Time doesn’t slow down in Cedar Key. It actually seems to go backwards. The local joke here is that it takes two hours to watch 60 Minutes. I’ve visited Cedar Key a number of times, going back over 20 years. Not much changes here.
Following the Civil War, Cedar Key was an industrial center, a major port on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was home to lumber mills, turpentine factories, fishing fleets, and more than 5,000 people. Now, the population is less than 800, and the big business is tourism.
The cedar trees are gone, and with them, the timber industry. The fishing fleets are gone, victims of over-fishing the Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s net ban law. What you have left is a quaint and quiet little island town that may be Florida’s premier weekend getaway destination. If your goal is to truly get away, the Island Hotel, the town’s “in” place to stay, doesn’t even have television (but it does have Wi-Fi). When I first came here, cell phone service was spotty. Thankfully, that problem has been fixed.
Today’s Cedar Key is a collection of retirees, mullet and oyster fishermen, small mom-and-pop antique and art shops, and a few Boomers from places like Gainesville and Orlando with weekend homes on the island. In recent years, the town has become a bit of an art colony, with a number of top Florida artists living here.
This is a good weekend getaway town because it’s a short drive from Gainesville and within three hours from Tampa Bay and Orlando.
Things To Do In Cedar Key
They call this area of Florida the Nature Coast. If you enjoy an outdoor lifestyle, Cedar Key has much to offer.
Good Fishing Is Everywhere
Cedar Key is an island. There is an abundance of good fishing spots, whether they be in the shallow marshes on the backside of the island or off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico.
People come here to fish, and whether you are catching it or just eating it, seafood is a big attraction.
A Bike Rider’s Paradise
Bike riding is a favorite weekend pastime. There is little traffic, and it is pretty hard to get lost when there is only one road leading onto or off the island. Whether you are exploring town or pedaling to nature trails and state preserves, biking will get you there in Cedar Key. You can bring your own bike, or some hotels offer free loaners.
Hiking Nature Trails On The Island And Nearby
If you enjoy hiking, there are several short nature trails on the island and in the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge and the Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve on the mainland.
The roots of the Sierra Club are here. The area’s first true hiker was naturalist John Muir, who walked 1,000 miles from his home in Indiana to Florida in 1867. He stayed several months in Cedar Key to fight off malaria, and during that period first began his writings about man’s relationship with nature.
Paddle The Marshes And Bayous
Canoes and kayaks are perfect for paddling around the shallow bayous. There are paddle trails, and you can paddle for recreation or for fishing. There are at least three kayak rentals in town, or you can bring your own.
More To Do Outdoors In Cedar Key
There is one small beach downtown on Second Street, but the Gulf here is very shallow and often muddy from the outflow of numerous creeks and rivers during rainy periods. Most of the coastline is not suitable for swimming.
There are a couple of ferry services that take people to the out-islands for swimming and fishing. Check out Island Tours and Tidewater Tours for hours of operation and rates. The water off-shore is clearer, and there are sandy beaches on nearby Atsena Otie Key and Sea Horse Key.
Birding is popular here, especially in the winter migration season, from November to March. Birds are attracted to the salt marshes surrounding the town. There are several stops on the Great Florida Birding Trail in town and in the preserves on the mainland.
Visit The Dock
The closest thing to a tourist hub is The Dock, a collection of restaurants and shops that sit on pilings in the Gulf of Mexico at the city’s old dock, where the lumber barges and fishing boats used to tie up. Here you will find places to eat and drink. They roll up the street early here — The Dock is the closest thing to nightlife you’ll find on the island.
Festivals Bring Big Crowds To Cedar Key
For a small town, there is a lot going on here. The biggest events are the seafood festival in October and the art festival in April. The Cedar Key Seafood Festival is a weekend of gluttony with fresh oysters, clams, and locally caught fish. The art festival features artists from Florida and even artists who travel the national arts circuit.
By some estimates, 30,000 people pack the island for those weekends, all enjoying art, seafood, and an adult beverage or two.
A Little Culture, Art, And History
Cedar Key has evolved into a small but eclectic art community. On Second Street, you’ll find the Cedar Keyhole Artist Co-Op, featuring the works of 25 local artists with art ranging from photography to oil, acrylics, and pottery. On the second floor above the co-op is the Cedar Key Arts Center, which features the works of more local artists.
The Cedar Key Pottery Center is located about 5 miles out of town on State Road 347. The Center also has a nursery with local plants and flowers.
The Cedar Key Historical Society operates a small museum on Second Street. There is also the Cedar Key Museum State Park on the bay side of the island that features many historical artifacts of the area. That museum is too far for walking from downtown; drive or take a bike ride to get there.
A Small Town With A Local Celebrity Center
The Island Hotel is Cedar Key’s celebrity center. Over the years it has been home to writers like Pearl Buck and John D. MacDonald. Singer Jimmy Buffett held impromptu serenades from the balcony overlooking Second Street. President Grover Cleveland once stayed here.
Best Restaurants In Cedar Key
The Island Hotel is Cedar Key’s fine-dining attraction. People regularly drive from Gainesville just for dinner. Seafood entrees feature crab imperial, soft shell blue crab, fish piccata, and an assortment of dishes with oysters, shrimp, and scallops.
Want a cup of coffee or a latte? Try the 1842 Daily Grind and Mercantile on Second Street. It also features soups and gumbo, pastries, and light lunches.
Best Hotels In Cedar Key
As mentioned, the Island Hotel on Second Street is Cedar Key’s claim to fame. The building has been around since 1859, surviving a Civil War battle, countless hurricanes, and even an arson attempt by a bankrupt former owner.
There are 10 rooms, and all now have private baths. There are no televisions in the rooms, but they have Wi-Fi. If you like rustic and historic, you’ll love this. Room rates are $90-$155 per night. Make sure you pop into the Neptune Bar for a drink and get a look at the King Neptune painting behind the bar. It’s been there since 1948.
Most of the tourist hotels are in the downtown area. If you can’t get a room at the Island Hotel, I suggest Park Place, across from the town beach. If you have pets with you, the Faraway Inn and Cedar Inn don’t charge extra for Fido.
Several smaller motels are found along State Road 24 as you come into town. The Low Key Hideaway also has nine RV spots with full hookups.
During the week, rooms are fairly easy to find, even during the peak seasons in the spring and fall. Weekends are another matter, with most places showing no-vacancy signs. Make reservations several weeks in advance to be safe.
There are no chain hotels in Cedar Key. Everything is locally owned, managed, very friendly, and welcoming.
Even with everything going on, Cedar Key is just a great place to relax and soak up the small-town atmosphere. Leave your worries and laptop at home. Spend a few days just getting in touch with yourself and your partner. Put life in perspective. Silence the noise. Take a trip back in time to a simpler, less stressed, less cluttered way of life.
Do nothing … slowly. Chill at Cedar Key.