Seafood festivals are common in Florida, but I think the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is uncommonly appealing. It comes just in time for cooler weather and the start of stone crab season.
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.
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 one of the only times 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.
Cedar Key is resilient. Hurricane Idalia made landfall Aug. 30 about 60 miles north, flooding and damaging Cedar Key. But the seafood festival is ON, according to the Lion’s Club’s Facebook page.
The Cedar Key Seafood Festival is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday and features more than 100 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 the official website for the Cedar Key Seafood Festival.
Seahorse Key: Historic island off Cedar Key
The shuttle boat and tours of Seahorse Key on Saturday 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 lighthouse will be open on Saturday. The boat trip from Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours is $20 and involves a half-hour ride to and from the island. Tours leave every hour on the half hour from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and reservations are not required. But arrive early, as everyone must be off the island by 3 p.m.
Other boat tours from Cedar Key
Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours will also offer other boat tours festival weekend. After the shuttle to Seahorse Key ends on Saturday, there will be the 90-minute Coastal Tour and the 90-minute Sunset Tour. These will also be offered on Sunday.
To find Tidewater Tours, look for the boats with the green bimini tops at the docks.
Clam farming in Cedar Key
Clam farming is a relatively new business in Cedar Key, born out of necessity.
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.
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
If you have trouble finding 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 — popular with the visiting artists — are camping and RV parks a few miles outside of town.
- Camptel Resort and RV Park, 11850 SW State Road 24, Cedar Key, FL. Phone: 352-543-5375
- Low-Key Hideaway Resort, 12050 State Road 24, Cedar Key, FL. Phone: 352-543-0700.
- Angler’s RV Campground, 11951 SW Shiloh Road, Cedar Key, FL. Phone: 352-543-6268.
- Levy County Campground at Shell Mound, 17650 SW 78th Place, Cedar Key, FL. Phone: 352-221-4466
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
- Event information from Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce.
- Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours
- Kayak Cedar Keys
- Tony’s Seafood Restaurant
- Old Florida Celebration of the Arts: the website for the popular spring arts festival
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.