Sample the bounty of local waters at Anna Maria Oyster Bar on Anna Maria Island.Photo Credit : Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Sponsored by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
We were working off intel that the historic fishing village of Cortez was the best place for lobster lovers like us to find stone crab: the signature crustacean of the Bradenton Gulf Islands region. We didn’t have a specific restaurant name. No GPS coordinates. But years of lucking out by following winding roads down jagged Maine peninsulas served me well. I turned our rental car south right after we crossed the bridge that connects Anna Maria Island—a beach lover’s dream destination—with Cortez. Bingo!
In minutes, my daughter, Lara, and I were standing in a seriously long line at Star Fish Company. It’s a line that feels like a party, especially when the mid-October through early May stone crab season is just revving up. The sun was warm on our shoulders. Swooping pelicans entertained us. And we overheard a “regular” assuring a “newbie” from up north that she’d done her homework well and found the best spot for stone crabs. We were thrilled our instincts had led us to this century-old seafood outpost overlooking the working waterfront.
I was smitten from the first taste of luscious stone crab claw dunked in butter, but I only fell deeply in love when I later learned just how sustainable this fishery is. Only the meaty claws of stone crabs are harvested. Then, the crabs are returned to their seawater home to go about the business of regenerating claws, just as lobsters can.
For seafood lovers who care about sustainability—and who know that hyperlocal, fresh-caught fin fish and shellfish taste outrageously delish—the Bradenton Gulf Islands area offers incredible variety, harvested from local waters. When lobster shacks along the New England coast go into hibernation mode, the seafood scene in this region of tropical foliage, quartz-sand beaches, and frothy turquoise waters heats up. You can fly nonstop from Providence, Hartford, or New Haven to Bradenton in about three hours. Fares from airlines like Avelo and Breeze Airways often cost less than a couple of lobster rolls in Boston. That makes it easy and affordable to venture south, not only for seafood but for a taste of the quaintness of this coastal destination.
Our four-day seafood odyssey took us to places like Anna Maria Island’s Bridge Street, just steps from Bradenton Beach. This energetic shopping, dining, and live music district pre-dates the barrier island’s tourism boom. At Anna Maria Oyster Bar, we savored our first Gulf oysters. They’re much larger than northern oysters: practically the size of a fist.
The warm waters of the Gulf are loaded with nutrients, I learned from chatting with Florida’s state chef Justin Timineri. “It gives our seafood unique flavor,” says the well-traveled Florida native, whose creds include winning the Food Network Challenge Great American Seafood Cook-off in 2006.
That includes fin fish. “If you’re a haddock or cod lover, the Florida grouper or snapper are certainly going to translate,” Timineri says. These Gulf-harvested species may be a bit less flaky, but they have “beautiful, sweet, light meat that is very desirable for Americans,” he says. We saw grouper on every menu… and tried it blackened at Pier 22 in Bradenton, while watching boats come and go from the marina; in tacos at The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar, after browsing the local farmers’ market; and both sandwiched as a Reuben and swimming in garlic out on Anna Maria Island’s Rod and Reel Pier, where wondrous bird life turns a meal into a wildlife show.
We walked out to the end of Anna Maria City Pier, too, and found crunchy fried clams that tasted a bit more like home. As vacationers of all ages cast lines into the water, we realized the ultimate seafood experience here might be catching your own fish to cook. With an abundance of kitchen-equipped vacation rentals available, this island destination certainly makes that incredible level of freshness possible year-round.
Begin planning your seafood-filled vacation at bradentongulfislands.com.