At one table sat a fellow with a pirate’s hat and – I kid you not – a peg leg. At another, a red macaw shifted from leg to leg on a woman’s shoulder. Then the waiter appeared, bushy beard down to his chest, with a mustache so long it double-curled.
Characters? You get them in spades on Cedar Key, an island on Florida’s upper Gulf coast about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville. Sunsets provide the backdrop to tidal pools, oyster bars and boats of all sizes at finger piers and docks. I never miss the annual Seafood Festival in October or the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts in April. And I love to walk the quiet streets lined with taverns, clapboard cottages and tin-roofed huts, all reminders that – despite a bustling tourism crowd – this was, and still is, a commercial fishing village with a frontier persona.
Down the west coast from Cedar Key, huddled ironically at the mouth of busy Tampa Bay, lies Egmont Key State Park. This quiet 440-acre oasis is crisscrossed with shaded paths and paved roads that lead to reminders of Fort Dade, constructed during the mid-1800s at the suggestion of Robert E. Lee.
While I don’t profess to know a semipalmated sandpiper from a short-billed dowitcher, I do recognize nesting sea gulls, terns and pelicans. Egmont gives even the hardiest birdwatcher a sore neck. Most of the key is a National Wildlife Refuge, and this vibrancy, combined with a working lighthouse that dates to 1858, gives me the sensation of being lost in the 19th century.
Here too you can snorkel, comb long stretches of beach and, in late spring and summer, engage in world-class tarpon fishing (try the deep channel off Egmont’s northern end).
Cape Sable’s as far south as the mainland gets in the U.S. Birds never hear a car horn. Even on weekends, you might need binoculars to spot other humans strolling the shoreline.
On family jaunts here from the Florida Keys, the hull of our 20-foot boat skipping over the waves, we’d anticipate the moment when the bow would scrunch into the sand, liberating us. We’d anchor off of Middle Cape (one of three beach regions here), where currents often form a point that allows for anchoring in the lee of the wind. Then it would be time to cast into the surf, our toes mingling with coquinas in the wet sand. In fall and early spring, camping trips to the Cape meant beginning the day with fish-and-eggs for breakfast and ending it with sunset over the virescent waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
1. Know before you go. While Cedar Key offers accommodations, seafood shacks and accessibility by car from S.R. 24, Cape Sable is truly remote with no amenities. Egmont’s amenities fall somewhere in the middle, with ferry service (snack bar available on the ferry) from nearby Fort DeSoto Park.
2. When visiting remote spots such as Cape Sable, take more to drink than you think you’ll need. And don’t forget sunscreen, hats and umbrellas for sun protection. Avoid insects by moving to the upwind side of the island (and bring some repellent). Arrive early and leave mid-afternoon before most storms form.
3. If you’re accessing a remote island by private boat, use two anchors so the boat stays perpendicular to the shoreline. One should be embedded off the bow into the beach and the other astern in the water. If your boat’s big enough, bring a kayak or inflatable raft to access skinny waters where boats can’t go.