We drove down this past weekend to take part in the annual Cedar Key Small Boat Meet where all types of boats come together to enjoy a simple, hassle-free weekend of boating. There is no set schedules, no entry fees and no hurry to be anywhere fast. Everything here is on island time.
This was our first visit to Cedar Key and as soon as we arrived we were met with a sense of what old Florida must have been like. There are no traffic lights, only stop signs. Bicycles, golf carts and pedestrians pass quietly by taking in the sights of this quaint and historic town. Visitors won’t see any fast food restaurants or chain hotels here, but instead will find cozy bread & breakfast lodgings, a small handful of low-storied condominiums and original restaurants with great food.
Some people might ask what the attraction to Cedar Key is if it doesn’t cater to the typical commercial tourist. Cedar Key’s attraction is its old-style charm, amazing nature views and its distance from the stress of average city life. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to do in Cedar Key, on the contrary, fishing and kayaking are big draws. There are several smaller islands, or keys, that boaters can visit as well as the inner bayous of Cedar Key itself. During our visit there were two events happening simultaneously— the Cedar Key Small Boat Meet and the Airboat Fishing Tournament. Both events were well-attended.
On our first day at Cedar Key we checked into our lodging and took a stroll around town. We headed to the Railroad Trestle Nature Trail. This short trail follows the path of the Fernandina to Cedar Key rail line which operated from 1861 through 1932. Visitors can experience the salt marsh up close, observing shorebirds, fiddler crabs, oyster beds and other wildlife. If you enjoy the game of geocaching you can also try your luck at finding a hidden cache along this trail.*
After exploring the Railroad Trestle Trail we took a walk around town. Cedar Key is a feast for the eyes with curio shops, moss covered oak trees and whimsical art at almost every corner. Most of the town is pet friendly and some shops even allow well-behaved, leashed pets inside or on the outdoor dining patios.
Saturday dawned bright and early to the sounds of roaring air boats lining up at the public beach for the start of the Airboat Fishing Tournament. This was not an average morning for this normally quiet town, but the airboats quickly moved off and the rest of the day fell into the hands of the small boaters.
The destination for the majority of the small boaters was Atsena Otie Key located just a half mile from the mainland. The original town was relocated from this island after a hurricane devastated the town in 1896, carving a path through the island and effectively cutting it in half. Paddlers can explore the pass when conditions are right thereby gaining a view of the interior of the island without ever leaving their kayak. Most of the islands are designated as wildlife sanctuary and are off limits above the high tide line. Atsena Otie is the only island with a hiking trail to the interior.*
After exploring the island and deciding against paddling out to the other neighboring islands of Snake, Seahorse and North Key we decided to land at the beach on Atsena Otie and hang out with the other small boaters. There was a colorful assortment of water vessels stretching the length of the beach, ranging from rafts, puddle duck racers, sailboats and more. If you were looking for the definition of variety, this was the place.
The Small Boat Meet is a completely informal get-together held every year on the first weekend in May. It’s comparable to attending a car show and examining all of the bells and whistles that each vehicle is sporting. The small boats have everything from tricked-out Hobie sailing rigs to small Puddle Duck Racers that double as cement mixers when not on the water.
After a couple of hours on the beach we shoved off and headed back to the mainland to explore the bayous and marsh. As I negotiated my kayak through a narrow channel the murky water exploded next to me and (I’m not ashamed to admit) that I let out a startled scream as something launched itself into my kayak. I spent the next several seconds laughing hysterically as I tried to subdue the large mullet that had landed on me. I’d intended to get a picture of it but it is nearly impossible to hold a slippery fish in one hand while snapping a picture with the other. He gave a last valiant thrash and lunged back into the water leaving me without a fish and covered in mud. But hey, I caught a fish!
We paddled on a bit farther before deciding to head back in for a late lunch and to enjoy a lazy afternoon of people watching. Lunch was fried oysters from the Pickled Pelican restaurant on the waterfront. The food was amazing and as an added bonus I found a pearl inside one of the oysters! This day just kept getting better and better.
As incredible as having a mullet jump into my kayak and later finding a pearl in my lunch was, the good luck didn’t stop there. We soon discovered that our Camelbak containing the car keys and room key was missing. After a short search it was found safe and sound with the attendant at Kayak Cedar Key. What luck! It turns out that it had fallen out of our personal kayaks hours earlier and they kept it safe for us until we returned from paddling. Great job guys!
*If you plan to do any hiking either within Cedar Key, Atsena Otie or the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, don’t forget the bug spray. The mosquitoes are fierce.
View more photos of Cedar Key here.
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