Scenes and (a Couple of) Tastes from Cedar Key

IMG_3306_1

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.

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.