Monthly Archives: March 2015

Detours & Diversions – The Other Side of Tampa Bay: Paradise in the Sand

“Anna Maria Key, lying to the south of Tampa Bay and separated from the mainland by Sarasota Pass, one of the many sand and shell islands bordering the west coast. It rises but a few feet above sea level and is covered with mangrove swamps, palm savannahs, salt flats, cacti thickets, and buttonwood trees. Anna Maria, a resort at the northern extremity of Anna Maria Key, consists of many cottages in a jungle setting.” –The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939

WHAT: Much has changed on Anna Maria Island since 1937. The palm savannahs surrendered to beach cottages, and while the island itself rises but a few feet above the warm, turquoise Gulf, bungalows at Anna Maria’s edge prop themselves like mangroves, resting just out of reach of salt and waves.

The spirit of the island remains untouched. Sand and shells abound, and the entire low-lying tropical jungle has bursts of blazing pink bougainvillea  cascading over fences and dazzling orange birds of paradise standing guard along walkways. While the other side of Tampa Bay boasts the most densely populated county in the state, the pink Don CeSar in the distance fades against the tropical landscape of colors and the ever-permeating salt air.

 

WHY: You can draw the silhouette of much of Florida’s coast with condominium-and hotel-colored crayons. Not so here; everything on this seven-mile strip of paradise –even her stilt homes –is short. The island draws tourists without needing tall hotels and convention centers; visitors can make their way around the island’s shell-lined streets and paths using foot or pedal power. The island has no chain restaurants, and while you can get milk at a local market, you’ll need to head to the next town over for a supermarket.

 

WHO: It’s a small town of locals and visitors, fishermen and sunbathers. Anna Maria is one of six incorporated cities in Manatee county, a county with a third of the people of its neighbor to the north, Pinellas.

 

WHERE: If you look across Tampa Bay from Pass-a-Grille or Fort DeSoto, you can see Anna Maria in the distance. By boat it’s a short hop around Egmont to Anna Maria; by car, it’s just under an hour to cover the same distance. Anna Maria is at the northernmost tip of Manatee’s nothernmost barrier island.

 

BEST part: Anna Maria Island evokes memories of the Florida in your heart, the sandy paradise that draws people here year after year. It’s old Florida with air conditioning, bleached shell paths that crunch under your feet, and coral sunsets dotted with crimson blossoms. It’s fishing piers and walks on the beach; it’s beer at sunset and fish for dinner. Every part is the best part.
WORST part: With beaches everywhere, it’s a shame the city doesn’t allow dogs on at least one of them. There are a few places along the bay where you can get away with letting your pooch run off leash, but they’re not designated as dog beaches and you run the risk of being told to take your furry friend off the sand. Locals say there’s talk of a dog beach.

 

MAGIC Question: Free. Lodging and food run the gamut. Expect to pay a premium for waterside accommodations, although you can get a room for under $100 a night. Weekly stays cost less per night.
This initially appeared in the Gabber Newspaper in January, 2012.

Detours & Diversions – Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai Polynesian Restaurant and Tiki Bar

Forget tickets to Tahiti. Don’t worry about getting transportation around Easter Island. If you’re craving a taste of Polynesia, look no further than Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai restaurant. While other “dinner and show” experiences in Florida promise Arabian evenings or a medieval jousting match, Florida’s original dinner and show venue does it best. 

Once you step through the doors of the Mai Kai, you’re adrift in the South Pacific. Don’t try and fight it; just simply enjoy the ride.

WHO: The Mai Kai, a Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, exudes Polynesia. The Mai Kai opened in 1956 and there’s no other like it, in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else. Some places in French Polynesia may come close, of course, but without the Florida nuances that make the Mai Kai so special.

WHAT: It’s an old-style Polynesian restaurant-slash-Tiki-bar-slash-Polynesian revue. You can stop by the Molokai Bar for drinks or go in for the whole dinner-and-show experience. The whole place operates under a big thatched Tiki hut– large enough to house a fantastic bar, a couple of levels of dining, a gift shop, and gardens. The inside of the Molokai resembles the belowdecks of a galleon. The Islander Revue features Polynesian dances from various cultures; for almost an hour the dancers perform while a narrator explains the meaning of each dance.

WHEN: The Islanders perform twice nightly. The Molokai stays open until 2 a.m. but from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. has happy hour.

WHERE: 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call for reservations: 954-563-3272.

WHY: It’s schmaltzy, it’s pricey, and it’s wonderful. The Mai Kai has held on to the type of entertainment that tourists fl ocked to before the mouse came to town. It’s classic Florida combined with strong drinks, Cantonese cuisine, and Easter Island style. The Mai Kai is reminsicient of a 1960s Technicolor fi lm with dishes with names like “Lobster Bora Bora” and so-old-it’s-hip-again Tiki and Tahitian decor. The show and the food make the entire experience one out of time and place- for two hours the Mai Kai staff takes you to Polynesia and the 1960s.

BEST Part: The bar, even if you don’t drink. As we said, it’s designed to look as though you’re below deck on a galleon, complete with water coursing over the windows. Maori and other Tikistatues abound, the Mai Tais come with fresh mint and chunks of pineapple, and you get free sushi during Wednesday’s happy hour.

Fun Fact: The Derby Daiquiri dates back to 1961, when a Mai Kai bartender created it to enter into a contest to name the official drink of the Florida Derby. In the days predating Floridizing mainstream cocktails, the bartender made a daiquiri with Florida orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place and the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.” Read more about the Florida Derby at my food-centric site, Aphrodite’s Hearth.

SARONG – clad  maidens (the actual bartender remains out of sight) bring your drinks. Of course these girls are gorgeous, but Mai Kai management can apparently afford to be fussy: Jessica (our sarong-clad maiden) talked to us about her favorite Florida authors (Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey) and the local economy. She also let told us that only recently did the Mai Kai aquiesce to hire blondes; in the name of authenticity they used to hire dark-haired women only. The ship-style decor, intelligent women wearing almost nothing, and the well-mixed Mai Tais are a devastating trilogy. A staff seamstress makes each sarong and matching bikini top for each maiden.

MAGIC Question: The show portion of the “dinner and show” costs $9.95; everything after that costs much more. For two people, dinner (before tip) can eat and drink  for around $150. You’ll probably also want to factor in a night’s stay down south, because after the amount of food and the potency of Polynesian drinks, you will not feel like making the trek back home.

Parts of this appeared  in the Gabber Newspaper, April 19, 2007.