Cedar Key is, first and foremost, a small fishing village on Florida’s gulf coast. On a good day, the population hovers around 600-800 people. Rising sea levels, salt water intrusion, and the beginning of fishing season are front page news here. Why am I writing about some Podunk, middle-of-nowhere, fishing village on Florida’s gulf coast? For three reasons: (1) it is famous for great seafood, (2) it is situated on Florida’s Nature Coast, one of the most beautiful parts of the state, and (3) it exemplifies Old Florida, small-town living. All of these things combine to make Cedar Key a media darling, covered by the likes of Coastal Living, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Travel & Leisure, and most recently, Southern Living magazine. I traveled to Cedar Key on the heels of J.I. Baker’s “Wild Islands,” published in the May 2016 issue of Southern Living magazine. I couldn’t have asked for a better list of recommendations to arrive in the mail a week before my planned vacation to Cedar Key.
(1) Great Seafood
For great seafood, Baker recommended having dinner at one of Cedar Key’s fine dining establishments: the Island Room or the Island Hotel’s seafood restaurant, and trying the award-winning clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant.
While all the seafood is good here, Cedar Key is especially well-known for their clams, oysters, and smoked mullet dip. Clams and oysters can be found on practically every menu in town, and smoked mullet dip can be found at small markets, roadside stands, and gas stations across Cedar Key. October is the best time of year to enjoy seafood in Cedar Key, as this is when their annual seafood festival (now in its 47th year) is held; in July 2016, Cedar Key will be hosting a new festival devoted strictly to clams, called the Cedar Key Old Florida Clamfest.
(2) Natural Beauty
Where there is great seafood, there is beautiful coastline, and Cedar Key is an excellent example of this. Situated at the northern end of Florida’s Nature Coast, Cedar Key’s rural attributes allowed for the establishment of an 891-acre national wildlife refuge, famous for its large population of nesting birds, in 1929. The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge refers to a cluster of barrier islands, in the neighborhood of Cedar Key, reserved for nesting birds. One of these islands, Atsena Otie, was home to the original Cedar Key settlement before it moved to its current location, in 1897, after the hurricane and tidal wave of 1896 destroyed most homes on the island.
There is one time of the year that you can visit Seahorse Key. The Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory periodically hosts open houses outside of the bird nesting period, during which you can tour the lighthouse on the island. The next one is scheduled to take place in early July, 2016.
(3) Old Florida Style
Beyond Cedar Key’s natural beauty, there is a certain beauty to Cedar Key’s Old Florida, small-town traits, most of which all congregate on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s cultural center. Staying at the Island Place Condominiums on 1st Street put us within a block of Dock Street, home to Cedar Key’s marina, fishing pier, souvenir shops, and nightlife.
Between eating clams, touring the islands by boat, and hanging out on Dock Street, one can get a good taste of Cedar Key in a day.
If you are interested in visiting Cedar Key, keep the following dates in mind:
- Bird nesting season: March 1–June 30
- Seahorse Key marine laboratory open house: early July
- Cedar Key annual seafood festival: mid-October
- Cedar Key Old Florida Clamfest: early July
- Cedar Key Art Festival: mid-April