On a balmy fall weekend, we drove our RV through unending miles of forest and farmland to a spit of small islands on the Gulf of Mexico where clams are king, history is rich and people are scarce.
This is Old Florida as it should be, rustic and ready for curious visitors without the pretentiousness or the high prices of the Florida Keys.
Tourists don’t get here easily. They have to be determined, and therein lies the charm. Not many tourists make it to this outpost on Florida’s sparse Nature Coast.
While the less-traveled Coastal Highway, U.S. 98, is only 23 miles east, the next major highway (and closest city) is a full 60 miles east, Interstate 75 at Gainesville, through some of Florida’s most rural countryside.
You would never know that Cedar Key was a bustling seaport in the 19th Century, feeding the state’s first railroad with salted seafood and goods originating in Central America, bound for the docks in Fernandina Beach and up the east coast.
After Tampa emerged as the transit point for shipping in the early 20th Century, the Cedar Key railroad shut down in 1932, and Cedar Key has been frozen in time since.
The clams, oh those sweet Cedar Key clams
Cedar Key’s claim to fame in the 21st Century is its clams, farmed in leased tracts across thousands of acres of mud flats, which also harbor an endless sea of oyster bars fed by the brackish water that flows into the Gulf from the Suwannee and other rivers.
The shellfish industry thrives here, and it’s one of the reasons we came: My wife and I love those sweet little Cedar Key clams, and they are readily available in Cedar Key’s restaurants.
On our first night, we made a beeline to the Big Deck Raw Bar on Dock Street for steamed clams, served outside on the big deck.
For the best clam chowder you’ve ever tasted, check out Tony’s Seafood Restaurant in the Old Hale Building on 2nd Street in Cedar Key.
The most popular source of fresh local clams in Cedar Key is Southern Cross Seafood Farm at 12170 State Road 24, just past the Camptel RV Park (formerly Sunset Isle), where we were camping.
We also found a rustic fish house on Gulf Boulevard, and there are other markets on the island. We paid less than half what we would pay in South Florida, and the clams, harvested the day before, were out of this world.
A handy little guide prepared by the Faraway Inn is widely available throughout Cedar Key. The booklet is chock full of great information, including a list of seafood markets, fishing charters, churches, local facts, history, etc.
Hot tip: When buying raw clams, make sure they are still alive. Reject clams that have already opened and check the harvest date on the tag, which is required by law on every bag of shellfish. If the date is older than 10 days, don’t buy it. If the seller refuses to show you the tag, don’t buy it.
My personal rule of thumb allows clams two weeks after the harvest date for consumption. When handled properly, they could last a little longer but don’t count on it. Do not store directly on ice. If you are storing them in a cooler, separate the bag from the ice with aluminum foil. When possible, I store them in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer with the intention of eating them in 2-3 days..— Bob Rountree
Honey, your kayak went out with the tide!
The tides move swiftly over the shallow flats surrounding the Cedar Keys, leaving a muddy bottom with grassy islands, only to be fully covered a few hours later by an incoming tide.
It’s quite picturesque, actually, full of wildlife both above and below the water. When the tide goes out, shorebirds peck their way through the puddles for crabs and small fish. Wood storks troll through the tidal pools for small fish left behind as flocks of Rosette spoonbills glide across the grassy islands.
When the tide moves in, so do the fish that feed around the oyster beds, and the cycle begins again. Dolphin thrive in this environment, and a small school kept us company for more than an hour one day while we paddled about in the bay.
The scene is magical, beckoning to kayakers on the rising tide, but you have to time the tides just right or you could find yourself stranded in the mud, surrounded by oyster bars. (Wear water shoes with soles!)
With a too-convenient launch at our campsite, we left our kayaks just above the tide line overnight, not expecting the overnight arrival of a notorious King tide of the fall equinox.
Waking up the next morning, my wife’s bright yellow kayak was gone! Disappeared overnight!
I scanned the horizon but saw nothing. I dashed over to a nearby kayak livery to put them on alert, and they graciously shared local knowledge on channels that fill early in the tide cycle. Then I went back to our campsite and waited. And watched.
I scanned the horizon once again, this time with a scope. Way off in the distance, I spotted a small yellow dot in the deep grass! There it was! Now I had to bide my time, wait for the tide to give me enough water to paddle our other kayak out to retrieve it before it got carried off even further.
The incoming tide broke the little yellow kayak free of the grass, and once I had enough water, I paddled out and retrieved it.
The most popular public kayak launch is at the town’s beach, where Kayak Tom Liebert holds court at his kayak concession at the south end of First Street. You can’t miss Tom. He’ll burn your ear with stories if you let him, and he’ll offer sage advice even if you don’t rent a kayak from him.
From the beach, you can paddle out across open water to Atsena Otie Key, which is actually the original Cedar Key where cargo ships docked upon arrival from South and Central America in the 19th Century for transhipment by rail to Fernandina Beach. The water is deep enough at the beach, even at low tide, to launch and make the transit across the channel.
Cedar Key Paddling on U.S. 24 as you enter Cedar Key is the livery where I was freely given local knowledge about the tidal flow when my kayak went astray with the tide. The folks here were very friendly and helpful, and I learned later that they had been keeping an eye out for the kayak in case it drifted their way. This family-owned operation offers guided tours and kayak rentals, and they sell or rent bait and tackle for fishing. If you get lost, they’ll find you. cedarkeypaddling.com or call 352-665-1276
Cedar Key Campgrounds
We favor state parks for both price and amenities, particularly the “close to nature” environment that offers a sense of camping in the woods or on a beach.
Alas, the closest state parks with camping is Manatee Springs, about 35 miles away, not quite close enough to conveniently explore Cedar Key, so we chose one of three private campgrounds near our destination.
Camptel Cedar Key (formerly Sunset Isle)
Cedar Key is made up of a bundle of small, odd-shaped islands, each with its own personality but sharing the distinction of being in the middle of nowhere.
One such island is Sunset Isle, a short bike ride to the center of town across two channel bridges and home to a quaint and well-maintained private campground called Camptel RV Resort. We loved it.
We stayed four nights in a waterfront site for $50 a night under the former management, Sunset Isle RV Resort. Under the new ownership (Camptel), those same sites go for $75 per night. Inland sites are now $51 a night (May 2021).
One of the pleasures of waterfront camping is just pulling your boat out of the water into your back yard. 🙂
Each site had full hookups — water, electric and sewer — and a picnic table where we enjoyed the spectacular sunsets as a cool breeze drifted in from the bay.
Since Camptel took over, the campground has been expanded to include “glamping” in furnished yurts, tents and tiny houses. Check their web site for accommodations and prices. The resort also offers recently renovated motel rooms nearby, as well.
Low Key Campground, Motel and Tiki Bar
Although we didn’t camp here, we sure did enjoy their tiki bar.
The back-in campsites were strung out along the highway as if they were an afterthought to expand the motel business, and they probably were. Only three of these sites, all with full hookups, are available for daily rental.
The one-story motel itself was classic Old Florida but nicely updated with bright paint and new furnishings. If the grounds and the on-premise owners are any indication, they were likely immaculate. These folks take great pride in their digs.
Daily rental rate for the waterfront RV sites is $80 (2021). Motel rooms with kitchenettes are $100-$140 per night. Adults only. Pets OK.
Angler’s RV Campground
We did not get a chance to explore this campground, but we did look it over as we drove past. Angler’s is about 5.5 miles east of Cedar Key on State Road 24, and it looked pretty good from the road.
The owners just added a swimming pool to the campground, and there’s a store on-site with RV supplies and propane. Largely shaded sites have full hookups, cement pads, picnic tables and some have fire rings. Hot showers in rest rooms, free Wi-Fi and free cable TV.
Daily rate $30 for 30-amp sites; $33 for 50-amp (May 2021) plus 9% tax, includes cable TV and Wi-Fi.
Shell Mound County Campground
Although almost 9 miles away, this is a pretty cool little campground, and it’s quite isolated, ensuring a quiet evening on Suwannee Bay.
This Levy County public park has a long fishing pier and a boat ramp. Like most of waters in this area, the muddy flats are shallow and fully exposed at low tide, forcing boaters to time their exploration carefully.
A deeper channel offshore was still accessible to fishermen in airboats at low tide.
The campground is fully surrounded by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, the Cedar Key Scrub Wildlife Management Area and the Lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge.
Water and electric sites for two people are $16, electric-only sites are $10.90 and tent sites are $5.45, including tax. ($2 for each additional person).
The campground does not accept reservations or credit cards. Cash only. If you arrive after hours (7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), pick an open campsite and pay in the morning.
Levy County Campground at Shell Mound, 17650 SW 78th Place, Cedar Key, FL. Phone: 352-221-4466
Sites to See
Cedar Key Museum State Park — If you have even the slightest interest in Cedar Key’s history, you should visit this museum, which is located in an out-of-the-way corner of Cedar Key at 12231 SW 166th Court. (Don’t be misled by the big numbers; Cedar Key is not very big.) From John Muir’s legendary hike from Kentucky to Cedar Key to Cedar Key’s thriving port and Civil War sea battles, you can really get a feel for the islands’ rich history. Museum hours Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: 352-543-5350
Island Hotel and Restaurant — This historic hotel has been around since 1859, earning it a placement on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Each of the 10 rooms is different with rates ranging from $100 to $145 per night, including a private bath, but you don’t have to stay there to enjoy its charm. The lobby is classic with an all-wood check-in desk and cubby holes for mail. The restaurant is well-regarded with excellent food, and you must stop for a cocktail at the Neptune Bar. The hotel is on the main drag downtown at 373 2nd Street, Cedar Key. Phone: 352-543-5111
Rosewood — Not much to see, but infamous as the location of the “Rosewood Massacre.” No, it was not a civil war battle or routing of Seminoles. The Rosewood massacre was a racially motivated massacre of black people and the tragic destruction of a black town in 1923, forever changing the complexion and character of this Levy County community. You’ll drive through it on State Road 24 on your way in or out of Cedar Key. Read more in this story by Douglas C Lyons.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.