Cowritten by Anthony C. Stafford

How would you complete the following statement? “California has Catalina Island, while Florida has…”

If you thought “The Keys,” you’re not necessarily wrong, but The Keys are more well known than where we’re going. Rather, our area of focus is one that even Florida natives can go years without ever knowing. This area, called Bradenton — and its Anna Maria Island — is truly speaking to Californians as the most desired destination for vacation, and for many other great reasons.

Photo Credit: Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau’s (BACVB) market research shows proof that residents of California – and Los Angeles and San Francisco specifically – are highly interested in planning vacations to the Bradenton Area. Recently, BACVB was in town to highlight the destination, delivering incredible eats featuring the day’s Gulf Coast catch, discussing what makes the area so special, and how they stack up to California’s food scene. The flavorful educational experience took place at Cabra, the rooftop restaurant at The Hoxton in DTLA. The event had themed splashes of color reminiscent of the Sunshine State’s famous waters and beloved fruit, essentially bringing a tiny piece of some of the very best of Florida right here to California.

The extravagant dinner was created by Top Chef winner and Food Network star Stephanie Izard, featuring a unique sample of Cortez, Florida’s premium bottarga, gulf shrimp and more, whipped into “Flo-ribbean” dishes that are hard to come by outside of the state. And with all of its uniqueness, we learned many amazing ways that the peninsula state and this highlight region is much like our own, complete with the arts, activities and experiences, a deep history, and nature that captivates hearts.

History, Location, and A Natural Beauty

While our own Catalina Island may not be known for beaches, it does share quite a few similarities to this East Coast magnet.

Located just south of Tampa along Florida’s Gulf Coast lies Anna Maria Island, a picturesque destination now more accessible thanks to the Gulf Islands Ferry. The island boasts 16 miles of pristine, white sand and sparkling turquoise waters, where visitors can enjoy serene beaches with calm waters, often accompanied by delightful offerings from Gulf Shore Charcuterie. When the sand never gets too-hot to walk on, you know it’s a special place.

Beyond its natural beauty, Anna Maria Island offers numerous family-friendly attractions, from The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, to AMI Dolphin Tours. The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature is home to rescued manatees, providing an educational and engaging experience, while AMI Dolphin Tours offer memorable encounters with marine life. In addition, the recently renovated, ADA-accessible Bradenton Riverwalk invites leisurely strolls along the water, perfect for any time of day.

For those seeking cultural enrichment, the Village of the Arts hosts monthly artwalk events, showcasing local creativity and fostering community engagement. Nature enthusiasts will find the 487-acre Robinson Preserve a haven, featuring mangroves, native birds, and diverse wildlife, all freely accessible year-round, setting the stage for incredible sighting opportunities as wildlife migrates to the region.

All of this natural beauty needs balance, protection, and care, so it’s only fitting that there is a program in place to do each of those things. Embracing the “Love it Like a Local” initiative, the Bradenton Area is committed to preserving its unique charm for future generations. This also means understanding the deep history behind the region as well, such as the Historic Cortez Fishing Village — one of the oldest fishing distributors. The “Love it Like a Local” initiative is also the first in Florida to partner with the national non-profit Leave No Trace, highlighting its dedication to sustainability and environmental stewardship. This commitment ensures that the area’s natural beauty and local heritage remain intact for all to enjoy.

A Summer Adventure Awaits

Beyond Anna Maria Island is the whole chain of Gulf Coast Islands that all bring their own unique flair, yet some of the same natural beauty, charm, and history that can be found in the Bradenton Area. Whether a Californian traveling East, or a visitor from elsewhere, the art, history, and natural beauty of the Bradenton area and Anna Maria Island boasts excitement, curiosity, and escapism that may be hard to leave behind, as shown by BACVB’s research.

The Bradenton Area is conveniently located at just a 30-minute drive from the Sarasota-Bradenton (SRQ) airport. Visitors can choose from a range of accommodations, including vacation rentals, boutique hotels, like Mello on the Beach, and Zota Beach Resort, or the newly opened Palmetto Marriott Resort & Spa. Or, make even more of your time in the Sunshine State with a day-trip to nearby Orlando’s theme parks, Tampa, or Cape Coral. Either way, Bradenton has a promising future as the area slowly grows and becomes more popular with new residents and visitors alike.

Now you know, if it ever comes up: “California has Catalina Island, while Florida has Bradenton & Anna Maria Island.”