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Unlocking the charm of Gulf's Cedar Key

Destination: Florida

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

The best part was the balcony, which looked directly down into the Gulf of Mexico and out toward Atsena Otie. We could see the pier to our right, pelicans sitting smugly atop pilings and a great blue heron waiting for an angler to throw a fishy snack. We sat briefly to enjoy our view of dolphins breaching and royal terns on the wing.

After unpacking, we set off for a drink at the Island Room Restaurant at Cedar Cove, a great place at sunset because of its expansive view of the water. We were feeling so relaxed in the airy bar that we decided to stay for dinner. (The Island Room and the Island Hotel are the two top restaurants in town.)

I had a smoked chicken ravioli appetizer and a main dish of grouper piccata. Nancy had littleneck clams in a white wine sauce with fettuccine. The food was fine, but the wild mushroom soup was outstanding: smoky, earthy and thick. I would have been satisfied with a huge bowl and the restaurant's crusty rolls.

Wowed by the roost

The next day we were ready for the sea, so we caught a tour aboard the Lady Pirate. Our boat mates were a fellow from St. Petersburg and a couple looking for a good beach on which to be married. Nancy and I intended to take the tour, then be dropped off at Atsena Otie for a few hours on the beach.

Our captain took us to Seahorse Key, where the University of Florida has marine labs and, more important, where hundreds of birds mate and nest. As he edged toward shore, we saw dozens of magnificent frigate birds, "littering the trees as if they were common crows," the captain noted. The birds are large and black, with deeply forked tails and enormous red neck pouches on breeding males. We barely noticed the immature bald eagle, ibises, cormorants and others crowded on the island.

Nancy and I were foolishly willing to brave summer mosquitoes to lounge on the beach at Atsena Otie Island, but a summer squall loomed. After a quick stop to admire the beach, sea oats and palms, we beat the rain back to Cedar Key and spent the rest of the day browsing galleries.

Cedar Key's artist-colony ambience is neither as bohemian as Silver Lake nor as upscale as Carmel but somewhere comfortably in between. Avoiding souvenir shops reeking of incense, we headed to two galleries on Dock Street, where we admired glassware and copper lamps at Sawgrass and linen clothing and jewelry at Suwannee Triangle.

Second Street, the town's main street, is the best place to browse and examine historic buildings. Cedar Keyhole and Island Arts carry a mix of oil paintings, mixed media, pottery, garden art and basketry. Natural Experience keeps odd hours but exhibits fine photography as well as wood sculpture.

Two museums can offer more background on the area. The Cedar Key State Museum displays the most complete Florida shell collection I've seen. The Historical Society Museum has artifacts dating from prehistoric peoples who lived here 11,000 years ago. The John Muir exhibit caught my eye. Yes, California's most famous early naturalist was here too. In 1867, less than two years before he saw Yosemite, Muir walked from Indianapolis to Cedar Key, where he recovered from typhoid fever. He wrote "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf" about that adventure and his time at Cedar Key.

That night we dined at the Island Hotel: soft-shell crab glazed with sherry, rich crab bisque and succulent fish en papillote, aromatic with East Indian spices. The hotel's hearts-of-palm salad lived up to its reputation as a novelty: crunchy hearts of palm and fresh fruit atop greens with a scoop of frozen dressing that combines vanilla ice cream, lime sherbet, mayonnaise and peanut butter. The dressing sounds weird but tasted so good we asked for the recipe.

The next day we went by Manatee Springs State Park. In winter, the park is one of the most reliable places in Florida to see manatees, the aquatic mammals that can grow to more than 3,000 pounds. Visitors can swim the crystalline spring waters, hike and bike along trails, check out the cedar swamp boardwalk and canoe into the Suwannee River -- as long as they keep a respectful distance from the gentle, endangered manatees.

Nancy and I stopped at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, whose headquarters lie on Route 347 about seven miles from Cedar Key. The refuge's nine-mile wildlife drive took us past pinelands and swamp but not much wildlife. Perhaps our timing was off.

Near dusk, we went to the Fourth Bridge to loll and watch birds. We saw great white egrets, little blue herons and a clutch of red-billed white ibises. A roseate spoonbill, dipping for dinner, swished its bill through the shallow water. Then it stopped, lifted its pink wings and flew into the gathering blue-gray night.

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Winging to the key

GETTING THERE:

From LAX: Delta and US Airways offer connecting service (change of planes) to Gainesville, about 60 miles northeast of Cedar Key. Restricted round-trip fares start at $447.

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