Guest Columnist

Barely 11 miles separates the two bridges that attach Longboat Key to the rest of the world. In between, the relatively short strand of Gulf of Mexico Drive linking the two reveals an island filled with recreational opportunities, beginning with the extra-wide sidewalk that parallels the road from bridge to bridge. This is, in fact, a bike trail—founded by “Zeke” Epstein in 1967 and completed through the efforts of the Bike Association in 1978—which allows cyclists to pedal the entire length of the island more safely, much of it while enjoying close-up views of the Gulf of Mexico. Its dedication plaque can be seen in front of Bicentennial Park at 2730 Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Come to think of it, cycling it is a great way to get a complete feel for all there is to see and do on Longboat Key. Starting at the island’s southernmost tip, Quick Point Nature Preserve launches your tour with a magnificent glimpse of what Longboat Key must have looked like a hundred years ago before tourism and development came along. The public acquisition and restoration of Quick Point shows how much can be done to restore and protect a healthy mangrove and wetland habitat; whose ecosystem nourishes marine life, filters pollutants from the water and helps mitigate the effects of coastal erosion.

Golf and tennis
Just a stone’s throw up the road begins the fabulous environs of the legendary Longboat Key Club & Resort; its 6,792-yard Islandside Golf Course bordering the Gulf of Mexico, with water hazards coming into play on every hole. Four miles further north, the club’s Harbourside Course offers an entirely different challenge to its members and guests. Its 27-hole layout features three nine-hole courses. The Red course is 3,323 yards; the White course is 3,426 yards; and the Blue course is 3,386. Golf course architect Ron Garl completed a $2-million renovation of the Blue Course in 2005. Now officially known as the “Blue Heron,” Garl rebuilt the putting surfaces to USGA specs, added new bunkers and chipping areas, and revamped the 580-yard, par-5 fifth to create a beautiful peninsula green. Hugging Sarasota Bay, the course plays through strands of oak, palm and fig trees; palmetto and southern pine.

Harbourside is also home to the club’s spanking new Tennis Gardens, a $4.5 million state-of-the-art facility named Outstanding Facility Award Winner by the USTA right after it opened in March 2009. The Tennis Gardens features 20 Har-Tru courts—five of them lighted—a stadium court (able to seat up to 2,500) for professional tournaments, a restaurant (the club’s sixth), pro shop, players’ patio and locker rooms.

In nearby Bay Isles, the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center—which recently underwent extensive improvements—offers 10 soft clay courts, teaching professionals, a specialized teaching court, daily organized events and match-making services. Midway up the key there are public tennis courts at the town’s Bayfront Park Recreation Center, which also includes basketball courts, soccer and softball fields, playgrounds, activity room and picnic facilities. Not far away, Joan Durante Park provides a quiet bayside oasis in which to stroll, walk your dog, bird watch; or just relax with a good book.

Hooked on water sports
Surrounded by miles of open gulf and bay waters Longboat Key is a boater and fisherman’s paradise; with not a few lucky skippers able to sail or power-up to their own private docks situated behind their canal- or water-front homes. For some of the best kayaking on Florida’s West Coast, launch from historic Longbeach Village and paddle out to Jewfish and Sister Keys. If power boats are more to your liking, head over to Cannon’s Marina—near the north end of the key—where you can choose from a large fleet of rental crafts. From here, motor up to the northern tip of Longboat Key to a jut of land the locals affectionately call Beer Can Island. Also known as Greer Island, this curved little slip of a sandbar is actually not an island at all; but instead is a changing landform created by the water currents and referred to as a “hooked spit.” Its 2,000 or so feet of primitive sandy beach are excellent for sunning and shelling.

The beachcomber in you
Which brings us to Longboat Key’s fabulous—and fabulously quiet—beaches. The beachcomber in you will thoroughly delight in strolling the island’s sparsely populated beaches. In all there are 11 public beach access locations staggered along the length of the key, ten of which offer a limited amount of parking; and four of which offer handicap accessibility.

For many residents and visitors to the key, recreation often takes the form of a cultural outing to the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. The Center—long a community staple in Long Beach Village—merged with the Ringling College of Art and Design in 2007, creating yet another local venue in which to soak up art and culture. The Center offers guests the opportunity to not only browse its permanent and changing exhibitions; but also to participate in classes, workshops, open studios and other events.

Of course, you can do as little as you want on Longboat Key; perhaps choosing to simply soak up your glorious surroundings as an antidote to life’s hustle and bustle. But when family and friends descend on you—as they invariably do—you have plenty of ways to keep even the fussiest guest happily occupied.