CORTEZ -- After bouts of wind and rain had customers running for their cars Saturday, the organizers of the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival were hoping for a good wrap-up day Sunday.
They got it.
Although chilly, Sunday had a brilliant blue sky and plenty of sun and a crowd estimated at 12,000 chomped down on fried seafood galore, bought jewelry, fine art and other hand made items, listened to bands like Shotgun Justice and touched marine life in a touch tank.
"I'm happy," said Kim McVey, president of The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH), which will use proceeds from the event to restore 95 acres of wetlands and uplands just east of the village of Cortez. "We usually hit more than 20,000 people and we had about 7,000 Saturday due to the rain. But we rallied today."
Everything seemed to click Sunday.
Many avoided the traffic and were whisked to the event in five Manatee County Area Transit shuttle buses that left every 20 minutes or so from Coquina Beach and G.T. Bray park off 59th Street West. The ride cost $1.25 each way.
"The bus is the best way to go," said expert traveler and Pittsburgh snowbird Bill Kuehn, who, along with his wife, Peg, parked at G.T. Bray and took the bus driven by veteran driver Linda "Smooth" Noone.
Not only did the Kuehns have a smooth, 15-minute ride over the six miles with Noone at the wheel, butthey didn't have to worry about parking or bumper-to-bumper traffic and realized the shuttle bus is a great place to meet new people.
The Kuehns this year met the family of Walter and Doris Cross of Belvidere, N.J., who were starting their whirlwind 59th wedding anniversary celebration Sunday. The Crosses have 10 days of partying until the big day on Feb. 27. The Crosses had six relatives on the shuttle bus with them, including daughters Susan, Peggy and Mary Beth.
It turns out the Crosses are originally from Commack, Long Island, same as bus driver Noone.
Perhaps that's the magic of the Cortez Fish Festival. It seems to bring people together.
Not long after their shuttle bus reached the festival, Doris Cross made a face when confronted with her first bite of alligator.
Her daughter, Susan Meehan, beat her to the punchline she was all set to use.
"It tastes like chicken," Meehan said.
The theme of bringing people together continued over in the arts' venue in the booth of Cortez artist Linda Molto, who has been making prints in Cortez for 30 years.
"The festival is wonderful because I see many friends I haven't seen," Molto said.
There was a cool moment in her booth Sunday afternoon when Geoffrey and Keverly Sugdon and their daughters, Allison, 20, and Abby, 19, saw a Molto print that depicts a view from a Cortez fishing vessel once owned by Gilbert "Baby" Mora, who was Keverly Sugdon's father.
"I have to buy it," said Geoffrey Sugdon,
Baby Gilbert, the name everyone knew him by, lived on 123rd Street in Cortez and died in June, Geoffrey Sugdon said.
The Sugdon family was elated to see the picture.
"Linda Molto is able to take the essence of Cortez and distill it into her prints," a grateful Geoffrey Sugdon said. "Her landscapes are abstract but bring you into the real Cortez. Her work is so unlike most touristy paintings you see."