Sunday, May 06, 2001

Discover Anna Maria, the land that time forgot

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANNA MARIA, Fla. — On the perfect day, it is early March or October and the tourists have gone away. It has rained hard the night before, with a high wind that has scrubbed the sky to a cerulean blue this afternoon. The sun has worked on the virgin white sand until it feels like lying on an electric blanket. It is 72 degrees.

        Maybe I will go for a walk, down the beach to Bean Point, where nobody is, because there is no obvious place to park. Where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico in a froth, yet the waves are gentle enough to pet. Maybe I'll do this. Maybe not.

        Maybe I will walk out to the restaurant at the end of the Anna Maria city pier. The pier juts like a dorsal fin into Tampa Bay. You can see the bottom here through 10 feet of water. Manta rays glide through the clear, green sheen. Sunshine dapples the waves in gold.

    • Waterfront Restaurant: (941) 778-1515.
    • City Pier restaurant: (941) 779-1667.
    • Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Board: (941) 778-1541.
    • Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce: (941) 383-2466.
        Maybe I'll drink a beer and watch the fishermen cast for grouper. The pier sways with the waves, a soft rhumba. Maybe I'll stay the whole day there. Maybe not.

        Anna Maria, a seven-mile sliver of sand, home to 8,200 year-round, is what the Caribbean used to be, before the islands got fat with cruise liners. “The land that time forgot,” Steve Barnes calls it. “I think we're up to about 1966 now.”

        Mr. Barnes owns the Waterfront restaurant on Bay Boulevard, which is a whole lot more fun than what he used to do. Until 1996, the 46-year-old ran Pace Micro Technology, a British-based company of 3,600 employees that makes cable boxes for televisions. Mr. Barnes' business took him to 93 countries. In his six years as CEO, he averaged 70 work hours a week. He was away from home nearly three weeks of every month.

        After one especially draining trip to Australia, he called his wife to tell her he was done. He came here in '96, took over the restaurant in '99. The rest is discarded suits and ties.

        Mr. Barnes had 41 suits when he left Britain. He has six now. None has escaped the closet. He has worn a tie exactly once, long pants all of eight times. He comes to work when he needs to, but his presence isn't usually required. It is, Mr. Barnes figures, the best place he has found to do all the nothing he wants.

        He has employees who show up late for work if the surfing is good. He has employees who arrive at work in wet suits. “It's very laid back,” he says.

        “The Keys, without all the bells and whistles,” is how Waterfront manager Bob Slicker describes Anna Maria. Mr. Slicker likes it so much, he lives here and twice a year uses his vacation time to rent a place closer to the beach.

        Maybe I will eat at the Waterfront: A fillet of grouper, lightly grilled, topped with crab, asparagus and a hollandaise sauce. Sesame tuna, grilled, on a bed of rice. Maybe I will walk off my gluttony and stare across the bay at the Sunshine Skyway, suspended in blue in the distance. Maybe not.

        Instead, maybe I will get in the car and drive down Gulf of Mexico Drive, top down, Beach Boys singing “Don't Worry Baby,” jade-blue water close enough to splash. I will pass Holmes Beach and Manatee County Beach and the little village of Bradenton Beach. I will cross a bridge onto Longboat Key.

        They don't like beach goers on Longboat, not unless you're staying in one of the condos behind the dunes. They make it hard for the non-paying to get to the sand. But I know a place to park. I have done this before. Many times.

        I make the first right turn across the bridge. I follow the road to the end, where there is a tiny turn-around and legal parking for eight or 10 cars. I go an hour before sunset, when all the beach people are packing up and heading the other way, the traffic stacked up like ants at a picnic.

        There are no more than two or three cars parked when I arrive. I grab my beach chair and my book, climb the dune and view the best stretch of white sand I have ever seen. There is no beach better in Florida than the beach at Longboat Key.

        I read and watch the sun slip into the Gulf like an over-easy egg off a plate. The beach is wider than a football field. The sand is the color and texture of crushed pearls. The only sounds are water and gulls and a little wind pushing the sea grass around. I feel like the only person on earth.

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