It's hard to believe that there are still hidden corners in Florida, a state I've criss crossed extensively. Yet, I just returned from Cedar Key that harks back to the Florida of maybe 50 years ago. But what was even more curious was that every single person I spoke with before my trip thought Cedar Key was part of the Florida Keys on the east coast. In fact, Cedar Key is on the west coast -- so, clearly, not part of the Keys. And given that there are no water parks, or beach resorts, and that it's one hour from Gainesville or two hours from Tampa, it's understandable why Cedar Key is off the radar.
The island of Cedar Key is one of 17 barrier islands, many of which are part of the pristine Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
Here's what I found and did:
1. Cedar Key is the farmed clam capital of the U.S. We enjoyed healthy, plump and juicy clams served in myriad ways
2. Kayaking along shallow salt marshes and marine estuaries
3. Plenty of bird watching possibilities, including shore birds like ibis, heron and egret
4. Bold sunsets that I never tired of watching
5. Roads where I rarely saw cars, making it perfect for renting a bike and pedaling around to the museums, old cemetery, petite landing strip and across the bridges linking four of the isles
6. Several state reserves, like the Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve, where I could walk sandy trails bordered by lush foliage and spy curious animal tracks
7. Wandering the town of Cedar Key to check out the arts and crafts shops where I talked with painters and sculptors
8. Taking a historic walking tour of the town that's dotted with buildings dating to the 19th century
My base for this five-day trip was the Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, a yellow pine, two story 19th century dwelling just steps from the water. Here I knew I had just stepped into another world when owner Alice Phillips greeted me saying "We don't lock our doors here." To a native New Yorker, this couldn't have sounded more alien. But every night we found the door to the inn's public rooms unlocked. There we could raid the ever-present cookie jar for chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies, M & Ms, or biscotti.
The town is oh, so walkable. So at night, we'd wander from dinner down the streets where everything shuts down at 9:30 pm to find our inn along a dark residential lane rimmed in tiny lights. What a welcome sight.
My room, the Honeymoon Cottage, one of the 7 rooms and 2 suites at this B & B -- was plenty quaint and comfy with thick bathrobes, a clawfoot tub, rose detailing, lace curtains and antique accoutrements.
But the key selling point of this room is the views of the garden with the 500-year-old live oak tree. As a New Yorker where views of nature are in short supply, I couldn't get enough of this one.
The backyard garden is where I spent much of my down time listening to the tinkling water fountain or watching the butterflies flitting about the blooming flowers. I often curled up with a book on the patio that fronts the backyard. And, despite the fact that the area drips with heat and humidity in the summer -- conditions I happen to love -- the patio was comfortable with its fans blowing a cooling breeze.
Every morning we were treated to fresh fruit salad, cinnamon raisin toast and bagels, yogurt and an ever-changing hot breakfast. The cream cheese omelet with chives was plenty flavorful. So was the French toast with nutmeg, and breakfast burrito with bacon and cheese. My favorite: the light-as-clouds pancakes. (I have a thing for pancakes that float off the plate; and these were so fluffy that I could've tied them down.)
The breakfast room, like the rest of the inn and Cedar Key in general, was like stepping back in time. An antique type phone and clock hung on the walls as did a framed set of the well-known Donax brushes that were made from local saw palmetto plants.
Alice and Bill, her husband and co-owner, keep a wall of DVDs, CDs and books to occupy anyone who can't find enough to do in and around the islands.
I spent five days here and I could've easily have spent another five or more. It's not every day that you find a warm, friendly place where the owners take such great care in providing their guests with everything they need for an enjoyable stay. They knew I'm very type A and I wanted to know everything there was to do and see and they didn't disappoint. They gave me the insider info on the best restaurant to eat chowder and who serves the best Key lime pie. They suggested who I should kayak with because I'm a novice kayaker as well as who gives one of the best boat tours in the area.
But even more important were the other guests who checked into the Cedar Key B & B. I rarely hold long conversations with guests at breakfast. But here I found people who were smart, interesting and welcoming who had a love of nature. And many of them had either been here before or, if not, they knew they'd return again. And I'll be one of them, too.