If avoiding touristy hotspots in favor of off-the-beaten-path destinations is your goal, then Cedar Key may be the vacation spot you're looking for.
Just a 2.5-hour drive north of Tampa International Airport, Cedar Key is a quaint, quirky and secluded fishing village located on the largest of a cluster of 30 small islands just off the west coast of Florida.
This isn't a place that shows up on most Florida travel itineraries, but it's perfect for anyone who needs to relax.
Secluded Cedar Key is surrounded by unspoiled nature — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
The crowds are thinner; the pace is slower; and visitors are encouraged to sit back and enjoy doing not much of anything. Friendliness has been elevated to an art form here, and the biggest risk for travelers is that they may develop tennis elbow from waving hello.
But if you must do something, there's a lot to do, especially for nature-lovers, history buffs, boaters and fishermen.
The best way to explore the islands and shallow estuaries – protected as the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge – is by kayak. Luckily, there are several conveniently located and reasonably priced rental operators in town that are happy to provide guidance to newbies.
In addition to kayak rentals, there are over a dozen local guiding and charter companies that offer a variety of boat tours, including fishing trips, sunset tours and dolphin-watching excursions. You can even fulfill your romantic fantasies and get dropped off for a few hours on a deserted beach nearby.
Many of Cedar Key's buildings are built out over the water — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
Cedar Key takes up two square miles, and it's home to around 800 permanent residents. This small size makes it easy to navigate the mostly residential town by foot, bike or golf cart. (Rentals are available.)
The town's commercial businesses are located primarily downtown – along the two-lane highway that connects the mainland – and on Dock Street.
The charmingly ramshackle downtown historic district is about four blocks long and features a smattering of eclectic cafes, restaurants, artisan galleries and a small history museum. It's also home to Island Hotel, built 150 years ago as a brothel; this now gentrified inn was a favorite of Jimmy Buffet during his frequent visits in the '80s.
Colorful Dock Street features several bars and restaurants with spectacular Gulf views — Photo courtesy of DeShawn Marie
Island nightlife is clustered along colorful and haphazard Dock Street, next to the small city marina and boat launch. Restaurants and bars crowd along both sides of this short street, with many perched on stilts precariously jutting out over the water.
The laid-back atmosphere invites you to enjoy some live music, sip a fruity adult beverage and gaze out over the water.
Not surprisingly, the dominant cuisine of Cedar Key is seafood, and restaurants all over the island feature fresh-caught fish and shellfish.
A must-try is a helping of steamed littleneck clams – which, aside from tourism, is the mainstay of the island’s economy. These delicious little mollusks are sustainably aqua-farmed in the clean, shallow waters just off the coast.
Perhaps the best thing about Cedar Key is the conspicuous absence of chain restaurants, stores and accommodations. Everything here is locally owned and family run.
While there are a few small hotels and motels on the island, most folks take advantage of low-cost private rental accommodations of quaint and cozy cottages or condos.
Stop in at the village's welcome center, located at 450 2nd St., when you arrive to get your bearings, or visit CedarKey.org online. The friendly staff is more than happy to help you plan your visit.