Thursday, November 15, 2012

A week long hiatus in Cortez, Florida

Nov. 7-14, Cortez, Florida

We have spent the past week at Buttonwood Inlet RV Resort with our friends Mike and BJ whom we met in motorhome adventures last fall. This time together was unplanned as we arrived in Florida earlier than expected due to Hurricane Sandy dumping snow in the Smoky Mountains. Buttonwood is one of our best discoveries for an RV park as it only a mile from some of the best beaches on the Gulf and the area nearby in Cortez and Anna Maria Island still have retained an old Florida charm. With a location this close to the beach and big-rig friendly sites, the rates are relatively reasonable, especially if you can use the Passport America discount (good for  a 7 day stay between May 1 and Dec.31) or the book a site at the monthly rate which averages to about $33 a day. Knowing this park is out of our budget during high season, we were delighted to get the PA discount and be able to arrive early enough to surprise Mike and BJ with our presence as they drove in. From the moment they arrived, this past week felt like more of a vacation and celebration than most of our other experiences since we left Oregon. 

It didn’t take long to start plotting out things we wanted to do together in this area.  Day one took us to a beach that Mike and BJ discovered a few years ago which became one of our favorite spots when we stayed here last spring. This somewhat private beach is on the northernmost end of Longboat Key with public access that has free parking less than 100 yards from the beach.

The white sand beach on Longboat Key is good for shelling, particularly for sand dollars, and it is rarely crowded. BJ and Mike, experienced shellers, come provisioned with special rakes and knowledge of the types and rarity of Gulf Coast shells.  Aside from teaching me the names of the shells and which ones to keep, they have taught me to clean them with mineral oil and to preserve sand dollars by bleaching them and painting them with white glue.

Finding a shell with a wow factor involves a bit of science, keen eyes, and a good dose of luck. For starters, you cannot keep any shell that is alive—a big no-no that incurs a hefty fine. Sometimes a hermit crab will have taken up residence in the shell, but that does not qualify the shell as being alive—although the shell has to be pretty spectacular for me to kick the little creature out of its home. Most of the wow shells I have found, unbroken conches or whelks, are ones I found about knee depth in water where the water is so clear you can see their dark shadow. Low tide is best for finding shells washed up on the sand, especially where there are small shelves in the sand to catch them, and high tide can be good for bringing in a new haul, especially if you are willing to get wet. Another part of the excitement is thinking you have found a whole shell only to discover the underside has a hole or is missing a piece.  I admit it is hard for me to toss back large imperfect shells. Vic is a good filter as he keeps reminding me there is a limit to what we can carry with us in the motorhome. My promise is to keep culling through them and only keep the best ones as my collection grows. Today’s haul was a pretty modest one but, like many sports, the hunt is the major part of the fun. In truth, I find it shell searching somewhat addicting but in a good way like some form of meditation walking the shoreline in a quest for beauty.

Aside from spending time at the beach, we took a few adventures together to some new places (at least new for us.) One was to check out a planned community called Lakewood Ranch about forty miles away. I had read that there was a Farmer’s Market there on Main Street and we also discovered there was a store called called Total Wine there where we all enjoy shopping for good bargains. Lakewood Ranch turned out to be a bit of a dud—the place is pretty, all groomed with golf courses and fake lakes and the modern Spanish architecture was attractive, but there wasn’t much going on at the market and many of the shops and cafes were closed either due to the early season or the challenges in the local economy. Not a place I would go out of my way to return to, but the visit satisfied my curiosity. We still had fun exploring both the main street area and scouring the shelves at Total Wine for our some both good deals and indulgences.

Another day we headed north about an hour across the St. Petersburg Sunshine Skyway Bridge to experiences the beaches in that area. Our first stop across the bridge was to check out a county park called Fort de Soto that I have wanted to stay at because of its proximity to the water. It is a highly popular spot with a pretty hefty rate for a county park ($42 daily), but I have read that you can launch your kayaks directly from some of the sites, so we decided to see for ourselves.  One of the challenges of this park, besides getting a reservation during the winter, is low overhanging branches. Fortunately, the website for the park includes photos for each site so you can get a pretty good idea of the clearance for choosing a site that will work with your motorhome or RV. After circling around the different options in the campground’s pet area, we decided site 152 would be a good choice.  The sites actually jut out into a bay which looks perfect for kayaking and fishing. The prevalence of water and woods may also make this spot popular for no-see-ums and mosquitoes. I also heard it is a big haven for raccoons. The only other drawback here is the likelihood of constantly dragging in sand as none of the sites are paved. Can’t have it all—or can you?

My niece who lives near Tampa told me that her favorite beach in this area is called Pass-a-Grille, so that was our next stop. I learned that Pass-A-Grille got its name from Cuban fisherman, known as "Grillers," who camped along the water's edge of the island and would smoke their fish before returning home. Traveling through the pass, you could see fires on the beaches, hence Pass-A-Grille. The beach was really lovely there and the historic area on the main street, with the oldest dwellings on the Pinellas beaches, was charming,  After spending a little more than an hour on the beach shell hunting and people-watching, we found a local cafe with a view of the water for crab cakes and grouper sandwiches. The café overlooking the historic street also provided a good venue for people watching on this Veteran’s day weekend.

Happy hour and sunsets are also a big draw in this little corner of paradise we claimed for our own this week. Our first attempt to catch sunset took place at the Gulf Drive Café tiki bar in Bradenton Beach, only about a mile from our campground. We missed the live music and happened to catch the sunset on a cloudy night, but still managed to capture a little sky drama with our cameras while we sipped our favorite beverages.

With water on nearly three sides of us, this place is also great to explore by kayak. Vic and Mike took out our Hobie Revolutions on the Sarasota Bay, launching them directly from the boat launch at our campground. They tooled around for a couple hours out in the bay. One good story was Mike’s attempt to use one of the paddles to bring up a large whelk that he spied on the bay floor. It was more than likely a live whelk, so it was just as well that his attempts failed. They seemed to enjoy themselves but took no photos as evidence of their fun afternoon. While they kayaked, BJ and I returned to our little beach on Longboat Key for more shell hunting and relaxing in the sun. I even got in a little swim that felt great until a rather large fish that looked like a Dorado (mahi mahi) surprised me in about shoulder depth water. Made me wish I had my fishing rod there. . . .  Just for the record, it took eight minutes by car for us to get to this beach from our campground and that included a short traffic delay on the drawbridge. Definitely a place you could also easily bike to if you were willing to do without the chairs and umbrella.

Our last night in Cortez called for another chance to see a good sunset and have a little celebration to cap off our fun week together. Our choice of locations this time was just a few blocks across the street from us at a new restaurant called Swordfish Grill. We learned that happy hour was two for one on all drinks from 4-6 p.m., but we would have to settle for a sky view rather than an ocean view of the sunset as the place is on the bay facing south. It turned out to be another great discovery as we enjoyed watching the commercial fishermen next door bring in their catch which attracted dozens of white pelicans and other shorebirds. The place turned out to be another good find as they have entertainment nightly which we could even hear from our campground. We will be returning to Buttonwood Inlet for the month of January, so I imagine we will have plenty of chances to check out the entertainment and enjoy more of the chargrilled oysters that were one of their specialties.

white pelicans at swordfish grill

A common refrain on this blog has been that departure day from these special places always seems to come too early. Our deepening friendship with BJ and Mike certainly adds to the angst of moving on; however, we are not going to garner much sympathy with our next destination of going to the Keys for more fun in the sun.

swordfish grill sunset


  1. You're right no sympathy if you are on your way to the Keys. You clearly know how to do Florida the right way. Gorgeous water photos. Thanks for the beach and sunset view tips. If we have to spend a lot of time in Florida, I've started collecting them. Can't wait to see what you find in the Keys.

  2. What beautiful beach and sunset pics! Thanks for sharing! So great you were able to spend time with BJ and Mike...super fun!


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