When people hear about the Florida Keys, they think Key West and the party scene. However, the “Key” in Florida that I spent several spring vacations at is more than 500 miles away, and on the total opposite coast. Cedar Key couldn’t be different from the run-of-the-mill Florida beach towns. There is no “club” or “party” scene here. Instead, there are unique little shops, a few great restaurants, and a great country attitude. There are less than 900 full-time residents, and the Cedar Key School, which houses grades kindergarten through 12th, is the smallest public high school in the state of Florida.
Don’t go to Cedar Key if you want to play golf, or buy designer clothes, or go to fancy nightclubs, because there isn’t any of that on this island. There isn’t even a stop light. The very thing I love about visiting Cedar Key is the laid-back atmosphere. It isn’t hard to imagine life here in the last century, because little has changed.
Cedar Key is, however, a great place to vacation if you want to see some wildlife, stroll along a quaint street, get on a bike or kayak, or visit an art gallery. Known as the Clam Capital of the United States, due to its busiest industry, Cedar Key is a small town in a gorgeous setting. From my trips to Cedar Key, I have put together a list of the best places to stay, eat, and nature-watch. Cedar Key is located 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Florida, 135 miles north of Tampa, and 130 miles southwest of Jacksonville.
Where to Stay
For an adults-only atmosphere, try the Low-Key Hideaway. Suites start at $100 per night, and there are also RV slots available. Also try the Hideaway Tiki bar, which is part of the hotel and directly on the water. Pets are welcome at the Low-Key Hideaway. This hotel only has five rooms, so it is a wonderfully cozy atmosphere. The hotel is operated by Pat and Cindy Bonish, who travelled the world before settling down in Cedar Key.
The best thing about Park Place in Cedar Key is the location. Each unit has a balcony that faces the Gulf of Mexico, and it is located only steps from the beach and the city park. It is a less than five-minute walk to the restaurants, bars, and shops that line both First and Second streets. Rates start at $80/night, depending on the day of the week and the season. The end rooms are especially nice, and some are equipped with wraparound balconies and swings. Park Place is child-friendly and offers adjoining rooms for larger families. Some rooms also allow pets.
Why stay on land when you can actually stay on water? Cedar Key Harbour Master Suites is actually built onto pilings anchored in the Gulf of Mexico. Starting at $90 a night, each room has a unique name, like Gulliver’s Rest or Mud Flat Molly’s, and a divine view of the gulf. Guests will watch dolphins play in the “front yard” of this hotel. The Harbour Master is not expressly adults only, but most rooms only sleep two people. No pets are allowed. The adjoining store, The Dilly Dally Gally, has a great selection of unique gifts, as well as vacation essentials.
Where to Eat
Whenever I am in Cedar Key, I make a beeline for The Pickled Pelican. The beer is good, the food is great, and the view is wonderful. The Blow Your Sox Off Chicken Sandwich, served on a pretzel roll, was delicious. I would also recommend the fresh seafood. From the outside tables covered by adorable grass umbrellas, we watched dolphins jumping in the water and pelicans fishing.
The Island Room is the closest thing to formal dining available on Cedar Key, but jeans are welcomed in this laid-back restaurant. The tables all have gulf views, and the food is an absolute treat. At the Island Room, try the baked clams any way you want them or the Cedar Key seafood boil, a traditional Southern favorite with fresh seafood.
What to Do
Kayaking: Kayak rentals are available to explore the inlets and islands, and guided tours are available for longer trips or inexperienced paddlers.
Bird watching: Cedar key is one of the best places in Florida to do some bird watching. Birds I personally have spotted in Cedar Key include herons, ospreys, pelicans, vultures, and egrets.
The city park is my children’s favorite place to go on the Island. There is a playground, but the real attraction is the beach. Though not a traditional Florida beach, there is a place to stretch out and tan, build sand castles, and play in the water. The beach and parking are both free. There are restroom facilities and an outdoor shower, and it is within easy walking distance to shops and restaurants.
How to Get There
From Gainesville, Florida, take State Route 24 southwest for approximately 50 miles. Three major roads are crossed on the trip: State Highway 27/41 in Archer, Alternate Route 27 in Bronson, and US 19/98 in Otter Creek. Route 24 will bring you right into Cedar Key. Travel time from Gainesville to Cedar Key is about one hour.
Cedar Key has the George T. Lewis Airport for small planes. The closest commercial airport is Gainesville Regional Airport, and Tampa International Airport and Jacksonville international Airport are about equal distances from Cedar Key.