Just off the coast of Sarasota on the gulf coast of Florida (the west side) is a chain of barrier islands that, while they’re home to some of the best beaches in Florida, tend to fly a little under the radar. 20+ miles of white sand beaches stretch along (from north to south) Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, Longboat Key, and Lido Key. While the beaches and water are comparable to the St Pete and Clearwater areas just to the north (Tampa), the vibe in this area is totally different. If you like a laid back beach vacation (think more small beachtown vibes and less high rises) without gobbs of people around, this is the place for you.
To get to the Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island area, you can either fly into Sarasota (SRQ) or Tampa (TPA). While the Sarasota airport is closer, there aren’t as many flight options (and flights are usually a little more expensive). It’s a little over an hour drive from TPA to the Longboat/Bradenton area.
I recently headed back to Longboat Key for the first time in about 15 years. My family used to vacation on Longboat at the beginning of every summer so I have fond memories of the area and it’s a place I know pretty well. Honestly, not a ton had changed since I’d been there last (somewhat of a pleasant surprise) and it was pretty much exactly what I remembered. So I’m excited to share with you some of my family favorites!
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In this post I’m going to share the lowdown with you about this stretch of islands including Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island, and Bradenton.
For the full rundown of things to do in Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island, Bradenton (and a few Sarasota favorites) plus restaurant recommendations, read this post.
Where to Stay on Longboat Key
The southernmost of the two islands, Longboat Key is by far the most mellow place to stay in the area. The 10-mile long island is almost entirely residential. Think vacation homes, small condos and inns, upscale complexes (but still on the smaller side) plus a couple of beach resorts. There are very few shops and restaurants on the island and besides golf and tennis, you won’t find much to do. There’s a Publix and a CVS and a few restaurants and that’s about it.
But that’s kind of what I like about Longboat Key. There’s 0 traffic. Like it just doesn’t exist. There are a lot of beach front accommodations (in a wide range of prices and styles) but none of the places are very big so the beaches are never crowded. And no matter where you stay on the island you’re a very quick drive from either Bradenton/Anna Maria Island to the north (plenty of shops, restaurants, things to do, etc.) or St Armand’s Circle and Sarasota to the south which is heavily concentrated with shopping and dining.
You definitely need a car if you’re staying on Longboat Key (anywhere in this area really), but staying on Longboat gives you the best of both worlds getting a peaceful and quiet beach experience but with nearby areas and attractions being easily accessible.
It’s a long skinny island and I’m not sure there’s a bad place to stay, but I do have one observation: the sand seems to be a little softer and whiter at the southern and northern ends of the island. We always used to stay on the south end (the old Colony Beach and Tennis Resort) and stayed more in the middle on this trip and the sand seemed a little coarser and more full of shells. Of course it’s all relative though. The sand is still pretty great.
The overall vibe on Longboat Key is interesting. You’ll notice a pretty dramatic difference between it and Bradenton/Anna Maria Island. Overall, I think the people who stay on Longboat Key tend to be older and in general I would say everything is just a little more upscale.
So where exactly should you stay?
My beloved Colony Beach and Tennis Resort (home to many childhood summers) is sadly no more. After many years of sitting abandoned, the property has recently been cleared to make way for a St Regis resort. And I’m not exactly mad about it. Honestly, when the St Regis finally opens, I think it’s going to make Longboat Key a REAL destination. This whole area is severely lacking a super nice place to stay. And the St Regis is definitely going to fill that void. I think it will ultimately draw people to this area that hadn’t considered it before. But alas, that looks like it’s still probably a couple of years away. So for now…
Zota Beach Resort: This trip we stayed at the Zota Beach Resort. I must say, I had high hopes for this place (I’m always looking for the perfect beach resort in Florida) but it fell a little flat. Self advertised as Longboat Key’s newest “luxury resort,” the recently renovated property (previously the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort) makes a good first impression. The entry, lobby, and pool area all have a modern, polished vibe and visually pleasing aesthetic and that must be where they get the “luxury” tagline because there wasn’t anything else to suggest it. The room was ok but a little shabby and worn (this was actually the vibe in the lobby and common areas too…couches, furniture, anything upholstered, etc.) with a teeny tiny balcony. We stayed in the north tower which is the renovated tower, whereas the south tower is a new build. Maybe the rooms in the south tower were nicer? The balconies were considerably larger so just judging from the outside, you’re probably better off paying more to stay in the new south tower.
All of that aside, the rest of my negative impressions may be due to COVID (or they may not since this was my only stay). Service everywhere was pretty lackluster and in general there were just waaaaaaayyyy too few people working there. There was no housekeeping and after 5 nights with three adults in a hotel room we found ourselves avoiding being in the room as much as possible. There was a provision where you could request to schedule a cleaning after the third night, but they were unable to get anyone to clean our room for the last two nights. Bummer. They were good about bringing fresh towels when we requested, but here’s the deal…changing out your towels, taking out the trash, making the beds, etc felt an awful lot like staying in a condo except we were in a small hotel room and it wasn’t exactly cheap.
The food situation at the resort also wasn’t great. There’s one restaurant and a pool bar. We had a $50 credit daily to spend on food as part of our room rate and we struggled to be able to spend it! The first night we were there we just wanted a casual dinner (everyone had been in the pool) but the pool bar closed and they couldn’t seat us in the restaurant (it was crazy loud in there anyways) and no one would answer the phone to order room service. We ended up having to go back to the restaurant to see what was going on (turns out the hostess was also covering as a waitress and she was the one answering the phone for room service : ) In the end we were able to order take out from the restaurant and take it back to our room but it was just such an ordeal. We ended up just trying to use our credit on drinks from the bar in the afternoons (none of us ever had a drink that was halfway decent) so that credit ended up feeling pretty wasted.
Long story short, if you’re going to stay here, you’ve got to have a car and plan to either leave property for every meal or go to Publix and stock up so you’ll have stuff for breakfast and lunch if you don’t want to leave.
The service from the valet (mandatory valet parking is included in your resort fee) and the beach concierge (arranging umbrellas and chairs) was top notch. Bonus tip: if you’re traveling with kids, they have a ton of beach toys at the beach concierge hut for you to use (mostly stuff that’s been left behind by other guests).
So, overall: this place is in no way, shape, or form on a “luxury” level especially if your definition of luxury is comparable to Four Seasons, St Regis, Ritz Carlton, JW Marriott, etc. I would say it was more like a high end Courtyard Marriott. So if you go in with those expectations, you’ll probably be happy. But if you’re expecting a true luxury resort, just know that this isn’t it. I think price also plays a big factor in expectations. The price for this stay averaged out to be $340/night and that was AFTER they removed three nights of resort fees (an extra $40/night). If this place had been about $200/night (INCLUDING the resort fee) I would have been pretty happy. But $340-380/night is in the ballpark of what I paid the month before to stay at the Don Cesar Hotel on St Pete Beach and there is absolutely no comparison.
I’m really not sure how much weight to give the “COVID effect” here. I understand that staffing is hard right now and there are a lot of extra challenges in the tourism industry so I get why they’re struggling. But I’ve also stayed at other places where the guest experience was handled much better. Part of traveling right now is paying more and getting a lot less. In my experience (as a pretty frequent traveler) it’s not as extreme everywhere but this was definitely a case of paying more and getting less.
That being said, there just aren’t a whole lot of options for true hotel/resort like accommodations on Longboat Key, so if you can find it at a decent price, it’s worth a look at.
Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
The Resort at Longboat Key Club: This is where I would stay next time. It was a little more expensive than the Zota Beach Resort for this trip so I went the other way but this place seems to be a true resort. It’s been recently renovated and it’s a pretty large property with full amenities (plus amazing golf, tennis, spa, etc.). Pricing starts at $350/night. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Longboat Key Condos & Vacation Rentals
Longboat Key is a GREAT place to find condos and vacation rentals. There are so many options from small cottages to luxury homes to upscale condo complexes, etc. And at all different price points! I book all of my condos and vacation rentals with Vrbo. Click here to find the best condos and rentals on Longboat Key. You can filter for your wishlist (exact location, price, # of rooms, pet friendly, etc.). And if you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be pleased to find many options under $100/night. Search for Longboat Key condos and vacation rentals here.
I’ve rounded up a few individual units plus overall complexes that I like the look of:
Island West: This luxury tower is right on the beach and it’s definitely a place I would stay at if I was looking for condo type amenities.
Luxury Condo at L’Ambiance: Anything at L’Ambiance is divine (it’s part of the Longboat Key Club), but this luxury unit looks particularly lovely.
Chic Two-Bedroom with Resort Amenities: Perfect for longer stays (10-30 days), this condo is soooo chic plus the amenities at the complex are pretty swanky.
Where to Stay on Anna Maria Island
The island just north of Longboat Key is technically one long island, but it’s split into two distinct parts. The southernmost part is Bradenton Beach (the city of Bradenton is just across on the mainland). There’s a very large public beach access at the southern end of the island (Coquina Beach) and as you go north it’s pretty much one long stretch of “little beach town” vibes.
The northern end of the island is Anna Maria Island. There’s not really a definitive line that separates one from the other and there’s not a noticeable difference in the types of accommodations (one’s not necessarily nicer than the other). I will say that there’s definitely an attitude that Anna Maria Island is a bit superior to Bradenton Beach, but I think it’s mostly to do with name recognition. I noticed that quite a few restaurants that are located more on the southern end of the island use “Anna Maria Island” in their name or merchandise instead of Bradenton.
So while there’s a lot of ambiguity about where one ends and the other begins, Holmes Beach and north is definitely considered Anna Maria Island. If you’re wanting to be in the center of the action (close proximity to restaurants, shops, etc.) Pine Avenue is definitely the main drag on the north end of the island. It cuts the island from west to east (there’s a public beach access on the west and Anna Maria Island City Pier on the east) and it’s lined with cute shops and restaurants. If you’re staying on the north end of Anna Maria Island, it’s definitely doable to get around mostly by walking, biking, or by golf cart (bike and golf cart rentals are available at several places in town).
There really aren’t a lot of resorts or hotels on the island (part of its charm). It’s mostly small inns and vacation rentals, but here are a few places to check out:
Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club: This is the only true resort in the area (bonus points because it’s a Marriott Bonvoy property) but unfortunately it’s on the bay side of the island and not the beach side. The Anna Maria Island Trolley does stop at the marina so it makes getting around the island easy. Pricing starts at $350/night. Book a room directly with Marriott Bonvoy here and read hundreds of reviews here.
Bali Hai Beach Resort: Next time I’m on Anna Maria Island, this is probably where I’ll stay. It’s a small boutique hotel right on the beach and it looks so cute! The property is in the process of being completely renovated, and I think the key to having a perfect stay here is definitely booking one of the newly renovated rooms (I believe the beachfront rooms haven’t been renovated yet). Pricing starts at $230/night. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Tortuga Inn Beach Resort: Located more towards the southern end of the island in Bradenton Beach, this place is cute, right across from the beach, and it has a pool. Pricing starts at $150/night. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Bungalow Beach Resort: Another little idyllic beachside bungalow inn with a pool. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Silver Surf Gulf Beach Resort: A quaint little inn right across the street from the beach. Rooms are updated and most have little kitchenettes. Pricing starts at $140/night. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Anna Maria Island Condos & Vacation Rentals
Like I said before, the vast majority of accommodations on Anna Maria Island and Bradenton Beach are vacation rentals and condos. I book all of my condos and vacation rentals with Vrbo. Click here to find the best condos in Anna Maria Island and Bradenton Beach. You can filter for your wishlist (exact location, price, # of rooms, pet friendly, etc.). And if you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be pleased to find many options under $100/night. Search for Anna Maria Island and Bradenton condos and vacation rentals here.
Here are a few rentals that look pretty dreamy:
Home with Private Pool: Right in town (shops and restaurants close by!), super close to the beach and with its own pool! Perfect for a big family vacation.
Beachfront Paradise: Right on the beach on Anna Maria Island!
Sea Shack: Super, super cute colorful bungalow style cottage with private pool.