The ladies of the Lioness Club sell home-made crab cakes. The Cedar Key Garden Club sells fresh-squeezed lemonade. The Cedar Key Future Farmers of America will sell fresh-fried grouper.
That’s the sort of place Cedar Key is, and the result is the Cedar Key Art Festival, March 24-25, 2018, is not your cookie-cutter commercial art fair, filled with the same old food vendors and the same old bad art.
Officially called the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, the Cedar Key Art Festival is one of the oldest art fairs in Florida. It’s a juried fine art fair, which means it attracts 120 serious artists vying for $16,000 in prize money. The fair has a great reputation — ArtFairCalendar.com named it one of the top 50 juried art festivals in America and more than 200 artists applied to participate this year.
Artists demonstrations will be take place booth afternoons from 1-4 pm. See the Cedar Key festival website for a list of artists and demo artists
Like Cedar Key itself, the Cedar Key Art Festival is a slice of authentic Old Florida. This historic small town is located on an island on Florida’s Gulf coast, about 60 miles west of Ocala. It’s not near any city, and that is part of what has preserved its small-town flavor and historic buildings.
Cedar Key is worth a visit any weekend — it’s especially great for kayaking and its beaches. Here’s a brief guide to visiting Cedar Key and a look at its history.
The Cedar Key Art Festival is free. Booths for the 120 artists line the quaint historic main street. At the beach-front city park, only local non-profit vendors are allowed to sell food. As a result, little old church ladies, high school kids and the town’s leaders are all there selling foods you won’t find anywhere else.
The seafood is especially worth trying, because Cedar Key is the east coast’s biggest producer of clams. As a result, you’ll find fresh Cedar Key clams for sale by the clam association and oysters by the oyster association.
On D Street in the historic “downtown” — it’s really just three blocks long — you can sample the best clam chowder in the world. I do not say that lightly: For the last three years, the clam chowder served at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant at Second and D street has won first place in the Great Chowder Cookoff in New Port, Rhode Island — the World Cup of chowder. Tony’s offers samples to all comers at the art festival, and there is always a line.
While visiting the Cedar Key Art 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 Seahorse Key with an historic lighthouse. The birding in the Cedar Keys is exceptional; Leibert says every island has an eagle nest.
Tips for visiting the Cedar Key Art 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.
- 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.
- Be patient with traffic and parking. This is a small town with a lot of visitors for art 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
- Old Florida Celebration of the Arts: the festival website
- Rainbow Country RV Campground
- Cedar Key RV Resort
- Kayak Cedar Keys
- Tony’s Seafood Restaurant
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,
- A fascinating photo-story of how they farm clams on Cedar Key a.k.a. “Clamelot.”