A nice breeze tousled my hair and sunshine kissed my face as I sat on the deck of Cortez Kitchen waiting for my lunch. A fishing charter captain pulled up to a nearby dock with his party then poured the morning’s catch onto the fish cleaning station. In the distance, brown pelicans and American white pelicans bobbled over wakes from passing boats. It was a perfect afternoon.
“There’s nothing better than sitting in Cortez soaking up the sunshine,” a woman sitting at the table behind me said to her companions. I had to agree.
Cortez Village is one of Florida’s last commercial fishing communities and is a National Register of Historic Places community. The two-square-mile community is home to dozens of 1920s wood-framed bungalows with tin roofs. Many have white fences, palm trees, and boats parked in the lawn. Occasionally, I spotted little free libraries where readers can easily swap out books. Crab traps are stacked up by the docks and in some yards. At least one yard displayed colorful folk art.
Located on Sarasota Bay in Manatee County, its modern history dates to the 1880s when a handful of families escaping Atlantic hurricanes in the Outer Banks in North Carolina settled in the area. History of some of those founding families, like the Guthries and Fulfords, are told in the Cortez Cultural Center.
The Florida Maritime Museum tells an expanded story of Cortez’s history and the state’s maritime culture and history. Exhibits and artifacts include navigational instruments, fishing gear, and the seashell collection of Cortez fisherman Capt. Blake Banks. The museum is housed in a brick building constructed in 1912 as a schoolhouse and sits on about four acres of the Cortez Nature Preserve.
The grounds include the Pillsbury boat shop, a chickee hut, and Burton Store. Built in 1890, this is Cortez Village’s first commercial building and relocated to its current location in 2006. This is primarily where The Folk School at the Florida Maritime Museum holds classes. Programs were first offered in 2017 and open to the public. They are focused on teaching skills and heritage crafts of Cortez Fishing Village. Upcoming programs include a walking tour of the village, painting with a fish, and creating a sailor Valentine with a mosaic of seashells.
Star Fish Company and Boat-to-Table Fish Houses
Cortez Village is home to a handful of fish houses where diners feast on fresh boat-to-table seafood. In addition to Cortez Kitchen is Star Fish Company which originated in the 1920s and is owned by a fourth generation Cortezian, Karen Bell, who is also co-owner of A.P. Bell Fish Company in Cortez. Star Fish Company has a seafood market and restaurant where diners stand in line to place their orders. Entrees are served in cardboard boxes and diners sit on the deck at a picnic table to enjoy a colorful view of the boating and fishing community.
Overlooking the Cortez docks and in front of the entrance to the Star Fish Company is a bronze sculpture of a fisherman pulling in a net. It is dedicated to Florida’s commercial fishermen past, present, and future. It was dedicated Oct. 27, 2001 and includes the names of 15 Cortez commercial fishermen lost at sea and five names of Cortez veterans lost during wartime.
Also find fresh seafood markets, boat tours, fishing charters, and a couple of souvenir shops. What you will not find is a lot of is parking, but with determination, you will find it.
An organization making an impact in preserving Cortez’s heritage is the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH). They are dedicated to promoting and preserving Florida’s traditional maritime culture, folklife, skills, values, and Florida’s commercial fisheries and supporting protection of marine resources.
Driving State Road 684 (Cortez Road) into Cortez, you will notice a large sign which reads “FISH Preserve.” This is about 100 acres of environmentally sensitive land FISH purchased to act as a buffer between the historic fishing village and development. Returning this land and water to its natural state, such as by removing trash and exotic Brazilian peppers, also protects the commercial fishing industry by protecting a key fisheries habitat. For years, this mangrove-lined area of Sarasota Bay just south of Cortez has been referred as “The Kitchen” because it was where the locals went to catch seafood to trade with farmers and feed their families.
The area was sold in the 1950s with the intention of being developed and eventually became a dumping ground. Decades later, FISH with donations and support from the community, purchased the land and made the final mortgage payment in 2005.
Today, FISH continues raising funds to restore the land and one way they do that is through hosting the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival the third weekend in February. Commercial fishing heritage and way of life is celebrated with food, music, and good people, alongside fishing boats, gear, fish houses, and of course, commercial fishermen.
Along Cortez Road, a mural welcomes visitors to Historic Cortez Village yet, the fishing community is easy to miss, especially for those on their way to Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach, or Holmes Beach. Unlike other Florida coastal communities, the palm trees are taller than most buildings, the pace is a bit slower, the seafood is a bit fresher, and the tenacity and grit for holding onto its maritime heritage, culture, and way of life is a bit stronger.
Plan Your Visit
Cortez is about an hour’s drive north of Port Charlotte and off Cortez Road in Manatee County. For additional information on the area, visit. www.bradentongulfislands.com
What to Do
Before heading out to any of these establishments, contact them to verify hours of operation.
Florida Maritime Museum
4415 119th Street W.
Cortez, Fla. 34215
Open: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday
Admission: Free and donations welcomed.
Folk School at the Florida Maritime Museum
A variety of classes are offered with a focus on preserving skills and heritage crafts of Cortez Fishing Village. Advance reservations needed. Visit their website for a schedule, costs, and to register.
Cortez Cultural Center
11655 Cortez Rd. W.
Cortez, Fla. 34215
Open: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Tours or Groups by Appointment.
The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage
Post Office Box 606
Cortez, FL 34215
Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival
February 15 – 16, 2020
Children 12 and under: Free
Upwards of 20,000 people attend the event. Visit the website for parking information. If you go, do not call it a seafood festival, especially around the commercial fishermen.
Double Trouble Charters
Near and offshore fishing charters, half-day, six-hour, and full-day trips.
Cortez Bait & Seafood Fish Market
12110 Cortez Rd.
Cortez, Fla. 34215
Open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday – Saturday
11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday
Bring a cooler and take home fresh, sustainable seafood.
Where to Eat
4528 119th Street W
Cortez, FL 34215
Noon – 9 p.m. Tuesday – Thursday
Noon – 10 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Noon – 8 p.m. Sunday
Star Fish Company
12306 46th Ave W
Cortez Fl, 34215
11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday & Monday
11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday
Jennifer Huber is the founder and voice behind the award-winning blog SoloTravelGirl.com where she celebrates traveling alone, not lonely.