Time doesn’t slow down in Cedar Key. It actually seems to go backwards. The local joke here is that it takes two hours to watch “60 Minutes”.
Following the Civil War, Cedar Key was an industrial center. It was home to lumber mills, turpentine factories, fishing fleets, and more than 5000 people. While the rest of Florida is booming and busting at the seams, Cedar Key’s population now is less than 1000, smaller today than a century ago.
The cedar trees are gone, and with them the timber industry. The fishing fleets are gone, victims of over-fishing the Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s 1995 net ban law.
What you have left is a quaint and quiet little island town, which may be Florida’s premier weekend getaway destination, if your goal is to truly get away.
The Island Hotel, the “in” place to stay, doesn’t even have television. Telephones are hard to find, and cell phone service is spotty. There is one ATM machine, and it was “temporarily out of service” the weekend we were there.
The Chamber of Commerce is only open four hours a day. The City Council notifies residents of its meetings by putting a road sign up in the town’s main intersection.
In the bar of the town’s top restaurant, you can eat dinner while your dog curls up at your feet under the table. Try that on International Drive.
Today’s Cedar Key is a collection of retirees, mullet and oyster fishermen, small “Mom and Pop” antique and art shops, and a few Boomers from places like Gainesville and Orlando with weekend homes on the island. In recent years the town has become a bit of an art colony, with a number of top Florida artists living there.
People come here to fish in the Gulf and the salt marshes around the island. Seafood, whether you are catching it or just eating it, is a big attraction. For a small town, there is an abundance of restaurants, all featuring seafood specialties.
Bike riding is a favorite weekend past time. There is little traffic and it is pretty hard to get lost when there is only one road leading onto or off the island.
They call this part of Florida “The Nature Coast”. If you enjoy hiking, there are several short nature trails on the island and in the National Wildlife Refuge on the mainland. Canoes and kayaks are perfect for paddling around the shallow bayous.
The roots of the Sierra Club are here. Naturalist John Muir walked from his home in Indiana to Florida in 1867. He stayed several months in Cedar Key to fight off malaria, and during that period first began his writings about man’s relationship with nature.
The closest thing to a tourist attraction is the “Marina”, a collection of restaurants and shops that sit on pilings in the Gulf of Mexico at the city’s old dock where the lumber barges and fishing boats used to tie up.
The Island Hotel is Cedar Key’s celebrity center. Over the years it has been home to writers like Pearl Buck and John D. MacDonald. Singer Jimmy Buffett held impromptu serenades from the balcony overlooking Second Street. Michael Richards, the actor who plays Kramer on Seinfeld, has an autographed picture hanging in the bar.
The Island Hotel on 2nd Street is Cedar Key’s claim to fame. It is a Bed & Breakfast operated by Tony and Dawn Cousins, transplants from Suffolk, England. The building has been around since 1859, surviving a Civil War battle, countless hurricanes, and even an arson attempt by a bankrupt former owner.
There are 13 rooms, most with their own private baths, but a couple where you have to hike down the hall. Central heat and air were just added recently by the new owners. If you like rustic and historic, you’ll love this. Room rates $85-$100 per night.
Most of the tourist hotels are along Second Street, in the downtown area. We suggest the Park Place, Cedar Cove Beach and Yacht Club, and the Cedar Inn.
Several smaller motels are found along SR 24, as you come into town. The Osprey, Mermaid’s Landing, and Pirate’s Cove are good examples.
There are two RV Parks in Cedar Key, plus the Osprey Motel has several RV hookups available.
During the week, rooms are fairly easy to find, even during the peak seasons in the spring and fall. Weekends are another matter, with most places showing “No Vacancy” signs. Make reservations several weeks in advance to be safe.
The Island Hotel is the Cedar Key dining attraction. People regularly drive from Gainesville just for dinner. Seafood entrees feature Crab Imperial, soft shell blue crab, Fish Piccata, and an assortment of dishes with oysters, shrimp and scallops. Entrees range from $17-$26 per person. Dinner for two, with wine and dessert, will run you about $100.
Tourist restaurants at the marina include the Brown Pelican, Seabreeze, Pelican Roost, and the Captain’s Table.
You will find the locals at Annies Cafe, the Blue Desert Cafe, and Pat’s Red Luck Cafe.
October- Cedar Key Seafood Festival. Just try to find a hotel room in town for this. By some estimates 30,000 people pack the island for two days of seafood gluttony and spirit imbibing. Don’t worry about a DUI here. Your hotel is probably an easy walk, or crawl, from any pub. During the streaking craze in the 70’s people were known to get drunk and race naked through the streets. Times are different now. They don’t drink as much, and run a little slower.
The Cedar Key Historical Society operates a small museum on Second Street. Admission is $1. There is a State Museum on the bay side of the island that features many historical artifacts of the area. Admission is $2. The State Museum is too far for walking from downtown. Drive or take a bike ride to get there.
There are at least a half-dozen charter fishing boats for hire in Cedar Kay. Most of the fishing is in the flats and salt marshes around the islands.
There is one small beach downtown on Second Street, but the Gulf here is very shallow and often muddy from the outflow of numerous creeks and rivers that have been swollen by El Nino rains. Most of the coastline is not suitable for swimming.
The “Island Hopper” takes people to the out-islands for swimming and fishing. Water off-shore is clearer and there are sandy beaches on nearby Atsena Otie Key and Sea Horse Key. Neither of these islands is inhabited, and there are no public facilities. When the “Island Hopper” drops you off, you are there until it picks you up. Go prepared.
There are several outfitters that rent canoes and kayaks, and lead nature tours around Cedar Key and the nearby Suwannee River. They also offer bike rentals, and some hotels even have free bikes you can use. Our recommendation is to bring your own bikes. There are also golf cart rentals available, and many people use them to get around town.