Manasota Key on Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast

Historic and natural
By Frances Hogan Steffian
Frances Hogan Steffian
Frances Hogan Steffian
January 27, 2023Updated: February 22, 2023

Manasota Key in Englewood, Florida is still referred to as Southwest Florida’s “best kept secret,” though it isn’t as undiscovered as it used to be. Recently, Hurricane Ian hit this area hard, yet the Gulf Coast Floridians are resilient and aim to be prepared for this upcoming winter’s beach season.

Manasota Key is an 11-mile-long barrier Island off of Englewood, Florida. The key follows the Gulf Coast, and is located between Sarasota and Punta Gorda. Lemon Bay separates the key from the mainland and the key is accessible by two bridges. There are three public beaches on the key, and a very large preserve on the southern tip called Stump Pass Beach State Park. All along the key there are stretches of wild scenery but also a fun beach bar and restaurant scene at Englewood Beach.

Englewood was overlooked by developers for many years because Interstate 75 moves east away from the Gulf of Mexico, diverting traffic away from the entire cape where Englewood and Manasota Key are situated. As a result, this neglected corner became a haven for a slow culture of artists, ranches, snow-birds, nature preserves, and neighborhoods of historic Old Florida bungalows. The beaches are great too, they were just overlooked.

Manasota Key has only one road that runs the length of the island. In the northern stretches, Manasota Key Road is designated as “Canopy Road,” because of the centuries-old Live Oaks that reach and twist over the road. The native flora of cabbage palm, saw palmetto, and wild coffee live in the shade and create a dense foliage cover. Glimpses of turquoise gulf appear through the leaves, as well as an interesting architectural array of beach houses, the majority of which are tucked among the natural landscape on spacious lots. Some of these beach houses are mansions owned by reclusive celebrity types, and some are cottages such as Mangrove Cove.

The southern end of the Island is a haven of Old Florida buildings and culture, with many charming beach houses and cottages from another time. These houses were built in simple style in order to maintain a feeling of freedom and simplicity on vacation. It’s all about getting to the beach and not having chores to do on the house and yard. There are also well-settled condos built in the ’70s and ’80s. On South Manasota Key there is a building code overlay that limits building height to 3 stories and reduces density. Yes, developers have pushed these codes to the limit, but the buildings stay relatively low.

Along with its “Lost in Time” mystique, Manasota Key is famous for its great beaches, exciting surf, and for amazing fossil hunting. This coast, stretching all the way north to Venice, roughly 10 miles to the north, is often called The Shark Tooth Capital of Florida. Walking along the surf one can find extraordinary fossils. Most people look for the instantly recognizable sharks’ teeth, but if you do a little research, you realize some of the less exciting-looking shapes are fossils such as prehistoric horse teeth that are millions of years old.

Stump Pass Beach State Park occupies the entire southern tip of the key. It is 245 acres of what the State Park system calls “The Real Florida.” The key is a thin peninsula there, in its wild state, with a narrow sand and shell path winding through the native vegetation, culminating in the vast and spectacular beach at Stump Pass. Here the Intracoastal Waterway runs from Lemon Bay into the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphins and manatees pass through the muscular currents. Small boats come and go, many entering into Ski Alley, the narrow waterway between Manasota Key and an uninhabited neighboring key. Many stay to fish, drift, or look for dolphins and manatees.

Also on the southern end of the key, and across from Englewood Beach, there is a surprisingly walkable and cyclable village. There are beach bars and restaurants, from high-end stylish to dockside casual. The Barefoot Trader sells beach necessities and souvenirs and an impressive inventory of nicknacks with off-color slogans. The sidewalks are fairly busy with beach visitors and others out for a stroll in fine weather.

The Hermitage is an artists’ retreat located mid-key, settled behind the dunes in historic buildings dating to 1907. The retreat is dedicated to incubating artistic creation and providing community programs. Most popular are the free beach readings at sunset, presented by the resident writers, playwrights, and poets.

Part of the soul of Manasota Key resides in the historic Manasota Beach Club, to the northern end of the key. It is still owned by the original family that founded the club in 1960, before there was even a bridge to the key. This Old Florida-style club sets the example of honoring the native landscape and living in harmony with the naturally elegant beauty of a southwest Florida coastal hammock environment. The Club is smaller than it was originally, yet their lovely example remains, as most of the houses along Manasota Key Road still preserve the natural landscape of the key as the setting for some extremely expensive beach houses.

Mangrove Cove is another vacation rental on the canopied road that strives to sustain the natural landscape, and to preserve the architectural heritage and simpler lifestyle of mid-century “Old Florida.”

Most of us are aware of the giant influx of people visiting and moving to Florida, and Manasota Key has been discovered. There is rightful concern about the impact of a rapidly growing population. All newcomers who arrive to explore, embrace and support the area’s culture and environment are securing the future of Englewood and Manasota Key. Consider supporting The Lemon Bay Conservancy or the Hurricane Ian repair effort at The Hermitage. Take things slowly, and shop, stay and eat at locally owned businesses. Listen to the stories of the proprietors and get to know their families. All these actions will enrich your stay and reassure you that you are supporting the place you visit. Fortunately, Englewood’s slow “undiscovered years” gave it the time to incubate a local pride and protective environmental awareness that will defeat exploitation.

Frances Hogan Steffian is a writer who is passionate about our environment and architectural heritage. She can be reached via her rental website on Manasota Key or via email:

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