Scenes and (a Couple of) Tastes from Cedar Key

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Less than 20 hours in Cedar Key: not my ideal, oh what a tease! I’d prefer at least a weekend in this bastion of peace and funk. But as it turned out, after a rainy foray around the Nature Coast hunting for real estate, 20 hours proved an ample pit stop for recovery.

The Nature Coast. That’s the PR moniker. Traditionally it has been called the Big Bend, where Florida segues from south-north to east-west. Others have disparagingly referred to it as Florida’s Armpit. They’re beach-lovers, no doubt, who do not appreciate the region’s Old Florida, out-of-the-spotlight, Southern style.

We were taking a big chance heading out to Cedar Key during its early December Pirate Invasion. Hotel.com and Expedia were showing no available rooms. The relentless rain, however, finally worked in our favor.

We stopped first at the place I most wanted to stay, to show off to my husband – the circa 1829 Island Hotel. Crossing the uneven floorboards past the stuffed manatee at the baby grand piano, I greeted the receptionist with a hopeful smile.

“I don’t suppose you have any vacancies,” I prompted. She hauled out a scrapbook-sized bound book and, with two hands, opened it to the day’s date. Like in an old movie, she scanned the columns with her pointer finger, stopping on a square that had been whited out. My heart skipped. A cancellation, just as we’d hoped. She showed us to room 24, opening the lock with a real key. No computerized reservations system or key cards at Island Hotel. Sigh!

Like Cedar Key as a whole, the Island Hotel is stuck in another era, pre-computers. In fact, the island’s history begins with that most basic of computing instruments: the pencil.

As its name hints, the island was once covered with red cedar trees, eventually decimated by the Eberhardt Faber Pencil Company back in the 19th century.

Today, the island’s economy depends on tourism and its art scene; and clams and their restaurant scene.

With such a short window, we got only one opportunity to taste those locally farmed clams – at Steamers Clam Bar & Grill on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s famed dining and party strip that draws the Gainesville crowd on weekends.

The good news: Steamers’ New England style clam chowder was the best to cross my taste buds in a lifetime, and that includes what I’ve slurped in Boston and Maine.

Our only other meal came compliments of the Island Hotel. It includes a full, hot breakfast in its rates, and it too was outstanding, both my mushroom and onion quiche and my husband Rob’s (who was by this point duly impressed with the old timey establishment) French toast.

We had planned to make the nightlife scene, at least the lively hotel bar that happened to be right beneath our creaky floors, king four-poster bed, and blessedly private bathroom. Instead, we ended up with a bottle of wine on the hotel’s second-story wrapped balcony on a swinging bench overlooking the Second Street holiday decorations and listening to good cover band tunes wafting from Dock Street on the brisk December sea breeze.

Following breakfast, we walked around the two-square-mile island and watched the costumed pirates awakening for the final day of their invasion. We headed back across Route 24, renewed and relaxed, but wishing we’d had more of Cedar Key, and more we shall have.

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10 Best Family Restaurants in Vero Beach

  1. Cravings: A custom fit for families with kids of all ages, it satisfies cravings for everything from homemade ice cream and yummy bakery goods to soup from scratch, made-to-order sandwiches and salads, and vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Guests order at the counter and usually take a seat on the patio, or carry their meal across the street to beachside Humiston Park. The kiddy menu offers grilled cheese, PB&J, and other sandwiches with chips, milk or juice, and cookie or apples for  $6.95.
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    Shelves full of goodies at Cravings

    Casey’s Place: Not far off Ocean Drive on the beach, this affordable burger stand goes far beyond the usual with breakfast dishes, hot and cold deli sandwiches, salads, and kids meals. A number of sturdy tables beneath umbrellas accommodate guests, but they often fill up in the early afternoon.

  3. Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill: Grab a table overlooking the beach for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The food is good and the service friendly. Sandwiches, pasta, fried fish nuggets, seafood, and steaks please everyone in the family. Thursday is Family Fun Night from 5 to 8 p.m. with balloons, face painting, and kids meal specials.

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    Family dining with a killer view at Mulligan’s

  4. Mr. Manatee’s: Kids love the manatee wearing shades on the signs, the waterfront location, and the ring toss game outside in the waiting area. The children’s menu has games to play and $5 kids meals such as fish fingers and pasta.
  5. Mrs. Mac’s Fillin’ Station: Parents and grandparents will appreciate the nostalgic diner feel and service station memorabilia. Kids too will get a kick out of the car motif. They can choose from the “Rumble Seats” section of the menu, which lists such favorites as chicken with mac ‘n’ cheese, Fluffer-Nutter sandwich, and corn dog. The extensive menu covers everything from burgers (which come with popcorn) to salads, plus breakfast items.

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    Courtyard dining at Osceola Bistro

  6. Osceola Bistro: If you are touring downtown’s attractions and shops, plan for a nice meal at this foodie favorite. Parents and kids can all be happy in either the lush outdoor courtyard or indoors’ modern setting. The kitchen goes to great lengths to provide new American dishes with creative, homemade touches. Take for instance the house pickles, fingerling potato salad, and horseradish crème fraiche with the short rib sandwich. The kids menu considerately offers a choice of salad or vegetables instead of fries.
  7. The Lemon Tree: A bright, cheery décor makes this a happy place. Particularly popular for breakfast (served until 2:30 p.m.), it also serves lunch in the thick of island activity near Humiston Park. The pancakes are especially tasty. Soups, salads, sandwiches, chicken pot pie, quiche, and seafood appear on the lunch menu, which devotes one section of four meals for kids.
  8. Shutters: Located at the Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, Shutters overlooks the beach with all the playfulness and drama you’d expect. In addition to an all-American, family-designed menu, it welcomes kids to Saturday beachfront breakfast with Goofy et al and Monday evening pirate character (Goofy and Donald) all-you-can-eat dinner (summers only). Special family activities are part of the experience.
  9. Pizzoodle’s: When the demand for family pizza night surfaces, head to this cozy pizzeria with an extensive selection of pizza, pasta, and “subwiches.” It is one of several dining options along Royal Palm Pointe.
  10. Waldo’s Restaurant & Bar: Feeling a little like the Wild West with its rough-hewn cypress structure, this restaurant at the Driftwood Resort further appeals to families with outdoor seating overlooking the pool and beach. This is where families will want to sit, because indoors feels a bit dim and stuffy. The extensive lunch and dinner menu includes seven “Sea Bucklers” items for kids, including a quesadilla and pasta.

Uncorking ‘Clearwater Beach Uncorked’

The paella was going to be a hard act to follow. Luckily we hit SHOR’s culinary presentation before the big crowds arrived.

SHOR, the flagship restaurant for Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, somehow managed a fresh-tasting true taste of Florida for thousands of guests on the beach that Saturday afternoon in early February – part of Clearwater Beach’s third annual Uncorked festival.sign

Under tents set up right on Clearwater Beach’s patent brand of sugar sand, the food and wine adventure is unlike any other of Florida’s barrel-loads of winter wine festivals.

For starters, organizers have decanted out any snob, elitist dregs. Here, beach bash meets foodie feast. It runs for two weekend days and draws a diverse, grape-happy crowd that cheerfully – for the most part anyway – endures long lines and crowds so clotted it got tricky raising glass to lips.

Barefoot and Bountiful

A shoe check-in at the tents’ entrance gave permission to wiggle toes in sand, but I feared for the safety of said toes. At Saturday’s peak, crowds were five to eight deep at the more popular food and drink stations. That’s when we were gladdest to have passes to the VIP Grand Tasting, where vendors were pouring top-shelf drinks, and we could score a splendid plate of escargot with smoky mac ‘n’ cheese from the Lobster Pot in Redington Shores.

The VIP lounge was available only during Saturday’s 1-to-5 p.m. event. It’s worth paying the extra 40 bucks (regular admission is $85 for each day) .

View from the Hyatt Regency

View from the Hyatt Regency

For the most top-shelf Uncorked experience, book a room at the Hyatt, central to the festival: Avoid parking hassles and easily escape the crowds in Skimmers bar or your sumptuous room.  After a couple of hours we were ready to do just the latter, since scoring tastes of food and booze was becoming near impossible.

Sip. Savor. Repeat.

We started earlier the next day so we could pick up what we had missed the day previous – wowsome pancetta-wrapped shrimp atop lime cream corn from Caretta’s on the Gulf and smoked fish dip and house ale from Crabby Bill’s, both on Clearwater Beach; grilled scallops with cheesy grits from Oystercatchers in Tampa; and crab cakes from Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores – to name a

The Caretta team

The Caretta team

few.

Wines came from all over the country. My favorite new tries were White Lightning Chardonnay, Dreaming Tree Everyday White, and a Florida-made Hurricane Category 5 sangria.

Available both days, a separate lounge area provided samples of liquors ranging from Cape Coral’s artisanal Wicked Dolphin rum to Tito vodka in lemonade with fresh basil and Jim Beam Honey.

So the moral of the story: If you’re expecting hoity sit-down dinners and break-the-bank tastings at your Florida wine

Wine flows freely

Wine flows freely

festival, head to Naples, Sarasota, or South Beach. Otherwise, mark Uncorked on your calendar for next February.

In let-loose Clearwater Beach (warning: no drinks outside of the festival areas), it’s all in the spirit of fun and food that comes uncorked on several levels.

For more information about beach-going on Clearwater Beach, read my USA TODAY coverage.

Eating Sarasota

For 15 days in June, foodies can get their fill of Sarasota affordably.

Number one beach in the U.S. in 2012? Sure, I’m impressed by Sarasota’s legendary sugar sand.

Sweet pears poached with lavender and honey, topped with goat cheese ice cream, and served in a pool of black pepper caramel sauce? That, my

Matthison's chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

Matthison’s chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

friends, is the first sweet thing that comes to my mind when I’m headed to Sarasota.I’m not even that big of a dessert fan, but this particular dish at Derek’s Culinary Casual definitely rates in my taste bud Hall of Fame. Derek’s, one of more than 50 independently owned members of Sarasota-Bradenton Originals within the cities’ two-county area, excels at the “original part.”

Other dishes I’ve tried and will never forget: salad “Caesaresque,” braised lamb shank, and Prince Edward mussels dish — at once rustic, elegant, smoky, and surprising in its broth of chorizo, garbanzos, and grilled tomato butter.

It’s a stellar example of the standard of dining one finds throughout the Sarasota region – everything from home-cooked Amish to house-created ingenuity.

Savor Sarasota Discount Dining Days

A good time to try out Sarasota’s dining scene is during the eighth annual Savor Sarasota, June 1 through 14. Special multi-course pre-fixe menus encourage experimentation without wallet pain in more than 35 restaurants this year. Lunches cost only $15; dinners, $29. Read more of this post

Longboat Key: The Island in Between

Pure fish shack-style at Mar Vista

Extremely Florida

Stretching 12 miles between Anna Maria Island and Lido Key, Longboat Key is the only of the Sarasota-Bradenton coast islands with no direct access to mainland. That keeps it mired in old Florida on one hand, and floating on cloud luxury at the other.

I experienced both extremes of its charmingly schizophrenic mood swings last week, staying at two different properties on two separate nights.

Ultra casual in north Longboat Key

LBK’s north end, which resides in Bradenton’s Manatee County, best reflects the island’s funky casual extreme. Exhibit A: Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Moore’s Stone Crab.

The former has that lovely lived-in, borderline ramshackle look on the outside, crowned by an appropriately rusting tin roof. Inside, tables don’t match, napkins are paper, boaters hoist beers at the bar, and a view of the harbor dominates the decorator’s scheme.

There’s also seating on plastic chairs on the patio, which has heaters when it’s cool and fans when it’s hot. The seafood is fresh, and the key lime pie is creamy, dreamy, and authentic.

Locals still refer to  this place as “The Pub,” its name in another century, but one that still comes first to the tongue.

Moore’s, too, occupies a time-bubble of another generation in seafood dining. Next door to Mar Vista with an even more expansive bayview, it hasn’t changed its plain old cafeteria décor since it opened in the 1960s. With its own crabbing fleet, it dares to name itself after Florida’s favorite shellfish.

Up the street, peacocks and peahens saunter and squawk. Along the gulf, the homes and resorts keep in the quirky, quiet theme.

Exhibit B: Rolling Waves Cottages, my home for one night on the Gulf of Mexico. I’m never happier than when no shoes stand between me and the beach. The words “beach cottage” send goosebumps up my arms, and I’m not kidding.

Colorful at Rolling Waves Cottages

I’ve been making semi-annual stops at Rolling Waves for more than 15 years for my Sarasota, Sanibel Island & Naples guidebook. The owners kept inviting me to stay, and finally I took them up on it.

Owner Kimberly had called me to let me know she wouldn’t be there to personally greet me, but that #6 (out of eight) would be open with the key inside. That’s exactly how casually things roll at Rolling Waves.

Dating from the 1940s, the cottages have a retro exterior and a rustic interior, but with all the comforts of home. The wood floor in #6 squeaked in certain spots, and the walls could’ve benefited from paint touch-ups here and there.

But on the other hand, it had colored sheets and towels instead of the typical hotel institutional white. The stove was gas-powered, and the gulf took maybe 30 steps to reach.

Guest families homesteaded the beach with pop-up awnings. The kids could have been poster children for happy childhoods, I mused as I literally walked into the sunset.

When I stopped to fill in a deep hole that dipped between a staked loggerhead sea turtle nest and the sea, some of my neighbors stopped to talk turtles as I explained that the hatchlings wouldn’t likely make it to the water with the hole en route. Or was it just my excuse to play in the sand?

When I went into my cottage for the night, I slammed the screen door behind me. As they say, you’re never too old to have a happy childhood.

Luxury landings on south Longboat Key

Sunset the next night looked entirely different. At the south end of the island, in Sarasota County, things get  higher and higher-end. Highest of all, the high-rise condos of Longboat Key Club and luxurious trappings of its resort make for a tidily manicured landscape and high-density man-scape.

High-rises replace cottages at Longboat Key Club.

How do I love this scene? Let me count the ways: 291 slips in the deep-water marina, 218 plush rooms and condo suites, 45 holes of golf, 25 Har-Tru tennis courts, nine miles of biking and walking pathways, seven restaurants, one organic spa, and zero toxic pesticides or herbicides used on the golf course. Did I mention seven restaurants?

Unfortunately, 10 hours gave me opportunity to eat in only one, but a fino one it was, and at sunset a golden cast glazed the yacht marina that Portofino overlooks — quite a different harbor from Mar Vista’s.

Decisions don’t come easily at Portofino. It’s known for its wood-oven pizzas. But how can you order pizza, pasta, and seafood all in one meal?

So I passed on the pizza, but the ricotta spinach gnocchi with fresh fava beans and yellow tomato pomodoro sauce; and grilled wahoo with tomato panzanella salad were plenty to convince me that Portofino has a lot more going on than sterling views.

Bottom line: You throw great food into the equation, and it’s going to sway me. Then there was the beach view from my fourth-story room and my sunrise stroll, where sand was the uncommon denominator of the two experiences.

So, don’t make me pick a favorite between my two extremely different days, because both experiences are so LBK. So old Florida and new Florida wrapped up in one long ribbon of an island.