently. De Soto’s four-year expedition did not yield gold and treasures, nor did a Spanish colony take hold as originally intended “” which explains why the city of Bradenton wasn’t founded until the 1850s and was named for a settler who grew sugarcane. Modern-day visitors to Bradenton definitely won’t need vicious war dogs, but they should make sure to bring along a camera and sunscreen.
You’ll find Bradenton south of the more renowned St. Petersburg and Tampa, and north of Sarasota, right at the entrance to Tampa Bay. There is much to explore and enjoy in Bradenton, one of central west Florida’s oldest cities, especially in winter.
De Soto National Memorial If you’re unfamiliar with De Soto’s expedition and its controversial impact on Floridian and American history, a good place to start learning is at the De Soto National Memorial Visitor Center. Situated along the calm shores of the Manatee River and Tampa Bay, this free park has an outdoor encampment, a picnic area, and hiking trails. It’s a nice place to bird-watch and fish, too.
The park is not located at the exact landing site of the de Soto expedition, but it does provide an accurate representation of the natural landscape that would have been found around Tampa Bay nearly 500 years ago. Inside the visitors center, a short educational film narrates how, without the benefit of maps or modern equipment, de Soto and his soldiers spent from December 1539 to September 1543 trekking across 4,000 miles of what is now the southeastern United States. The men often marched 12 miles a day while wearing 80 pounds of armor. They wound up enslaving some native people and pillaging their towns. By 1543, De Soto and half of his soldiers were dead. The remaining men abandoned the quest and traveled to Mexico.
The museum has a good collection of artifacts, armor, weapons, and American Indian pottery on display. Outdoors is Camp Ucita, a replica of de Soto’s base camp, where stories of hostile conflicts between conquistadors and local inhabitants are vividly brought to life by costumed park rangers and volunteers. The camp setting provides a feel for what life was like in the 16th century along the west coast of Florida. Visitors are encouraged to take a close look at the reproductions of crafts, cooking utensils, blacksmithing tools, and weapons. When the crossbow and arquebus (black-powder weapon) are fired, it’s a real thrill.
A flat, half-mile nature trail follows along the park’s lovely shoreline and through several Floridian ecosystems. Much of the path is actually a raised wooden boardwalk that winds through a nearly impregnable mangrove swamp, just like the one de Soto’s men would have encountered when first landing. Interpretive signs along the trail point out indigenous trees such as the unusual gumbo-limbo and the ruins of a tabby house. Expect to see migratory songbirds, shore birds, and perhaps even a gopher tortoise.
De Soto National Memorial is an interesting and educational site at which to learn about the past, enjoy a walk, or picnic in a peaceful waterfront setting. It is fun any time of the year, but its living history camp and programs are in full swing during the cool-weather months, from mid-December through mid-April. Costumed re-enactments of the expedition’s landing also are held during the winter season. Admission is free and the center is open daily year-round. Park grounds are open from dawn to dusk. Parking lot gates close at 5:00 p.m. Call (941) 792-0458 or visit www.nps.gov/deso for more information.
The South Florida Museum If you’d like to delve further into Florida’s past “” prehistoric past, that is “” then don’t miss the South Florida Museum’s life-sized casts of the Ice Age mammals that roamed this area 12,000 years ago. Through realistic dioramas, fossils, and natural history exhibits, visitors learn about Florida’s flora, fauna, geology, and early inhabitants. In addition to the museum, which occupies an entire city block along the Manatee River waterfront, the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium are also here. Snooty, the oldest living manatee born in captivity, is the cutest creature at the aquarium. Snooty’s specially designed 60,000-gallon pool offers both above- and below-water viewing, so it’s easy to get a good look at this playful Florida icon.
An admission fee of $15.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors (60 and over), and $11.95 for children ages 4 to 12 is charged. For more information, call (941) 746-4131 or visit www.southfloridamuseum.org.
The Village of the Arts Art lovers will really enjoy the Village of the Arts, where more than 30 galleries and studios exhibit everything from edibles such as cookies, jams, and pizza to ceramics, jewelry, watercolors, glass, photography, and sculpture. The 1920s-style bungalows that house the eclectic mix of artists and their work are as interesting as the art itself.
The shops are open various days and hours; to see the most stores, visit on a Friday or Saturday, or during the Art Walk, held on the first Friday (6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.) and Saturday (11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) of the month. The area is located between 14th Street West and Ninth Street West, south of Ninth Avenue to 17th Avenue West. For more information and a map of the area, visit www.artistsguildofmanatee.org.
Mixon Fruit Farms Since 1939 the Mixon family has been growing and selling fruit “” oranges, grapefruit, lemons, tangerines, and more. What began with 20 acres and a roadside stand has expanded to a 350-acre grove with a store and processing plant. Take a stroll through the orange trees and inhale deeply, if you’re there in March or April, as the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms permeates the air. Later in the year you can watch as large bins of just-picked fruit are unloaded at the dock. The harvest starts in November, when the grapefruit, juice oranges, lemons, and navel oranges come in, and continues through the following months with tangerines, honey tangerines, Valencia oranges, and more.
Although this is without a doubt a retail establishment, you’ll find much more than citrus and souvenirs on the shelves inside. You’ll also receive an education about the citrus industry by taking the interesting behind-the-scenes self-guided tour. For example, did you know that fruit is twisted off branches, not pulled? Signs and video monitors explain the step-by-step process and guide you through each station. Fruit is first sorted by hand, then conveyed on belts through machinery that washes, waxes, and grades it. It all ends up in the gift boxing and shipping department or placed in the store for sale. Mixon’s is a great stop for a deli lunch and shopping. You won’t leave hungry, as free samples of food and drink are offered to everyone who walks in the door. For a special treat, try the key lime “fudge” or the orange-and-vanilla-swirl ice cream that’s made with Mixon’s own fresh orange juice.
For more information, call (800) 608-2525 or visit www.mixon.com.
Anna Maria Island For a change of scenery and a chance to get sand between your toes, head out of town toward refreshing Anna Maria Island. Two bridges connect the city of Bradenton to the seven-mile-long barrier island. It’s a stretch of “Old Florida” where sugar-white beaches, crystalline blue water, peculiar pelicans, and marinas filled with colorful sails are a welcome breath of fresh air. No excessive commerce or high-rises spoil the experience or the view. In fact, on the entire island, only two buildings are taller than three stories. With no highway traffic, crowds, or noisy tourist attractions, Anna Maria Island is meant for taking life at a slower pace.
The island’s natural landscape boasts tall Australian pines, mangrove trees, and sea oats swaying in the breeze. Four well-tended public beaches “” Bayfront Park, Manatee, Cortez, and Coquina “” are spread along the island’s length, making it easy to reach and enjoy the sugary sand and blue waterways, with the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Tampa Bay to the east, and Sarasota Bay to the south.
Anglers of all ages come to Anna Maria Island, too. In bays, bayous, and along the shores of the Gulf, flounder, pompano, redfish, and trout are waiting. Offshore are kingfish, mackerel, grouper, and tarpon. If you aren’t towing your own boat, you can hire a fishing charter or take a leisurely cruise. Sailboats, powerboats, and jet skis can be rented, or for an elevated perspective on paradise, parasailing is a literal highlight along the Gulf shore. Of course, there’s good old-fashioned beachcombing, and with so many miles of soft sand, it’s easy to claim a spot for sunbathing after a swim.
Motoring down Gulf Drive is the most common way to get around Anna Maria Island, but bicyclists who pedal at a leisurely pace have a better chance to glimpse some of the island wildlife, such as raccoons, snowy egrets, and blue herons. To see the sights while someone else keeps an eye on the road, hop aboard the free Manatee Trolley. Beginning at 6:00 a.m., it runs daily along Gulf Drive between Anna Maria City Pier in the north and Coquina Beach in the south. Expect a trolley at designated stops every 20 minutes until 9:00 p.m., then every 30 minutes until 10:30 p.m.
Anna Maria Island is laid-back, but not backwoods. Businesses offer a full array of goods and services in an easy-going manner that doesn’t require formal attire or a big bank balance. It has no malls or department stores, but you’ll still find everything you need for a short stay or a longer holiday “” even souvenirs and scenic postcards to send back to friends in colder climes. After all, you’ll want to boast just a little about all your fun in the sun.
Perhaps best of all, it’s nice to know that truth in advertising really exists: “Paradise Without An Attitude” is not just an advertising slogan on the cover of Anna Maria Island’s travel brochure. Its casual tropical mind-set flows tip to tip, creating a rejuvenating, carefree setting.
The island’s three towns Three small settlements dot the island’s seven-mile Gulf Drive, each with its own charm.
- Anna Maria City in the north is filled with older beach cottages. The first permanent island settler, George Emerson Bean, homesteaded here in 1893 (Bean Point is named after him). Bean led the development of the island in the early 1900s, laying out streets, building sidewalks, and installing a water system. Two fishing piers on this part of the island (Rod & Reel and the Anna Maria City Pier) are great places to catch your dinner. But if the fish aren’t biting, small, family-style restaurants at both locations serve all the fresh fish you can eat.
- Holmes Beach occupies the middle of the island. This community is newer and mostly residential, so it’s the best place to rub elbows with locals while grocery shopping, banking, or buying postcard stamps. A community center, library, medical center, elementary school, and golf club round out all the comforts of home. Some visitors arrive directly at Holmes Beach by coming over the Manatee Avenue drawbridge (State Route 64) from Bradenton. If you arrive this way, you might want to follow the advice on a sign you’ll see that exclaims, “Eat At Bones!” for Mr. Bones BBQ has excellent baby back ribs. (The restaurant is located at 3007 Gulf Drive.)
- Bradenton Beach, a small beach-side extension of the city of Bradenton, is found on the southern part of the island. Bridge Street is the center of Bradenton Beach’s Historic Old Town District and a fun place for a stroll. A few charming arts and crafts shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques line the beautifully landscaped street. The Bradenton Beach Fishing Pier is a great spot to sit and enjoy the view; pelicans like to hang out there as much as the people do. And for walking off too many tropical ice cream treats, this neighborhood’s quiet, narrow, winding streets are ideal. Coming from Sarasota, it’s easy to directly reach the heart of Bradenton Beach via the bridge on Cortez Road (State Route 684).
Whether in the city or on the sand, the Bradenton area mixes modern amenities with a bit of the “old Florida” that’s missing from more renowned areas of the Sunshine State. It’s an all-or-nothing destination. You can do it all, or do nothing at all, and will enjoy it either way.
Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce
5313 Gulf Drive N.
Holmes Beach, FL 34217
Bradenton Area CVB
P.O. Box 1000
Bradenton, FL 34206
(941) 729-9177 ext. 234
So many campgrounds can be found throughout the area that it’s best to check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com. Following are a few:
Horseshoe Cove RV Resort
5100 60th St. E.
Bradenton, FL 34203
Lake Manatee State Park
(15 miles east of Bradenton)
20007 State Route 64 E.
Bradenton, FL 34202
Myakka River State Park
(South of Bradenton)
13207 State Route 72
Sarasota, FL 34241
Sun N Fun RV Resort, C4476
(South of Bradenton)
7125 Fruitville Road
Sarasota, FL 34240
Winter Quarters Manatee RV Resort
800 Kay Road N.E.
Bradenton, FL 34212