Summertime is almost here which means vacation season is just around the corner. With gas prices continuing to be unpredictable, more Floridians are looking for places to get away on a budget.
Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’ve had an ongoing love affair with the Florida Keys. I’ve spent many vacations in Key West, Islamorada, Key Largo and Marathon. But for those of us who live in Central Florida, traveling up to eight hours to reach the nation’s southernmost point isn’t always feasible. Many of us just don’t have the extra income to spend on expensive rooms and pricy meals. Factor in the price of gasoline and venturing south becomes less of an option for “Vacation 2011.”
But what if I told you there’s a more affordable option to the Florida Keys about a two hour’s drive north of Tampa? An idyllic fishing village with fewer tourists, friendly locals, tasty seafood, affordable accommodations and tons of recreational activities? Add to that gorgeous water views at every turn and unrivaled sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
Got your attention?
With a population of just under a thousand people, Cedar Key sits just a few miles off the Florida mainland in rural Levy County. Cedar Key seems isolated from the rest of the world. No interstates serve the area. In fact, the small town is mainly accessible by a 30-minute drive down a two-lane roadway, State Road 24. But the isolation is what makes Cedar Key quaint and less of a tourist draw than many other places in Florida.
I got to know the small island pretty well recently during a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. From a day relaxing on the water to exploring the great little shops and restaurants, Cedar Key has something for everyone. Here are a few of my recommendations.
History: Cedar Key Museum State Park – It can take a few minutes to find and it might not look like much when you first pull up, but the Cedar Key Museum State Park is a good place to start if you’re interested in learning about the town’s intriguing past. Exhibits inside the main building highlight Cedar Key’s early human occupation dating back to 500 BC. Outside are artifacts from the Civil War and a nature trail. A house that once belonged to local historian St. Clair Whitman can be toured for a nominal fee and depicts Florida life during the 1920s.
Touring: Island Hopper Boat Tours – This is the absolute best way to see the islands surrounding Cedar Key and to learn about the area from a colorful local. Five of us boarded a small boat with Captain Fred and headed to a deserted island to collect sea shells. And when I say “deserted,” I mean it. We were the only ones there. At times, we felt like contestants on “Survivor” — it was that real. The only difference…our boat was nearby and we didn’t have to eat any rice. After snatching up a bag full of shells, Captain Fred showed us around the other islands while pointing out tons of wildlife and keeping us entertained with funny stories. This was the highlight of the trip and shouldn’t be missed! Daytime tours start at $25 a person.
Food: The Pickled Pelican – There are plenty of great restaurant choices along Dock Street. But the place we kept going back to was a fairly new restaurant called the Pickled Pelican. With a clean, modern interior and a wraparound deck overlooking the Gulf on the outside, the Pickled Pelican can’t be beat for ambiance. The menu is extensive with everything from seafood and salads to burgers and wraps. I ordered sandwiches twice. Why? Because each sandwich is made with a large, mouth-watering pretzel roll, my favorite. Meals are inexpensive, ranging between 8 and 12-bucks.
Shopping: Beauty by the Yard – Artist Tonya Spong operates this little gallery space in the heart of downtown Cedar Key. Featuring mostly Spong’s work and that of her son, they make beautiful concrete and sand sculptures that you wouldn’t be afraid to put on your front lawn. They recycle everything here, including oyster nets, and use their artistic vision to make some wonderful one-of-a-kind pieces.
Accommodations: Low Key Hideaway – Remember the old roadside motels that dotted Florida’s highways and byways more than 30 years ago? Many of those places have been brought back to life in Cedar Key, and usually with a modern twist. I stayed at the Low Key Hideaway on one of the smaller islands leading to the downtown area. This brightly-painted motel is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. With just five rooms, the Low Key is about as low key as it gets. From the outside, the rooms look as though they would be standard-size motel rooms. However, inside, the rooms are actually tastefully decorated suites with a living area, kitchen and large bedroom. While the bathrooms are a tad on the small side, the room itself was spotless and clean. The real selling point for the Low Key is the back of the property which overlooks the water. I wasted away many hours lounging in the hammock and swing. The owners tend a fully-stocked tiki bar at the end of a rustic dock where guests can take in the gorgeous sunsets. During some seasons, rooms can be reserved for just under $100 a night. The Low Key Hideaway is so good that you never want to leave. If I had brought a few more things, I would have moved in.