Last updated on February 21st, 2020 at 08:08 am
Lots of things to do in Cedar Key, all in a historic setting
You won’t be stopping at Cedar Key on your way to someplace else. The closest cities, Ocala and Gainesville, and the main route, I-75, are 60 miles away.
And that’s exactly why it’s worth a drive to visit Cedar Key.
The charming little town, with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents, has a fascinating history (it’s Florida’s second oldest town) and dozens of interesting old buildings.
It’s located on an island that is perfect for exploring by bicycle and the many nearby islands make great kayaking destinations. The town is full of artists and has several good seafood restaurants. The folks who promote visiting Cedar Key like to say it is Key West 50 years ago.
Why history buffs should visit Cedar Key
Like Key West, its history goes way back. It was founded in the 1850s but its big break was in 1861, when it became the western station on the Florida Railroad, the first link across the state, originating in Fernandina on Amelia Island.
As an important port, it saw some action in the Civil War. After the war, the many cedar trees brought prosperity as the Faber pencil company opened a wood mill here.
Today Cedar Key feels like an old fishing village. (Indeed, its clam farms are a multi-million dollar industry.)
Its three-block-long main street is lined with historic buildings holding galleries and shops. Charming wooden cottages cluster in residential streets. There’s no McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.
We stayed at the Island Hotel, opened in 1859 as Parsons and Hale’s General Store and now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a gracious bed and breakfast with 10 rooms on the second floor, a wonderful restaurant on the main floor and a popular bar off the lobby. There are no phones and no TVs and a broad balcony wraps around the second floor. It was from here, the story goes, that Jimmy Buffet sang and strummed his guitar during many visits in the 1980s. (The hotel has hosted a random collection of other celebs that would make a good trivia question: What do Jimmy Buffet, Richard Boone, Myrna Loy and Tennessee Ernie Ford have in common?)
If you don’t stay at the Island Hotel, definitely stop by and have dinner or a drink. In the Neptune Bar, the mural of King Neptune with its bare-breasted mermaids was probably scandalous when painted in 1948. The restaurant serves dinner and we enjoyed excellent seafood, fresh rolls made on the premises and perfectly prepared fresh vegetables. The menu ($16 to $25) includes three vegetarian options plus chicken, steak and lamb chops. Breakfast in the dining room, for guests of the B&B only, was exceptional.
Our visit was limited by chilly, rainy weather, but dinner and an overnight at the Island Hotel make a great weekend outing, even without many other activities.
We did enjoy strolling the town under an umbrella and visiting the small Cedar Key Museum State Park.
Atsena Otie Key: Ghost town makes good kayak trip when you visit Cedar Key
Our big regret was not getting to kayak out to Atsena Otie Key.
Atsena Otie Key is an island that was home to the original town built in the Cedar Keys, a cluster of small islands. This is where the pencil-wood factory was built 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. Surviving residents moved to the island that is now Cedar Key. (Called Depot Key, it had a small population because of the train depot .)
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.
Kayak Cedar Keys rents kayaks at the city beach and Atsena Otie is only a half mile away. 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 (better known as Tomyakker) 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 phone number for Kayak Cedar Keys is 352-543-9447 or 352-477-0438.)
Birding is tops on Cedar Key
The birding in the Cedar Keys is exceptional. Leibert says every island has an eagle nest (indeed we did see an eagle overhead) and 300 to 400 magnificent white pelicans winter here. In the summer, roseate spoonbills are common. The ultimate birding treat happens twice a year: The only flock of migrating whooping cranes in eastern American flies overhead to and from the Chassowitzka National Wildlife Refuge an hour south of here.
Had the weather been better, we would have explored by bike. The island, which is surrounded by picturesque salt marshes, has little traffic and beautiful views at the end of every street.
More things to do in Cedar Key
Do I need to tell you to watch the spectacular sunsets over the Gulf? Probably not, but after sunset, be sure to gaze at the night sky — Cedar Key has little light pollution and on a clear night, it’s dazzling.
The region around Cedar Key offers many good opportunities to hike in remote, little-visited areas.
Right off the road into town is the half-mile Trestle Trail, which follows the original railroad trestle out into the salt marshes.
A few miles further is the Cedar Key State Scrub Preserve with many miles of trails for hikers and mountain-bikers.
A few miles north of town is the road to the Shell Mound area of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. This area preserves a prehistoric Indian shell mound with two hiking trails. A fishing pier has spectacular Gulf views and is a good spot for bird watching.
If you’re a birder, you may want to book a trip with Captain Doug Maple and his Tidewater Tours. Captain Doug runs various trips with expert narration and local knowledge.
There are dozens of paddling destinations. Download a free and outstanding kayak trail guide to the region.
Cedar Key is also close to Manatee Springs State Park, a first-magnitude spring where manatees take refuge in cold weather and which can viewed via a waterfront boardwalk. It also has 8.5 miles of hiking trails.