I visited Cedar Key, Florida several years ago and fell in love with the low-key atmosphere and the friendly locals. It was tough to see how Hurricane Idalia damaged the town so badly, but I'm told things have improved dramatically and that most businesses have reopened.
Here's the story I wrote a few years ago for a Canadian newspaper. I re-posted the story on my blog site in 2020. Some businesses may no longer be around, so please check before you make plans.
CEDAR KEY, FLORIDA - I’m having dinner at Duncan’s Waterfront Bar & Grill in remote Cedar Key Florida. My phone is struggling to reach one bar on the signal meter, so I ask my waitress, Diane, for the restaurant’s Wi-Fi password.
“I think it’s XYZ,” she tells me, rattling off some secret code. Then she pauses.
“If that’s not it, honey, all I can tell you is that in you’re in Cedar Key,” she says with a laugh. “If we don’t get service, why should you?”
Cedar Key is a community of less than 1,000 people on the gulf coast of Florida. It’s roughly three hours north of Tampa. The nearest city of any size is Gainesville, about an hour east.
That means you’re not surrounded by giant cell phone towers. But it also means there are no crowded freeways with off-ramps leading to burger joints and chain store coffee shops. And absolutely no traffic.
Unless you come by plane or boat, you’re most likely to roll in on a narrow piece of asphalt called Florida State Road 24, which runs through mile after mile of towering pine trees and only the odd sign of civilization before suddenly giving way to a series of small, pretty keys, including Havens Island and Candy Island.
I pull up to the main intersection at D Street and 2nd Street and find myself instantly charmed.
There’s a small coffee shop on the corner in a pale blue, wooden building with darker blue trim and a cheery red door. The streets are filled with old buildings, many of them with second-floor verandas fronted by white, wooden railings.
I later find the town is one of the oldest on the gulf coast of Florida, having been first settled by white Americans in the 1850s. Located just south of the mouth of the Suwanee River (the one made famous in song by Stephen Foster), the town was given a big boost when Florida’s first cross-state rail line was built between Fernandina Beach (north of Jacksonville) and Cedar Key.
The Island Hotel dates back to around 1860, and there are many other buildings that go back to the Civil War era.
I wander into the coffee shop at D and 2nd, called 1842 Daily Grind, and find a teensy shop filled with the rich smell of brewed coffee and a handful of small tables. There’s an old-time phonograph record in the corner, spinning out a 1960’s tune from Johnny Mathis.
I spot a sign above the counter where you place your order and see they have a special brew with four (count ‘em, four) shots of espresso, plus, thank goodness, a generous splash of milk. I ask the guy behind the counter what it’s called.
“Walk on Water,” he replies with a grin.
Across the street is a casual seafood joint called Tony’s, which serves some of the best clam chowder you’ll ever try. My waitress says the restaurant has won best clam chowder in the U.S. so often that they have been barred from entering the contest. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good story. And it’s amazing chowder, thick with local clams (it’s the city’s main industry) that grow in the super-clean water just offshore and juiced with a hint of spice that gives it a just-right kick.
I also sample a terrific Po’ Boy sandwich loaded with seafood, including shrimp so sweet and fresh it almost jumps out of the bun.
I notice more oldies are playing on the radio, I think maybe Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. I look out the window of the restaurant between bites and see a new-ish red car is parked on the street out in front facing one-way, while an electric blue golf cart (a popular means of transportation in town) is right up against it, but facing the other way. I suspect the town’s tiny police department doesn’t give a damn.
After my clam chowder lunch I explore the town for a bit and meet up with Paul King, a native of northern Wisconsin who now lives in town and gives free kayak tours. (Call or text 920-370-7314 or drop them an email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
“My wife and I came down here and we were just dazzled by the place. And there’s so much life in the water.”
The tides aren’t right when I visit in late January, so instead of a tour Knox and I sit down in the chamber of commerce’s back room, which doubles as something of a museum, and talk about the area.
He explains that we’d likely see all kinds of local wildlife if we were able to paddle out and explore; everything from brilliant white Ibis and Egrets to Pelicans and vivid, pink Roseate Spoonbills.
King tells me that net fishing was the area’s biggest industry a few decades back. Things were initially tough when the practice was banned, but locals have learned to use the area’s clean water to grow tasty clams.
I ask him why the tours are free and he shrugs.
“We have enough money. This is about giving back to the community.”
After my chat with King I wander into the Cedar Key Historical Museum, where a gentleman in a Miami Dolphins jersey explains some of the town’s colourful history. You’ll find some very cool bits, including Indian arrowheads and displays about the area’s African-American history. They also have old boat models and teeth from camels that once roamed what is now Florida.
You’ll also find displays that talk about the day when the area’s cedar trees made it the ideal location for the Cedar Key Faber Pencil Mill. Apparently, Faber made some 500 types of pencils here over the years before the factory was shuttered. The museum cheekily calls the pencil “the world’s first word processor.”
The museum also has a small display that focusses on naturalist John Muir, whose 1,000 mile walk in 1867 from Indiana to Florida finished up at Cedar Key. I had no idea.
For dinner I’m at Duncan’s, which sports a great motto, “Where the elite eat in their bare feet.”
Diane tells me she’s lived in a few different parts of the U.S., including Cleveland and Denver.
“My friends send me photos of snow,” she says with a grin. “I send them photos of dolphins.”
The charm I expected. The warmth of the people didn’t surprise me. But the food in Cedar Key mostly blew me away.
My clams at Steamer’s weren’t especially memorable, but I had fantastic local scallops with lime and cilantro at Duncan’s, as well as spicy black beans on rice perfectly crispy, light onion rings.
The next morning, I managed Sunday brunch at the Island Room, a bright dining spot overlooking the water and a fine beach at the Cedar Cove Hotel. I tucked into one of the best breakfasts of my life; a plate of duck confit hash with tons of rich duck, lots of crispy potatoes and more. Even the eggs seemed better than normal.
The chef, Peter Stefani, comes out to introduce himself. Turns out he worked at a very nice restaurant in San Francisco and in other destinations.
I was told later that Stefani is a clam farmer who only opens a few days a week. The restaurant’s website says they operate from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Monday, and are open for brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The place is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Following my brunch I meet up with Sue Colson, the deputy mayor of the town and a force to be reckoned with. She takes me into the chamber of commerce office to show off their displays about the local clamming industry and explain how the clams are grown.
“They take the larvae and they treat them with hot and cold water. Then they spawn.” She pauses for a minute. “They go pretty wild. It’s like Woodstock.”
After 30 days or so they little critters – mere specks – get put into seawater, where they do their water filtering thing for several months. After a few months you can see that they’re actually clams, and they’re then put into mesh bags, maybe 1,500 at a time, and dropped into the bay in rows They say there for a year or so until they’re harvested.
Some end up at Tony’s in the chowder. Others might be flown to Las Vegas for dinner the next day.
“There’s a quarter of a billion clams out there,” Colson says, gesturing towards the water. “Something like 95% of the clams in Florida come from here.”
She hauls a map out and unrolls it for me.
“What’s missing in this area,” she asks, pointing out a large wedge of land that stretches northeast from Cedar Key.
“Cities,” I reply.
She nods her head.
“Exactly. There’s almost nobody there. It’s all natural land. And that’s why the water here is so clean. They’re talking of a big highway between Tampa and Tallahassee, but we don’t need motels and burger joints on a highway.”
“We’re very protective of our water, because clams are our industry,” she explains with pride. “Not only that, but they filter nitrogen and carbon.”
After her talk, Colson and I climb into her golf cart so she can give me a tour. She nods to a pile of plastic baskets on the side of the road and explains it’s gear the clam fishermen use.
“If people don’t like seeing it on the side of the road, that’s too bad,” she says. “We’re working people.”
Colson shows me a community garden that’s right downtown and takes me to a lovely park called Cemetery Park, which is next to the cemetery and was created from material dredged from the harbour. It’s a lovely park with active spaces, a special writing bench in John Muir’s honour and a 1,300 foot-long elevated walkway over the marsh.
“If I take visitors around, I don’t bother going down to Dock Street,” she tells me.
Dock Street features a number of waterfront restaurants and shops selling brightly coloured tee-shirts and such. The buildings are quite charming, especially if you go out in the bay on a boat or wander out onto the pier. When you look back, you find many of the buildings on the south side of the street are suspended out over the water. Their faded and weathered exteriors are an Instagram photo waiting to happen.
We also drive about town as she points out historic buildings and towering trees that were left in place when the city laid out its roads. Rather than take the trees down to create straight roads, you’ll find some of the streets suddenly veer off to one side or narrow substantially to make way for a massive tree trunk. It’s utterly delightful.
We go down near the water and she shows off an area that’s being reclaimed with natural grasses.
“This was completely bare a year ago.”
We pass by the town’s only school, which houses kids from kindergarten all the way to high school. One oddity is a small graveyard that contains the remains of three teachers from long ago. It’s the first time I can recall seeing a graveyard at a school.
We also cruise past a section of the bay, where she stops and points to a sign that explains the local dolphin population.
“The local dolphins here have a hunting pattern than involves what’s called a driver. The driver herds the fish into a wall of waiting dolphins. I’m told this is the only place in the world where this happens.”
I’m getting the feeling that’s probably true of a lot of things in this little, isolated and utterly charming town.
As we pull back into “downtown,” Colson tells me the city recently had a homecoming parade.
“Nobody was watching because everybody in town was in the parade,” she says with an enormous laugh. “Actually, there were a couple people watching but I don’t think they knew what was going on. When the parade passed they got up and ran down to the street to watch it go by again.”
I spend my second and final night in town at the Firefly Resort Cottages, a lovely place on a quiet bay with sunny yellow cottages trimmed out in vivid shades of purple and aquamarine. There’s a shady garden for summer, with a waterfall and speakers playing Jimmy Buffett tunes. I am in heaven.
Of course, the owners, Ian Maki and Darrin Newell, have a story.
“We both worked in Seattle and San Francisco,” Ian tells me. “But we wanted a place where it would be warm all the time. We were thinking of the Gulf of Mexico.”
They had an Airstream and one day in March of 2018 found themselves at the only trailer facility in New Orleans. They were moving west to east and a woman who also was at the camp was moving east to west. They got to talking and then went to their separate trailers. In the morning, they found the woman had given them a written list of 14 places they had to check out. Number four was Cedar Key.
“She wrote, ‘You’re going to love it,’” Ian told me.
They drove down and fell in love. They also bought a series of dilapidated (very dilapidated) cottages and went to work. They had everything up and running by October of that year and now have six for rent, all of them cute as a bug’s ear.
When you go to enter your room, you’ll likely find a written message on a chalk board with your name and a welcome note. Inside, you’ll find lovingly appointed rooms with a fresh, Florida fee.
My room, Firefly Cottage, had a nice bed and a TV, plus a sofa and chair, a full, stainless steel refrigerator, a microwave, burners and a small oven. There were colourful glasses and nice cutlery and cooking utensils that looked fresh out Better Homes and Gardens.
They also have new, Cuisinart coffee makers and bring you a package of freshly ground coffee so you can make a pot or a cup in your room.
“We’re from Seattle,” Ian tells me with a laugh. “We have to have good coffee and a good coffee maker, not those crummy little units you see in some hotels.”
My cottage had both a front and a back porch, the back perfect for morning sun and a view of the bay and the front being great for late-day sun.
The cottages are surrounded by lovely gardens and open areas of grass with towering trees, at least one of them decorated with LED Firefly lights. There are kayaks over to one side that you can use, and you’ll find picnic tables and comfy, wooden chairs overlooking the bay for when you want to read a book, watch the egrets hunt for a meal or enjoy a glass of wine or coffee.
You’re only steps from the road but it’s a quiet, serene spot that I found absolutely charming.
Returning guests love it, Ian told me.
“We’re shocked at the number of people who come back.”
It was a lucky break that Ian and Darrin drove a half-hour off Highway 19 to find a place few Floridians know much about. But there’s a problem. They still don’t know the name of the woman in New Orleans who told them to come here. They’re dying to thank her for helping them discover a new home they love so much, but don’t have the faintest idea who she is.
Just in case, they’ve left their Airstream out in front of the cottages, a few feet from the only road into town. Maybe, must maybe, she’ll drive by some time and smile and stop in to say hi. I sure as hell will.
IF YOU GO
I had one night at Firefly, but also a night at the Beach Front Hotel. I enjoyed a nice, large room that overlooked both the pool and the Gulf of Mexico. The room was bright and clean with plenty of work space and a small refrigerator. Best of all might have been the large balcony, with nice seats and a great view of the sunset. The hotel is maybe a five-minute walk from the restaurants, bars and shops on Dock Street.
I didn’t stay there, but the Cedar Key Bed and Breakfast is a riot of pink and soft green/blue, with a beautiful garden that features a truly massive oak tree. The owner apparently makes great cookies with a half-ton of goodies in them, but I couldn’t sample one due to a nut allergy.
The Cedar Key Arts Center is a fun spot to shop and admire local art work, much of it tremendous. There’s also a fun sculpture garden.
I didn’t have time, but the Cedar Key State Museum looks like another great place to learn about the history of the area. It’s inside a restored home from the 1920’s and located next to a short nature.
I didn’t know about this until I was almost ready to leave, but I’m told you also can arrange a short airplane ride over Cedar Key for a reasonable price.
The Tiki Bar Behind Low Key Hideaway has a funky bar overlooking a wide, beautiful bay.
I also missed this (mostly because I was busy admiring the Firefly Resort cottages), but they do regular open-microphone singalong at the local library.
Another fun, and educational offering, are clam tours. Captain Bobby Witt runs Captain Bobby’s Cedar Key Clam Tour and can show you the techniques and secrets of aquaculture.
Yet another fun way to get out on the water is to try a trip with Tidewater Tours and Airboat Rides. Look for them on Dock Street, near the beach.
If you want to leave your car in the driveway of your hotel or B and B, you can rent golf carts from a number of companies in Cedar Key. It’s a fun, environmentally friendly way to get around town.
FLORIDA INFORMATION: https://www.visitflorida.com/