Jimmy Buffett’s 1980 song “Incommunicado” contains the line “Travis McGee’s still in Cedar Key / That’s what old John MacDonald said”. McGee was the main character in MacDonald’s series of Florida mystery/adventure books, published between 1964 and 1984. A sort of James Bond/Magnum P.I. type of character, McGee lived on a houseboat. Buffett, however, used a little poetic license with the song, as McGee was actually moored in Ft. Lauderdale – a fair distance from Cedar Key. And, though Buffett’s music is associated with the Florida Keys, Cedar Key is further upstate and a bit more off the beaten path than the linked island playgrounds strung below Miami.
Located on Florida’s “nature coast”, Cedar Key lies about halfway between Tampa and Tallahassee on the Gulf of Mexico, and in the middle of nowhere. Not on the way to anywhere else, the causeway-connected island is only accessible via a long, tedious stretch of two-lane rolling through Slash Pine and palmetto forests, cow pastures and swamp.
Despite its lonely locale, human occupation of the area goes back to 500 B.C., and was later a haunt of pirates such as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd. Cedar Key served as an important outpost and fort during the Seminole Wars and the Civil War in the 1800’s and was the western end of the early cross-state Florida Railroad. In 1867, famed naturalist John Muir concluded his 1000-mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, at Cedar Key (where he promptly contracted malaria, forcing him to stay perhaps a bit longer than he planned before he was able to escape on a ship to Cuba).
The Key still retains a lot of its “old Florida” ramshackle charm, despite gradual population increase and notoriety over the years. In a way, it’s two distinct towns within less than a mile. One is centered on the old main street and is the arts community side – a scattering of historic buildings, cottages and galleries in various states of renovated glory, restoration and/or disrepair. Cats roam the streets and time flows slowly.
Along the waterside is Cedar Key part two – a jumbled wood building collection of seafood restaurants and t-shirt shops. It’s the more touristy side of things, but even here confined to a one-block section and is not too obnoxious. Restaurants serve locally caught clams (the area’s main industry these days) and Gulf shrimp.
Cedar Key’s isolation has helped it keep its character. As well as keep growth in check. It’s the kind of place to escape from it all, to truly become “incommunicado”.