Returning to Indiana was not an option. At least not at this time. Although our itinerary was completed, having no other destinations laid out, there was yet another winter storm sweeping across the country. Bitter temps were close behind that. And Indiana was caught in its cross-hairs.
Nope, no way were we going back. Not yet. With nothing at home that couldn’t wait, we chose Florida sun and outdoor living. Time to set a new course and do some improvising.
And we did have a fallback plan.
We had known about the AlumnaFlamingo . . . actually several weeks ago. The big winter Airstream Rally was scheduled for the middle of February. It sounded like fun and a good way to learn a few helpful things, but it hadn’t worked in with our plans; logistically speaking, that is. Being held in Sarasota, it would involve a backtrack of our route. But then, when it came right down to the do-or-die moment and we were caught in Pensacola with no plans . . . you might say it was simply a no-brainer. We sent in our reservations and began plotting out our trip to Sarasota . . .
. . . which wasn’t exactly next door to Pensacola—it was 500 miles away. Nevertheless, we had a couple of days to spare, so we found the perfect mid-way stop.
Cedar Key, Florida had left a few good memories in our minds.
For Chris, it was the great campground . . . Cedar Key RV Resort was a polished and well-kept place. Lots of live oaks and great facilities. And yes, they could give us a site.
For Melinda, it was the wonderful photo ops . . . from the natural beauty to the old Florida character. Whether it could be captured again remained to be seen.
We would only have one full day to spend here at Cedar Key.
The name Cedar Key comes from the cedar forests that were once plentiful, enabling the community to become a leading manufacturer of pencils during the 19th century. At that time, the city was one of the largest on Florida’s west coast, with a deep-water port and a thriving oyster industry. Moreover, it was close by the mouth of the navigable Suwanee River. In 1880, Florida railroad magnate Henry B. Plant planned to build a railroad terminal at Cedar Key. But the owners of the property Plant would require refused to sell; consequently he looked elsewhere. (Historical byline: Plant ended up building the western terminal of his railroad 100 miles further south in a small, remote village called Tampa). Tampa boomed, and Cedar Key became what it is today, an island fishing and oystering village that has retained its Old Florida character where time has progressed at a much slower pace.
Their motto is “Cedar Key—what Key West was like 50 years ago.” Some visitors might find its charm too understated—its uniqueness perhaps a little rusty and weather-worn. There are no stoplights here and golf carts are a legal mode of transportation. The top speed in town is 20 mph. There are no Wal-Marts nearby, no big-name groceries, no fast-food restaurants or other franchises. There are a few B&Bs in town, and the age-worn Island Hotel, another Florida original. The historic hotel hasn’t changed much since 1859, but the rooms look comfortable and are furnished with rustic antiques. Its dining room is where you’d go for a “nice evening out.”
The town is located 3 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, sitting on Way Key, one of a number of Keys that are separated from the mainland by a large salt marsh. It is virtually at the end of the road, which means visitors don’t just “happen” upon Cedar Key. While you will find some newer and larger homes on the outskirts, there’s still the ambiance of time standing still . . . or at least somewhat delayed. It is the houses near to the town’s center that illustrate the character that has been preserved here.
Hopeful for a fulfilling day made it easy to get up before dawn. Knowing where the sun would be rising, Melinda was waiting down at the waterfront in town. The scene had somewhat changed since last year . . . the old relic of a shack that once stood in the shallow, offshore water now showed only its wood pilings above the surface. But the colors of the sky were still as vibrant as she remembered. The day was off to a very good beginning.
Signs of a Florida fishing village are everywhere—fishing boats tied up to docks, or on trailers, buoys and crab traps scattered over fences and front yards, nets laying out in the sun to dry. The only route into Cedar Key is a two-lane causeway that runs straight through a plain of coastal mangroves and hammocks, going past several ramshackle oyster sheds propped up on stilts. At low tide it’s easy to see the abundance of oyster beds still offering a livelihood for some of the locals.
Oysters aren’t the only fare found in the local restaurants. Dock Street is lined with a number of seafood eating spots which also feature clams, scallops, crabs and a variety of fish all fresh and cooked any way you want them.
After a hearty breakfast at Annie’s Café, a local favorite judging by the patrons filing in, we headed up Highway 24, driving away from town. Before the day went any further, Melinda hoped to find a potential sunset location. Somewhat off the beaten track, the roads got smaller, the pavement ended and the scenic factor went up a notch or two.
The 52,000-acre Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s largest unspoiled delta-estuarine systems where you can hike or canoe or stroll along the boardwalk on the banks of the tannin-dark Suwanee River. This sweeping sanctuary was established in 1979 to protect this undeveloped river-delta estuary. The panoramic view of the salt marshes, tidal flats and creeks from the viewing platform stretching well out into the marshes is spectacular. She had found her evening spot.
The rest of our day was spent at nearby Manatee Springs State Park, an easy 45-minute drive from Cedar Key. Situated on the Suwanee River, its constant 72-degree waters are a haven for manatees. As gulf waters cool in November, the manatees swim upstream to calve and seek shelter, enjoying a fresh source of vegetation. Soon after arriving, we chanced to see one swimming by.
Another popular attraction of this park is its natural spring. Being classified as a first magnitude spring means it discharges at least 65 million gallons of water per day. Manatee Springs is one of only 33 of this category of springs in Florida.
It is a popular spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. The spring run is a sparkling stream of crystal clear water that flows through hardwood wetlands to connect with the Suwanee River. The “deep hole” of a vibrant turquoise color is 90 feet deep and leads to a cavern known as the Catfish Hotel. Use your imagination.
An extensive system of boardwalks meanders through a moss-draped cypress forest. Following the course of the river, it eventually leads out to a floating dock. There might be better ways to spend some leisurely afternoon in sunny Florida, but some time spent along the Suwanee River can do a person good.
Melinda didn’t want to miss her sunset opportunity . . . the only one she’d have here at Cedar Key. Retracing our route, we returned to the place she had staked out. It took a while to find a good position—between those fishing on the dock or loading their kayaks from the water. Her determination and perseverance paid off. Muted colors in the sky signaled the show was about to start.
It was an unforgettable performance. Cedar Key has a reputation for producing magnificent sunsets, but locals reported this to be a record-setter. When all was over and she had once more gathered up her emotions, all Melinda could do was agree and be grateful.
This is how the sunset progressed . . .
Is it no wonder she feels drawn to Cedar Key?
We rose early the next morning, packing up for a morning of travel. Despite knowing that last night’s photos could not be surpassed, yet she couldn’t let a sunrise slip by. While Chris took care of closing things up, Melinda headed to the causeway across the marshes. From a vantage point along the road, she was there when the sun came up. It was her last look at this place out of time . . . a place we were fortunate to find.
And now, on to the rally,
Chris and Melinda