As brilliant as a Technicolor sunset, a flock of roseate spoonbills take flight just ahead of us, filling the horizon with splashes of fuchsia and tangerine and a soundtrack of low, guttural grunts.
It was a breathtaking sight. These shore birds, known for their four-foot wingspan and oddly shaped bill, were once hunted almost to extinction. Hunters wanted them for their pink plumage and their wings, which were sold as souvenir fans to 19th-century tourists.
Now legally protected, the number of birds are growing, with an estimated 1,100 spoonbill pairs in Florida, according to Audubon Florida. We counted at least seven of the beautiful birds, seven more reasons to fall in love with Cedar Key, a nature lover's paradise that manages to stay off the beaten track without losing a hint of its funky charm.
Cedar Key, population upwards of 900 until the Canadian snowbirds descend, represents a slice of Old Florida. You won't discover it, unless you turn your back on the main road and head west. To get to Cedar Key, follow route 24 west until you think you're lost. It's located about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville in what's fittingly called the Nature Coast. Cross a bridge about 20 miles from the mainland, along a two-lane road dotted with mom-and-pop motels, produce stands and family-owned eateries. On the other side sits a friendly town that is sweet without a hint of preciousness.
Shambling bait shacks keep company with live oak trees. And a slightly raggedy downtown channels Mayberry after a bender. Along with a handful of vacant storefronts, the wonderful old Marina Hardware provides the place to go for waders, fishing advice, bug spray and copper tubing. A few boutiques, including the Deja Vu Consignment Shop, Dilly Dally Gally (get your Yankee Candles here!) and the Keyhole Artist Co-Op, showcase an impressive array of leather, pottery, art-to-wear and jewelry.
With the downtown quiet on a warm day in May, that was reason enough to duck into the cool dark confines of the historic Island Hotel. Friendly locals gather there and jaw about everything – from what fish are biting to their most recent costume choice for New Orleans' Krewe du Vieux Mardi Gras parade. That's the revelry that takes place 538 miles and light-years to the west of sleepy Cedar Key.
A string of waterfront bars and eateries, including the entertainingly named Pickled Pelican, sit out on a pier facing the vast Gulf. No doubt raucous doings occur when the town's population quadruples. We preferred heading out route 24 a spell to eat at Annie's, a ramshackle former juke joint. The restaurant's fans move the air and an army of strong women sling hash, usually in the form of fried seafood for lunch and tasty breakfast fare in the morning. The Blue Desert Café offers a leisurely option for dinner if you're not in a hurry. It serves such dishes as shrimp Alfredo and vegetarian lasagna made to order with fresh seasonal ingredients by chef/owner Therese Cavagnaro. She even comes out to chat with guests in between orders.
Once a bustling railroad and lumbering town with a thriving commercial fishing trade, Cedar Key still attracts those who fish. They cast from the town pier with dead serious focus. The laid-back key, a favorite haunt of Jimmy Buffet's back in the '80s, now claims clam farming as its main industry (largest clam farm in Florida!). If you're lucky, you can get 100 sweet littlenecks from Sandy's Produce for $15. It's a feast of tender bivalve goodness you won't soon forget.
Most folks stay in condos or cottages. These rentals provide kitchens so you can cook breakfast and fresh seafood and get comfortable. There are also a few B&Bs, the hotel downtown (historic, but with Wi-Fi) and some motels along the highway.
But do yourself a favor: Stay somewhere with a view. We could see the Gulf from our third-story condo. Our back view provided the most enchanting scene, with its boardwalk jutting out over tidal pools and mangroves, scrubby pines and mudflats revealed by the waning tide. That's when the birds would descend, the spoonbills and herons, snowy egrets, ibis and pelicans. Every morning and every night, we'd walk out to hear the tree frogs and cicadas and look at the stars.
Cedar Key is all about getting close to nature. You can kayak through tidal creeks and along the coastline dotted with picturesque wooded islands. Or bike through swaths of wilderness found in the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park and the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town.
If it's beach time you crave, there is a small town beach. But it's not much to speak of, certainly not in the same league as what you'll find heading northwest to Destin or Fort Walton Beach. Florida is home 825 miles of beautiful beaches, offering more time to tan than most of us have opportunity. But here, in Cedar Key, tides and tidal marshes rule time. Wildlife wins out over beach volleyball and surfing.
For some of us, that's just the way we like it.