Eventually, on Cedar Key, you will get tired of fishing and need to wander back to land to find something to quench that thirst and get back all those burned calories. And then you’ll need a place to sleep. But first, take a stroll though the town’s historic district, much of which is currently — and very unfortunately — empty. There are several places on the strip that have photos of Cedar Key at its height, and it looks much the same. There are some art galleries, antique shops and souvenir stops along the way, but my favorite is the new Pyrate Isle Sauces, a small shop overflowing with any kind of hot sauce, BBQ sauce, salsa, spice rub, whatever you could imagine from all over the world. You can try most of them, too, but there is one special sauce made from the ghost chili that, according to the owner, you can only try if you sign a waiver. Definitely a must stop-and-buy-something; we bought some jerk rub and headed to Robinson’s Seafood Market (about 8 miles up the road in Sumner) for raw shrimp and made a meal of peel’n'eat shrimp back at our rented cottage.
For the best beer and wine selection in town, head over to Black Dog Bar and Tables, a British pub with an identity complex. Its ceilings are low, its furniture is rustic and worn, its accents are dark and brooding. But it also has a tiki bar, plenty of thatched roofing outside and a view of the tropical ocean beyond. For the beer list, head over to the long row of refrigerators and pick your poison from shelves and shelves of brews from all over the world. For the wine list, it’s better to just ask the bartender, who can direct you to something you’ll like. Wine is mostly by the bottle, though if you ask, they will find something by the glass for you. They don’t serve any food, but they do have a nice selection of cigars instead, and beware: this place can get smokey (though house cigars are the only thing you’re allowed to smoke inside). They also have a selection of records strewn throughout the bar, and visitors can pick from 100 years of music; hand your choice to the bartender, and he’ll stick it on the record player for you.
For food, most people head away from the docks to the second street of downtown. The Island Hotel is an historic building, built in 1859, that has been home to a general store, the Union Army during the Civil War, a customs house, a boarding house and brothel, and Jimmy Buffett. The restaurant serves good (if pricey) food in a great, 19th-century atmosphere, and the Neptune Bar — a tiny thing with heavy wood accents and a small beer selection — is very popular with the semi-local boating crowd. The restaurant serves largely fresh seafood dishes, but there is something for everyone, and the bar has an eclectic bar menu that’s worth a try. The 10 rooms there range from $80 – $135 (on par with much of Cedar Key’s accommodations), and they are quaint and romantic. The hotel is also rumored to be haunted by no fewer than 13 different ghosts, so be on the lookout.
Tony’s is famous for its clam chowder, and since opening their doors in 2005, they have won numerous awards for their creamy seafood concoction. A lot of their food is fried and a little pricey, but the restaurant is located in a beautiful old building, and the inside feels just like the outside: almost as if you’ve stepped into a bayou bar in Louisiana. Definitely try the chowder for lunch or dinner.
Kona Joe’s, up Route 24 near 6th Street, offers good coffee, excellent ice cream, various pastries, tasty smoothies and some breakfast items. Stop in for breakfast and enjoy the morning out on the wrap-around deck
But if you want the views, head to the fairly new Steamers Clam Bar. Many of their dishes are fine (the lobster mac & cheese is tasty but extremely rich, the peel and eat shrimp are not worth it, and the oysters are only seasonal, so be sure to ask if they have them), but they are really known for their clam pots: a pound of clams steamed in different sauces. Highly recommended. They also serve good tropical drinks and have Swamp Head (a local Gainesville brewery) on tap. Try to grab one of the three outdoor tables on the patio with excellent views of the Gulf.
Big Deck Raw Bar is right across the street on the canal, and it offers dog-friendly, open-air seating and live music on weekends. The grouper sandwich is good, and they offer seasonal seafood. It’s definitely laid back with a Gulf Island feel, and it’s always packed with boaters. Ken’s Cedar Keyside Diner, just down the street, is supposed to be a great place for breakfast and also has great views, though we didn’t get the chance to try it out. A local favorite.
There is a small market in town that sells all the basics, as well as some weird ingredients, and they make good pre-cooked ribs, chicken and smoked mullet. But it is fairly pricey, so I would recommend catching supplies at one of the supermarkets in Gainesville before heading into town. This is the kind of town that when one person heads to the City, he takes orders from all friends and neighbors.
Most people visiting the island either own a timeshare or rent a condo in one of the many ugly-yet-ocean-front condominium complexes in the city. Conveniently located and brilliantly uninspired, many of these places can be booked directly with the owners through websites like VRBO. They vary in price and quality, but many have great views. Old World luxury can be found at The Island Hotel, mentioned above. For the more budget-minded, try heading just out of the downtown area to Pirate’s Cove Cottages. Rooms are clean and come with small kitchens, and the hotel has grills, a dock and a canoe you can use for free. You also get a 10% discount if you pay in cash, which is handy.
Another good choice is Low Key Hideaway nearby. This adults only place has both seaside cottages and RV lots (starting at $100 and $35, respectively) and also serves up fun drinks in its oceanfront tiki bar. It gets rave reviews and is considered by travelers to be one of the best budget buys in the country. The owners used to be full-time RVers, and they love to sit and swap stories with their guests.
Whatever your preference for food, drink or sleep, you’re never far from salt water, and the air for 50 miles all around smells like seafood. It’s a quiet destination for a vacation, where most people would rather do something outdoorsy and active than sit on a beach, but you’ll find plenty of people with plenty of stories drinking plenty of drinks in this old world, laid back, rough-around-more-than-the-edges fishing village.
Note: Tropical Storm Debbie ravaged the Gulf Coast in June 2012, and some of the docks were swept to sea and much of Dock Street (the touristy Downtown area along the coast) was closed and damaged.