For those of us who like to explore off-the-beaten-track treasures and small authentic outposts of “old Florida,” a visit to Cortez, on Sarasota Bay in Manatee County, is a step back in time. It’s only an hour from Sarasota and a quick jaunt from Bradenton, and it’s definitely worth the trip!
Founded in 1880, Cortez is one of the last authentic fishing villages in Southwest Florida. It was named after the famed Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez. The early townspeople originated from North Carolina and made their living net fishing for the abundant black mullet in the town’s surrounding waters, which they shipped to Cedar Key and later to Tampa. During hard times, Cortez’s residents were able to catch enough fish, scallops, and other seafood to feed their families, which is part of what attracted them to this tiny seaside village just southwest of Bradenton.
Today, the historic waterfront is home to a working commercial fishing fleet that catches shrimp, snapper, grouper, and stone crab, among other fish and seafood species. The slightly grizzled seagoing vessels with their upright masts and piles of crab pots make for a picturesque scene at the docks. The community has remained true to its maritime origins, with small cottages, homes, and local businesses lining narrow streets. Faded, hand-lettered signs at the docks mark shop names and menus as well as historic and cultural information about this timeless village. Not much about the town’s architecture has changed in the last century, and many of today’s residents are descendants of the original settlers of the town.
Cortez’s residents are dedicated to preserving the legacy of the town’s more traditional way of life and fishing culture. A local nonprofit—FISH: The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage—got the area designated in the National Register of Historic Places and created the Florida Maritime Museum, which is housed in a restored 1912 schoolhouse on the grounds of the Cortez Nature Preserve. The museum stands as a testament to the maritime history and culture of the area and of the larger Gulf Coast fishing tradition. Exhibits include historic photographs, boat models, tools, instruments, and other artifacts. The museum is also home to a research library that includes a variety of books, and original archival materials, including diaries, letters, and ship logs.
With the wealth of fresh fish coming in from the local boats, Cortez offers some of the freshest seafood around. Eat at the dockside picnic tables at Star Fish Restaurant or the authentic wooden tables at nearby Cortez Kitchen. Or buy what’s just been caught at Star Fish’s attached fish market next door. No matter what you choose, the view from the dock is incredible, providing a vista of mangrove islands, Jewfish Key, Longboat Key, and Bradenton Beach. Add to that the local commercial fishing fleet plus the long-legged shore birds like herons and egrets plying the local waters, and you’ve got a peaceful, scenic vista that is not to be missed.
For Floridians or travelers who want to get in on the act and out on the water, several boating outfits offer deep-sea fishing charters, some kid-friendly and most leaving twice daily. Cortez Deep Sea Charters even offers unlimited annual or seasonal memberships for serious (or maybe just enthusiastic) anglers.
And then there’s the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, a two-day affair that draws crowds of 18,000 to sample fresh fish, hear live music, buy fishing wares, and celebrate the unique way of life preserved in this tiny village on the Gulf Coast. Watch for it on February 18-19, 2017.