One doesn’t just happen upon Cedar Key. In order to reach this island town in the Gulf of Mexico, we will be driving dozens of miles on a blue highway through pine forest and palmetto scrub before the foliage opens up to reveal the small salt marsh islands that dot the Gulf. This place is pretty isolated, which is just one of the reasons that it’s so special.
After driving those last few slow miles down Highway 24, past unpretentious old coastal homes and Mom & Pop hotels, over smaller islands and a few short bridges, we reach Way Key. Just before road’s end, Hwy 24 intersects with 2nd Street, and we’ve entered Cedar Key’s small commercial district.
Dock Street is the other main downtown drag. The original U-shaped dock was originally the Florida railroad’s western terminus, where seafood and locally manufactured goods such as lumber, cedar pencil blanks, and whisk brooms were loaded for export. Now instead of trains, fishing boats, and ice packing houses lining Dock Street, you will find restaurants, shops, vacation rentals, a great fishing pier, and parking for a few dozen cars.
All of the buildings that line dock street are built on piers, and as with every building that came before it in this place, could be just one major hurricane away from becoming a piece of Cedar Key history. Should that happen, this resilient community would rebuild and go on, a tribute to the perseverance and resilience of those who choose to live in this storm-vulnerable location.
In the 19th century Cedar Key was a large city by Florida standards. A busy seaport, it was a hub of activity, and at various times in its history had a wild-west kind of reputation.
Nowadays the wildest thing you’ll find in downtown Cedar Key is the population of feral cats. When we first visited about twelve years ago, the cats were everywhere and some had obvious health issues. The city has done a great job of managing their population over the past ten years with their capture & spay/neuter efforts, and the town cats that we saw this visit all appeared healthy and happy.
The birth of the community of Cedar Keys (note the “s” on Keys) happened on the island Atsena Otie, however that settlement was largely wiped out during the hurricane of 1896. The residents abandoned Atsena Otie and the industrious townsfolk actually moved the few surviving homes to Way Key by boat. The town continued to grow on Way Key through the Great Depression, when population slowly began to dwindle. Another major hurricane in 1950 damaged or destroyed 2/3 of the houses in Cedar Key.
With population and manufacturing on the decline, and tourism slowing due to the development of so many beach towns throughout Florida, something needed to be done to bring visitors to Cedar Key. In the 1970’s Island Hotel owner Bessie Gibbs and a few other residents spearheaded efforts to organize an annual art festival. The annual Old Florida Celebration for the Arts (aka Cedar Key Arts Festival) is now in its 55th year. The juried show attracts top-tier artists and draws 10-20 thousand people to the island each April. Other annual events include the Seafood Festival (October) and the Cedar Key Small Boat Meet (May).
Cedar Key inspires creativity, and the town boasts a number of talented local artists whose work can be found in several galleries downtown. The Cedar Key Arts Center is exceptional.
Pictured above is the old L&M building. Vacant for more than a dozen years and now not much more than a shell, but the building’s little nooks and crannies are filled with found objects. The ruins of the building itself have become a folk art project.
Cedar Key is not a showy place. It doesn’t have the clear blue seas of “the” Florida Keys. Rather, the water is tannic from the Suwannee River, which meets the Gulf of Mexico just north of Cedar Key (although unless you’re looking in the shallows, the water sure looks blue under those pretty blue skies).
Cedar Key is also not a beach town. The city beach is tiny and sand is trucked in periodically; the natural beaches on the developed islands are quite small and rocky. There really isn’t a lot to offer those who need to be entertained.
So why come here? For those who enjoy the slower pace, Cedar Key is a dreamy place. It is a quiet place – some days almost sleepy – yet the tiny town has a fun and funky vibe. The local residents have not welcomed chain restaurants or hotels, nor allowed large real estate developments (with the exception of a couple of tasteful condo complexes). There isn’t even a single stoplight in this town, and there is no need for one.
The Cedar Keys are surrounded by two National Wildlife Refuges: Cedar Keys NWR and Lower Suwannee NWR. The Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park lies just south of Cedar Key. This area is a water & nature lover’s paradise. Bring your own kayak or rent a kayak and launch from the city beach. Local guides offer island tours via Pontoon Boat. We recommend Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours. And of course there are a number of fishing charters here.
Rent a golf cart or hop on a bike and wander the roads through the islands’ residential areas. You will never be more than a block from water views. Cedar Key’s airport boasts the shortest paved public runway in the state of Florida, and it’s a treat if you can catch a plane landing or takeoff. Or better yet, actually have the experience of flying in or out of Cedar Key by taking an aerial tour.
For a small town, Cedar Key boasts fantastic seafood restaurants. The clam industry is the largest income producer for the area, and one must try those sweet Cedar Key clams when visiting the area. Since Steamers opened a few years ago, we pop in each trip for a bowl of steamed clams and a colorful island drink. They often have live music there too.
Smoked mullet dip is a local specialty, albeit perhaps an acquired taste (we can’t get enough of it). Tony’s Seafood Restaurant has won the world clam chowder competition three times.
Our favorite Cedar Key eatery is actually not a restaurant, but a long-lived bar inside the historic Island Hotel. The Island Hotel Restaurant is elegant and very good, however we usually find ourselves in the hotel’s legendary Neptune Lounge & Bar because of its colorful, cozy atmosphere and friendly barkeeps. Andy (co-owner of the hotel) is a fixture at the Neptune, and doesn’t seem to age. Good island living perhaps?
The Heart of Palm Salad recipe originated at the hotel’s restaurant, created by hotelier Bessie Gibbs in the 1950’s. Although the fruits in the salad change based on what is fresh for the season, the unusual ice-cream topped salad is always ridiculously yummy. We like to pair it with the Shrimp & Grit cake when eating off the bar menu.
The Island Hotel dates to 1860, and is one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Island. The hotel has hosted the likes of author Pearl Buck, 50’s & 60’s era movie stars, and Jimmy Buffet, who was said to be a frequent visitor in the 80’s, and would give impromptu concerts in the Neptune Bar. While we haven’t stayed at the hotel, it looks quite charming and of course is rumored to be haunted. The Island Hotel’s website has a really thorough & interesting history page that is definitely worth a read.
This is an outdoor-living kind of town. The nearby Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve and Shell Mound County Park offer hiking trails, and within the city limits the Railroad Trestle Nature Trail follows the route of the old railroad track. The Cedar Key cemetery is beautiful, and an adjacent boardwalk trail leads from the cemetery to Cemetery Point Park, which has a picnic area, fitness trail and frisbee golf course. Lest you think – after reading my last two posts – that I’m a weirdo for visiting so many cemeteries, please know that I really only visit cemeteries in live oak hammocks. And respectfully, I might add. It’s a gothic south thing.
We have stayed in several different vacation rentals on Cedar Key. For just the two of us, our favorite lodging is the Little House. When we stay there, it’s easy to pretend that we live in Cedar Key.
Did I mention the Cedar Key sunsets?
This quiet fishing village is one of our favorite places. In fact, we love this place so much that we got married here. This is our 7th (or maybe 8th?) trip to Cedar Key, and we are still discovering subtle wonders. And meeting new island kitties.
I’m always conflicted over writing about lesser-known gems like Cedar Key, because once the world discovers them, perhaps too many visitors will spoil the quietude and slow pace that makes those places so special to begin with. But I don’t think that will ever happen to Cedar Key, and in order for local businesses to survive, people need to know and they need to GO.
So I hope that you do put Cedar Key on your travel list, and that you enjoy it us much as we do.
Interested in seeing what else we’ve been doing in Florida? Click here.