Orlando isn’t, but the small town of Florida has its own magic


Are you tempted to see it for yourself when it is safe to travel again? Here is what you will encounter.

A boat trip from Cedar Key takes you into a watery world of bayous and coves and places with cool names like Atsena Otie and Snake Key.Diane Bair

Cedar Key: 700 (or so) people, stories galore

“We have magical stories here,” says Vice Mayor Sue Colson. Ask them how dolphins saved the local police chief, a true story. Just don’t ask them to entertain you – it won’t be done in this low-key zone on Florida’s northwest coast. “We don’t entertain people,” she says. “Just get a golf cart and our walking booklet and see it all at your own pace.”

You won’t come across Cedar Key by accident, you have to want to find it – it’s located three miles in the Gulf of Mexico and accessed via a series of four bridges. “Cedar Key” is actually not a key, it is a city on the way key; The Cedar Keys are a group of 13 islands. Cedar Key used to be a fishing village and is now the largest producer of clams in the country. Locals are quick to mention that Tony’s Clam Chowder, peppered with native clams, has won the Newport Great Chowder Cook-Off so many times that they can’t keep up. (We tried. Delicious.)

What else are you doing at Cedar Key? Dock Street is a major attraction and is home to shops, bars, and restaurants on stilts that date back to the early 1900s. Dock Street was once the end of the railroad that ran from the Atlantic to the Gulf and carried people to Cedar Key, the state’s second oldest city. History is everywhere here; There is even a clam hill next to the community center. Soak up the atmosphere in the Neptune Bar, a popular watering hole in the Island Hotel (around 1860). See if you can find the bullet hole in the mural, evidence of this property’s rough past.

But you won’t stay inside for long. The best way to see the glory of Cedar Key is on a boat trip through myriad of bayous and coves. Take a trip with Tidewater Boat Tours ( to soak up the scenery from Instagram and hear the island’s history as you sit among a swirl of white pelicans on pristine islands such as Atsena Otie, Snake Key and Seahorse Key slip past. You will want to come back if all you want is a perfect scoop of lush white sands on distant North Key. Plus, it goes without saying that you will return. When we got to Boston, we had a text message from Colson that said, “You are now part of our Cedar Key family. Come home soon! ”We felt the small town love.

The best places to stay and eat: The Harbor Master Suites ( from $ 135) are located on the stilts on Dock Street and are just steps from the fishing pier, beach and city park. The spacious suites have refrigerators and microwaves as well as the best amenities: views of the Gulf of Mexico. For breakfast, don’t miss the crab cake Benedict at Duncan’s On the Gulf (352-543-8004). Plan a bite to eat at the Island Hotel ( Order Bessie Gibson’s Palm Salad Heart to get you started. the court is said to have originated here. And see if you think the clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood ( deserves the praise.

Fernandina Beach has a free-flying atmosphere.  If you want to decorate your porch with carousel ponies, go for it.Fernandina Beach has a free-flying atmosphere. If you want to decorate your porch with carousel ponies, go for it.Diane Bair

Fernandina Beach: pirates, hippies and charm

Amelia Island is located off Florida’s northeast coast, 30 minutes from Jacksonville and is no secret: Condé Nast Traveler has named it one of the 10 best islands in the United States. But there’s more to history than upscale resorts and beaches. The island’s capital, Fernandina Beach, is as vibrant as a Florida sunset thanks to a 50-block historic district of well-tended Victorian buildings. Its history is just as colorful, populated with pirates, golden age millionaires, pirates and shrimp. Soak up the atmosphere in the Palace Saloon (circa 1903), which calls itself the oldest bar in Florida. Former Mayor Johnny Miller is the bartender there, a gig he made while in office. The writer John Grisham has a home here too.

“Hippies and cowboys coexist here,” one resident told us as we poked around on Fernandina Beach. “People end up on the island and never leave it.”

Hippies and cowboys live happily together on Fernandina Beach, the locals say, along with Piratenkunde and Florida's oldest bar.Hippies and cowboys live happily together on Fernandina Beach, the locals say, along with Piratenkunde and Florida’s oldest bar.Diane Bair

The streets are covered in massive live oak trees, including a road that is split in half to accommodate an ancient specimen. A bike ride is a fun way to explore. Riptide Watersports ( offers guided tours and beach bike rentals. Among other things, see a tabby (an oyster shell mix) house and the Bailey house, which is adorned with antique carousel horses that the owners found in the attic.

There is a state park at both ends of the island that is well worth a visit. On the southern tip, Amelia Island State Park has a fun option: horseback riding on the beach. At the northernmost point overlooking the Georgian island of Cumberland, Fort Clinch State Park is an ideal spot for hiking, camping, and bird watching at the site of a 19th-century masonry fortress.

You don’t have to go far to find solitude and beautiful nature. A paddle excursion from Walker’s Landing at Omni Amelia Island Plantation reveals a peaceful world of salt marshes and bayous. Think dolphins and land birds, not jet skis. “People don’t know this exists,” said kayak guide John Putrino.

Top places to stay and eat: The 402-room Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort (; from 199 USD) is a local landmark with shopping, dining, golf, a nature center and a children’s camp. The Timoti’s Seafood Shak ( offers fresh seafood from the region and excellent salads (figs + feta + blackened fish = delicious). Lagniappe ( near the resort wins raves for updated French Creole menu.

Fernandina Beach is full of stories.  The 50 block historic district is full of Victorian houses, but beware of ghosts (except in this house where it's not a problem).Fernandina Beach is full of stories. The 50 block historic district is full of Victorian houses, but beware of ghosts (except in this house where it’s not a problem).Diane Bair

High Springs: A Gator Approved Escape

Gainesville is famous for its Gators (the University of Florida soccer team) and the birthplace of rocker Tom Petty. What You May Not Know: The city is a great base from which to discover a treasure trove of places in Olde Florida. “It takes 25 minutes or less to get to quaint, historic country towns like High Springs, Cross Creek and Micanopy from Gainesville,” said Elizabeth Reyes of Visit Gainesville (www

Our pick for the most beautiful place: High Springs (6,000 inhabitants) north of Gainesville. Along the way, stop for a look at one of Mother Nature’s curiosities, Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, a 120-foot-deep, 500-foot-wide sinkhole. This natural landmark attracts researchers to study the shark teeth, marine life, and fossilized remains of extinct land animals found in the sink.

Arrive in High Springs in time for lunch so you can sample hearty Mediterranean cuisine (such as grilled redfish with roasted green tomatoes and Gouda semolina) at the Great Outdoors Restaurant. Downtown is pretty small but welcoming, with newly painted murals and several antique / vintage shops, a bakery, and an art gallery. Recently, several new companies have sprung up, Pink Flamingo Diner and High Springs Brewing Company.

The main event, however, takes place outdoors: High Springs is the gateway to the world’s largest concentration of freshwater springs. The best way to experience them is to take a canoe or kayak trip on the Santa Fe River. The canoe outpost ( offers rentals and tours, and can set you up on your way to overnight camping if you’re adventurous. “This is a piece of heaven on earth,” says owner Jim Wood, noting that even on a short trip, you can encounter more than seven springs – perfect for a quick dip. The water temperature at the springs is 72 degrees year-round, and there are no rapids or whitewater, says Wood, “only alligators, turtles, bald eagles, and deer.”

It’s a side of the Sunshine State that many visitors don’t see. “We’re a destination for those looking to dig a little deeper and get an authentic experience in the heart of north central Florida – maybe enjoying a farm-to-table dinner on an organic organic farm or an outdoor life without a music show Fight against traffic and crowds, ”says Reyes.

Top Places to Stay and Eat: With High Springs so close to Gainesville, we decided to stay in town. The Sweetwater Branch Inn (; starting at $ 139) was a perfect choice. Just a short walk from downtown restaurants, parks and the historic Hippodrome Theater, the property includes two Victorian houses and modern self-contained cottages (25 rooms in total), as well as a heated saltwater pool and spa, and a full breakfast. In High Springs, the Great Outdoors Restaurant ( is in a former open-air opera house, and the food is reliably good. Bonus: live music and a menu featuring local microbreweries.,

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at [email protected]


Janet Smith