Some say the watery views make Cedar Key a comforting place to visit. Others credit the shorebirds – great blue herons, snowy egrets, white pelicans and roseate spoonbills – for creating a calm now rare in so much of Florida.
Some claim the trees – giant, moss-draped live oaks, gnarly cedars, cabbage palms and junipers – promote peacefulness.
Others attribute the serenity to the fact that the town has just 709 residents, no traffic jams, no traffic lights, no chain stores, no chain restaurants, no dress codes.
It may be all these things and more.
“We love it here because it’s ‘Old Florida,’” a visitor told us after we met her at the historical museum, then again across the street at Bonish Studio, which bills itself as a gallery of “photography, oddities and libations.” She grew up in DeLand, but now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and was visiting Cedar Key with her husband for the second time.
They came back because they love the feel – the slower pace, the open waters, she said, while lamenting the fact that so much of Florida is paved over by runaway development and has too many people.
Another visitor came even farther to soak up the calm. As we ate lunch on my friend’s front porch, a man on a motorcycle asked if we would take his picture so he could prove to his wife he was in Cedar Key. He had flown to Orlando from his home in Ottawa, Canada, and rented the motorcycle with plans to head to Key West.
That changed when a man he met told him, “You don’t want to go to Key West. You want to go to Cedar Key. It’s so much nicer.”
So, he rode the 140 miles across the state to Cedar Key and had a wide grin when we snapped his photo with his motorcycle parked amid palmettos.
“You must really like it here,” he said climbing back on his bike, “since it’s so hard to get here.”
We assured him we did.
Everywhere you look, you see people fishing, or heading toward the water to fish for reds, trout, flounder and even sharks. You see walkers and bikers, and whole families tooling around in golf carts, which are rented out on the island. Locals and visitors alike are friendly. They greet you when they pass on the sidewalk.
They ask: Where are you from?
Then, they say: Enjoy your stay.
The town’s charm offers healing if you need it, or a feeling of peace if you don’t.
Naturalist and conservationist John Muir was healed here. Just after arriving in Cedar Key in 1867 after his 1,000-mile walk from Louisville, Kentucky, he developed malaria and typhoid, probably from mosquito bites. Sarah Hodgston, the wife of a man who co-owned a sawmill where Muir found work when he arrived, nursed him back to health.
During those fateful three months he recuperated in Cedar Key, he liked to lie under an oak on Hodgston Hill and look out over the water toward Lime Key, which he sketched in his journal. He spent hours watching birds feeding along the shores and soaring overhead, and wrote of that, too.
Cedar Key, he explained, “is surrounded by scores of other keys, many of them looking like a clump of palms, arranged like a tasteful bouquet, and placed in the sea to be kept fresh.”
He grew stronger by the healing powers of nature.
Today, a display about Muir is in the Cedar Key Historical Museum downtown and a plaque stands in the courtyard of the Cedar Key Museum State Park, at 12231 S.W. 166th Court.
If not for Cedar Key’s healing powers, we would have no Sierra Club, which he founded. We would have no Yosemite National Park, whose land he championed to save.
Today, Cedar Key, on the Gulf Coast in Levy County, about two hours from Pasco County and 60 miles southwest of Gainesville, still draws nature lovers, many who come to fish or kayak, birdwatch or stroll the tree-lined streets.
It has become a huge clamming center, so some come to eat fresh clams, and the clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant downtown, a three-time winner of the world clam chowder championship.
“Have you tried Tony’s clam chowder?” a woman asked me in front of the history museum, just across from Tony’s. “It’s the best I ever had – so creamy. So many clams.”
I told her yes, and that it was so popular they now sell it at Publix in black and red cans.
“They do?” she asked, all excited. “I’m going to look for it at my Publix when I get home.”
Cedar Key has long been known for its seafood restaurants, many that line the waterfront in sea shanty buildings all in a row.
The restaurants have come and gone through the years. Today, locals highly recommend 83 West, for its fresh seafood. They also say to go to Steamers Clam Bar & Grill, and to Carlin’s Steak House and Paddock Pub, famous for key lime cake.
We also like Tony’s, of course, and Annie’s Cafe, a family owned indoor-outdoor spot at Sixth Street and State Road 24 that serves up good breakfasts and lunches.
One of the best places to start a visit is at the Cedar Key Historical Museum, at the corner of Second Street and State Road 24 downtown. There, you can see all sorts of artifacts on the history of the area – from native American pottery and arrowheads, to displays on the fishing industry in Cedar Key and the lives of its citizens through the years.
The museum also sells an array of Florida history books, including those focusing on Cedar Key and on Muir.
Nearby are art galleries, gift shops, places to eat and drink, and spend the night. The Island Hotel offers all three, with rooms, a cozy bar and a highly regarded restaurant. Be sure to try the island’s signature salad there, made with heart of palm, sugared dates, seasonal fruit and peanut butter ice cream dressing.
Just before sunset, follow locals and visitors west to watch the sun slip into the water. Breathe the briny air, and you’ll wish you, too, could be a local.
Tips for the trip
How to get there: We find the easiest way is to take the Suncoast Parkway north to U.S. 98. Turn left there, then go right on U.S. 19 until you get to State Road 24 in Levy County. Take a left there, and it’s 24 miles straight into Cedar Key.
Where to stay: Cedar Key offers everything from home and condo rentals to stays in motels, inns and campgrounds. For a list, see the Chamber of Commerce’s CedarKey.org.
Festivals: Cedar Key has long been known for its annual Old Florida Festival of the Arts. The 54th annual festival is scheduled for March 24 and March 25. Visit CedarKeyArtFestival.com for more details.
The town also has an annual seafood festival in October, a Christmas boat parade and food tasting, and other festivals. For details, also see CedarKey.org.
Cedar Key used to have a fiber and brush factory that used fiber from cabbage palms to make whisk brooms, hat brushes and other items. Today, you can see examples in the Cedar Key Historical Museum and can even buy replicas made by Dr. John Andrews, the son of the man who founded and owned the factory. Andrews’ home, with the brush factory’s office downstairs, is part of the museum and is open for tours.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published January 17, 2018