WE GATHER WHERE THE GULF FROTHS on our toes and the gulls swoop overhead. There are no tickets for this show, and no times were posted, but the guests of the Sand Cay Beach Resort appear nonetheless. It’s a diverse crowd, including retirees on vacation and snowbirds on hiatus, as well as families with children playing in the sand, and then the natives arrive. They are actual birds, great blue herons and sandpipers, who run and feed on the wet sands. All wait quietly for the star performer to exit the stage in a blasting, scenery-chewing masterwork that fills the sky with red and orange fury. The clouds provide a deep blue and slate gray foreground, giving shape and structure to the show. It’s a Florida sunset—and it says something about the pace and peacefulness of a stay at Sand Cay that this natural nightly phenomenon draws so many of the guests out to watch, and to “ooh” and “aah” together.

Sand Cay delivers all the comforts of a condo on the beach without having to actually own one. It was the small touches, like the pineapple decoration that framed the doorbell, that told us we were “home,” at least for the next few days. Spacious rooms, a full kitchen, a comfortable living room and other amenities abound. It’s nice to bring your bags through the door and have too many places where your clothes can go, a refrigerator for your snacks and a sofa on which to sprawl to shake off the travel.

Longboat Key is an 11-mile-long island off Bradenton and Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico. It offers all the best of the Gulf: warm aqua water, soft sand and gentle waves. The island has a reputation for being “sleepy,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more like a safe hideaway where one can curl up, recharge and reboot, before jumping back into the vigor of everyday life at vacation’s end. Head north to Bradenton and enjoy what is very well-marketed as an “authentic Florida” experience. Robinson Preserve right on Tampa Bay is a paradise for birders, sightseers and nature-lovers alike. Bradenton offers other wonderful walking experiences, like the quirky and unique shopping experiences of the Village of the Arts and the amazing Bradenton Riverwalk. Get a sense of Florida before the time of tourists by visiting the still active and lively Cortez Fishing Village. Not to be outdone, Sarasota to the south, offers the beachy shopping mecca of St. Armands Circle, where fine dining and ice cream shops abound. But, for us, this was a “connecting and staying quiet” sort of family trip. Our luggage included a whole bag dedicated to board games, puzzles, coloring books and swim toys. We figured—rightly it turns out—that the generous space of our unit would allow us the freedom to spread out, play and connect. And it was perfect. Nights were slow and lazy, with friendly competition over a game of Settlers of Catan to bring us excitement.

Despite the north and south temptations, we stuck to the plan and enjoyed the luscious fruits of the island. Every morning we woke up, leisurely, and found our way to The Blue Dolphin Cafe. The Homemade Corned Beef Hash Topped with Two Eggs Sunny Side-Up (sautéed spinach substituted for toast) made for a reliable and savory start to the day. Then a pilgrimage to Harry’s Continental Kitchens, where a roadside convenience store setting bursts with local foods and treats. Look for Ian’s Chili and Harry’s Fresh Baked Bread as a nice option for a home lunch. And, while not quite a nightly ritual, Tyler’s Ice Cream—made for a perfect family nightcap two nights out of three. Be careful with the Coffee and Chocolate Chip Ice Cream; it’s as potent and caffeinated as it is delicious but perfect if you are going to volunteer for the beach patrol, and plan to wander the sands all night in search of mother sea turtles laying their eggs.Otherwise stick to the other flavors.

One of the give-and-take joys of being a parent to young children is that they awake earlier and with greater punctuality than any alarm clock. This meant that there was ample opportunity in the mornings to enjoy time together. Dawn with kids at Sand Cay is different than at home. Instead of racing about in a bleary confusion getting ready for school, my 6-year-old daughter and I let her brother and mother sleep, and we went out to walk the beach and welcome the rising sun. As the day crept quietly in, our only company was our newfound feathered friends, two of whom were consistent and familiar. While out on the beach, a great blue heron welcomed us every morning. He (or she) stood proudly in the surf and snatched tiny fish we couldn’t see from the suds. The other fellow, a great egret, tall and brilliantly white, stalked the grassy grounds of the resort. His prey was twofold. Lizards skittered in terror when this feathered relative of the dinosaurs came near, but “George,” as the staff and regulars call him, found paradise in the naughty leftovers of the guests, eating tidbits offered from various patios, including carryout from the finest dining establishments. Roasted Octopus from Maison Blanche and Lobstercargots from Beach Bistro meant that there is no more spoiled seabird on the island.

A surprising discovery came with a late night carryout from Solorzano’s Pizzeria Longboat Key. What had every appearance of being a “good-enough” casual pizza joint blew us away with perfect pizza crust, plentiful toppings, oversize salads and spectacular bread. The Chicken Parmesan Sub was especially wonderful—toasted, crunchy and nearly the size of an actual submarine, but enough to feed either a whole family or a single growing boy.

We did get adventurous at least one night. That evening took us to Shore, the newly-built bayside modern restaurant on the northern tip of the island. Shore built its reputation on the well-established St. Armands Circle location before setting out to capture both ends of Longboat Key. The menu hits a perfect note where fresh and light ingredients mean that nothing is heavy, but the quantities are ample and filling. We enjoyed one delicious home run after another, from the marvelous arrangement of dips and spreads (Smoke Salmon, Herb and Shallot Goat Cheese, and Spinach Eggplant Dip), to the original and flavorful, (Sirloin Caprese with Mozzarella, Tomato,, and Basil Chimichurri); it got better with every dish. The Spiced Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Goat Cheese, Shishito and Hazelnut Pesto, as well as the Key West Shrimp and Scallop Lemon Risotto with Lemon Beurre Blanc and Tomato Confit were all marvelous. A mixed drink, Shore’s Original Mai Tai, made with Ron Matusalem rum. Orgeat, pineapple, orange Curaçao and a dark rum floater matched perfectly with the view and the warm Florida breeze. 

The only part of the menu we didn’t sample was the desserts, and that’s only because we had other plans. No trip to Longboat Key is complete with a calorically sinful pilgrimage to the mecca of decadent desserts, Euphemia Haye’s famous Haye Loft. The quirky old building is a creaky stairway back in time to a sitting room from the turn of an earlier century, before dieting was a thing, and when freshly baked pies tempted Huckleberry Finn–types from every windowsill. The Haye Loft is a desserts-only expansion of the popular restaurant downstairs. It is not an exaggeration to say that everything at the Loft is amazing. My daughter enjoyed the Lemon Meringue, and my son’s eyes bugged out cartoon-style at the size of his Dark Chocolate Cake slice. My wife and I split a Flambéed Cherries Jubilee. Apparently, I’ve never known what was possible with this dessert. The Haye Loft has achieved a sort of platonic ideal—dark Bing cherries are flamed with Kirschwasser, then finished with caramelized sugar and butter, all prepared before you and served on Blue Bunny Vanilla Ice Cream. 

Sand Cay filled our days with activities. We frolicked in the pool and slid discs across the shuffleboard court. A visit to the office uncovered a small lending library from which I borrowed a Tom Clancy book, and we considered the DVD selection, but were too busy playing and exploring to sit still and watch one. And then it was over! The long weekend had sped by and it was time to leave our island home and return to our workaday home. We left happy and sun-kissed, with shells in our shoes and memories of laughing times together. Sand Cay treated us well, and, as a family, we can’t wait to return.   SRQ

Sand Cay Beach Resort, 4725 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key, 941-383-5044, sandcaybeachresort.com