Florida has so many treasures – offering the old and new, authentic and charming, well known and yet to be discovered. Finding them is one of the joys of living in the Sunshine State. Whether it’s a refreshing, bubbly spring, a quiet pine flatwood forest, a secret cache of sand dollars on a hidden beach or a tucked-away restaurant featuring the freshest seafood, you know when you have found the real thing.
For those who enjoy Florida discoveries, one of the most beloved secrets is found an hour south of Tampa. Bradenton’s Cortez Village offers genuine and historic charm as one of the last remaining fishing villages in Florida.
Hugging the mainland shore of Sarasota Bay, just a bridge away from the sparkling Gulf of Mexico, is a small, timeless community that truly embraces its maritime heritage. No high-rises here, just little cottages and homes and businesses lining narrow neighborhood streets. Locals proudly build and refurbish boats in their front yards where towering rows of crab traps are stacked ready for the next fishing trip. Little has changed since last century. In fact, not much has changed since the village was first settled in the 1880’s. Cortez Village is firmly ensconced in the National Register of Historic Places and the people here are dedicated to preserving its legacy.
A rarity for sure, Cortez continues to exist as an off-the-beaten-path outpost, anchored by a nearby 95-acre wildlife preserve, a local historical museum dedicated to preserving its cultural heritage and some of Florida’s best, and freshest, “dock to table” seafood restaurants.
The dockside Star Fish Restaurant and the Cortez Kitchen just down the street both dish out fresh local Florida fare. The catch varies with the season but the menu usually includes snapper, grouper, stone crab, shrimp and mullet. Although much of the seafood that lands at Cortez is shipped around the world there is plenty left for both restaurants to be wildly popular, especially during the winter tourist season. You may even want to step into their seafood markets to get a better glimpse of the “catch of the day” before it hits your plate.
The Star Fish Restaurant offers waterside seating for admiring the view of Florida mangrove islands, fishing vessels and the iconic Cortez fish house off in the distance. It’s easy to relax while watching the view of the boats as egrets perch and pelicans swim by.
If you are a wildlife or photography buff, be sure to bring your camera for a prize photo of the large flock of white pelicans congregating (primarily during the winter and spring months) on the sandbar in front of the Cortez Kitchen. The perfect photo spot is accessible by walking the docks. You can’t miss with such ideal scenery, wildlife and fishing vessels.
If you happen to visit in February, you’ll be able to attend the Cortez Seafood Festival, which draws thousands as it serves up local fare along with musical entertainment and a host of artists and artisans. Fishermen dish out the fresh-from-the-sea local catch for those who want to gorge on Florida’s finest.
At the end of the day, after a delicious meal and a stroll on the docks, you may want to find a comfortable spot to watch the setting sun as a pastel palette of clouds fills the sky and reflects on the bay. Or you can cross the bridge to Anna Maria Island, another community known for its charm and good food, where sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf meet white, powdery crystalline sand. Either way, it’s a perfect ending to your day.
You just can’t miss with a visit to Cortez. Whether it’s dining on fresh seafood, catching the Florida vibe, or discovering downright authenticity, Cortez is “real” Florida.
Florida native Robin Draper is the owner of AuthenticFlorida, an award-winning travel and lifestyle blog devoted to the simple and delightful pleasures for Florida living.