Note: This article was first published in the Charlotte Sun in January 2020 and earned an Excellence in Craft Award from the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.
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. Stacks of crab traps line the docks and dot the yards. At least one yard displayed colorful folk art.
Exploring Cortez’s Rich Maritime Heritage
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. Learn history of some of those founding families, like the Guthries and Fulfords, 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 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 focus 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.
Taste Fresh Boat-to-Table Seafood in Cortez
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. The restaurant originated in the 1920s and 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.
FISH is Preserving Commercial Fishing Heritage
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 reading “FISH Preserve.” This is about 100 acres of environmentally sensitive land FISH purchased. This track of land serves 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.” Why? It was where locals went to catch seafood and trade with farmers and feed their families.
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Dumping Ground to Restoration
The area was sold in the 1950s with the intention of being developed but it 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.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Cortez, Florida
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
Before heading out to any of these establishments, contact them to verify hours of operation.
Attractions and Activities in Cortez
Florida Maritime Museum
4415 119th Street W.
Cortez, Fla. 34215
Folk School at the Florida Maritime Museum
Enjoy a variety of classes focusing 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
The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage
Post Office Box 606
Cortez, FL 34215
Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival
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
Bring a cooler and take home fresh, sustainable seafood.
Where to Eat in Cortez
4528 119th Street W
Cortez, FL 34215
Star Fish Company
12306 46th Ave W
Cortez Fl, 34215