You’ll be happy to know you don’t have to completely ditch the Florida beaches on your visit to Natural North Florida.
One thing we love about this region in Florida is the diversity and outdoor activities!
You can move from the lush forest filled with refreshing crystal-clear natural springs to warm ocean temperatures in just a short drive.
Under two hours from Live Oak and 50-miles west of Gainesville, you’ll find yourself at Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast.
It’s a throwback to Old Florida – the Key West you wished you experienced back in Hemingway’s Days.
We arrived thinking we could fill up one and be ready to go the next.
After a short walk around this quirky salt-crusted town and chatting with a few locals, we felt we’d probably enjoy staying another day.
We checked into our Sea Pearl Suite at Harbour Masters with its wrap around deck offering 270-degree expansive views over nearby islands and decided a few days would be the slow and restful family vacation we all need.
A couple of hours later after swimming and paddleboarding we extended that to a week.
Then by the evening, after a lovely local couple we met at sunset offered us a few seats in their golf cart to take us to the only place we could grab a bottle of wine for evening drinks on the deck, and we ran into Dave the kayak guy, who they tried to introduce us, and we said ” yeah, we already know each other”, I thought to myself,
“You know, this is the kind of place I could live in for some time.”
There’s no glamour or cookie-cutter pristine, fabricated tourist attractions here. It’s raw, warm and ambling.
You’ll embrace it if you allow places to reveal who they are without expectations or limitations.
Cedar Key went from being included in a wrap-up blog post on our visit to Natural North Florida to having its own dedicated post on things to do in Cedar Key, and on our list of coolest places to visit in Florida!
We loved our little one-night Florida island getaway.
Upon departure, Savannah exclaimed that we were coming back at least for a week as this was now her favorite place. Our new friends are ready for our return with the door to their Airbnb beach cottage open.
This region was mapped in 1542 and named “Las Islas Sabines” which means The Cedar Islands, named for the bounty of cedar trees that covered the islands.
Native Indians occupied these islands for at least 1,000 years, thriving on the endless bounty surrounding them. It’s one of the largest nesting areas in Florida for varieties of pelicans, egrets, bald eagles, ospreys and more.
While lumbar was once a thriving industry, tourism and fishing is now its claim to fame. Cedar Key is a major producer of clams nationwide, raking in more than $34 million annually.
The Cedar Islands are now known as the Cedar Key National Refuge and are composed of 13 offshore islands jutting into the Gulf Coast.
The quiet fishing village of Cedar Key Florida is nestled among many of these small islands 4-miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.
A series of bridges and picturesque salt marshes lead into this eclectic community of artisans, nature lovers and those seeking a slower pace.
If you want to be like the locals, you’ll don your flip flops, let go of your wound-up tensions, and hire a golf kart to get around. (although the town is easy to walk around.)
Below are a few of the wonderful things to do in Cedar Key Fl.
Cedar Key Beach is a small area by the marina with a strip of white sand, palm trees, and a sectioned off swimming area.
After delighting in how good my body felt covered in salty water, I realized I hadn’t felt that ocean water feeling in some time. After a talk and a bit of math, we discovered it had been three years since we last swam in the ocean in Hawaii.
How does an Aussie do that?
Never again! We were happy Cedar Key could reintroduce us to the joy of ocean living.
We hired some stand up paddle boards and kayaks from Dave at Cedar Key Adventures to paddle around the swimming beach area. The current was moving, and the wind was high, so we didn’t stray too far from shore.
We almost had the entire beach to ourselves and the girls had a blast swimming at this beach.
Every view from Cedar Key leads you to Atsena Otie, the closest and most accessible of the refuge islands.
It was the location of the first Cedar Key until a hurricane’s 10-foot storm surged flattened it in 1896.
One of the best things to do in Cedar Key is to explore this island by kayak. We rented our kayaks from Dave and headed out for a strong paddle against the current and wind for just half a mile (30-mins) to the island.
There is an old cemetery in the middle of the island you can reach through the woods under a canopy of oaks. You may not get too far before the mosquitoes, and as advised by Dave, “will carry you out of there.” (Take mosquito repellent).
A further short walk along the beach, near the pier, will take you to the crumbling remains of what used to be the pencil factory.
There is not too much to do on Atsena Otie but it’s worth a couple of hours adventure just for the paddle and scenery.
Those with more time may wish to paddle the 1.5 miles around the island. Unlike most of the other islands, you can explore the unique interior of Atsena Otie via the marshes on the south side.
Ambitious paddlers can go on to other nearby islands of the Cedar Key National Refuge. They are said to have nice beaches. You can also explore these islands by boat.
The paddle back only took us about 15-minutes with the wind at our back and gave us nice views of Dock Street and the marina.
You’re on the Florida Gulf Coast, sunset is the main event!
Locals say you cannot beat the sunset and quirky vibes from the Tiki Bar located just outside the bridge into town.
Sadly, for us it’s an adult only bar, so we traded in the best place for sunset in Cedar Key to the next best, which is just in front of the pink Beach Front Motel.
The sky lights up in pretty oranges and pinks as it sets behind the lands and water of the Cedar Key National Refuge.
The kids will enjoy playing on the rocks of the small beach area here.
Or D street as the locals refer to The Big Dock, is a series of colorful mom-and-pop resorts, restaurants and multi storied buildings stores suspended over the waters on stilts.
It’s known as the heartbeat of this small fishing village and you can walk it in less than five-minutes!
But browse a while through the stores and enjoy the artistic designs of parked golf carts and egrets trying to sneak their way into bars.
About 7-miles out of Cedar Key is the Shell Mound. This high mound was built up over a 1,000 year period up to 1,800 years ago by Woodland Native cultures discarding their oyster and clam shells.
A short 0.3 mile trail will take you through the jungle and around and on top of the shell mound.
A path off the Shell Mound Trail leads to a boardwalk and fishing pier that looks out over a bayou of Suwanee Sound.
The Dennis Creek Trail is another 1-mile loop with a boardwalk that takes you over a salt barren to a coastal island. Dave said it was one of his favorite walking trails.
Kayakers will love the beauty of this shallow ocean area thick with wildlife and paddling often only inches deep over hidden oyster bars.
What a way to start a Cedar Key day!
We had the perfect view of the sun rising over the horizon in front of us and the color changing from deep orange to pink.
In fact, the soft pre-dawn pinks woke us up from our bed.
Once the sun is up, grab yourself a coffee and sit on your deck watching all the birds flying by in formation.
Looking for Cedar Key restaurants overlooking the Gulf with fresh seafood?
This Big Dock restaurant offers prime position for Gulf views over Atsena Otie and some of the other islands.
At Steamers Clam Bar and Grill there are large windows that allow for views if you wish to sit inside.
However, to make your meal here a memorable experience, we recommend grabbing one of the nooks on the deck.
The outside deck is narrow so there are about four private nook areas where you can sit with front row seat of the view, the balmy breeze on your skin, and dolphins frolicking in front of you.
I told you Cedar Key pulls you in! This is the serene Florida vacation of your dreams.
As you are in clam country, be sure to pick a clam dish on the extensive menu.
We can highly recommend the clam bowl steamed in white wine and garlic and the seafood broil, washed down with a glass of wine or craft beer.
They do claim to have the best clam chowder on the island (another popular clam chowder place is Tony’s Restaurant).
Harbor Master Suites has front row stilted position on D Street. We stayed in the Pearl Suite and could not believe we had the entire top deck to ourselves.
We had a spot for morning coffee and sunrise, a spot for afternoon drinks, and then another hidden screened in porch that overlooked the street for later at night when the ocean views were gone and the people watching just started.
The Sea Pearl Suite is a huge two-bedroom suite with a living area and full-kitchen. We only wished we stayed longer to fully enjoy the suite. Its location is easy walking distance to everywhere – the Cedar Key way!
We received many tips from the friendly locals. While we did our best to do as many as we could on our short trip, we’re adding them to this post on things to do in Cedar Key to help you plan your getaway there.
A few of these tips we couldn’t do as they were closed when we visited. Many of the restaurants close on Tuesday or Wednesdays so be sure to check opening times before planning your trip to visit Cedar Key.
A cozy, intimate restaurant experience perfect for couples.
There is a fine dining restaurant in this hotel, but the local’s tip is to head to the informal and cozy lounge bar for outstanding food and a taste of the local gathering culture.
The lounge was painted in 1948 with murals of Cedar Key and King Neptune, for whom the bar is named.
We met a local at Live Oak who told us he and his wife used to fly on a private plane to Cedar Key for mini-vacations and would always stay and eat at the Island Hotel. It’s a Cedar Key icon!
Every single local we spoke to said Annie’s Cafe does the best breakfast and was a must do not miss Cedar Key place to eat.
We were disappointed it was closed on the Wednesday we were there – the only day we could go. Be sure to tell us what it was like and tag us in a photo!
The 1,200 foot long boardwalk takes you through marsh land adjacent to one of the back bays and channels of the keys. It’s a 3.5-acre property with a sandy shore for you to swim or kayak.
We hope this post helps you plan your own Cedar Key vacation. If you’re looking for places to visit in North Florida with kids, consider here!
You can be sure we’ll be back for more family fun and to tick those other activities off our list.
Oh, and if you visit without kids, don’t forget the Tiki Bar for sunset!
Have you heard of Cedar Key before? Have any extra tips OR any questions about travel to this Florida island?