Discover Florida’s 12 Best Islands: Explore Cedar Key

A backwater hideaway, the island also has its share of artists.
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Dock Street is home to shops and restaurants offering views of the Gulf. (CARLTON WARD)

Leaving I-75 in the dust, State Road 24 hops across two islands, passing lush green puffs with names like Scale Key and Dog Island, before it reaches Second Street in downtown Cedar Key. The area’s sleepy, low-key vibe is a pleasant surprise to anyone eager to trade urban sprawl and the cacophony of traffic for a quaint small town and the quietude of nature. It’s a peaceful place and that’s what folks love about this island on north central Florida’s Gulf coast, tucked neatly into the curve of the state. 

Its historic main roadway, Second Street, is lined with weather-beaten wooden buildings and restored structures dating back to the 1880s. At the Welcome Center you can pick up the Old Cedar Key Walking Tour Guide Book and explore the area’s history on foot or in a rented golf cart. Fascinating is the 160-year-old Island Hotel with its second-story wraparound porch. In the lobby, a stuffed manatee appears to be playing the piano; a creaky staircase leads to rooms boasting four-poster beds with patchwork quilts and antique brass doorknobs.

Another stop on Second Street is Tony’s Seafood Restaurant for a bowl of the local clam chowder. A federally funded program helped establish Cedar Key’s clam-farming industry in the late 1990s. Today 90 percent of Florida’s production comes from Cedar Key; about 150 million clams are harvested annually.

Grab a table in the dining room where murals depicting old seafaring scenes cover the walls. Smooth and satiny on the tongue, Tony’s chowder has pieces of tender clams, diced potatoes and a kick of heat at the finish. It would be hard to find a recipe tastier than this three-time winner in the national Great Chowder Cook-off.

A backwater hideaway, the island also has its share of artists. At the brightly painted Cedar Key Arts Center, beach-glass wind chimes and framed photos of roseate spoonbills (the Florida Birding Trail winds through the area) are on display.

Just off Second Street, a bridge leads to a narrow strip of land that is home to Dock Street. Mismatched wooden structures with funky tiki bar-style décor skirt the water and welcome those in search of food, drink and Gulf views. At the west end, fishermen cast lines from a pier where gregarious pelicans wait patiently for scraps and shamelessly pose for visitors who snap their photo.

Don’t Miss…

Cedar Key Historical Museum

If you want a crash course on the area’s history, the museum’s director Anna Hodges is a wealth of knowledge and loves talking with visitors. Housed in two historic buildings, displays highlight the town’s mid-1800s prosperity as a bustling seaport for timber and fish, its pencil factory that used slats made from cedar trees (hence the name), and the production of broom straw from sabal palms.

Bonding with Nature

The surrounding waters can easily be explored by boat. Capt. Doug of Tidewater Tours takes adventurers to the outer islands of Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge for sightings of dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. His coastal marsh birding tour through the backwaters is great for spying shorebirds. Or let the captain drop you on Atsena Otie Key to explore the beach and the island’s interior on your own. The area also offers kayaking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and camping.

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