By John Dolen
City & Shore Magazine
One great thing about Cedar Key is its diminutiveness.
“It’s like one tenth of a Key West Street, but also what you imagined the old Key West to be.”
Not a bad description for a charming taste of old Florida from my travel mate, a recent arrival from up north. In the latest census, residents totaled 700. Downtown is a few streets with small craft shops, half a dozen restaurants and bars, and one fantastic breakfast place.
It’s especially convenient for travelers heading along Florida’s Gulf Coast: Unlike the same stretch on the East Coast along I-95, with its numerous possible stopovers, Cedar Key is about the only coastal town between Clearwater and Panama City.
And for two guys looking for a scenic break on a trip home from Nashville, the little outpost with weathered watering holes on stilts was a most pleasant surprise.
You could have knocked me over with a seagull feather if you told me that this was once the busiest shipping port on the west coast of Florida. It could barely fit in a small Tampa subdivision today.
But in the mid-1800s, the United States poured resources into Cedar Key and its cluster of islands. Nearby Atsena Otie Key became home to a hospital and supply depot. A storied lighthouse was built on Seahorse Key three miles offshore, and a railroad came to Cedar Key itself.
Time and tide changes everything they say. Decades later, Tampa and other cities drew away the shipping. Even the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1915.
All this I learned later. For us as travelers, we were in a most pleasant blip on the map, cruising through the short blocks that make up the downtown and soon finding lodging at Park Place. The price of the motor lodge was right: $60 for a room that was more like an efficiency apartment, with kitchen, dining area, lounging area, queen-sized bed and balcony.
We each got rooms, because one of us is a loud snorer. (OK, it’s me.) The woman at the front desk, a manager, was the first of a series of interesting locals we’d meet. In the lobby were small exhibits about animal rescue and the island’s ecology.
After settling in, we headed across the street, then walked through a small park and beach area to our first watering hole, nesting on the edge of the great expanse of sea.
Five or six dining and drinking establishments are lined up side by side on the water, so take your pick. You’ll find a clam bar, a seafood restaurant, a café and several bars and/or bars and grills. If you like meeting folks from rustic Florida, there are plenty to serve you, like the waitress toting our first beers to our waterside perch.
On her second trip to the table, this time with some grilled fish, we got to talking and found out the slender tattooed woman lived on a small farm, where she had just chopped wood that morning.
Later, we sauntered into a bar next door. The young bartender there was from a different mold: he was a cool, laid-back dude from Boston. But he was committed to spending some years in Cedar Key. “Just my pace right now,” he said.
We were attracted to this bar by the good music playing inside. Our Boston host, turns out, was mixing music between drinks. We joined in with patrons requesting songs from Neil Young to John Mayer. He simply punches them up from his iPhone into the sound system. When we were there, seven or eight joined in, locals and visitors.
Not sure how many songs and drinks went by, but when we stepped out, we were greeted by the salty breeze whisking off the Gulf. That and a crescent moon took us home, with waves lapping the beach and the dark sea extending out into night.
Unless you are staying at the Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, built from an old bunker, or at one of the several upscale resorts that dot the Key, you’ll be on a breakfast quest at some point. Our lodgekeepers couldn’t think of any to recommend nearby, so we got in our car prepared for a little drive. But after we had gone three blocks, we spotted people sipping coffee at an outside table.
Turns out this was a gem of a breakfast place. The name is “1842 Daily Grind and Mercantile,” and the experience was upscale Berkshires. Where coffee is concerned, we didn’t mind that it wasn’t “rustic.”
Organic beans were roasted on site. Fresh-baked breads from scones to croissants came direct from the oven. Creative omelets, crab quiche and croissants stuffed with brie and cranberries were on the menu. Sardonic quips graced the walls. My favorite: “Well, Aren’t You a Little Ray of Pitch Black.”
Apart from beds, bars and breakfasts, Cedar Key is home to a large national wildlife refuge and a historical museum with documents and photos going back to the Civil War. For the outdoorsy tourist, there are facilities for boating, kayaking and bicycling.
Reachable from Cedar Key by boat excursion much of the year is Seahorse Key, located three miles offshore. The Cedar Key Lighthouse, a pet project of General Zachary Taylor, was built there atop a 52-foot ridge in 1854. The lighthouse is now leased to the University of Florida as part of a marine laboratory. Because it is home to 246 species of birds, the island is protected as a nesting area from March until the end of June. No visitors are allowed then.
In general, the lighthouse itself is closed to the public but open houses are held about four times per year.
In 1867, Cedar Key was the end point of a historic 2,000-mile walk from Kentucky by legendary naturalist John Muir. He wrote: “For nineteen years my vision was bounded by forests, but today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I beheld the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded, except by the sky. What dreams and speculative matter for thought arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!”
That’s what I was going to say.