Longboat Key

An island haven for well-to-do vacationers and snowbirds that features beaches and resorts that will keep you off the mainland.

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Longboat Key is a prime spot for people looking for a Gulf Coast beach without the masses. [Christian Wheatley | Bradenton Area CVB photo]
Pros
  • A remote location with pristine beaches.
  • But it's still close to much busier Anna Maria Island and Lido Key.
  • Great local food options.
Cons
  • Parking is hard to come by.
  • No alcohol or dogs allowed on the beaches.

Longboat Key is a quiet, 10-mile stretch of sand along the Gulf of Mexico, sandwiched between the more bustling Anna Maria Island to the north and Lido Key to the south.

Incorporated in 1955 and not really developed until the ‘60s, Longboat Key is now a popular destination for snowbirds, long-term renters and well-heeled vacationers. It’s an oasis for people who want to feel like they’re on a remote island without having to venture far from Sarasota.

As a result, most of the island is private property, making beach access slightly more difficult if you don’t have a hotel or resort to (temporarily) call home.

Visitors and day-trippers can enjoy the fine sand in at least one part of the key, along the remote beach at the northern end, near Longboat Pass drawbridge. Beer Can Island, as it’s called, is a popular retreat mostly available to boaters, but also is accessible by walking along the sand at low tide. The whole beach has an almost deserted feeling, with fallen trees and scattered driftwood dotting the white sands.

The rest of Longboat Key is split almost evenly between Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Certain spans of the well-manicured, mostly residential barrier island are so narrow that it’s possible to see both Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico from the same point. Other points expand large enough to fit resorts, a golf course, condominiums and a tennis club.

Most of the restaurants and a few shops are located either near the southern tip, close to the more commercial St. Armand’s Circle on Lido Key, or are clustered in the top third of the island. A Publix and CVS are available near the middle of the key, along with a few other mom-and-pop shops.

A rule of thumb is that the resort hotels and condos line the gulf, while the swank residences are hidden along Sarasota Bay. Retired celebrities have been known to hide on Longboat Key, so keep your eyes open.

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GETTING THERE

Tampa International Airport (TPA) is the largest nearby airport, about an hour-and-a-half north in Hillsborough County. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in Pinellas County, also close to a 90-minute drive, is served mostly by Allegiant. Sarasota-Bradenton International (SRQ) is by far the closest, about a 20-min drive from the southern tip of the key. Though it doesn’t offer as many airline options as TPA, it does provide non-stop service to more than a dozen major cities through seven different airlines.

Those flying into Sarasota can rely on either a rental car or a rideshare service, though drivers might not be as readily available on Longboat as they are in downtown Sarasota. You’ll need a rental car to get to Longboat Key from Tampa Bay, which requires crossing the Sunshine Skyway toll bridge. Be prepared for backups around the toll gates if paying with cash, especially on the weekends or spring break season.

There are no bridges from the mainland onto Longboat Key, which is part of the island’s appeal. You’ll either have to take State Road 684 from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island and head south, or State Road 789 from Sarasota onto Lido Key and head north. SR 789 is the main drag on Longboat Key, and is known as Gulf of Mexico Drive on the island.

There are multiple public transit options that serve Longboat Key and surrounding areas, including the jointly operated Longboat Key Trolley, which runs every hour. The trolley connects at either end with Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit bus routes. The town of Longboat Key compiles all the options here.

Visitors can also take advantage of the reservation-based Longboat Key Shuttle, which requires riders call the day before. The shuttle serves homes, shops, restaurants or any other accessible destination, and costs $1.50 each way. More information on the shuttle is here.

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PARKING

The pro: parking on Longboat Key is free. The con: there isn’t much of it.

Almost every beach approach is designed for residential use or is blocked by private property. That’s by design, as people pay big bucks to live out here and don’t want to see tourists flocking on their personal chunk of paradise.

There are a mere handful of dedicated spots for public beach access at the north end of the island, on Broadway Street. There’s also street parking along North Shore Road and Firehouse Road. Local law enforcement patrols the area, so be sure to take note of the “No Parking” signs and to avoid parking on the grass.

Other than that, you’re largely out of luck unless you’re staying at a resort or hotel. There is parking at the half-dozen parks on the key, but those spaces are reserved for people using the parks.

Also keep in mind that parking on the street overnight is not allowed.

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BEACH SCENE

Greer Island, better known as Beer Can Island, is a popular spot on Longboat Pass. [Vanessa Rodgers | Bradenton Area CVB photo]

Beachgoers range from families, teens, locals and snowbirds, along with boaters looking to anchor somewhere for the afternoon. Even on a sunny spring break Saturday, the beach isn’t likely to be too overcrowded, as limited parking and the key’s relative remoteness keep it mostly off the beaten track.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford one of the hotels, condos or towering resorts, you’ll have a lot of room to yourself. Hey, that’s what you’re paying for, right?

Visitors and daytrippers can enjoy the white sands along the public beach, walking to the tips of a couple small piers or setting up with umbrellas and beach blankets for the day.

The clusters of trees lining the shore are perfect for hammocks. Those looking for a model-esque Instagram post will appreciate the dramatic downed Australian Pines. The northern end of the key is one of the most peaceful stretches in the Sarasota area.

Local law enforcement patrol the area regularly and are known to clamp down on alcohol. Dogs are not allowed either, so keep the coolers and four-legged friends at home.

Public beaches

Whitney Beach, the main public beach, has an approach on North Shore Road where there’s a limited amount of street parking. Other entrances are located a little further south, on Broadway Street.

There’s also public beach access in the center of the key, along Gulf of Mexico Drive near Neptune Avenue. There’s a parking lot in Bicentennial Park, just across the street from the approach.

Beer Can Island

Back to that public beach off North Shore: If you cross the Longboat Key Bridge heading south from Anna Maria Island, you no doubt saw a hidden beach along Longboat Pass. That’s Greer Island, a.k.a. Beer Can Island.

Those who are up for a little walk — about 10-15 minutes from the approaches — can reach it from the public beach approach on North Shore, but be warned that this can be tricky depending on the tide. There is no dedicated path, but footprints from other visitors are easy to spot along the coast or through the trees.

Be on the lookout for jagged branches and tree stumps covering the ground. The walk is short, but not recommended for those who aren’t surefooted.

Coquina Beach

All these limitations can be frustrating. Those looking for a more built-up beach with food and beach rentals should check out Coquina Beach, just on the other side of Longboat Pass.

Unlike the more remote beaches on Longboat, there are public bathrooms, ample parking, shaded picnic tables and plenty of shells to hunt. Coquina Beach Cafe serves breakfast and lunch dinner, along with frozen drinks, beer and wine. They also rent beach chairs and umbrellas.

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WHERE TO STAY

BEACH CASTLE RESORT

Located right near the middle of the key, near restaurants and Joan Durante Community Park, this 21-unit condominium resort offers one-, two-, and three-bedroom options on both the bay and Gulf side. It also includes private beach access and bay front fishing.

THE BEACHCOMBER

These short-term, 7-night minimum rentals are right on the Gulf of Mexico. The condos feature a large, heated beachfront swimming pool and are across the street from the Shoppes of Bay Isles.

THE RESORT AT LONGBOAT KEY CLUB

This upscale resort has more than 200 rooms with views overlooking the beach, lagoon and award-winning golf courses. It also features about a dozen dining options and a large spa.

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There isn’t much in the way of events on the island, because people want their privacy there. That said, St. Armands Circle on nearby Lido Key hosts scads of things to do.

CORVETTES ON THE CIRCLE

This annual charity event happens each spring in nearby St. Armands Circle. More than 150 corvettes ride through the circle, raising money for the Honor Flight of West Central Florida, a non-profit which flies veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the different memorials.

ARMANDS CRAFT FESTIVAL & SUMMER SIDEWALK SALE

Shoppers will love this combination of a local craft show and sidewalk sale that takes place in June. More than 175 artisans and crafters set up for the public event, while stores on the circle offer special discounts.

TASTE OF ST. ARMANDS

January visitors can enjoy sampling food and drinks from about 20 local restaurants, wineries and breweries. A silent auction, live auction and 50/50 raffle also raise money for Take Stock in Children Sarasota. No pets are allowed in the event area.

THINGS TO DO

Longboat Pass separates Longboat Key from Anna Maria Island to the north. [Bradenton Area CVB photo]
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

This 13-acre botanical gem is quick drive across the bay to Sarasota. The gardens are home more than 20,000 plants and flowers, eight greenhouses and a conservatory. Guests can purchase tickets to just the grounds or an all-access pass featuring rotating exhibits.

The Ringling Museum

The Ringling estate has a whole range of attractions, including an art museum, circus museum, gardens, Ca d’Zan mansion and restaurant. The circus museum alone can entertain for hours, as guests walk the wire, squeeze into a clown car and learn all there is to learn about the Greatest Show On Earth.

Baltimore Orioles Spring Training

Baseball lovers visiting in February and March can enjoy an Orioles game at nearby Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on the mainland. Tickets start at $19 in the grandstand at “Birdland South.”

Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training

You also could head to Bradenton to see the Bucs play each spring. The Marauders play A ball the rest of the year at LECOM Park.

WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS

If you don’t mind hauling your equipment, the water near the public beach is quite calm and good for stand up paddle boarding. There are several launch points for kayaking, including Longboat Key Public Pier, at Broadway Avenue and Bayside Drive on the northeastern end of the key, and Bayfront Park Recreation Center on Gulf of Mexico Drive near the center of the key.

HAPPY PADDLER

This kayak option offers several tours, including sunset and moonlight, with options starting on both Anna Maria and Longboat Key.

THE RESORT AT LONGBOAT KEY

The area offers a combined 45 holes onsite, but the courses are only available to resort guests and members.

LONGBOAT KEY CLUB MOORING

The marina offers overnight docking, which comes with access to the amenities at the Resort at Longboat Key.

LONGBOAT KEY PUBLIC TENNIS CENTER

Features 10 soft clay courts, daily round-robins and a professional teaching staff. There’s a wide range of passes, including a 90-minute walk-on option.

QUICK POINT NATURE PRESERVE

This nature center at the southern end of the key offers trails with inland canals and bayfront grass flats. It’s also a great area to spot pelicans and wading birds, which can also be seen near Beer Can Island, Longbeach Village and Joan Durante Park.

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

DRY DOCK WATERFRONT GRILL

This local favorite offers outdoor seating on a gorgeous deck, complete with a windshield for the less-than-perfect days. Dogs are welcome outside as long as guests have a travel carrier. The daily happy hour from 3-6 p.m. is a nice treat, as well.

THE LAZY LOBSTER

The outdoor patio is the main draw, with its decorative fountains and ferns. Outdoor heaters make it enjoyable all year round.

HARRY’S CONTINENTAL KITCHENS

The sit-down restaurant is worth a visit, but Harry’s also offers a high-end grab-and-go deli that’s perfect for picking up the day’s beachside picnic supplies.

BAYOU TAVERN

This restaurant serves a little bit of everything, but is particularly known for its pasta and pizza. The early bird special from 4:30-5:30 p.m. features a 12.95 entree with soup or salad along with drink specials including $2.50 domestic beers and $5 martinis.

BLUE DOLPHIN CAFE

Looking for something more casual? The Blue Dolphin serves breakfast all day along with sandwiches, burgers and dogs. Note that the cafe closes at 3 p.m.

EUPHEMIA HAYE

The grande dame of the Longboat food scene is this staple, open since 1975. It’s pricey, but worth it if you’re looking for a fancy night out. Cheaper options are available at the Haye Loft upstairs, and you can reserve a cooking class if you really enjoyed your meal.

SHOPPING

ARMAND’S CIRCLE

This area is a shopper’s paradise and just a quick drive across the bridge. The charming circle boasts more than 130 shops, including fine jewelry, high fashion and casual wear. In need of new beach footwear? Check out Flip Flop Shops. Or swing by Island Pursuit for casual sportswear and accessories.

SHOPPES OF BAY ISLES

This is your go-to stop for supplies on the key, featuring a Publix, CVS, nail salon, and fitness center. Those looking for a colorful boutique should checkout J. McLaughlin location.

STEFF’S STUFF

This storefront in the Centre Shops of Longboat Key features decor, antiques, collectibles, vintage clothing and jewelry.

EXIT ART

Also at Centre Shops, here shoppers can browse everything from phone cases, furniture to bracelets and hair clips.

Caitlin Johnston has lived in Florida for six years and is finally adjusting to the heat. She loves hiking, exploring remote beaches and snorkeling.

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