Longboat Key has a split personality, but that’s OK.
The 10-mile-long island on Florida’s west coast stretches across two counties, with Manatee County to the north and Sarasota County to the south. Much of the south side of the island is high-end resorts and country clubs; the north is what many residents call the “real people.”
That isn’t to say that there aren’t things that bring the island together.
The great connector: The white sands that run down from sweeping dunes across the gorgeous flat beach into the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t matter on which end of the island you walk barefoot on the beach. The only lines out there are the footprints in the sand. And there’s no problem finding your own private stretch of beach to watch the sunset.
Longboat Key is a beach destination, but resorts and houses claim most of the sandy stretches. There’s no giant public beach like you would find to the south in Siesta Key or to the north in Bradenton Beach. So if you’re going to spend a week in Longboat Key, go for a beachside resort or rent a house.
There is a range of resorts for a variety of price points, but expect to pay a little more as many feature full kitchens and are designed for weeklong stays. At the high end is the AAA 4-diamond rated Resort at Longboat Key Club (longboatkeyclub.com), Sand Cay Beach Resort (sandcaybeachresort.com) and Cedars Tennis Resort (cedarstennisresort.com). More economical options include the Sandpiper Inn (sandpiperinn.com) or Turtle Crawl Inn (turtlecrawlinn.com). Most have pools and beachside access.
If you do rent a house that isn’t right on the beach, be sure it’s near one of Longboat Key’s 12 beach approaches, which you can find on the city’s website (longboatkey.org). Each has limited parking — think less than 30 spots — so it’s best if you can snag a nearby rental. Bring a wagon to haul your gear to the beach.
The northernmost approach allows access to the beaches that overlook Longboat Pass into Sarasota Bay. Just wander out to the beach and then meander through a patchwork of gnarled fallen cypress tree trunks and head around the bend to Beer Can Island. That beach — signs say no drinking allowed — stretches under the bridge that connects Longboat Key to Bradenton Beach and is popular with day-tripping boaters.
From here you can see the inlet boat traffic of fishing vessels and speedboats transporting parasailors out into the Gulf. Bradenton Beach Parasailing (bradentonbeachparasailing.com) sails out of the Bridge Street Pier. Most fishing charters can be found out of Bradenton Beach or south of Longboat on Lido Key’s City Island, including Capt. Christopher Boyne’s Poco Grande Sport Fishing (pocograndesportfishing.com).
Life isn’t just a beach, though. Resorts offer golf and tennis, but one of the more refreshing finds on Longboat Key is its natural side.
On the southern tip of the island is Quick Point Nature Preserve (https://www.longboatkey.org/pView.aspx?id=18976). You’ll find wetlands, mangroves and all kinds of wading birds diving for dinner or just chilling out in the glassy-flat surface of Sarasota Bay. The park features both a man-made and a natural lagoon.
On the north side of the island is an even larger park. The 32-acre Joan M. Durante Park (https://www.longboatkey.org/pView.aspx?id=18973) stretches from Gulf of Mexico Drive down to Sarasota Bay, with more than a mile of crisscrossing trails with boardwalks that pass through salt marsh, upland hammock and mangrove wetlands. It was a gift from James Durante in the 1980s in honor of his late wife. He wanted the land to revert to the island’s natural undeveloped state.
Durante Park is the perfect place for a pre- or post-meal stroll. Several of the island’s best restaurants — Harry’s Continental Kitchens, Euphemia Haye Restaurant and the Lazy Lobster — are a short walk away.
Harry’s (HarrysKitchen.com) has been around since 1985. Like the island the restaurant has a split personality, especially at lunch: relaxing cafe seating under bright red and yellow umbrellas on the outside, fine white-linen settings inside. For dinner, the linens cover all the tables, even on the patio.
The menu is overwhelming at lunchtime, and its daily brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. will have you debating whether to go with one of the five eggs Benedict dishes, the Florida grouper tacos or medley Surf Side Stack (a soft-shell crab, crab cake with corn, crab and feta relish and ginger-cashew slaw).
Don’t skip the German apple pancake, said Hal Christensen, the restaurant’s general manager and son of founder Harry Christensen. “It is as big as the plate. It is delicious.”
The top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor is Dry Dock Waterfront Grill (drydockwaterfrontgrill.com), adjacent to a boat storage marina overlooking Sarasota Bay. The choice seating is the outdoor tables along the docks, but the wait is long and the food, while tasty, is pretty straightforward. Expect standard seafood and steaks with pasta, soup and salad. It’s known for its grouper sandwich.
Also along the docks, but up in the town’s historic town center, is the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub (marvista.groupersandwich.com). Built in the 1910s, the building is one of the oldest on the island and exudes Old Florida charm. Menu items feature seafood, steak, chicken and pork. Try the Mar Vista Tater Tots with chipotle honey mustard sauce, the Red Curry American Red Snapper or the Caribbean Grouper with grilled bananas, jerk spices and coconut sauce.
Nightlife is limited on the island, but one of the better options is the Haye Loft bar on the top floor of Euphemia Haye Restaurant. It features live music seven nights a week in a bachelor pad-like atmosphere (euphemiahaye.com/haye-loft).
On Longboat Key, it’s more about what you do during the day. Consider renting bikes at Backyard Bike Shop next to Durante Park to trek from one end of the island to the other. If you’re on the north end, listen for the loud crying sound of wandering peacocks and check out the sculptures outside the Longboat Key Center for the Arts run by Ringling College (ringling.edu/LBKCA).
That’s the thing about Longboat Key. You could easily drive from one side to the other and think there’s not much to it, but if you stop and look around, it’s filled with surprises.
What: The island town along the Gulf of Mexico spans two counties, with Manatee County’s Bradenton Beach to the north and Sarasota County’s Lido Key to the south.
Where: Situated south of Tampa and just west of Sarasota, Longboat Key is about 130 miles southwest of Orlando.
Getting there: There’s no direct route to get to Longboat Key, but your best bet is to take Interstate 4 west about 65 miles to Interstate 75 south all the way to Sarasota and head downtown and over the John Ringling Causeway along State Road 789, which then heads north right onto the southern end of the 10-mile-long island.
Population: According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of Longboat Key is 7,143.
Accommodations and activities: Longboat Key has dozens of independently run resorts and several homes for vacation rentals. The beach is the main draw but resorts offer tennis and golf. Boating, biking and fishing are also popular.
•South Florida Museum, 201 W. 10th St., Bradenton: This attraction is home to Snooty the Manatee, the oldest sea cow in captivity who will turn 68 in July. The museum also includes exhibits about the natural and cultural history of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Hours vary. Cost: $19 adults, $17 seniors, $14 children 4-12, ages 3 and younger free. (southfloridamuseum.org)
•Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota: Founded in 1955 by a group of independent scientists that wanted to further conservation and education of marine habitats, the aquarium just over the bridge from Longboat Key features two touch tanks, a 135,000-gallon shark habitat and laboratories where you can see scientific research in action. There are manatees, sea turtles and more than 100 species of marine life to see. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cost: $19.75 adults, $18.75 seniors, $14.75 children 4-12, ages 3 and younger free. (mote.org)
•St. Armands Circle, Sarasota: More than 100 shopping, dining and art venues circle the public green space adorned with white statues from the nearby Ringling Museum of Art. Hours vary. (starmandscircleassoc.com)
•The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota: The official art museum for the state of Florida with more than 10,000 pieces, it was created in 1927 by circus magnate John Ringling. The grounds include the art and circus museums, the Ca’ d’Zan mansion and the Asolo Theater. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (8 p.m. Thursdays). Cost: $25 adults, $23 seniors, $5 children 6-17, ages 5 and younger free. (ringling.org)
•De Soto National Memorial, 8300 Desoto Memorial Highway, Bradenton: This national landmark commemorates the Tampa Bay landing of Hernando de Soto in 1539, starting the first major European exploration of the south. The visitor center features a movie about de Soto and a museum with artifacts (you can try on period armor). The grounds include a nature trail. Visitor center hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m daily; grounds open dawn to dusk daily. Cost: Free. (nps.gov/deso)