Among several little towns hidden away within shouting distance of larger, flashier cousins along Florida’s west coast is Cortez.
Near Bradenton, Cortez is a working fishing village first settled in 1880 by fishermen and their families who came down from North Carolina. It boasts five square miles of area but three of those miles are under water. Mullet were everywhere in the beginning and they were everything as far as the local economy went. Fishermen used sailboats to ply the nearby waters for the teeming schools of mullet. By 1890 more fishermen were arriving from the Carolinas via Tampa on “run boats” that dropped their passengers and ice and took back fish.
The area was originally called Hunter’s Point but the name was changed to Cortez when the post office arrived in 1895. By the turn of the century fishermen were taking car engines and turning their sailboats to gasoline power.
The town incorporated in 1912 with a population of 110. Today there are about 5,000 people but the fishing industry, though still very much alive, has seen its catch reduced by over 75 percent due to more stringent regulations. That doesn’t stop the town from celebrating its history and its future.
The fishing economy expanded to include other catches and once a year the otherwise sleepy town throws open its doors for the annual Cortez Seafood Festival. It takes place in mid February and details can be found at the state’s seafood website covering festivals year-round and giving recipes and more.
Parking is more organized than it looks with several remote lots served by continuous bus service during the festival and any resident with extra room in the yard pulls in a few extra bucks parking SUVs cheek to jowl with motorcycles.
The festival takes place on the waterfront. Streets are narrow, there are no sidewalks and houses are for the most part small and snuggled up close to one another on cozy lots.
Like any good food fair, there are vendors hawking all kinds of piscine delectables including mullet, shrimp, crab, grouper and more exotic fare like octopus, calamari and crawdaddies. Get ‘em fried, broiled, sautéed or in a yummy sauce. You can get sandwiches or full plate dinners. And when you get tired of seafood, check out the BBQ and desserts.
Buy tickets for food and clutch them as you wander the streets. Feel like a kid at the carnival as you try to decide where to spend those last few tickets before the day ends and it’s time to go home.
The fun doesn’t stop at food. There’s live music and snaking down the adjacent side streets are artists and artisans selling jewelry, clothes, paintings, photographs and much more. Most have a Florida or seafood theme. Even outside the designated festival area there are impromptu tables and displays set up by local residents as a last temptation on the way back to the car.
The town pulls out some history for the occasion with displays tagged to each year’s theme and there is the watery equivalent of a petting zoo with a batch of small aquariums and tanks that bring local sea life in for close-up inspection.
This a great day trip or take a couple of days and see the town before or after the 90,000 or so descend for the festival. Some of the larger old houses are available for rent along with motels or there are plenty of places to stay in nearby Bradenton or Anna Maria Island.
A few parting shots in a slideshow (above) of good food, old cars and some special seating.
© Copyright 2012: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison and Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.