In Cedar Key, Fla., you'll want to take it slow

No theme parks here: Cedar Key is the kind of place tourism officials like to refer to as the "real" Florida.
No theme parks here: Cedar Key is the kind of place tourism officials like to refer to as the "real" Florida. (Bigstockphoto)
By Amy Reinink
Sunday, October 25, 2009

The chill of recent weeks here has had me daydreaming about an escape to Cedar Key, Fla., where October and November form one long, sunny Indian summer.

I remember the first time I drove over the series of bridges from the mainland to Cedar Key. This, I thought, is what tourism officials mean when they talk about the "real Florida," that authentic Southern experience that's the antithesis of Disney and Daytona Beach. This is the Florida that Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote about, a state of scrub oak, palmetto fronds and brown pelicans perched on weathered bulkheads.

Reminders of the way Florida used to be abound on this tiny island community on the Gulf of Mexico. There are Florida cracker-style houses with cozy front porches, and tabby houses, whose walls are made of mortar and seashells. There are commercial clamming boats that dock daily to unload clams raised just offshore. Spanish moss hangs from every tree like some kind of rural Southern garland.

My husband and I made our first of several trips to Cedar Key, about 120 miles north of Tampa and about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, after Outside magazine in 2004 billed it one of America's top "dream towns" for adventure travel. The magazine touted the funky fishing and clamming village as a haven for kayakers, bird-watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

On our first trip, we planned to spend our days paddling and cycling our way across the island and its surrounding Gulf waters. What we didn't count on: Everything about the community beckons you to chill out. On our many trips to Cedar Key since, we've spent our nights dining on the island's abundant fresh seafood and relaxing on the deck of our rental apartment with glasses of wine while listening to gentle waves lap at the shore.

The first night in town always consists of a stop at Frog's Landing, a waterfront restaurant on Dock Street, for the famous shrimp pie, which, according to the menu, involves ricotta, Parmesan, mozzarella and cream cheeses plus spinach, butter, sherry, mushrooms, garlic, Grand Marnier and, of course, "plump shrimp." It is seriously addictive, and I'd be lying if I said that our return trips to Cedar Key didn't hinge at least in part on obtaining that pie again.

Even better, Frog's Landing offers several small decks overhanging the Gulf that are famous for being the perfect place to watch a sunset (they are).

The best way to start a day in Cedar Key is with a leisurely Gulfside brunch. Eventually, we venture out to rent kayaks to make the half-mile paddle to Atsena Otie Key, an abandoned island that makes Cedar Key look downright urban. Atsena Otie was the original location of the city of Cedar Key, with homesteads and a lumber mill that supplied the Faber pencil factory in New Jersey. Ruins of the mill and the island's other structures, which were destroyed in a hurricane in 1896 and never rebuilt, are still visible.

Atsena Otie is part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises 13 tiny islands, but we've never made it to any of the others. Nor have we traveled up the Gulf coast to the 105-mile long paddling trail that serious kayakers delight in.

Instead, we prefer to spend the afternoon lazing in the Florida sunshine. As we discovered on our first trip, hours can disappear as you watch a white ibis pick its way across the sand.

Next up: a slow, easy bike ride around the island, which is about two miles wide and three miles long. Along with the kayaking, it always makes us feel that we've at least somewhat earned our dinner at the Island Room, Cedar Key's signature upscale restaurant. The low-key atmosphere and affordable entrees belie seriously amazing seafood, such as the Grouper Savannah, which comes with a delicate pecan crust and a light sherry-based sauce.

There are scores of Gulf Coast communities near Cedar Key that are no less charming and authentic, and ambitious travelers might want to spend the last day of a weekend in Homosassa or swimming in Manatee Springs State Park. I, on the other hand, like to spend my final hours on what is appropriately called the Nature Coast simply strolling around the community, dividing my remaining time on Cedar Key equally between people- and pelican-watching.

Though its multimillion-dollar clam-harvesting industry and fresh seafood give it street cred as a fishing village, Cedar Key also boasts a thriving arts scene. The galleries and artist co-ops on Second Street teem with local artwork, and perusing it is a great way to spend a morning. Knickknack shops offer such wares as ceramic starfish and "Gone Fishin' " signs, which you'll see hanging from more than a few businesses in town on certain sunny mornings.

Even the tiny City Hall, a cracker-style house that holds city offices plus a one-room police department, beckons visitors to stop and stay awhile. The police department's K-9, a yellow Labrador retriever named Officer Tess, once guarded the porch, but she was recently replaced by a fat gray "police cat" named Butch, says Chief Virgil Sandlin.

Sandlin, who has lived in Cedar Key for almost three decades, says some longtime residents still consider him a newcomer. His wife, on the other hand, is a fourth-generation Cedar Keyan.

But Sandlin says established residents and newcomers alike are quick to embrace the island's culture.

"People still value the fact that this is a small, quaint fishing community, and people value the seclusion: There's no Pizza Hut or movie theater here," Sandlin says. "We have a broad range of people who come to the community. It's amazing to me to see them find out how Cedar Key is, then blend right in."

That's certainly something I have no trouble doing.

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer in Silver Spring.

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