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Florida as it was

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[Times photos: Maurice Rivenbark]
Islanders and visitors alike gather at the Captain’s Table restaurant and other waterfront spots to take in the sunset, which is usually acknowledged with a round of applause.

By JAN GLIDEWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000


Kick back and set a spell among the quirks and beauty of an old-timey Florida island. Cedar Key is a destination - and mind-set - unto itself.

CEDAR KEY -- It isn't that the growth monster that sometimes seems to be devouring Florida in massive gulps is ignoring Cedar Key. But it does nibble at a much slower place -- bearable for the island's 750-or-so permanent residents and all of its regular visitors.

Maybe this is because, as a former innkeeper here told me, " Nobody comes here by accident. It isn't on the way to anyplace."

Right. Chances are, if you were not headed to Cedar Key you would never get here.

You have to depart a barren stretch of U.S. 19 at a blinking traffic light, head west across more than 20 miles of pine forests and salt marshes -- at night the trip is accompanied by frogs croaking loudly enough to drown out a Harley-Davidson -- until you can't go any further without falling into the Gulf of Mexico. And here you are.

But the payoff is that, with a few exceptions, the view of the island community from the wraparound second-floor balcony at the Island Hotel looks pretty much the way it did 20 years ago.

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Sunlight traces patterns on the balcony of the Cedar Inn.

The sunsets, best viewed now from the large rear deck at the Captain's Table Restaurant, probably look the same as they did a thousand years ago.

And the island has gracefully handled the change from being in the cedar pencil business to tourism. People working in stores and shops, who are also usually the owners, are chatty and helpful.

" Have you seen the new bed and breakfast?" asks Margaret Brooks. With her husband, Brent, she owns the Harbour Master Hotel -- one of the better new things about the island. " They've just done wonders with that place," she confides to her guest just checking in.

When that praise is relayed to her, Lois Benninghoff, co-owner of the recently renovated Cedar Key Bed and Breakfast, smiles. " We're all on the island together," she says. " Chances are that if one of us is full, the other isn't. We try to keep each other full."

Accommodations can be hard to come by, especially during Cedar Key's two major events this year, the Sidewalk Arts Festival (April 15-16) and the Seafood Festival (Oct. 21-22). The good news is that high on anyone's list of advantages to Cedar Key has to be the cost of accommodations: You would be hard-pressed to spend more than $120 per night for a room for two here.

A room at the Island Hotel, complete with mosquito netting and, in some, a claw-foot, cast-iron bathtub -- goes for $110 most of the time. The penthouse, gulf-front suite at the Harbour Master, which sleeps six, has a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and goes for $100 per night most of the year.

And service is highly personalized. Hotel employees seem to remember your name even if you only get to the island once a year. During a recent visit when a female guest had forgotten her hair dryer, the owner of the Harbour Master dispatched a golf cart to her nearby home to bring back up her own dryer for the guest's use. Starting to get the picture?

Away from it all, happily

If you need multiscreen cinemas, shopping malls or a Wal-Mart, be prepared to make a day of it, coming and going.

But if you can make the psychological transition to island life, as it was on Key West 50 years ago -- before there was a Jimmy Buffett clone singing Margaritaville through the open door of every bar -- Cedar Key can take your mind where it needs to go.

Tell Pat Smith, a 54-year resident of this island, that you see a parallel between her Cedar Key Book Store, the nearby Yellow Door gourmet coffee shop and the setup of most Barnes & Noble bookstores, you will get a smile coupled with a gentle warning. " It is similar," says Smith, " except I don't invite you to come in and spill coffee all over my books."

There is no shortage of characters on Cedar Key. Genuine characters, not the Disneyfied brand found in most tourist areas.

For instance, a long-haired young man in the L&M Lounge tells a visitor one recent night: " We can tell as soon as somebody comes down the road whether they will last here, and we're never wrong."

He adds that he is the mayor of Cedar Key. He turns out to be one of three mayors of Cedar Key (none of them actually holding any office) drinking in that bar that night. Bob Cooper, the former bartender at the Island Hotel, now does a blues and acoustic guitar act at the Island Room Restaurant. This night he stops by a table to help a couple with a question about the author of a poem -- it is Robert Burns -- and then recites another couple of stanzas.

A new top dog in town

Food servers at the Island Hotel used to tell guests: " Take off your watch. Use this hot cloth to bathe your hands and face, sit back and enjoy the ambience. There isn't a telephone or a television set in your room, there is no place you have to be and nothing here that won't wait for you.

" We have no microwave and no deep-fat fryer, so we can give you your seafood any way you want it, except fried -- or fast."

A few deep breaths later you would realize the value of that and find nothing strange about the fact that the hotel's vice president in charge of public relations was not allowed in the restaurant or kitchen because he was a basset hound.

When new owners Tony and Dawn Cousins took over a few years back, Bernard the basset was replaced -- with Hannah, a german shepherd.

In its 141 years, the Island Hotel has also been a general store, vegetarians' retreat (during which the owner closed the bar and was immediately burned in effigy) and reputedly a brothel. A painting of Neptune in its cocktail lounge sports three bullet holes, souvenirs of rowdier times.

The place is reported to be haunted by at least two ghosts: That of former owner Bessie Gibbs, and that of an owner during Prohibition who was allegedly poisoned by his manager after discovering that the manager was making moonshine in the attic.

In the basement of the hotel is a bunker built by the owners and locals in the early 1960s when they feared that Fidel Castro, for some reason, would invade Cedar Key. They holed up in the sandbag bunker for several days with a large supply of canned food . . . and bottled beverages.

There's a yarn behind practically every building on Cedar Key. The Harbour Master was acquired four years ago by its current owners, who say it had been seized by U.S. marshals because it was involved in a drug-smuggling operation.

" When we bought it," said Margaret Brooks, " the glasses they were drinking whiskey out of when the (federal) raid happened were still sitting on the tables."

Right below one of the hotel's suites is Pat's Red Luck cafe, named after Red Luck, a smuggler who was trading with a French landowner near the Suwannee River in 1830. The two fell out over Red Luck's romance with the landowner's daughter, who fled with Red Luck after they learned from visiting fishermen that the father planned to harm him.

The legend is that Red Luck swore he would repay the fishermen's kindness and that his ghost and his ghost ship, the Lura Lou, still come to the aid of lost fishermen.

When you're watching the Coast Guard launching rescue boats into a sea fog, it is easy to believe the legend.

And, for the most part, those who come to the island for something other than the cuisine, the scenery and the stories, are coming for the fishing. Boat rentals are readily available and there is adequate marina parking for vehicles and trailers. Sightseeing cruises launch several times a day, including a special sunset offering, and dolphin sightings are almost a given.

How long will Cedar Key stay as unspoiled as it is? No one can say, but the island is at least partially protected by being one of 12 islands in a National Wildlife Refuge just off the main island. That designation gives the osprey, brown pelican, white ibis, egret and cormorant a safe place from which to make picture-perfect flights over returning fishing boats. Onshore, folks may even take notice as they cheer the setting of the sun.

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Commercial fishing and pleasure boating mix on Cedar Key; these boats are tied up near the bridge that crosses to the mainland.

If you go

mapGETTING THERE: Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico, is roughly 113 miles north of St. Petersburg on U.S. 19 -- about due west of Ocala. The island is about 20 miles west of the highway where it intersects with C.R. 24, at the community of Otter Creek.

WHAT TO DO THERE: The town has one state-operated museum and one operated by the Cedar Key Historical Society. Both are small, and the admission is $1. They have items and exhibits on the island's extensive American Indian background, some implements from pioneer life and exhibits specific to the fishing industry and the former cedar lumbering industry there. Atsena Otie Key is the site of the area's first known settlement, as well as a factory that made pencils from cedar trees -- hence the town's name -- and a sawmill. A nature trail leads to the cemetery. This key is accessible only by boat. Atsena Otie (a name you will see on menus and curios in island shops) is Creek Indian for " Cedar Island."

LIFE THERE: There are several small condominium complexes in Cedar Key but no high-rises. There are no medical facilities, physicians or pharmacies on the island. Most things in town are within walking distance. Rental bicycles and golf carts are also available. There is one taxicab service and a small airstrip but no buses.

Souvenir shops and mid-price art galleries ranching from the funky to the yuppified, are a mainstay of the business community.

The K-12 school system is the smallest in the state, with about 200 students. There are four churches in town, all Protestant, and one public park. The island has a public beach, but it is not a major attraction; few visitors plan their stay around swimming or sunbathing.

EATING THERE: There aren't any bad restaurants on the island, and prices range from the sublime (at a hot dog stand) to the moderately pricey. Dress is casual everywhere, but you would be comfortable dressed up at either the Island Hotel or the Island Room at Cedar Cove.

ALSO RECOMMENDED: The Brown Pelican and Captain's Table. For a different menu, try the Blue Desert, where spicy seafood specials and a cajun dish or two fill in nicely when you can't look at another fried shrimp.

STAYING THERE: Several small motels offer budget rates. Moderate rates (lower than similar-size places in most of Florida) are charged at the Dockside Hotel, (352) 543-5432. Near-luxury facilities, still at good prices, are the Cedar Cove, (800) 366-5312; Island Hotel, (800) 432-4640 (http://www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com; and Harbour Master Hotel, (800) 559-6327 (http://www.cedarkeyharbourmaster.com).

WHAT TO AVOID: No-see-ums, around for about an hour at dusk but very noticeable then.

Sticker shock at real estate prices: the area is becoming more desireable for second homes. Dinner at a couple of the higher-end eateries should get you used to nice round numbers. The Island is popular year-round although it tends to fill up more during the spring and summer months (now is prime-time for those who are into low room rates and no crowds).

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, (352) 543-5600, (http://www.cedarkey.org), is helpful and can provide complete information on lodging, dining, special events and recreational options.

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