fb-pixel Skip to main content
TRAVEL

Orlando, it’s not, but small-town Florida has its own magic

Tempted to see it for yourself, once it’s safe to travel again? Here’s what you’ll encounter.

The Santa Fe River runs through High Springs, Fla. On a kayak trip, it’s just you, "alligators, turtles, bald eagles, and deer,” according to outfitter Jim Wood.
The Santa Fe River runs through High Springs, Fla. On a kayak trip, it’s just you, "alligators, turtles, bald eagles, and deer,” according to outfitter Jim Wood.Diane Bair

Cigar bars. South Beach. Cinderella. Tom Brady (sigh). Those are some of the things that spring to mind when one thinks “Florida.”

This is not that Florida.

A road trip from Jacksonville to Gainesville reveals a landscape of horse farms, pasturelands, and tiny burgs with nary a downtown, much less a crystal castle. This is where Florida’s wild, green soul comes out to play. A few minutes of paddling a kayak will transport you to a fern-fringed lagoon of frolicking dolphins and crystalline springs, more gorgeous than anything Disney’s Imagineers could dream up.

Tempted to see it for yourself, once it’s safe to travel again? Here’s what you’ll encounter.

Advertisement



A boat cruise from Cedar Key will take you into a watery world of bayous and bays, and places with cool names like Atsena Otie and Snake Key.
A boat cruise from Cedar Key will take you into a watery world of bayous and bays, 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 her about how dolphins saved the local police chief, a true story. Just don’t ask her to entertain you — that’s not how it’s done in this low-key zone on Florida’s northwest coast. “We don’t entertain people,” she says. “Just get yourself a golf cart and our walking tour booklet and see it all at your own pace.”

You won’t stumble upon Cedar Key by accident, you have to want to find it — it is located three miles into the Gulf of Mexico and reachable via a series of four bridges. “Cedar Key” isn’t actually a key, it’s a city on Way Key; the Cedar Keys are a group of 13 islands. Formerly a fishing village, Cedar Key is now the largest producer of farmed clams in the country. Locals are quick to mention that Tony’s Clam Chowder, studded with homegrown clams, has won the Newport Great Chowder Cook-Off so many times that they can no longer compete. (We tried it. Delicious.)

So what else do you do in Cedar Key? Dock Street is a major draw, home to shops, bars, and restaurants on stilts that date back to the early 1900s. Dock Street once marked the end of the railroad that ran from the Atlantic to the Gulf, transporting folks to Cedar Key, the second oldest city in the state. History is everywhere here; there’s even a shell mound next to the community center. Soak up the vibe at the Neptune Bar, a beloved local watering hole, at the Island Hotel (c. 1860). See if you can find the bullet hole in the mural, a testament to this property’s rowdy past.

Advertisement



But you won’t stay indoors for long. The glories of Cedar Key are best seen on a boat cruise through myriad bayous and bays. Hop aboard a trip with Tidewater Boat Tours (www.tidewatertours.com) to enjoy Instagram-worthy scenery and hear island lore as you slip past pristine islets like Atsena Otie, Snake Key, and Seahorse Key under a swirl of white pelicans. You’ll want to come back, if only to experience a perfect scoop of luscious white beach on far-flung North Key. Plus, it’s a given that you’ll return. Arriving back in Boston, we had a text message from Colson that read: “You are now part of our Cedar Key family. Come home soon!” We were feeling the small-town love.

Top spots to stay and eat: Sitting atop the businesses-on-stilts on Dock Street, Harbour Master Suites (www.cedarkeyharbourmaster.com: from $135) are steps away from the fishing pier, beach and city park. The roomy suites have refrigerators and microwave ovens, and the best amenity: 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 for a bite at the Island Hotel (www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com). For a starter, order Bessie Gibson’s heart of palm salad; the dish originated here, they say. And see if you think the clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood (www.tonyschowder.com) is worthy of the plaudits.

Advertisement



www.cedarkey.org.

There’s a free-flying vibe in Fernandina Beach. If you want to decorate your porch with carousel ponies, go for it.
There’s a free-flying vibe in Fernandina Beach. If you want to decorate your porch with carousel ponies, go for it.Diane Bair

Fernandina Beach: Pirates, hippies, and charm to spare

Located off Florida’s northeast coast, thirty minutes from Jacksonville, Amelia Island isn’t a secret: Condé Nast Traveler has named it among the top 10 “best islands” in the United States. But there’s more to the story than upscale resorts and beaches. The island’s main city, Fernandina Beach, is as vibrant as a Florida sunset, thanks to a 50-block historic district lined with well-maintained Victorian buildings. Its history is just as colorful, peopled with pirates, Gilded Age millionaires, bootleggers, and shrimpers. Soak up the vibe in the Palace Saloon (c. 1903), which bills itself as the oldest bar in Florida. Former mayor Johnny Miller is a bartender there, a gig he maintained while in office. Writer John Grisham has a home here, too.

“Hippies and cowboys co-exist here,” a resident told us as we poked around Fernandina Beach. “People land on the island, and they never leave.”

Hippies and cowboys happily co-exist in Fernandina Beach, locals say, along with pirate lore and Florida’s oldest bar.
Hippies and cowboys happily co-exist in Fernandina Beach, locals say, along with pirate lore and Florida’s oldest bar.Diane Bair

Streets are canopied with massive live oak trees, including a street built with a split in the middle to accommodate an ancient specimen. A bicycle tour is a fun way to explore. Riptide Watersports (www.riptidewatersports.com) offers guided tours and beach bike rentals. Among other sites, you’ll see a home made of tabby (an oyster shell mixture) and the Bailey house, famously festooned with antique carousel horses that the owners found in its attic.

Advertisement



There’s a state park worth visiting on both ends of the island. At the southern tip, Amelia Island State Park offers a fun option: horseback riding on the beach. On the northernmost point, with views of Georgia’s Cumberland Island, Fort Clinch State Park is a plummy spot for hiking, camping, and birding at the site of a 19th-century masonry fort.

You don’t have to go far to find solitude and gorgeous nature. A paddling excursion off Walker’s Landing at Omni Amelia Island Plantation reveals a peaceful world of saltmarsh and bayous. Think dolphins and shore birds, not Jet-Skis. “People don’t realize that this exists here,” said kayak guide John Putrino.

Top spots to stay and eat: The 402-room Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort (www.omnihotels.com/ameliaisland; from $199) is a local landmark, with shopping, dining, golf, a nature center and kids’ camp. Off property, Timoti’s Seafood Shak (www.timotis.com) offers fresh local seafood and terrific salads (figs + feta + blackened fish=yum.) Lagniappe (www.lagniappeamelia.com), located near the resort, wins raves for updated French Creole menu.

www.ameliaisland.com

Fernandina Beach is full of stories. Its 50-block historic district full of Victorian homes, but beware of ghosts (except at this house, where it isn’t an issue).
Fernandina Beach is full of stories. Its 50-block historic district full of Victorian homes, but beware of ghosts (except at this house, where it isn’t an issue).Diane Bair

High Springs: A Gator-approved escape

Gainesville is famous for its Gators (the University of Florida football team) and as the birthplace of rocker Tom Petty. What you might not know: The city is an ideal base for discovering a treasure-trove of Olde Florida spots. “It takes 25 minutes or less to get from Gainesville to quaint, historical country towns like High Springs, Cross Creek, and Micanopy,” also in Alachua (ah-LATCH-you-uh) County, says Elizabeth Reyes of Visit Gainesville (www.VisitGainesville.com).

Advertisement



Our pick for most charming spot: High Springs (population 6,000), north of Gainesville. En route, stop for a look at one of Mother Nature’s curiosities, Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, a 120-foot-deep, 500-feet-across sinkhole. This natural landmark draws researchers to study the shark teeth, marine animals, and fossilized remains of extinct land animals found in the sink.

Arrive in High Springs in time for lunch so you can sample the hearty Southern fare (say, griddled redfish with fried green tomatoes and Gouda grits) at the Great Outdoors Restaurant. Downtown is fairly small, but inviting, with newly painted murals and several antiques/vintage shops, a bakery, and an art gallery. Some new businesses have sprung up recently, Pink Flamingo Diner and High Springs Brewing Company.

But the main event is outdoors: High Springs is the gateway to the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. The best way to experience them is on a canoe or kayak trip on the Santa Fe River. Canoe Outpost (www.santaferiver.com) offers rentals and tours, and can set you up to camp overnight along the way, if you’re into adventure. “This is a piece of heaven on earth,” says owner Jim Wood, noting that you can encounter more than seven springs — perfect for a quick dip — even on a short trip. The water temperature at the springs is 72 degrees year-’round, and there are no rapids or whitewater, Wood says, “just 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 who want to dig a little deeper and have an authentic experience in the heart of North Central Florida — maybe enjoy a farm-to-table dinner in a bio-organic farm, or take in an outdoor live music show without fighting traffic and crowds,” says Reyes.

Top spots to stay and eat: Since High Springs is so close to Gainesville, we opted to stay in the city. The Sweetwater Branch Inn (www.sweetwaterinn.com; from $139) was a perfect choice. A short walk from downtown restaurants, parks, and the historic Hippodrome Theatre, the property includes two Victorian homes and modern stand-alone cottages (25 rooms total), plus a heated saltwater pool and spa and a lavish breakfast. In High Springs, the Great Outdoors Restaurant (www.greatoutdoorsrestaurant.com) is housed in a former opera house-turned outdoor store, and the food is reliably good. Bonus: Live music and a menu of local microbrews. www.VisitGainesville.com, www.highspringschamber.com


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com