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Cedar Key - Florida

A Touch of "Old Florida"

Located mid-way between Tampa and Tallahassee, the town of Cedar Key is out-of-the-way, and the local residents prefer it that way. While big things were forecast for this area more than a century ago, little has happened to make it a center of commerce, although there have been some notable tries to make it so.

First there were the keys, a group of 40 small barrier islands sitting in the Gulf of Mexico, west of the mouth of the Waccasassa River and south of the larger Suwanee River which flows from its origins in Georgia's Okeefenokee Swamp to meet the gulf. Many of these islands are bare, and Cedar Key is the only town, linked to the mainland by a three-mile causeway. The area is a boon for boaters on vacation.

What to See and Do | Wildlife Refuge | Where to Stay

Cedar Key History

The town is a quiet, singular community, sleepy for most of the year, with a few motels and cafes to provide tourist services. About 800 people live here, the remnants of the up and down existence that has plagued Cedar Key since sugar magnate and slaveowner David Levy Yulee planted a sugar plantation and championed the cross-state railroad that linked Cedar Key to Fernandina in 1861. Yulee, a two-term U.S. Senator, figured that the railway would export sugar, cotton, and timber from the coast, making himself and everybody else in the community wealthy.

A prospectus of the day compared the town's future possibilities to New Orleans and Key West. And this climb to greatness did happen -- for awhile. Cedar Key was the second largest city in the state during the 1880s, with the trains bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists. Eagle Pencils set up a factory here to take advantage of the abundant cedar forests, and proceeded to make their famous pencils, which they exported to the world. The only problem was that within a few years the cedars had all been cut down, and Eagle moved to more productive areas. By 1890, the grand dream was over, and the town settled into a rustic obscurity. The two current reminders of Levy's career in the area are the ruins of his sugar mill at Homosassa, and the county which bears his name.

What commercial activity remained centered on harvesting seafood, including fish and oysters. Then, in 1896, a devastating hurricane destroyed the town and the docks and Cedar Key went back to square one. The venerable Island Hotel (1861) is one of the few pre-hurricane buildings standing today, and still operates as a favorite place to stay. In the early 1900s, palmettos were harvested for a new broom manufacturing industry, but that, too, was ephemeral. Until the 1960s, the community languished, at the end of nowhere (and at the literal end of what was called "The Swamp Road"). Today it's a quiet little tourist town, next door to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, playing its part in the growing eco-travel business. The Cedar Keys State Museum not only reflects the stormy and checkered history of the town, but also hosts a fine shell collection. The Cedar Key Historical Society Museum offers more artifacts and local lore. Several small cafes offer basic dining, including the indigenous mullet, served three meals a day.

Local residents have kept developers at bay, preferring their quiet life to instigating another boom on Cedar Key. Evening walks on the wharf and through the small town park where a plaque marks the terminus of the old railroad provide a reflective time, and spark quiet enjoyment at the thought of this little community sitting here after all these years of boom and bust, looking much as it must have looked before the rails came to town and the machinations of Senator David Levy Yulee faded from the scene.

What to See & Do

Seashore Key is a nearby island that attracts visitors to its sandy beaches and excellent bird watching. You get there by local shuttle boats. The channels between the small islands provide chances for perfect canoeing expeditions -- through bird-filled salt marshes and mangrove swamps, and through the mazes of the wildlife refuge. This is not an area for a fast, hurried visit. There is much to see from this rustic little community, and a chance to explore remote areas not filled with other visitors. The mainland areas, too, offwer a look at shell mounds from the age of the Tocobaga people, plus much wildlife amongst the scrub, palmetto flatlands, and live oak groves.

Cedar Key State Museum

The history of Cedar Key settlement is shown in this small but attractive state museum, which concentrates on the life of the area before, during, and after the Civil War. This covers native habitation, the arrival of American settlers, and the period of David Levy Yulee. Included is an outstanding shell collection assembled by former resident Saint Claire Whitman. The museum is located on Museum Drive, off State Route 24, and is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Waccasassa Bay State Preserve

Paddling a canoe or kayak, or taking a boat into the many marshes and channels near Cedar Key, is a great way to experience the natural environment of the barrier islands and river estuaries. East of Cedar Key, in Waccasassa Bay, as far east as Yankeetown (on the gulf), the Waccasassa Bay State Preserve protects the delicate marshes, wooded islands, and mainland forests made up of hardwoods and cypress. The preserve occupies 30,785 acres, mostly salt marsh, with the wooded islands close to the shoreline. These provide breeding areas for hundreds of species of saltwater fish and shellfish, plus bald eagles, black bears, and other threatened and endangered species, including manatees. More than 100 creeks flow into the estuary, providing wonderful opportunities for canoeing close to the forests and wildlife. Among the fish found in the preserve are snook, sea trout, snapper, grouper, and redfish. The preserve is accessed via State Route 24, six miles east of Cedar Key.

Cedar Key Scrub Reserve

Located on the mainland, next to the Waccasassa preserve, this is a landscape dominated by pine flatwoods, sand pine scrub, and the omnipresent scrub jay. The 4,000 acres has salt marsh at its margin. Because it is a state reserve, and not a preserve, hunting is permitted from September through December.

Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge

Twelve small barrier islands at the southern end of Florida's Big Bend were made a refuge, beginning with President Hoover's proclamation of 1929 which protected Snake, Deadman's (Bird), and North keys. Nine islands were added later. Four of them (Snake, Bird, North, and Seashore) are designated wilderness areas.

Native peoples occupied the islands for more than a thousand years. Since the Spanish era, the islands have had a colorful history. Seahorse Key, the outermost island, has been used as a military hospital, and served as a detention camp for captured natives during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). A lighthouse was built on this island in 1851, and abandoned in 1952. Now, under the aegis of the University of Florida, the lighthouse serves as a center for marine research and environmental education. The island was formed as a giant sand dune, and the dune survives as the central ridge, rising to a height of 52 feet -- the highest point on the state's west coast.

On most of the islands, the higher points (ranging from five to 20 feet above sea level) are covered with an upland forest of live oak, laurel oak, cabbage palm and red bay. The surprisingly verdant understory includes saw palmetto, cherry laurel, yaupon, wild olive, prickly pear, eastern red cedar, and Spanish bayonet. The parts of the islands closer to the sea suffer from frequent flooding, and are made up of salt marshes and mangrove swamps.

While the island interiors are closed to the public, to protect the fragile ecosystems, all of the beaches except those on Seahorse Key are open to the public Year-round. They are happily visited during daylight hours by tourists who take a boat from Cedar Key to collect shells, beachcomb, identify birds, and take pictures. Seahorse Key and the waters surrounding it are closed from March 1 through June 30. During the rest of the year you'll be able to visit one of Florida's finest water bird rookeries, with up to 100,000 egrets, white ibis, cormorants, herons, pelicans, anhingas, and other species. Not all of these birds nest on Seahorse Key and you'll find a strong complement of birds on the other islands too.

Most of the islands can be reached only at high tide, as mud and sand flats appear when the tide recedes. This is a primitive area, where camping is not permitted, and visitors are asked to pack out everything they take onto the islands. For information on the islands, call the Refuge Manager in Chiefland, at (904) 493-0238.While camping is not permitted on the islands of the refuge, you'll find a private campground and RV park in Cedar Key, and a campground in Manatee Springs State Park, about 20 minutes drive north.

Where to Eat

Two small, friendly restaurants have a lot of local flavor. Annie's Cafe, on 6th Street serves breakfast and lunch. It's best known for its breakfasts, and its seafood is popular. Call 352-543-6141.

Kona Joe's Island Cafe is a coffee shop serving light meals at 4051 D Street (352-543-9898). Breakfast and lunch are served, including quiches; try the blue crab quiche. Several sandwiches are available as are a number of desserts including ice cream. Outdoor seating provides a good view of the Cedar Key scene from the deck.

For dishes piscatory, Tony's Seafood Restaurant, at 597 2nd street offers very fine clam chowder and other seafood dishes in the historic, actually ancient, Hale Building that is more than 130 years old—circa 1880). Top off the chowder with a fine slice of key lime pie (352-543-0022).


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