Tucked away on the Gulf Coast lies a little archipelago that's rich with Old Florida culture, unspoiled islands, and more clams than you'll know what to do with.

By Jonathan Miles
March 15, 2018
Gately Williams

"Whatever you do, please," my fishing guide is telling me as we cast for speckled trout in the vivid Florida sunshine, "just don't go calling Cedar Key "the place that time forgot.""

It's writerly advice, for this story, and I'll abide by it. But the fact that he feels compelled to issue it says a lot about Cedar Key—a smidge of a town (population 700) on that woolly stretch of Gulf Coast between Tampa and Apalachicola known as the Big Bend. Time did not forget little Cedar Key, of course; the clocks still run. But real-estate developers have, for the most part, which is why the place feels like such a throwback: a glorious speck of Old Florida with all its salt-crusted beauty and fishing-village funk still intact.

Piers new and old; Tiki Bar at Low-Key Hideaway Motel
Gately Williams

On the map it resembles a Rorschach test, an amalgam of green and blue splotches, and from the ground it's not much different. Surf and turf intermingle so thoroughly here as to compose a single, undefined entity. One of its four main islands, Way Key, sits about three miles out in the Gulf, surrounded by more than three dozen smaller islands and connected to the mainland via a scenic causeway. Every road, like almost every activity here, begins and ends at the water.

That's where I commence my exploring, renting a kayak for a late-day paddle to a formerly inhabited island called Atsena Otie Key, half a mile off Way Key. Now part of the 891-acre Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, Atsena Otie Key was the site of a thriving lumber town; an 1896 hurricane, however, blew away most of the island's human traces. A few still remain, including a cemetery, accessible via a pleasant network of trails. (Exponentially more pleasant, I should add, if you're wearing mosquito repellent.) There's a narrow beach here, an anomaly in this salt-marsh section of Florida, and I have it mostly to myself—another Florida rarity. After I'm properly roasted, and as the sun begins to set, I start paddling back to town, the sky and calm water trading colors until they're almost indistinguishable. I feel I've left the Earth and entered a watercolor painting.

Cedar Key curb appeal; a colorful cottage
Gately Williams

The town's charm, while exuberant, is scraggly. Ancient crab traps sit stacked in front yards. A local boutique advertises wine, art, and ammo, while a handmade sign offers "Fine Art and Smoked Mullet." With its tilted, salt-weathered buildings, the main commercial district—a one-block stretch of knickknackeries and restaurants known as "the Dock"—evokes the setting of Robert Altman's Popeye. Stray cats stroll down the center of streets unconcerned, since half of the traffic on those streets is golf carts despite there being no golf courses within 20 miles. And when checking in at the Island Hotel, Cedar Key's oldest and most lionized place to lodge, you can't help but notice a sign advising you to push a button for the complaints department. The button is a mousetrap. Yet the hotel, constructed in 1859 with 10-inch-thick tabby walls, also features claw-footed tubs and a wraparound veranda with gleaming white rocking chairs positioned for taking in the sea breeze. It's got a cockeyed elegance.

The Neptune Bar; clams and Cedar Key's famous Heart of Palm Salad at Island Hotel & Restaurant
Gately Williams

It also houses the town's only restaurant aspiring to fine dining, as well as the Neptune Bar—so-called for the massive circa 1948 painting behind the bar of the mythical King Neptune, looking deeply satisfied as a nearby mermaid empties the contents of a conch shell into a martini glass. Not every one-square-mile locale boasts a local delicacy, but Cedar Key does, and it originated here seven decades ago: the Heart of Palm Salad. The main ingredient is the core of a local sabal palm tree that residents call "swamp cabbage," but it's the scoop of frozen dressing that gets all the attention. What goes into that dressing is almost comically Florida kitsch—vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, lime sherbet, and mayonnaise. Yet what it does to the heart of palm, as it melts, is both mysteriously delicious and improbably refined. Your first reaction may be to laugh, but your second is to clean your damn plate.

Fishing guide Tracy Collins; small-boat regatta
Gately Williams

Also on the menu—here, and at every other restaurant in Cedar Key—are clams, hardly a Gulf Coast staple. I get the skinny on that the next morning, when I head out to fish for more Gulf catch—speckled trout and redfish—with a third-generation charter guide and Cedar Key native named Tracy Collins. "No one ate a clam here 20 years ago," Collins tells me. "Clams were what people up in New Jersey ate." But after Florida voters banned gill netting in 1995—putting some fishermen out of work and forcing others to seek supplemental sources of income—some of those fishermen embraced a federal training program in shellfish aquaculture. Cedar Key is now a major producer of clams nationwide, raking in more than $34 million annually and putting New England–style chowder on every Cedar Key menu.

This represents a typical pattern in Cedar Key's life story: boom, bust, boom. As the town's two museums (one on Second Street, the other out a ways at a state park) make clear, Cedar Key may emit a sleepy vibe, but its history has been anything but easy. In the late 1800s, Cedar Key was in a boom phase, milling and shipping large amounts of cedar slats, but by the turn of the century the cedars were gone, and thanks to a hurricane that wiped out the mills, much of the populace disappeared, as well.

Collins is adding splashes of color to this history as he pilots his 18-foot flats boat through the byzantine waterways. We slip past shell mounds and oystermen, who balance upright in boats as they pince the seafloor with 12-foot tongs. "Over to the left," he says, "is what we call Candy Island. When I was a kid we used to go there all the time, because the island was full of mango trees and plum trees. Pioneers came out here and they tried everything. A freeze finally killed them, but they lasted years. "

Sunset in the Keys
Gately Williams

Back at the hotel, on that wide veranda, I'm reveling in the quietude and reading some John D. MacDonald—the famed writer of the Travis McGee mysteries, forever linked to Cedar Key thanks to a Jimmy Buffett lyric—when the two activities converge, as if by some enchanted spell. MacDonald is explaining how Old Florida's silences aren't silent at all: "Wind in the pines, wind in the saw grass, wind across the water," he writes. "The tree toads, insects, tiny hungry whine of mosquito. Life all around you, flourishing in the sub-tropics, greedy, restless, proliferating." It's the sound of time passing, but ever so very slowly.

A Brief History, Written in Pencil

In 1849, German pencil-maker J. Eberhard Faber went looking for splinter-free wood. He found just the thing—Eastern red cedar—in the Cedar Keys, and by 1858 he'd built a mill on Atsena Otie Key and a pencil factory in Manhattan. The Eagle Pencil Company followed in 1876, putting more local cedar into Americans' hands. Two decades later, a hurricane wiped out the E. Faber's Pencil Mill; a huge cedar now grows above the ruins.

Related: Perfect Weekend in St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida

Get Here
Cedar Key is 130 miles north of Tampa International Airport and 145 miles northwest of Orlando International Airport.

Stay Here
With 10 rooms full of personality (and minus the distrations of television and telephones), a rocker-blessed balcony, and the redoubtable Neptune Bar at its heart, the Island Hotel & Restaurant is a cultural treasure. Rates start at $90; islandhotel-cedarkey.com.

Eat (Clams) Here
The Island Hotel & Restaurant does up the local delicacy with wine and herbs, while Steamers Clam Bar & Grill steams a pound of them in wine and garlic. (You can also score local Pelican Reef oysters on the half shell here.) Tony's is a little dinette that serves award-winning clam chowder. For breakfast, Holey Moley Donuts & More has quirky doughnuts and excellent biscuits-and-gravy.

Play Here
Explore the area via kayak with rentals from Kayak Cedar Keys (kayakcedarkeys.com) and Cedar Key Paddling, which also rents fishing tackle; cedarkeypaddling.com. For anglers, Saltwater Outlaw Charters Capt. Tracy Collins leads fishing trips on local flats and backwaters, and offshore. Rates start at $250; 352/843-4067.