One of my favorite getaways in the state hangs on to the tip of an island that's about halfway between Tampa and Tallahassee -- Cedar Key.
The place has a population of about 1,000, except during the annual Seafood Festival the third weekend of October, and the annual Sidewalk Arts Festival the third weekend of April, when thousands invade the water-hugging spread of well-aged buildings.
Depot and detention center during the Seminole Wars, and producer of salt for the Confederate Army, the town was named for the cedar trees that were harvested to provide wood for the Eagle and Eberhard Faber pencil companies up north. Pine and cypress were also cut and shipped from the 17 sawmills that provided a steady buzz and the trimmed timber.
By the 1870s a million cubic feet a year were transported, along with a million tons of mullet, and turtle, oysters and sponges, rushed from Cedar Key's dock on packet steamers and trains rolling on Florida's first cross-state line all the way to Fernandina Beach, where other ships and trains awaited those express deliveries from what was then one of the most important ports in the state.
The story is graphically told in the splendid little museum in the northwest corner of town, in a building planted solidly on 18 acres of sand dune that has been carefully returned to the primitive state of the 1500s with cabbage palms and giant oaks, sand pine, a scattering of scrub palmetto and a few surviving red cedars.
There's much more of the same in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest nesting areas in the country. Its offshore islands, ranging in size from 6 to 165 acres, are home to more than 200,000 nesting birds in a single season. To the north, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge comprises three separate land tracts totaling 13,000 acres; but only the beaches in the two refuges are open to the public and access is by boat only July through December, and then only at high tide so boats can make it over the shallow sand and mud flats.
Boats to the refuges, the offshore islands and the fishing reefs (with some of the best redfish, trout and Spanish mackerel concentrations in the country) depart from the Cedar Key dock, where there's a gaggle of galleries and gift stores (one called Wild Women) and a fleet of reliable waterfront feederies, none of them in the fast-food category. Captain's Table is a particular favorite with its walls of windows.
In the turn-of-the-century boom years, when the population soared to 4,000, there was regular steamer service from that dock to New Orleans, Havana and Tampa, its rival for Gulf port prominence. Large hotels lined Main Street and imposing two-story mansions and a string of warehouses were built out on the bay where the railroad terminal and several shipyards were located.
Hurricanes decimated many of those testaments to the good times, but enough survived to provide memory banks and bases for adaptive restoration. The Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, with a fine array of photos, occupies one on Main Street, and the Island Hotel graces another a few blocks away.
Built in 1849 as a general store, the two-story Island Hotel, with its marvelous second-deck wraparound porch, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been on my travel itinerary since the early '70s when the indomitable Bessie Gibbs was in charge, sheltering writers, retirees and recluses while running a restaurant of great repute.
Then came an equally unique owner, transplanted New Englander Marcia Rogers, psychologist, matchmaker, notary public, conservationist, environmentalist -- maybe a mystic. She installed a talented chef in the kitchen, Jahn McCumbers, who brought the hotel back to its days of culinary glory.
Jahn is gone, but his memory lingers on in the Escargot a la Jahn; a royal treatment of fresh shrimp, saluted with a cream cheese dill, garlic and honey sauce; and in the pork tenderloin sauteed in butter with onions and peppers and white wine, or with grapes and mushrooms in white wine spiked with orange juice.
The emphasis is on freshness, on the harvests from Cedar Key waters, and that means oysters, stone crab claws and soft-shell crabs in season, stuffed flounder and grouper, crab imperial, and the original Island Hotel Heart of Palm Salad, developed by Bessie and Gibby Gibbs with a Cedar Key signature dressing.
Dinner should be preceded by a session in the famous Neptune Bar, where you can ponder its symbolism and discuss the evening meal, relaxing in the confidence that you are going to be staying on the premises after whatever over-indulgences you commit.
There are 13 guest rooms, each with private bath and central air conditioning -- two luxuries that were not available when I first started staying here. But there's been no attempt to modernize too much. The Island Hotel is still a happy reminder of simpler times, reminiscent of Key West in the days before gentrification, and that's the main reason new owners Bill and MaryLou Stewart bought the landmark a few weeks ago. Bill grew up in the Keys and he yearned for the world he saw disappearing.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Cedar Key is 60 miles west of Gainesville and 2.1 miles west of U.S. 19/98, at the end of State Road 24. The inn is in the center of town.
Information: Contact the Island Hotel, 373 Second St. (P.O. Box 460), Cedar Key, FL, 32625; toll-free: 800-432-4640. www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com