Cedar Key is a small spit of land jutting out into the Gulf that is connected by a very narrow strand of land that connects it to the mainland, with a couple of bridges spanning the breaks of open water. It is about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville and a couple hours north of Palm Harbor. It is one of many small islands or keys in the surrounding area, many not much larger than a pelican’s perch. About a dozen are designated as wilderness areas to protect nesting birds in Florida. Cedar Key is known for its low-key atmosphere, excellent flats fishing, quirky atmosphere and sweet Cedar Key clams. In fact, the town is the country’s second largest producer of farmed clams.
Despite its prime location on the Gulf, Cedar Key has escaped the pull of developers—its stretch of beach isn’t long enough to attract large-scale building projects. So instead, it still feels like a ramshackle, old fishing village straight out of a Hemingway novel. Quaint streets lined with shops, friendly people driving around in their golf carts instead of cars, real good food fresh from the gulf, funky art (there’s an assortment of hippy-type artists in residence), and peaceful atmosphere. You come here to get away from it all . . . in the fullest sense of the meaning. It was enough to motivate Melinda to put it into our itinerary.
Not big enough a place to accommodate a campground, we found ourselves parked on the outskirts, about 5 miles from the village. Cedar Key RV Resort was first class—full hookups, clubhouse with pool, and large moss-draped live oaks filling the grounds. Our site was prime, having one of the largest oaks to park under. We were set up and enjoying life in short order.
It wasn’t long before Melinda saw the sun was sinking. She got Chris to drive here back to the island where they could find the best view of the sunset over the gulf waters. With such a small area to cover, it wasn’t long before she had her position. Fortunately, Chris has plenty of reading material to keep him occupied.
The next morning we decided to hit the town and find a breakfast place. But first, there was the customary sunrise shot to take . . . Melinda was driving out way before dawn to find her spot.
Then it was off for a hearty breakfast and a tour around the town.
Once that was done, we decided to head out of town just a few miles to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. With the Suwannee River spilling into the Gulf just a few miles north of Cedar Key, the area is one of the nation’s largest unspoiled delta-estuarine systems. It was obviously a place preserved for migrating birds, just from observing all the various species passing by and stopping to rest.
As soon as we arrived Melinda knew that she had found her next sunset location. With a boardwalk leading out over the marshlands and views stretching out in many directions, it was a place to enjoy and appreciate.
In particular, we were interested in the area around Shell Mound, whose namesake is a 5-acre wide, 28-foot-tall pile of oyster shells, making it the largest remaining shell mound on the central Gulf Coast. You’ll just never know what you may come across on your travels. Nearly 6,000 years old, the mound was constructed between 2500 B.C.—A.D. 1000. Archaeologists believe this colossal midden represents 3,500 uninterrupted years of contented shucking by the Timucuan Indians. Oysters being an obvious staple of their diets. We took a trail that wound around and up-and-over the mound.
Being one of the higher elevations in the entire state, we took time to enjoy the view spread out before us once attaining the “summit.”
Later that afternoon once back at camp, it was time for Melinda to make her regularly scheduled sunset jaunt. At this time of the year the sun was setting about 6:15 pm. In order to catch the good colors of the nightly show it was beneficial to be set up at least a half hour earlier. She returned to the Wildlife Refuge and came back with another success.
I had a surprise waiting back at camp. She returned to find that instead of hanging our camp lights from the awning as was our custom, I had laid them on the ground to encircle our concrete pad. The effect was definitely different, but still did the job of illuminating our area. She seemed to like the new effect, and even had to take a picture.
Melinda returned to Cedar Key before dawn the next morning, but the conditions let her down. Just as she got set up and ready, a heavy fog rolled in off the water. Known as Honeymoon Cabin, the broken-down shack now standing in the waters of the Gulf has become a landmark for the town. But enveloped in mist, the image didn’t have the pizzazz of a good sunrise to set it off.
As a consolation, she turned her attention to the town itself. Unlike my sentiments, Melinda seemed drawn to the character of Cedar Key. She hopes the photos of some of the homes and businesses along their 2-block Main Street can illustrate what attracted her. Not gussied up or trying to pretend to be something that it is no more, a local innkeeper was quoted as saying “It’s like Key West was 30 years ago.” I can’t warrant that, but it doesn’t seem to show any pretensions.
The heyday of Cedar Key came just before the Civil War when the cross-state railroad came through town, allowing shipments of lumber, turpentine and other products to go out. After the war, lumbering again led to prosperity. Pine, cypress and cedar were all cut down as demands for lumber up north were increasing. The oyster beds were also a source of income, but soon they were all exploited. With the area’s natural resources finally spent out, Cedar Key lapsed into decline, never to see the heights it had once attained again.
The lodging accommodations also seem in step with the town. No fancy, brand-name chain hotels here . . . you’ll have to settle for B&Bs or small roadside mom-and-pop motels.
She returned to the Preserve one last time, on the evening before our departure. Although the sunset wasn’t a blaze of colors, she thought the photo captured the beauty of the place.
And now, it’s off to the Panhandle . . . our tour is winding down.
Melinda and Chris