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Destination: Florida

Unlocking the charm of Gulf's Cedar Key

Vast, wild marshlands and an island of indolence prove to be fine nesting grounds for waterfowl and artists -- and tourists who appreciate both.

October 20, 2002|Michal Strutin | Special to The Times

Cedar Key, Fla. — "We came to Cedar Key from Tampa with an Audubon tour," said Connie Crane, an artist staffing the counter at the Cedar Keyhole gallery cooperative. "I saw a cat lying in the middle of the street nursing her kittens, and I said, 'Oh, that's the kind of town I want to live in.' " And now she does.

The former New Yorker is one of the painters, potters and photographers who have made this Florida city something of an artists' colony. A growing number of tourists has found it too, drawn by the quaint, off-the-clock town and the nearby national wildlife refuges and vast salt marshes teeming with fish and fowl.

Cedar Key is not the sort of place you stumble on. It's an island in the Gulf of Mexico, 20 miles from the nearest major highway and about 60 miles from the nearest airport, in Gainesville. It lies at the southern end of the Big Bend, where the state's panhandle makes a long arc down to the Florida peninsula.

In a state bursting with tourism, the Big Bend is one of the least visited areas, known for timber and cattle, not theme parks and golf resorts. But those who do venture here are rewarded with a taste of old Florida: Sinuous, watery channels part low marsh grasses undulating in the sea breeze, giving the landscape the look of a sensual jigsaw puzzle.

I've visited many times, most recently this summer when I fled with my friend Nancy Fischman from what had become a too-frantic summer at home in Tennessee. We had visions of palms and a lemon-yellow wash of sunlight on a turquoise sea, of pelicans sitting on piers and roseate spoonbills sifting through the shallows of a marsh.

As we approached Cedar Key on Route 24, the world slowed down. We passed a jumble of palms, bays, live oaks and red maples. Soon we could smell salt air. The forest ended, and a low bridge came into view, one of several connecting a cluster of islands to the mainland.

Pullouts here offer some of the best bird-watching in Cedar Key -- or anywhere in Florida. From both sides of the bridge, salt marshes stretch to the horizon. The shallow waters are a natural fish nursery and seafood supermarket, as rich in life as any habitat on Earth. At low tide, wading birds pluck fish, frogs and small crabs from the mud. Low tide also reveals the oyster bars that lie between land and water.

The first time I visited Cedar Key, in the mid-'90s, I was working on a nature book and decided to take my mother along for part of the journey. We reached the easternmost bridge, called the Fourth Bridge, and were compelled to stop when we saw herons, egrets, black skimmers and orange-billed oystercatchers. We explored Cedar Key for the day and were so taken with its waterfront and quaint historic center that I promised myself a return trip.

A couple of years later, while working on a book about Florida state parks, I stopped with my husband at Cedar Key's Island Hotel & Restaurant, built in 1859 and on the National Register of Historic Places. Our room's time-polished wood floors and four-poster bed swathed with mosquito netting put me in mind of a Humphrey Bogart movie, perhaps "Key Largo." The broad upper balcony fitted with rockers, the rattan-furnished lounge and the pale pink-and-white dining room cooled by ceiling fans all felt languid and tropical.

Back when the hotel was built, Cedar Key reigned as the premier port town on Florida's west coast. Ranchers and plantation owners shipped timber, beef, cotton and sugar cane down the nearby Suwannee River. After a railroad connected Cedar Key to the Atlantic Coast in 1861, the goods went out all along the Eastern seaboard.

Through the early 1890s, Cedar Key was chief supplier of pencil blanks for Eberhard Faber -- until the cedar ran out and a hurricane hit in 1896. The factories, on neighboring Atsena Otie Island, shipped pencils across the shallow channel to what is now Dock Street. Back then, Atsena Otie ("Cedar Key" in the language of Creek Indians) was where the town of Cedar Key and its industries lay. After the hurricane decimated everything on the island, the town moved to its present location. These days Atsena Otie is part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. You can boat out to the island, lie on the beach, bird-watch and hike.

Nancy and I stopped at Dock Street and its collection of seaworthy buildings. Built over water, the street is anchored by a broad pier where people cast for sea trout, redfish and flounder, and where tourists eat ice cream and watch pelicans. It's the place to be Saturday night. Live music pulsed from Frog's Landing the evening we arrived.

We had booked a room at Harbour Master Suites, next door to Frog's, and worried that the music would keep us awake. But Harbour Master's rooms are a couple of stories above the street and turned out to be quite private.

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