I was delighted to learn that one of my favorite little Florida inns is alive and well in one of my favorite Florida places, Cedar Key.
The Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast was converted from a splendid two-story Victorian into a b&b at a cost of more than $100,000.
The home had originally been built by one of the companies cutting, saving and sizing acres of virgin cedar for use in making pencils. In the boom years, more than 1 million cubic feet of trimmed cedar boards were shipped annually from Cedar Key docks to the pencil-making factories up north.
A million pounds of seafood harvested in Cedar Key waters was also shipped north to satisfy appetites for oysters and clams, Spanish mackerel and mullet, turtle and a steady supply of sponges.
Cedar Key had regular steamer service to New Orleans, Tampa, Key West and Havana, and the founding fathers were boasting that they lived in the Venice of America. The Bettelini and Gulf Hotels, along with the Magnolia and Suwanee, thrived on Main Street, and Florida's first cross-state railroad was chugging from those bustling docks all the way to Fernandina Beach.
Chief among its pioneer promoters was a real mover and shaker, David Levy Yulee, who became Florida's first U.S. senator. His sister took over the home built in 1880 by the Eagle Pencil Co. and ran it as a boarding house.
You can get the history from a visit to the excellent little museum in the northwest section of town, sitting on 18 acres of sand dune that is in its natural state with oaks and cabbage palms, sand pine, some scrub palmetto and a few surviving red cedars -- those not dragged to one of the 17 sawmills that once dominated the area, cutting and shipping pine and cypress along with cedar.
The splendid exhibits in the museum show Cedar Key's role as depot and detention camp during the Seminole War, and as salt producer for the Confederacy until the Yankees destroyed the salt works and occupied the town. The boom years, when the town's population swelled to more than 4,000, are well covered with dramatic displays.
There are other activities in this sleepy little settlement dangling in the Gulf of Mexico -- various boat tours and rentals for covering some of the seemingly endless uninhabited string of islands, tidal creeks, and oyster reefs among the needle-rush grass flats, hiding some of the best redfish and trout fishing in the country. Around Seahorse Reef, 10 miles south of town, there are tremendous concentrations of mackerel. Best have a guide for such sport, to avoid the numerous outcroppings in the shallows and murky water close to shore.
If you are a birdwatcher, you should also hire a guide to explore the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest nesting areas in the nation. The refuge's offshore islands, ranging in size from six to 165 acres, are home to more than 200,000 nesting birds in a single season.
You can also spend time just wandering the quiet streets and sitting on the dock, the heart and soul of the town. There's creeping commercialism, of course, and the usual kind of hokey souvenir stuff, but there's surely enough sense of place to overcome the ordinary, and enough quiet places to make your escape back in time.
A full breakfast is included in the rate and you'll be well fortified for the day. The orange juice and fruits are fresh, the egg concoctions imaginative, muffins and rolls right out of the oven and the coffee brewed just for you.
For other meals, do some reconnaissance on the dock and the side streets. A favorite spot is Cooks' Café, next to the L & M Bar and a Jiffy Store and featuring oysters and fried shrimp. It's open every day for breakfast and lunch and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
The class act in town is the Island Room Restaurant at Cedar Cove, 10 E. Second St., where chef-owner Peter Stefani has been cooking up a seafood storm for a dozen years, pulling the freshness out of local waters and giving it masses of skilled TLC. They do breakfast/brunch on Sunday, lunch Friday and Saturday, dinner nightly and special winemaker celebrations.
Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, owned by Bill and Alice Phillips, is at P.O. Box 701; the rates are $95 to $135 per room.
Robert Tolf is the author of six books on country inns, including Florida Country Inns.