And the price was right. We found a $540 Jet Blue JFK/Tampa round-trip and a $600 six-night rental of a waterfront house on Cedar Key that had a wraparound deck, screened-in porch, and great views from all rooms.
Cedar Key is a sleepy islet, part of a string of twelve or so, across a short bridge in the Gulf of Mexico. About 2-1/2 hours north of Tampa, it’s an easy trip if you take Route 589 from the airport. Otherwise, expect lots of traffic lights, which provide ample time to take in the signs for personal injury lawyers, wholesale trailer parts, and Hooters as you stop and go along Route 19. If you want to fit in, save your Lily Pulitzer for your next trip to Palm Beach and pack camouflage gear.
The first day of our trip to Cedar Key we visited my sister who was carriage driving at the Black Prong Equestrian Center in Bronson, about a half hour east into Florida’s interior. She took us for A+ burgers at Willard’s, where alligator hunters come to play pool after a hard day.
Cedar Key has more fishermen than alligator hunters, since, in addition to tourism, farming clams is the primary industry of this community of 650 to 900. These hard-shelled clams, which are shipped throughout the Northeast, are the main culinary attraction of Cedar Key.
In fact, the New England-style clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant is a two-time world champion at the Annual Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, Rhode Island. Very flavorful and full of clams, it was served with a choice of sides (I selected fried oysters and baked beans ) and tested my loyalty to all things Maine.
Oysters, blackened grouper, smoked mullet (delicious in a dip home made at Robinson’s Seafood), andouille sausage, omelets stuffed with fresh crab (Cook’s Cafe), and key lime pie (best at the Island Hotel Restaurant) were all fantastic. Otherwise, I fussed a bit about “everything being fried or sautéed in butter.”
But wildlife viewing was the chief attraction of this trip and we were amply rewarded.
After all, it was on Cedar Key during a three-month recuperation from malaria that John Muir had the epiphany that nature is valuable for its own sake, not only because it is useful for man.
In fact, my stated goal for the trip was to kayak with the manatees. We rented kayaks at Crystal River Kayak Company and paddled directly out from their docks past Three Sisters Spring to Kings Bay, where we began to look for manatees around Buzz Island. Locals had lowered our expectations because it was late in the season. But I soon spotted some of the so-called sea cows surfacing for air.
Unlike the dolphins we saw another day, the manatees seemed to enjoy our company and we paddled with a group of six of them for almost an hour. There were a few exciting moments, as shown on this video, that reminded me that manatees weigh between 800 and 1200 pounds.
Birds also captured our interest. Through the tripod-mounted binoculars in our living room we could see Great Egret, White Ibis, Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, and Osprey, which had built a giant nest on a nearby house. Great sightings – including Bald Eagle and White Pelican – continued when we took a boat cruise with Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours. In addition to loons and cormorants on the water and kildeer, whimpets, sanderlings on beaches, I spotted dolphins, as we toured around the islets that John Muir said looked “like a clump of palms, arranged like a tasteful bouquet, and placed in the sea to be kept fresh.”
Back at the dock I watched the cormorants spread their wings to dry and bought a Smithsonian handbook on the birds of Florida.
Captain Doug also shared some Cedar Key history. It had been a thriving commercial center in the late 1800s after David Levy (the first member of the U.S. Senate to have been a practicing Jew and after whom the county is named) built a cross-peninsula railroad and before a major hurricane, rampant lumbering, and competition reversed its good fortune. Today, as I said, fewer than a thousand people live there.
But the live-oak dripping moss are still there. And, as John Muir said, “The climate of these precious islets is simply warm summer and warmer summer…”
You can visit natural fresh water springs.
And take home suitcases of conch shells and memories of Old Florida.