By Lauren Tjaden
If you're yearning for an off-the-beaten path getaway that's rich in small-town flavor and charm, Cedar Key may be perfect for you.
Hidden away on Florida's Gulf coast as it curves up toward the northwest part of the state, you'll find Cedar Key, the ultimate Florida original.
Yes, weekend tourists outnumber guys fishing these days. And condos claim the east side of town, though even those are rustic and inviting, instead of high-rise affairs that block the sunrise.
But tourists, like the condos, are muted here. The beaches aren't the main draw. Most of Florida's beaches are generous, wide affairs. The ones here are little strips of sand. Nobody comes for a tan.
Well, a few do. And kicking back on the sand with your best friend is a not-to-be-underestimated pleasure.
However, there are still plenty of things to do in Cedar Key. The main attraction is Cedar Key's funky, tiny charm. The town is home to an average of 700 to 900 people year round, but it claims two historical museums, as well as a historic downtown.
It's utterly walkable, brimming with unique shops and restaurants that beg to be discovered. 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.
It's home to a vibrant arts community too. You'll find tiny galleries all over town.
All are brimming with ecletic treasures. The creative spirit is evident everywhere.
Things to Do in Cedar Key: Eat
The seafood, and the clams in particular, are renowned. You can enjoy clams in a variety of establishments in a variety of ways.
Make sure to sample Tony's clam chowder, that holds the title of World Champion. Don't ask about the calories. They're worth it.
Favorite digs include the The Island Place, just next to the marina, and the stand-alone cottages at Pirate's Cove and Mermaids Landing. The Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast is also noteworthy. Nestled among oaks and lush greenery, it's the very definition of Old-Florida charm.
Much of the town is on the water. In fact, many of the buildings on Dock Street are suspended above it.
Cedar Key History
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.
Cedar Key moves on its own peaceful schedule, in its own, unique way. Locals talk about putting up a sign as visitors head back to the mainland that says, "Resume Normal Behavior."
But nobody's in much of a hurry to do that.
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