Cedar Key, Florida

Even the fish here are on island time

Florida's sea cow, still seducing mariners     Photo: James Gritz/PhotoDisc

"AN IDEAL PLACE," a visitor noted nearly 40 years ago, to "live in shorts, go to seed, and rock away warm afternoons on shadowy porches." Little has changed since then, or since Cedar Key's 1800s timber-and-fishing heyday. This island outpost three miles off the mainland—at the southern end of the state's marshy-edged Big Bend—ought to trademark its mañana pace and old-Florida vibe. Brown pelicans drowse on worn pilings, underemployed artists cast for redfish on the turtle grass flats, and sporadic migrations of Gainesville undergrads inevitably think they're the first to discover the place.

OUTDOORS: Paddlers on the sparsely visited "Nature Coast" have more playgrounds than they can find hours for, timing the tides to make beach landings on the 13 islets of Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, or meandering upcoast on the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, 105 miles of wild shore linked by primitive campsites. The clear waters of Manatee Springs State Park, on the mainland, draw wintertime snorkelers, cave divers, and swimmers scanning for the sea cows that early sailors, it's said, mistook for mermaids—corpulent mermaids, that is: Some weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
REAL ESTATE: Marshfront homes on stilts and two-story showpieces with proximity to the compact historic district fetch upwards of $280,000. For under $200,000, you get one of the last buildable lots or a tiny, seriously weather-beaten but quasi-charming artist's shack.
HANGOUTS: Rent a room at the authentically funky 1859-built Island Hotel & Restaurant (doubles, $80–$135; 800-432-4640, www.islandhotel-cedar-key.com). The Island Room (no connection to the hotel) earns raves for its catch-of-the-day concoctions, like pecan-encrusted grouper with a sherry beurre blanc.

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