Uncovering the Ancient and Avant-Garde in Bradenton

    By Heather Boynton

    Antiques, museums, historic areas, and an arts village distinguish Bradenton as a great Florida destination.

    On a recent trip to Bradenton I explore local galleries, museums and historical buildings and unexpectedly come across a funky artists' community, a restored antebellum plantation, an ancient Native American village and more. With a little arts and antiques shopping thrown in for good measure... what's there not to love about a cultural scene that's both ancient and avant-garde?

    Art Smarts

    On Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Island, the soft white sand and rows of Australian pines have lured painters, sculptors and photographers for years and left a string of galleries throughout the community.

    The area's most vibrant artists' community, however, is the Village of the Arts in Bradenton. Local artists have restored many of the 1920s and 1930s bungalows, creating a culturally rich neighborhood studded with studios where artists and artisans of all disciplines live, work and sell their wares.

    Join one of the popular ArtWalks (held the first Friday evening and Saturday each month). Strolling from one gallery to the next, I pause occasionally to chat with the artists, who are more than happy to talk about what inspires them. The best part? I find some great deals on original artwork at a sidewalk sale.

    Nearby, there are more deals to be had where brick sidewalks and 1920s lampposts delineate an up-and-coming antiques district. Several antiques shops, including Retro Rosie, Cobweb's Unique Finds and Braden River Antiques, offer more than enough to keep me busy for a couple of hours.

    Artifacts: Back to the Roots

    The South Florida Museum, also in downtown Bradenton, focuses on arts of another kind. Here, exhibits span Florida's natural and cultural history from the Pleistocene epoch to the present through displays of fossils, artifacts and life-sized dioramas.

    Next to the aquarium is a beautiful Spanish plaza with full-scale replications of a 16th-century Spanish home, chapel and Hernando De Soto's birthplace.

    Wandering around the other galleries, I nearly give myself a heart attack by stumbling onto the 19-foot-tall mastodon skeleton, a cast of the largest mastodon ever discovered in North America.

    Of course, museums aren't the only places to find artifacts. At Emerson Point Park, whispers and shadows of a 1,400-year-old Native American village hide amidst 270 acres of mangrove swamps and salt marshes. I pass a cistern and the remains of a chimney from a 19th-century plantation settlement on my way to the Portavent Temple Mound. On top of the Indian mound, it's hard not to feel insignificant next to the massive oaks that are testaments to a wilderness that has seen thousands of years pass by.

    Architecture: Preserving the Past

    Established in the 1880s, Cortez is a thriving fishing community across the bay from Bradenton Beach. The docks bustle with fishermen - professional and amateur anglers alike - bringing in the day's catch. I pick up a walking tour map from the Cortez Village Historical Society and check out the rustic bungalows and fish houses, fine examples of Florida vernacular architecture. The village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Other architectural gems in the Bradenton area include the Powel Crosley Museum, a Spanish revival mansion built by industrialist/inventor Powell Crosley. A few miles east of downtown Bradenton lies the Manatee Village Historical Park, a collection of historically important buildings that date back to the county's founding in 1855. Across the Manatee River, Gamble Plantation stands as the last remaining antebellum mansion in south Florida.

    Before leaving Cortez, I make one last stop at the Sea Hagg, a hodge-podge of truly unusual antiques and quirky gifts. Determined to bring home a timeless treasure for myself, I waver between a spooky old-fashioned dive helmet and one of the brightly colored Japanese glass floats that hang from the ceiling. With so many treasures to choose from, it's no wonder Hernando De Soto once mistook the Bradenton area for El Dorado, the Golden City.

    For more information on the above artistic, historical and cultural venues, or for help in planning your own getaway to the Bradenton area, visit bradentongulfislands.com or call the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 941-729-9177.