Bradenton, Florida

Think of seaside piers and you might well have traumatic flashbacks of ‘kiss-me-quick’ hats, along with a quick flash of bright, brash and breezy Blackpool or Brighton.

But forget the piers of this realm, stick with the ‘B’ and head for the much more laid-back scenario of the piers around Bradenton in Florida, starting with the obvious one at Bradenton Beach.

Like other same-name city/beach combinations along the glorious Gulf Coast, Bradenton Beach is a good few miles from big, booming Bradenton itself, the Manatee County capital with its bustling Downtown and business districts.

Village-style Bradenton Beach,which is also listed as a ‘city’, despite being a community of only around 1,500, is across from the mainland over on beautiful Anna Maria Island, only a couple of hundred yards from the main Cortez Road drawbridge and its arrow-straight link to big-town Bradenton on the other side of the Intra-Coastal Waterway.

Its picturesque, restored pier reaching out into Sarasota Bay is a remnant of the original wooden bridge from the 1920s, which was retained as a fishing pier when the new drawbridge was built nearly 50 years ago, and has been lovingly refurbished, complete with a new restaurant in the locally-run Anna Maria Oyster Bar chain.

The big one - at Bradenton Beach Pier It’s a great fishing spot, too, and there’s much more to it, but perhaps that can wait until after my next visit, which is coming up very soon, when I plan to stay in the heart of the village and soak up as much of that Old Florida feel as I can.

Instead of lingering there now, head to the top end of the island, through the Holmes Beach settlement, to the ‘city’ of Anna Maria – again, a quiet, up-market village full of tucked-away homes with private moorings – and you reach two other signature piers, well loved by locals and also popular focal points for many, many regular visitors, especially returning ‘snowbirds’ fleeing the cold weather further north.

The Anna Maria City Pier dates back to 1910 and stretches more than 700ft out over crystal clear water to a restaurant which is proud of its seafood, its happy hour, its live music and Bill the jewellery-maker, whose intricate work is well worth a browse. The single-storey restaurant has Greek-style see-through plastic screens which roll up to allow al fresco dining with great views as far as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across the southern end of Tampa Bay, and there’s also a kiosk-style bar where you can buy drinks and snacks if you don’t want a more formal sit-down feed.

Like almost every other pier I’ve come across on the Gulf Coast, there’s special provision for anglers, and this one is no exception, with a bait shop and decking all round for both serious and playtime fishermen, with space enough to cast out as far as you can or just dangle a line into a sea teeming with fish.

Look along the coast a few hundred yards and just beyond Bayfront Park you can see another angling hotspot at the Rod and Reel Pier, this time sticking out more than 350ft into the sea and with a two-storey wooden structure at the end which houses all you need for a day-long relax.

The Rod and Reel Pier at Anna Maria Island The wooden walkway, made up of planks with touching  memorial dedications, leads to a bait shop where you can also buy a day pass for a couple of dollars, which means you don’t have to buy a full fishing licence, compulsory in Florida, for sea as well as freshwater sport. There’s also an excellent bar, where you can buy substantial snacks, some pretty good beer and massive helpings of good-natured banter, tall fishing tales and maybe a smattering of local gossip.

There’s never a shortage of fishing tips, either, but some anglers don’t need them. One day, a little girl about four years old armed with a tiny, Walt Disney-merchandise ‘toy’ rod and reel was pulling in fish as fast as her dad could put bait on her hook.

I was fishing next to her, and caught nothing except a few amused looks, but then again, I told myself, I was just there for the atmosphere and a meal in the bustling restaurant upstairs, with great views over the island and the constantly-active seascape full of boats and seabirds.

Not surprisingly, the restaurant specialises in fish, and the kitchen would have been happy to prepare and dish up anything I might have caught, so I promised myself I would try harder next time. And maybe buy a little pink fishing rod.

I paved the way by buying a licence so that I could fish anywhere in the state, which turned out to be an expedition in itself.

A rather dull Sunday morning meant time to kill, but with major bait and tackle shops closed, my only other option was a large out-of-town store not unrelated to Asda.

After locating a deserted sports gear department, complete with glass cases full of guns and ammunition, I eventually managed to track down an assistant, who disappeared to summon help as he didn’t know how to use the licence machine. After about 20 minutes, along came an assistant manager, yawning and rubbing his eyes as he tried to figure out my ID.

I wish I could put over his languid, Deep South drawl as he explained: “I’ve been asleep in the office. I just sat in the manager’s recliner and that was it”.

Manatee statue near Pier 22 in Bradenton I could hardly keep a straight face as he tried and failed to input my details, seemingly because I was a Brit, so he sent for even more help, before struggling to serve a fellow customer trying to buy a shotgun as a surprise prezzy for her husband!  She never did get the gun, because she apparently smelled of alcohol, but I did finally get a fishing licence and by then I could have done with a drink myself. Sadly, my permit shows my middle name as my surname, but I hadn’t the heart or the time to go through the rigmarole of having it cancelled and re-issued. A grinning Park Ranger later told me that the chances of being asked for it are relatively slim, but then I might have a splendid bit of cabaret to look forward to when I have it renewed.

Still on the mainland, it was back to the delights of Bradenton’s celebrated 1.5-mile Riverwalk, a showcase for artwork and fun which I reached by walking down Old Main Street from the Village of the Arts district. The Riverwalk comes  complete with, yes, a fishing pier, reaching out into the Manatee River estuary, but this time, I left my fishing gear in the car and was ‘smart casual’ as I went to meet a friend at the Pier 22 restaurant by the marina.

The Memorial Pier began life back to 1878 and its impressive Spanish-style two-storey building was constructed in 1928 and dedicated to the memory of more than 200 Manatee County men who died in the First World War.

It was once the home of Manatee’s first radio station, among other things, and now the riverfront top floor is a posh ballroom, with the former shipping warehouse below a rather nice ‘upscale yet casual eatery’ with a tree-shaded patio and firepit, which serves interesting seafood and sushi, all of it prepared  from scratch.

Bradenton does have a heck of a lot to offer – you could say there’s plenty more to peer at.

David Graham visited Bradenton as part of an extended trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida, flying with Virgin Atlantic and then hotel-hopping while based in Sarasota, mostly using independent Best Western hotels booked in advance.

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David Graham

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