Quaint, charming, authentic - all of these descriptions popped into our minds as we crossed the bridge onto Cedar Key. The locals like to call it the "Island That Time Forgot," and it certainly does have an endearing, timeless character.
While it is a key, and it is in Florida, it sits just off the coast in the northeast corner of the Gulf of Mexico, clear across the state from the well-known chain of islands down south. This location has given the island a personality that is much different from that more famous archipelago, much more Gulf Coast than Caribbean.
To soak up some sun while surveying the sights, and since everything is within easy riding distance, we mounted our trusty bikes and set out to explore. We brought ours with us, but for those who don’t happen to have a bicycle in their luggage, there are rentals available, as well as golf carts for the non-pedal pushing set.
A quick stop at the Chamber of Commerce gave us all the info we needed to plan our sightseeing. They recommended beginning at the Cedar Key Historical Society on Second Street, in the heart of the Historic District, the perfect place to get the lowdown on the background of the key.
In the 1800s, the island was a supplier of wood from its namesake cedar trees, which was used to make pencils. But a huge hurricane in 1896 wiped out most of the trees and the island looked to the sea, fishing and oyster farming, to support the economy. After the oyster beds were exhausted, and a state ban on net fishing took effect, Cedar Key became all about the clams. Sounded good to us, we were more than happy to clam up.
How handy that Tony's Seafood Restaurant, the three time winner of the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, Rhode Island, was just down the street. After three titles in a row it was decided that their chocked full o’ clams chowder may have been too good to be fair, so the recipe was retired into the Great Chowder Cook-off Hall of Fame. That way someone else could have a chance at the crown. The world champion is still served up at Tony’s though, and canned to take home too. No need to look at a menu, just bring us two steaming bowls please.
All those clams must come from somewhere, and a bunch of them are from Southern Cross Sea Farms. They are one of the few clam hatcheries in the state and give fascinating tours showing the entire process of breeding, growing, and harvesting clams almost every day.
Our group began by looking through a microscope at a seemingly ordinary drop of water. To everyone’s amazement the lens revealed thousands of newly hatched clams, perfect microscopic replicas of their parents - shells and all - living in that single drop. They, and millions of their close relatives, will develop into "seeds" that are sold to "farms" all over the country, or "planted" in the waters just off Cedar Key. After a couple of years spent growing in the gulf, the clams are brought in, sorted by size, and sold by the hundreds to hungry seafood lovers.
We didn’t feel up to devouring a hundred clams, but we were ready to consume a few more, so off we pedaled to the bevy of restaurants on the waterfront. Dock Street is the place to be when the sun starts sinking low. We grabbed a waterside table on the deck overlooking the gulf and ordered a sundowner and something on the half shell.
A perfect way to end the day.
Do you have any favorite little known beach hideaways?