The Other Side of Anna Maria Island

Our tandem kayaks slid quietly into the shallow waters of Palma Sola Bay, and with a wave, our handler bid us farewell.

Now, this would seem like a perfectly normal “bon voyage” for two solo adventurers setting out on a five-mile trek through the mangrove flats of Robinson Preserve, but there were five of us, including three young children– all bundled up in life preservers.

This area of Florida, just west of Bradenton, is famous for its beaches– and deservedly so. But there’s another side: the miles of canals, flats, and estuaries on the other side of Anna Maria Island that offer unparalleled opportunities to see wildlife… and to go horse surfing. Yes, horse surfing.

But before we saddle up, let’s kayak. Sean Duytschaver, who owns a business called Native Rentals on nearby Holmes Beach, had pointed us to a watchtower that looks out onto Emerson Bayou and the choppy waters of Tampa Bay. On a clear day, you can see the spires of the Sunshine Skyway, the sleek bridge that connects Bradenton with Tampa.

It was an easy two-hour trip, despite three kids who initially didn’t know the difference between a paddle and an oar, and one little four-year-old girl who was scared of the crabs under the bridges.

Duytschaver also turned us on to an iPhone app called EveryTrail, which allowed me to take photos, geotag them and place them on a map. Here’s a look at our journey:

Anna Maria Island kayak trip

The following day, we did something equally extraordinary on the shores of the bay, when we surfed on horses. Yes, you read that correctly. We went horse surfing.

Here’s how it goes: Take a saddle-less horse, wade into the bay (into water too deep to stand in,) and the horse will start to swim with you on it.

I wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but there I was, riding a horse named Sassy into the bay, with my three kids on their horses swimming in front of me.

I didn’t know horses could swim, but as it turns out, I had watched too many Westerns where the horses jumped over the rapids or got swept away. Pure fiction, it turns out.

The horses don’t actually live on the beach; they’re trucked in by Great World Adventures, in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. My middle son, Iden, is a natural on a horse, but my oldest son and younger daughter– well, let’s just say they were about as comfortable on a horse as they were on a kayak. But not for long. Our guides showed them how to ride bareback and stay on the horse when you’re in waist-deep water (grab the mane really tight and don’t let go).

Like our trip out to the watchtower, horse surfing was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The image of my oldest son clutching a horse’s tail while it galloped through chest-high water– a sport called “horse skiing” – I’ll never forget that.

There’s no easy way to capture a ride like that in EveryTrail, but we got plenty of videos on our iPhones – from a distance.

I was astounded by the way in which technology is framing the travel experience. It’s an idea later confirmed by Bill Burnley of Anna Maria Gulf Coast Rentals, who said location-based technologies, videos, and apps are changing the way his cottages are rented. I shared what we’d learned from EveryTrail, and we both imagined a day when geotagging and other technologies can help you rent a better cottage by the beach.

And one more thing: If you’re out in Bradenton, swing by the Star Fish Co. Seafood Market and Restaurant in the fishing village of Cortez, Fla., for lunch. It’s cash-only, outdoor-only seating, but it’s about as close to authentic as you can get on this side of the island.

Elliott writes The Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home.