Near the bendy part of Florida, at the center of the state’s Nature Coast, about 100 miles north of Tampa, fifty miles southwest of Gainesville, and three miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, is a little group of islands called the Cedar Keys. Think Eden. A fun kind of Eden, with millions of migratory and shore birds to watch, an ocean full of fish to fish, uninhabited islands to explore by kayak, and the most beautiful sunsets the Sunshine State has to offer.
The town of Cedar Key is located on Way Key—which is one of the Cedar Keys (a little confusing at first, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it). Cedar Key is one of those rare relaxed small-town island communities that takes getting used to at first if you are jumping into it from the hurry-scurry world of “normal” American life—but it’s also the kind of place you may never want to leave once you have gotten used to it.
Writers and artists are among those who come to stay. It’s peaceful and inspiring, an aesthetic treasure trove, a place the creative juices get their daily rations in family-size proportions. All of Cedar Key gets into the spirit of this artsy-overload every April with an Old Florida Celebration of the Arts. Over 120 artists and craftsmen line historic Second Street with their work, while still others join in to compete for over $10,000 in prizes. Upwards of twenty thousand visitors flood Cedar Key each year to enjoy and purchase the art—as well as the fabulous fresh seafood.
And for those who want to wade even deeper into the whole seafood thing, the island sparks to life again in the fall for an annual Cedar Key October Seafood Festival. The arts and crafts exhibits return, along with live entertainment and so forth, but the main attraction is the food-to-die-for. Fishing is the primary industry here, and Cedar Key prides itself on being the number one clam producer in America—these are fresh farm-raised clams—and that refers to quality as well as quantity. But clams are just the beginning: the local seafood cuisine in Cedar Key is an art form in itself, and Cedar Key restaurants have a regional reputation that is difficult to compete with.
Nature-lovers obviously find their appetites well-satisfied on these islands as well. The Cedar Keys are one of the oldest official bird and wildlife sanctuaries in the United States, set apart in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover as the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge. The often elusive white pelican, majestic bald eagle, and perfectly-pinkified roseate spoonbill are among the happy inhabitants of these protected islands, along with hundreds of other species waiting to be spied through binoculars or stamped on film. Canoeing, camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, boating, birding, beachcombing—all this in a low-traffic, family-friendly, natural, and nature-encouraging setting.
Sound like paradise yet?
Well, in all fairness, Cedar Key has its “downside” like anywhere else. As with many other towns on the Gulf, this little fishing village has seen its share of devastating hurricanes and floods over the course of its 200-year history—many houses and businesses are on stilts—and starting over from scratch each time has taken its toll. For some, the fact that Walmart and McDonald’s are an hour’s drive may cast a cloud over the otherwise sunny side of things here. Fact is, Cedar Key was actually once far more economically prosperous than it is now—it has a fascinating history as one of the oldest and best-known ports on the Florida coastline. The busy port days are no more, and the town is a humble village after all.
But those things are pretty easy to put up with when dolphins and manatees are playing just outside your cottage window and your belly is full of Tony’s world-famous clam chowder. Would Cedar Key enjoy the zero percent violent crime rate it does had it remained the shipping and railroad center it once was? Would the roseate spoonbill love it so much here, would all of its admirers, were Cedar Key not the small, off-the-beaten-track, island get-away it has become?
If you are looking for crowded beaches and busy strips, Cedar Key is lacking. But if you are after quiet sunset-reflecting waters, friendly clam-farmers for your natives, and nature’s beauty doing its thing with a hearty hello, then this Old Florida hamlet invites you to pull up a chair and “set” a spell—and bring your fishing pole and camera too.