Barely a mile out into the Gulf of Mexico, clammer Bobby Witt throttles down the Mudrunner for an unexpected treat. Gulf waters around us are suddenly roiling with dolphins, blowholes spouting, dorsal fins cutting through the surface like swift black knives.
“Looking for mullet,” explains Witt, the captain on Capt. Bobby’s Cedar Key Clam Tour. “When the dolphins find the mullet they form a kind of circle and slap at the water to stir the fish. Adults go crazy, their kids stay out of the way.”
OK, this is the most frenzied action I’ve seen in 24 hours on Cedar Key where the pace is so slow I’m not sure the tide bothers coming in.
A group of visitors looking for another side of Cedar Key has joined Capt. Bobby in boating out to underwater farmlands just offshore. There, Witt and locals like him farm clams on the seafloor, a thriving industry here on northwest Florida’s Nature Coast.
In fact, the two main industries in Cedar Key are harvesting shellfish and visitors. Except the visitors aren’t coming for crowded beaches, seaside golf resorts, chain hotels or a nonstop pace. They are coming for an all-but-forgotten Florida.
Three miles from mainland Florida, accessible by bridges and measuring all of 2.1 square miles, the town of Cedar Key is so isolated that just when you think State Road 24 must have been a wrong turn, the pine forest gives way to salt marshes, tidal creeks and mangrove-fringed bays. It’s a world apart from busy Gainesville, about an hour’s drive to the northeast.
“Welcome to Cedar Key,” says the sign. “Producer of USA’s FARM RAISED CLAMS.”
Second Avenue, anchoring the downtown historic district, comes into view, and beyond that, the restaurants, shops and bars along the more tourist-active Dock Street, which fronts the Gulf. You won’t find much beach here but you will find locals fishing from the public pier, which extends out into the water from Dock Street.
“Redfish, catfish, some drum,” says one angler of his catches. “Mostly I catch sunburn.”
A statewide net ban in 1994 crippled commercial fishing in Cedar Key, ending a way of life on the barrier islands. Ever resourceful, fishermen like Capt. Bobby retrained themselves in clamming. A whole aquaculture took wing and Cedar Key again is connected to the sea. Now taking its place among the nation’s leading suppliers of farm-raised clams, Cedar Key the town is reborn and revitalized. Clamelot.
But the village never regained its fishing industry, and beyond the popular and locally farmed clams and oysters, seafood that once came in by the boatload to local docks now more likely got here on Sysco trucks.
Cedar Key (pop. 900) is bygone Florida with its easy way of life, charming 19th century architecture, an abundance of migratory and shore birds, beautiful unspoiled bays and bayous, spectacular sunsets — and sunrises. Its plethora of natural habitats makes this a nature lover’s paradise and a haven for artists and writers.
For 19 years, Alberta Harris and her husband have made it their escape from the Tampa area. “We decompress when we come here,” says Harris, a retired professor, over happy hour cocktails at the Neptune Lounge at the historic Island Hotel. “People that come here, they’re not beach people. They’re here for a relaxing time.”
Steps from the Cedar Key Cemetery (1886), a boardwalk invites a quiet stroll skirting the waters of a back bayou, above marshlands where not only egrets and other wading birds may be seen but, high in the treetops, bald eagles in a nest the size of a VW Beetle.
A very good history museum and an 1880s house relocated to museum grounds trace Cedar Key’s past in art, artifacts, replicas and more. Doors relocated here from the old Maddox Theatre (1920) lead to the galleries.
Once a bustling railroad and lumbering town, Cedar Key enjoyed boomtown status producing fiber for brooms and brushes from the cabbage palm. Also, its once abundant red cedar trees fed wood for pencil factories. Before its last breath in 1932, the trans-Florida Railroad from Fernandina had its western terminus here.
On half-day or full-day charters with licensed guides, tourists can fish the local waters for game fish or bottom fish. Golf carts may be rented for tooling around, even out to a shell mound archaeological site. Or you can sign up to rent a boat, canoe or kayak. Birding, hiking, biking and nature trails are popular.
Meantime, Cedar Key just saunters along, ever defined by the sea. “No chain places, no big developments,” says Harris, at the Neptune Lounge. “The big conversation is who caught the fish for the fish dip.”
WHERE TO STAY
Nothing says sleepy Cedar Key quite like the 10-room Island Hotel, a well-weathered charmer. Built in 1859 as a general store and post office and said to be haunted, the old inn boasts seashell tabby walls and oak beams, sloping wood floors and a comfy, old slippers feel. Newfangled distractions of phones and TVs won’t be found (but mercifully central air will). The Wi-Fi seems to kick in when it wants to. Rocking chairs invite chillin’ on the second-floor balcony, and there’s the cozy Neptune Lounge anchored by a huge mural of King Neptune, god of the seas (shot up with a few bullet holes from the inn’s rowdier past). 373 Second St., Cedar Key; 352-543-5111 or 800-432-4640; www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com.
Scattered around town are efficiencies, guest houses, cottages, condos and motels. A special find was Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, a lace-curtained house dating to 1880 and done up in ice cream colors steps from the Gulf waters. Innkeeper Alice Phillip Oakley serves up breakfast in a sunlit verandah overlooking the backyard. 810 Third St., Cedar Key; 352-543- 9000; www.cedarkeybedandbreakfast.com.
WHAT TO EAT
From fresh donuts at the Holey Moley to the dinner entrees and homemade desserts that chef Kim Cash creates at the Island Hotel to everything in between, there are bountiful choices.
The Island Room at Cedar Cove plates pastas, steaks and seafood, including killer Oysters Rockefeller. 192 Second St., Cedar Key; 352- 543-6520; www.islandroom.com.
Gulf-side on Dock Street, chef Jordan Keeton serves up sea views with his seafood specialties — downstairs at his casual 83 West and upstairs at the fancier 29 North. Order the starter of mullet dip with fried saltines. Entrees include a blackened Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage with Anson Mills cheese grits. 310 Dock St., Cedar Key; 352-543-5070; www.83westcedarkey.com.
Up an old wooden blue staircase on Dock Street is Steamers. Cedar Key steamed clams and farm-raised oysters on the half shell get raves. Cedar Key clams may be savored steamed, roasted, grilled or raw. 420 Dock St., Cedar Key; 352-543-5142; steamerscedarkey.com.
Duncan’s on the Gulf, “where the elite eat in their bare feet,” is fun for waterside drinks, dining and breakfast with the locals. 490 Dock St., Cedar Key; 352-543-8004.
Roadside and endearingly ramshackle, Annie’s Café hugs a back bayou on SR 24. Annie is long gone but her great granddaughter Glenda Richburg works a mean grill. Fresh soft shell for her crab cakes is locally caught or Glenda will drive four hours to source it from the seafood markets of Carrabelle, Florida. Take a table in the screened porch or on the outdoors deck, above the water, order your fish sandwich blackened, grilled or fried with a side of homemade cole slaw and you’re as local as local gets. State Road 24 and Sixth Street, Cedar Key; 352-543-6141.
No visit is complete without having the clam chowder and a cold brew at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant, a Cedar Key institution on Second Avenue. Rich, creamy and seasoned to perfection, with generous and deliciously chewable chunks of clams, Tony’s is a steaming bowl of Cedar Key love. 597 Second St, Cedar Key; 352-543-0022; www.tonyschowder.com.
In her second 13-year stint as chef at the Island Hotel, Kim Cash keeps it simple with kitchen staff. “Be proud of your plates,” she says. Escargot she offers uniquely in a cream cheese, garlic, dill and honey sauce. Beef filets she hand-cuts and cooks “Pittsburgh-style,” crusty with seasonings. Sauteed artichoke hearts with scallops, shrimp and mushrooms with a shot of sherry in rich white wine and butter sauce is her signature dish. Cash regularly drives 30 miles to Chiefland to get her produce. Her plot in the community garden surrenders parsley, green onions, Italian kale, Swiss chard and tarragon for her balsamic vinaigrette.
For a unique Cedar Key adventure, hop aboard the workboat of clammer Bobby Witt to visit a working clam farm. Capt. Bobby takes visitors on fun and informative excursions that follow the backcountry bayous and pass the mudflats behind town out into the Gulf.
In the Gulf shallows, marked by white poles delineating each farmer’s parcel leased from the state of Florida, bags of shellfish lie flat, placed in rows like crops on the seafloor. For Capt. Bobby and others who make their living off clamming, each bag is buried treasure. Every year, millions of bagged clams that have grown to maturity in these algae-rich waters are hauled up, cleaned up and shipped to Costco, Publix and other major clients across the country.
Capt. Bobby explains the months-long, painstaking clamming process — from mite-sized baby clams or “seeds” in the hatchery to their final grow-out stage, ready for market. You can witness the winching to the surface of the submerged clam bags, even help out as the bagged bivalves are transferred to plastic buckets. Excursions of Capt. Bobby’s Scale Key Clams are 2-3 hours and cost $50 per person. 352-212-2555.