There is so much more to Florida than sandy beaches and crowded theme parks. If you head down US 19 along the west coast of central Florida, you’ll find Florida’s “Nature Coast.” Staying on US 19, you won’t see the infamous Orlando rodent with big ears.
But you will see signs warning you about the few remaining Florida black bears, and you’ll realize that you are in a part of Florida where you can get away from the hassles of a Florida vacation.
Getting to Cedar Key
At Old Town or Otter Creek, turn west toward the Gulf to go back to a time when Florida was much less developed than it is now, when people didn’t necessarily go on vacations and certainly didn’t feel that they needed a place to go to relax after their vacations.
You’ll pass through Rosewood, where the racist massacre in the movie of that title really took place, a movie that even has a reference to Cedar Key, our destination. Nowadays, you don’t really pass through Rosewood; you pass by where Rosewood used to be. You’ll just find trees, maybe some unhappy ghosts who still cannot believe how badly people can treat each other. (More about the movie Rosewood here, and my writing on movies here.)
Then, you catch the distinct aroma of the tidal flats, a smell that always whisks me away to visions of salt water, great old architecture, and fantastic food. Ahoy, matey! And so, we cross to the main island. To the right, is the residential section of town, to the left is the commercial district, such as it is.
Note that this “key” in Florida is not part of the “Florida Keys,” far to the south. Cedar Key and nearby islands are off the west coast of Florida, north of Tampa, as you can see on the Google map, here.
On Cedar Key
On the Dock is a strip of buildings that look old but aren’t-they replaced buildings that were wiped out a few years ago in a hurricane. (The joys of life on an island!) For a block or two, you can alternate among various restaurants, shops, and a few offices. Pelicans and herons hold court on the fishing pier, waiting for handouts-either unwanted catches or unused bait.
Clams is trumps on Cedar Key now, where the net doesn’t involve computers. Some years ago, the commercial net fishing on which the town’s economy was based was outlawed. Many residents turned to clam farming. If you are lucky, you may strike up a conversation about planting and harvesting, but we aren’t talking tomatoes here.
Three attractions of Cedar Key
In fact, one of the three great attractions of Cedar Key is the people. I’ve spoken with folks in their eighties who have lived on the island most of their lives. It is amazing how many stories such a small island can hold.
Another attraction is the primitive beauty of the natural surroundings-check out the wildlife preserve on the way into town (if you have four-wheel drive)-as well as the simple beauty of the architecture. Cedar Key looks like a cross between a western ghost town and a New England village, complete with widow’s walks.
The last attraction, but by no means the least, at least for me, is the food. Seafood, to be specific. You mustn’t hurt the pride of the locals, so try the clams in any of their incarnations.
Then, there is one of the strangest-sounding foods you’ll ever dread the first time you try it but will want to have again soon-heart of palm salad. Cut fresh daily from the swamp cabbage palms, the hearts of palm are tossed with canned fruit, dates, and salad greens, and topped with scoops of some sort of ice cream… or is it frozen dressing? Dessert? Salad? Dessert? Who cares? If you don’t want yours, I’ll help you get rid of it.
Life on Cedar Key
Cedar Key is a great place to visit, and ever since I discovered it, I’ve been trying to figure out how to live there. But, like other areas quaint in their isolation-the eastern shore of Virginia, for instance-Cedar Key is a great place to retire, to live with an income, but it is not much of a place to earn a living. It’s not the kind of place, more than one resident has lamented to me, where the young people can stay, certainly not a place where they can come back with a college education, no matter how much they may want to.
About the only chance for the economy of Cedar Key is development of its potential for tourism. Yet, as it becomes more tourist-y, it loses those characteristics that make tourists, at least this committed anti-tourist, committed to it. The city park, on the water’s edge, now sports a strip of white grainy stuff, although I used to rejoice that Cedar Key did not have a-oops, I am determined to finish this article on Florida tourism with no reference to the b-word. Cedar Key does offer other ways to enjoy the water, such as sightseeing cruises and fishing.
While the locals, with some great local leadership (website) and a surprisingly literate voice in the little weekly newspaper (website), struggle to resolve the daunting problems of the Key, we outsiders can take bitter advantage of their problems and enjoy a surprising range of hotels and restaurants on a memorable vacation or – for those of us lucky enough to live so near – day trip.
So, the next time the moon stirs up your blood, and you feel a need to get off the beaten paths, consider Florida, which besides Cedar Key offers such places as Micanopy, known for antiques shops and a strip bar; St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum, with the largest collection of Salvador Dali works in the world; and Cassadega, a village with an economy based on psychic phenomena. Oh, don’t forget the Gamble Plantation, which I have written about here.