Less than an hour’s drive north from Venice, Old Florida lives on in the waterfront clamor of an authentic working fishing village, complete with 1920s-era bungalows, weathered fishing boats, working boatyards and fisheries, and ramshackle dockside fish joints. Most of Florida’s fishing villages are history. But Cortez Village, just off Cortez Road in Manatee County, is alive and thriving. This 10-block enclave, perched on the edge of Sarasota Bay, miraculously survived the waves of development that washed away most of the rest of Old Florida. Honest-to-goodness fishermen still work hard for a living here. In fact, Cortez is so authentic looking that it often serves as a backdrop for movies with scenes set in old fishing villages.
Now for a quick history lesson. Cortez was settled in the late 1800s by North Carolinian fishermen who recognized that the location, buffered by barrier islands with easy access to Sarasota Bay, Gulf of Mexico, Tampa Bay and the Manatee River, was ideal for fishing—and supplying that fish to the rest of the world. These founding families included the Guthries, Bells, Taylors and Fulfords. Many of their descendents still reside and make their living in Cortez.
Today, the village is a diverse gumbo of old-timers and newbies. Linda Molto is one of its newer denizens. The acclaimed artist fell in love with Cortez when she happened upon it in the 1980s. “It was like stepping into a different century.” Molto decided to take the Cortez time trip. She bought a circa-1910 cottage where she still lives and works. In the years since, she’s become active in helping preserve Cortez’s heritage. In 1997, she co-authored “Cortez: Then and Now,” a handy, historic bible about her adopted village. Since Molto settled here, a baker’s dozen of other artists and writers have joined her. According to the artist, that’s only natural. “Artists like to live in authentic places with real character and history,” she says.
So, what to do in Cortez? Drop in on the Florida Maritime Museum housed in the Cortez Schoolhouse built in 1912. There, you’ll gather enough data to take an informed walkabout (ask for the walking tour map). Start at the nature preserve right next door—and enjoy an easy hike through the restored wetlands to Sarasota Bay. 4415 119th Street West, Cortez; 941.708.6120; manateeclerk.com/historical/MaritimeMuseum.aspx.
When it’s lunchtime, hike to the Star Fish Company & Restaurant for picture-postcard views and vintage Florida fixings, including flopping fresh fish and cornmeal hush puppies popping with sweet corn goodness. They’ll deliver fried mullet, fresh grouper, conch fritters and more right to your picnic table in plain cardboard boxes. If it’s stone crab claw season (October 15-May 15), dine to your heart’s content on these fresh-from-the-boat claws steamed with melted butter and lemon. Before you leave, visit the fish market and bring home some of the legendary mullet spread. 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez; 941.794.1243; www.starfishcompany.com.
For a scenic boat tour, book a ride with Captain Kathe, a fourth-generation Cortezian. As she puts it, “You’ll be in the hands of a storytelling, real-to-the-bones fisherman.” Captain Kathe and her two cocker spaniels, Pup Pup and Skipper, will introduce you to dolphin, manatee, cormorants and other native creatures. Bring a picnic and a camera and marvel in the view and Captain Kathe’s amazing, true stories. Ask nicely, and she might even share her famous snook recipe. Located at the dock of the Star Fish Company Restaurant; captkathe.com/sightseeingmanateecounty.html; 941.812.3241.
The annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival is February 16-17, 2013. Vendors hawk seafood, regional art and crafts, and oceans of beer. The event also features live music, walking tours, face-painting, and a host of family-friendly activities. 941.254.4972; cortez-fish.org/fishing-festival.html.
When it’s happy hour, head to Cortez Kitchen, another vintage dockside seafood eatery with an adjoining fish market. Local bands make the scene on most weekends and evenings. You can hang back with an inspired beverage (there’s a full bar) and dig the sights and sounds. Along with the usual fresh seafood and sides, the menu boasts fresh salads and even grouper, mullet and shrimp sushi! The fried okra is definitely something to boast about. 4528 119th St. W., Cortez; 941.798.9404; thecortezkitchen.com.
Another not-to-miss spot is The Sea Hagg, a mesmerizing treasure chest of all things nautical, including authentic anchors, fish nets, antique buoys, nautical furniture and ships instruments. This dizzyingly colorful shop also features paintings, watercolors, glass art, jewelry and other fine crafts by Florida artists and artisans. The shop’s “Salvage Garden” is a delightful hodgepodge of wood carvings, garden statues, decorative windows and other odds and ends. 12304 Cortez Road W., Cortez; 941.795.5756; seahagg.com.
Annie’s Bait & Tackle is also a great dockside seafood joint—but if you’re tired of fish, try its legendary Cuban sandwiches and black beans and rice. This is also the place to rent kayaks, buy bait and tackle, and charter inshore or offshore fishing tours. 4334 127th Street W., Cortez; 941.794.3580; anniesbaitandtackle.com.
To really absorb the Cortez flavor, you’ll want to stay a week or two. The William Guthrie House is a traditional cracker house built in 1915 and lovingly restored. Only 100 yards from Sarasota Bay, this charming cottage offers two bedrooms, a traditional sleeping porch, an open plan living/dining area, a fully equipped kitchen, and a sun deck and screened porch. The hardwood floors, bead board walls and fireplace are just some of the charming original features. 941.330.4646;
So, spend a day, a week or longer in a place that time forgot.
We guarantee that you won’t forget it.