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Busy season arrives on Longboat Key

Longboat's tourist time looks hearty with Southwest Florida vacationers scrambling to find winter accommodations.

Longboat Key beaches were not crowded in early December.
Longboat Key beaches were not crowded in early December.
Photo by Eric Garwood
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Season is here on Longboat Key. 

Resorts of all sizes are gearing up for what is easily their busiest time of year. 

At the Sandpiper Inn, demand for rooms is higher than normal following Hurricane Ian. 

Guests who originally had plans to stay in Fort Myers or Sanibel Island are now scrambling to hold onto upcoming vacation plans, making Longboat Key even more attractive that is typical. 

Though it’s early, and October’s areawide hotel-occupancy numbers are skewed by displaced Southwest Florida residents and aid workers, airport traffic is still setting record after record.

Anecdotally, the 2022-23 version of Longboat Key’s busiest six months seems to be shaping up as a robust one – a contrast to the last few years when COVID-19 and its variations played havoc with what’s normal.

Sandpiper owner Christine Cullison said she has been receiving numerous calls from people searching for an alternative place to stay, and she has had to turn them away due to lack of availability. 

“I got phone calls the next day (after Hurricane Ian) from people looking for rooms for January and February,” Cullison said. “I just don’t have the room. I am expecting that will continue. I get at least one call per week.”

The Sandpiper Inn is booked solid through March, which is not unusual for the inn. 

Typically, guests through the season are the same each year and sometimes stay as long as three months at one time. 

To reward their loyalty to the family-run location, they are given first dibs on their rooms for the next year before they check out at the end of their stay. 

Preparations for the season are not any different than those completed every couple of months at the inn. Cullison refreshes bedding, cookware and other frequently used items among guests.

Frequent visitors return

The irony was about as easy to spot as a perfect patch of sand on an unspoiled beach when Sherry Evans of Rainier, Oregon, sat down to chat with a visitor on the stoop of her Longboat Key vacation rental.

The front door was open wide to the only-in-Florida-in-December warm breeze off the Gulf of Mexico. There wasn't a shoe in sight, except four worn by a couple carrying their bags back to a car with out of state license plates.

George and Sherry Evans come to Longboat Key often in the winter. This season, Becky Brekke, Sherry's sister, and her husband Dave, joined them from Arizona.
Photo by Eric Garwood

There were, however, tales of kayaking adventures launched from nearby Joan Durante Park. Ice cream at The Centre Shops.  Trips to nearby attractions. The love of Longboat Key’s quiet ambiance.

Then every few moments, another jet taking off from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport roared overhead, wheeling and climbing over the island on its way back north after disgorging another planeload of tourists and winter residents.

Any property rented for less than six months will be subject to the new program, unless one of 30 properties excluded by the town.
Photo by Eric Garwood

Last month alone, the airport had 308,012 passengers travel through, a 12% increase from October 2021, and November numbers are expected soon. So far this year, there have been 3.1 million passengers.

Reaching that number seemed impossible a few years ago before the airport offered 11 airlines and 53 nonstop destinations. The airport recently announced a new flight through Avelo Airlines to Raleigh-Durham International Airport that is expected to begin Feb. 13.

Evans didn’t fly, though. She and husband took their time and drove coast to (nearly) coast on their way to stay at the independently operated Sandpiper Inn. They’ve been coming for years, she said, often with other members of the family. A few doors down, her sister and brother in law Becky and Dave Brekke were in the midst of a perfect Longboat Key vacation.

The trips before Christmas are now gifts they give to themselves.

“Every year we're like, ‘Oh, please don't sell this and build a giant thing,’’ she said. “You know, just keep this sweet little place, it's like an oasis.’’

Recently, one of the family rented kayaks for an extended period, putting in and exploring Longboat’s bayfront. Along the way, they discovered two things that don’t exist in the Northwest – schools of jumping mullet and manatees.

“We went into a little canal, like where there were some other condos and homes,’’Evans said. “And there was a big manatee back there and just,  you know, swimming right by our boat. And so that was really fun. I really enjoyed that.’’

They also checked out Siesta Key and found it quite different from their Longboat basecamp. Inspired by their children who had heard of the barrier island, they drove over to see what the fuss was about.

“You can sit here in the shade or half sun or go in the water, but you don't have to bake all day,’’ she said. “It was really, really hot. So we didn't necessarily want to go back there again. But they liked it once."



Eric Garwood

Eric Garwood is the managing editor of the Longboat Observer and the Sarasota Observer. Since graduating from University of South Florida in 1984, he's been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Florida and North Carolina.

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