If you cannot abide spending the entire winter in the New River Valley, consider this for a new vacation idea: Cedar Key, a tiny jewel glistening three miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, off Florida’s northwestern coast. Highway 24 provides the only way into Cedar Key, cutting through marshes and across small bridges. The 30-minute drive may take an hour because of the picturesque views on both sides of the highway.
Laid-back Cedar Key is a fishing community that 800 full-time residents call home. It offers a simpler way of life — enjoy this chance to “unplug.” Ask a local, and they’ll tell you it is a drinking town with a fishing problem.
John Muir walked 1,000 miles from Indiana to Florida in 1867. He developed malaria and stayed in Cedar Key to recover. With his walk and the Florida beauty surrounding him, he began writing about man’s relationship with nature, which led to the 1892 founding of the Sierra Club.
Cedar Key is home of the University of Florida’s Nature Coast Biological Station. Between November and March, record numbers of migrating birds pass through the 53,000-acre Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge following the Great Florida Birding Trail as if using a GPS. There are lovely hiking trails and the Indian Shell Mound, a 28-foot mound of oyster and clam shells covering five acres.
Two museums tell the story of Cedar Key. The islands were covered in cedar trees, and they were used so heavily (for pencils!) that they were decimated in three years. Next, residents turned to oystering to make a living, and they quickly depleted the supply. Along came the hurricane of 1896, and its 10.5-foot storm surge just about leveled little Cedar Key.
By 1920, residents who doggedly rebuilt used palm tree fibers to make brooms and brushes. Native American artifacts and seashells are displayed in a restored 1920s home at the Cedar Key State Park Museum. The Old Cedar Key Walking Tour spotlights 53 historic sites, and another walking tour includes six significant African American sites.
Today, Cedar Key thrives on tourism and farm-raised clams. The clam industry supports more than 500 local jobs, and the littleneck clams are prized and shipped nationally and internationally. Another industry, Cedar Key Canvas, produces quality canvas bags, totes and luggage.
Sand and Sea, Stay and Sleep
Visitors can rent kayaks, paddleboards and boats at five locations. You can paddle around or catch a tour boat to one of the small outlying islands to spend a day on your own private beach. For fishing, you can select from 28 guides listed in the brochure, Levy County’s Fabulous Fishing Guides. You can also get current information at Levy County’s website. Whether you want to try your luck in the Gulf or river fishing—they’ve got you covered! You can also try your luck on the fishing pier. It is fun to watch, even if you don’t have a rod in your hand.
The Island Hotel is the oldest commercial building in Cedar Key and offers 10 guest rooms. The local icon was built in 1859 on brick and wood piers as Parsons and Hale General Store. Since then, the hotel has been home to celebrities and even a U.S. president. The building not only survived the Civil War but also hurricanes and an attempted arson by a desperate bankrupt owner. You won’t find chain hotels on the island, but you can discover owner-operated places and individually-owned houses for rent.
Getting around on an island is easy, but parking is not. So take advantage of the size, park your car, and walk or rent a golf cart at the stand on Dock Street next to The Big Deck. Music floats from The Big Deck bar on Friday and Saturday nights, and several other places have live music on Sunday afternoons.
If you come to Cedar Key as a stranger, you won’t leave as one! People here become friends as soon as you meet them. They share their food, buy you drinks, teach you how to throw darts. I guess that’s why people return to the island again and again — or give in and move there permanently! Cedar Key really is “living on island time.”
Text and Photo by Jo Clark
Jo Clark lives on island time on South Carolina’s Grand Strand and left a piece of her heart in the New River Valley a long time ago when she attended Radford University for her MBA degree. Her Instagram account is JoGoesEverywhere – and she sure tries.