Seafood festivals are common in Florida, but I think the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is uncommonly appealing.
In 2012, the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is Oct. 20 and 21, just in time for the first of the cooler weather that ushers in festival season in Florida.
What makes the Cedar Key Seafood Festival special?
First, and quite obviously, it takes place in Cedar Key, one of America’s coolest small towns, according to Budget Travel. Cedar Key is a charming little town with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents and a fascinating history. (It’s Florida’s second oldest town!) Cedar Key is about 60 miles west of Gainesville, so its out-of-the-way location has helped keep it authentic. (Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Cedar Key.)
Second, you may think of New England when you think of clams, but Cedar Key is actually one of the nation’s top source of farm-raised clams.
Third, the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is the only time you can tour historic Seahorse Key, three miles from Cedar Key. A shuttle boat from downtown takes visitors to tour the island and its lighthouse, which was built before the Civil War. Seahorse Key is now part of Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge.
The Cedar Key Seafood Festival is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and features more than 200 arts and crafts exhibits, live music at several locations, a parade Saturday morning and, of course, lots of great local seafood. Tasting opportunities are abundant.
Past festival-goers recommend various locally made clam chowders, raw or fried oysters, smoked mullet dip and corn on the cob. Crafts include some items with local flavor, too: boxes made from local cedar trees, preserved and mounted crabs and lobsters, egret lawn ornaments and other Floridiana. Cedar Key attracts many artists, so the booths include impressive fine artists, too.
Music includes bluegrass and banjos. (Here’s a YouTube video of dueling banjos and dueling clam chefs from 2010.)
Seahorse Key: Historic island off Cedar Key
The shuttle boat and tours of Seahorse Key make the Cedar Key Seafood Festival a rare opportunity. The fourth-order fresnel lens in the lighthouse was first lit Aug. 1, 1854, when Cedar Key was Florida’s major Gulf Coast city. For decades, the lighthouse was critical to navigation.
Eventually, though, the railroad went through, Cedar Key used up its once-bountiful supply of cedar trees and a hurricane wiped out the city in its original location, Atsena Otie Key. The city moved to another island, but it became a little-visited backwater, a sleepy fishing village.
The last lighthouse keeper extinguished the light for the final time in 1915 and in 1929, President Herbert Hoover created the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, preserving three of the keys as a bird sanctuary.
Today the lighthouse is rarely open to the public. It has been leased to the University of Florida for its Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. The lighthouse itself serves as a dormitory with six bedrooms and 26 bunk beds. A laboratory is located near the boat dock.
The boat trip is $26 and takes one hour, which includes the short tour on the island. Tours leave every hour on the half hour from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and reservations are suggested. Call Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours, 352-543-9523.
Clam farming in Cedar Key
In 1995, Florida banned large-scale net fishing, shutting down operations of many Cedar Key fishermen. Instead, many local fishermen participated in federally-funded job retraining programs in shellfish aquaculture. Many began farming clams and today Cedar Key’s clam-based aquaculture is a multi-million dollar industry. Clams, live and in the shell, are shipped all over the country. Cedar Key clams are harvested in the morning and served in a Las Vegas restaurant the next day.
Here’s a photo story documenting Cedar Key clam farming from larvae tanks to shipping.
More things to do on Cedar Key
While visiting the Cedar Key Seafood Festival, you can rent a kayak from Kayak Cedar Keys outfitter Tom “Tomyakker” Leibert right from the beach.
An outstanding kayak destination is Atsena Otie, a half mile away. Atsena Otie Key is an island that was home to the original town built in the Cedar Keys, a cluster of small islands. Its main business was a pencil-wood factory and, in the 1890s, it had several hundred residents. That ended when the hurricane of 1896 and a 10-foot storm surge flattened the town.
Today, the historic island of Atsena Otie Key is managed by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. You can see the old cemetery and the main street is now a path through the woods under a canopy of oaks.
If you paddle around the island, it’s a 1.5 mile trip. More ambitious paddlers can go on to other nearby islands. Kayak outfitter Tom Leibert says all of the other islands have nice beaches, though their interiors are off-limits as part of the Cedar Keys NWR. He provides a detailed map and recommendations on kayak outings, including to Seahorse Key. The birding in the Cedar Keys is exceptional; Leibert says every island has an eagle nest.
Tips for visiting the Cedar Key Seafood Festival
- Hotels sell out quickly, but there are always cancellations. For accommodations, call the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, which keeps a list of who has a room. The number is 352-543-5600.
- Gainesville and the I-75 corridor have many accommodations. This gets you within an hour of Cedar Key, which would enable you to make Cedar Key Seafood Festival a day trip.
- A good option — one popular with the visiting artists — are two camping and RV parks about six miles outside of town. At Rainbow Country RV Campground, tent camping is $23 and no reservation is required. RV hookups are $23 to $24 and reservations are recommended. The new Cedar Key RV Resort is $30 a night and includes resort amenities such as a swimming pool. There are also RV spots at Low-Key Hideaway.
- Be patient with traffic and parking. This is a small town with a lot of visitors for festival weekend. Visitors park along the town’s streets and if the festival is a big success, you’ll walk four or five blocks through town to reach it.
Resources for your Cedar Key visit:
- A brief Florida Rambler guide to visiting Cedar Key
- Cedar Key Seafood Festival information from Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce.
- Rainbow Country RV Campground
- Cedar Key RV Resort
- Kayak Cedar Keys
- Tony’s Seafood Restaurant
- Old Florida Celebration of the Arts: the website for the popular spring arts festival
More things to do in Cedar Key:
- A good Cedar Keys guide. Check out the maps and downloads.
- The Island Hotel, a historic inn downtown, worth stepping inside.
- Cedar Key Museum State Park
- Cedar Key State Scrub Preserve, a good place for hiking.
- Shell Mound area of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, another hiking destination.
- Download a free and outstanding kayak trail guide to the region
- Manatee Springs State Park,
- Photo-story of how they farm clams on Cedar Key a.k.a. “Clamelot.”