Hooked on Cedar Key

By: Herb Hiller

On Florida's northwest coast, Cedar Key has retained a small-town feel.

Cedar Key is still a Florida original.

Yes, sure, weekend tourists outnumber guys fishing these days and condos claim the east side of town. But tourists, like the garden-styled condos, are more muted here than elsewhere. Beaches are piddling and mule-colored. Nobody comes for a tan.

For a town with an average of 700 to 900 people year 'round, Cedar Key claims two historical museums, an arts community, a number of seafood restaurants and a variety of lodgings including a historic hotel that ranks high for vintage character.

That's the Island Hotel, from 1859, where a while back New Age innkeeper Marcia Rogers turned the Neptune Bar into a coffee and juice bar. Locals buried Marcia in effigy. New owners have turned the Neptune back tipple-friendly and installed red meat on the dining room menu again.

Other favorite digs include the apartments at the Gulf-front Island Place in the heart of town, the stand-alone cottages at Pirate's Cove and Mermaids Landing, and Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast.

Walk the historic district. Streets are narrow, the mood frontier. Tin roofs top board-and-tabby buildings fronted by second-story porches that shade the sidewalks in pre-air-conditioned, make-do Florida style.

The Historical Society Museum shows a diorama of an oyster shell mound. Much of the residential district rises and falls from these mounds. The district is full of clapboard cottages. People build boats in yards.

Twice-cursed Cedar Key is probably Florida's most impressive early failure as a town. In the mid-1800s the place was an industrial center. The cedar trees that bestowed the town name supplied a large pencil factory. Florida's first coast-to-coast railroad had its Gulf terminus at Cedar Keys, as the town was then called.

After the Civil War, the place boomed for 30 years. Looking back, decline set in when locals said "no" to railroader Henry Plant, who wanted to build a deepwater harbor and hotel. In 1896 a hurricane devastated the town, wiping out the factory on offshore Atsena Otie Key. Fire followed hurricane. Locals have ever since subsisted on a little fishing, a little tourism.

One popular attraction is the factory ruins and an old cemetery on Atsena Otie, an easy paddle over for birding or fishing (and beaches better than the mainland), or you can skip the workout and get there with Island Hopper and other tour boats.

While in town, stop in for breakfast at Annie's. In place of a knob, you'll pull the door open with a knot in a line counterbalanced by a hook (the weight of which closes the door again).

Locals talk about putting up a sign as visitors head back to the mainland that says, "Resume Normal Behavior."

A destination on its own, Cedar Key also supplies hospitality for exploring a wilderness coast. South of S.R. 24, tens of thousands of acres in the Wacasassa Bay and Cedar Key Scrub State Preserves array in salt marsh, backed by tidal creeks and hammocks, fronted by white sand beaches accessible only by boat.

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