Levy County, Florida, is a master at hidden jewels. There are small towns in this county that people tend to speed through on the way somewhere else—missing out on some of the best things Florida has to offer. Slow down, stop a while, and ask a local where to go. But, please…ssshhhhh… let’s keep it quiet!
The Sierra Club got its start here in 1867, when John Muir walked 1,000 miles from Indiana to Florida. He stayed to recover from malaria and began writing about man’s relationship with nature.
1. Cedar Key
Cedar Key is an island just 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, and less than three hours from Orlando or Tampa Bay. One way in and one way out, Highway 24 cuts through marshes and crosses small bridges with picturesque views, until you are sitting three miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.
A fishing community, Cedar Key is home to 800 full-time residents. In this village, you will enjoy a simpler way of life—enjoy this chance to “unplug.”
Cedar Key has become known as quite the art colony. Many artists live there year-round, and some just during the season. Several galleries display their work. I have to say my favorite is Island Arts on Dock Street (since I arrived in time for their unofficial artist’s happy hour and enjoyed a glass of wine while I shopped.) Thanks for welcoming me with open arms (and bottles), ladies!
3. History Lessons
Cedar Key has such a rich history it takes two museums to tell the town’s story. The Cedar Key Historical Museum and the Cedar Key Museum State Park. The museums tell of the locally plentiful cedar trees used for pencils until they were decimated in just three years. Area residents then turned to oystering, but again, they depleted the supply. The Hurricane of 1896 hit with a 10.5-foot storm surge that nearly leveled Cedar Key.
Rebuilding, by 1910, residents were using palm tree fibers to make brooms and brushes. Today, tourism and farm-raised clams are the breadwinners. Seashells and native American artifacts tell the story of Cedar Key’s early days in a restored 1920s home at the State Park. I can promise you will enjoy your history lesson!
Visitors can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and boats at five locations in Cedar Key. Spend a day on the water, birding, or looking for shells. Just paddling around with the breeze in your hair is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Birding is a popular pastime year-round, but the winter migration happens from November to March. The area salt marshes attract birds, especially shorebirds and birds of prey. The Great Florida Birding Trail passes through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.
While you are in the area, be sure to make one more stop…
6. Shell Mound
Found on the road to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, the Indian Shell Mound is worth the time to make the half-mile walk. The mound was built up by natives between 1,800 and 400 years ago and reaches 28 feet in height, covering 5 acres! I love oysters and clams—but this is a lot of shells! However, native inhabitants would have been at the mercy of rising seas without building the massive ridge.
There is a longer hike, a mile meandering beside Dennis Creek. Pro Tip: double up on the bug spray; they are persistent and apparently starved for the blood of unsuspecting tourists!
7. Swimming and Fishing
Ok, on the surface, these don’t seem to be related. But to enjoy swimming or fishing you need to visit the out-islands—and that requires a ferry. The Island Tours and Tidewater Tours are available for trips to the clear water and sandy beaches at Atsena Otie Key or Seahorse Key. To find a fishing guide, you only have to look for the brochure, Levy County’s Fabulous Fishing Guides, and you will have 28 from which to choose! You can also get the most current information at Levy County’s website. Gulf or river fishing—they’ve got you covered!
Of course, in the afternoon there are anglers trying their luck on the fishing pier. It is fun to watch, even if you don’t have a rod.
8. Seahorse Key Light
The island’s shape is said to resemble a seahorse, and the lighthouse was constructed in 1854. The house is a 70-foot square dwelling, with a spiral staircase to the lantern room. On top of “The Mound” (52 feet above sea level), the light is visible for 15 miles. This light is on the highest point on Florida’s west coast.
9. The Island Hotel
An icon from 1859, the hotel has been home to celebrities and even a president. Local writer Pearl Buck, John D. MacDonald, and President Grover Cleveland have all stayed in The Island Hotel, as has Jimmy Buffett. Buffett even held impromptu serenades from his balcony. The building not only survived the Civil War but hurricanes and even attempted arson (by a desperate bankrupt owner!) The hotel has period-decorated rooms that let you step back in time, but with only ten rooms, they fill up fast. They advertise, “It’s the perfect location for your next Florida vacation.” They just may be right!
You won’t find chain hotels here. What you will find in Cedar Key are locally owned places and plenty of individual houses. The Harbour Master Suites are the southernmost locale in Cedar Key – right over the Gulf of Mexico. They also have sister properties, improving your chance of getting a room. I stayed in an upper-level house, with a porch ideal for a quiet evening and a glass of Florida’s Blueberry Wine.
10. Award-winning Chowder
Famous for local clams, Cedar Key is home to Tony’s Seafood and its three-time World Champion Clam Chowder. Tony’s serves Clam Chowder, Lobster Bisque, and many other treats (think Florida Key Limes!) for your tastebuds at lunch and dinner. I couldn’t decide, so I had both the Clam and Lobster—only a cup of each… don’t judge!
11. Dockside Dining
Eat dinner and enjoy Gulf views at Duncan’s on the Gulf or Steamers Clam Bar and Grill. The friendly folks here are everywhere. When she saw me drooling from the smell of her pizza, a gracious local passed me a slice of her “Jimmy Frogs Toadally Awesome” Shrimp Pie. Oh, my GOODNESS! It soooo lives up to the name! Trust me, just order one! It was so good I returned the next night for a whole pie, but the clams just called my name… I’m a weak food lover, what can I tell you! I devoured that bowl with a delicious Pinot while I enjoyed the sun setting over the dock.
My dinner at Steamers consisted of a big bowl of clams steamed in white wine and butter. More yumminess! I left there early enough to drive to the island’s high point for sunset (another hot tip from a local!) I have to say; it did not disappoint!
12. High Stepping Equine
I think every little girl loves horses; I sure did (do)! Levy County is a horse-haven: perfect landscape, ideal weather, and barns alongside camper parking. Black Prong Equestrian Village in Bronson hosts a series of carriage driving competitions ranked by the American Driving Society. Driving Events begin November 17, and the final competition will be held on March 30, 2022. The events will include a dressage festival in February. Spectators are welcome, so check the Black Prong website for information if you are in the area.
Another claim to fame for Williston was being Foolish Pleasure’s home (the 101st Kentucky Derby winner!)
13. Manatee Springs State Park
One of Florida’s most picturesque places has to be Manatee Springs. Florida has over 100 state parks, but everyone says this is one of the best! A beautiful cypress-lined spring with boardwalks and observation decks, Manatee Springs is hidden among the trees. But the secret is out, and summer days and weekends are busy. But if you visit in the off-season, you may have the place to yourself. There is even a gazebo way down on the Suwannee River. If wandering along the water’s edge isn’t exciting enough for you, rent a bike, kayak, or canoe. The park will even arrange for a rented pontoon.
Manatee Springs has more than eight miles of trails and connects to the 32-mile Nature Coast State Trail. You may want to bring your bicycle!
14. Ivy House
Those enticing aromas emanating from a historic home in the heart of Williston are coming from the famous Ivy House restaurant. From fried green tomatoes to southern fried cod, you will not leave hungry. Famous among locals for their fried chicken, you will be hard-pressed to pick something else from the menu. The Ivy House has numerous awards and has been listed as one of the “Top 500 Places to Eat in the State of Florida” eight years in a row.
Dessert should not be skipped—you can diet tomorrow! Buttermilk Walnut Pie…just sayin’!! And after you eat, the boutique upstairs may hold just the treasure you need for your vacation souvenir. Owner Marjorie says of herself in her cookbook, Gracefully Southern, as a girl, she “loved to wear pretty clothes every day. I still do!” Browsing her selections in the boutique confirms that she hasn’t changed a bit! And speaking of pretty clothes, wait till you see the Ladies’ room door!
Ivy House is a labor of love. Marjorie Hale was born in Williston, delivered by Dr. Willis (son of the town’s namesake.) That same doctor built the Ivy House in 1912. I guess you could say that fried chicken is hereditary. As a teen, she worked for her sister Nettie’s restaurant, The Chick Inn (dress money, you understand.)
15. Devil’s Den
Despite the name, this is a pretty heavenly place. You drive down a long, moss-draped lane to Devil’s Den, a geological feature known as a karst cavern. This legendary place (between 10,000 and 75,000 years old) offers scuba divers and snorkelers the chance to explore a circle of crystal-clear water. If you aren’t a swimmer, you can still enjoy the view from an observation deck through an opening in the cavern’s ceiling. They have cabins as well as a campground and RV park.
16. Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens
I know, you’re thinking…seriously, there’s more?! Levy County is only 1,413 square miles, and 295 of those are water! Could it possibly offer more? The answer, my friend, is, “Yes!” Right next door to Devil’s Den is a century-old quarry that has been reimagined as a botanical garden. A true hidden gem accessed via a long dirt road filled with bumps and hills, Cedar Lakes holds 50 separate gardens. Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens is the vision of one man, Dr. Raymond Webber (well, ok, his vision was a private fishing hole, but that’s another story!)
You will wish that you had more time here, no matter how much time you have! Ponds, waterfalls, blossoms, royal swans, lily pads, and fruit trees will captivate; benches will beacon; fruit trees will tempt; birds will call. Put Cedar Lakes on your to-do list, and tell Lori I sent you! *smile* You can read even more about Cedar Lakes in my recent article in Garden Destinations.
17. Blue Grotto
Down a long road, the Blue Grotto sits in secluded peace. It isn’t too hidden since Jacques Cousteau visited and said the 80-foot-wide and 100-foot-deep spring had “visibility forever.” An expansive deck is perfect for observing diving lessons (even if you aren’t taking one.) The Grotto has guest cabins and a dive shop. And the instructor I watched was terrific! (I’m a retired teacher—I know amazing!) She was even helpful to this nosey visitor! I will be back–I haven’t a clue about snorkeling, and Susan says she can teach even me!!
18. Levy County Quilt Museum
The Levy County Quilt Museum in Chiefland will bring back memories of your grandmother’s house. I spotted several identical to my Grandma Clark’s handiwork. The hand-pieced quilts are displayed throughout the cabin (yes, the museum is in a lovely log cabin.) The store sells fabric for quilting hobbyists. And it has several historical displays; I enjoyed spotting a child’s sewing machine (I still have mine!)
Among the displayed quilts are award-winning examples created by Sieglinde Schoen Smith. Her first quilt, “Mother Earth and Her Children,” was made after her son’s death. She spent a year and a day piecing, embroidering, and appliquéing this quilt. This gorgeous creation won Best in Show at the International Quilt Show in Houston, Texas. First quilt; first contest; first prize! After her passing, her husband sought a place to display her quilts, not store them away in trunks. I especially love the Advent Quilt, with surprises everywhere!
I have discovered that there is a Florida Quilt Trail that leads through Gilchrist County. I’ll be cluing you in on that adventure soon!
19. UF Biological Station
Cedar Key is the home of the Nature Coast Biological Station. Part of the University of Florida, this three-story building has a wet lab and aquarium on the first floor and plenty of office space to research hard-shell clam aquaculture. If you stop by, maybe Mike will introduce you to the turtles!
20. Tiki Bar
I discovered the perfect spot to await the setting sun, the local Tiki Bar. Decorated with shells and sea glass and enclosed by a wall made of recycled bottles, this place has a list of drinks painted on an old surfboard! Naturally, I homed in on the Butter Pecan Colada. I’m still not sure whether to call it a drink or my dessert! Whatever you call it, I’m looking forward to another one!
If you need proof of the small-town feel of Cedar Key, here ya go—I’ve been here less than two days, and when I walked into this bar, immediately recognized an artistic “pufferfish” by Mare. I asked about the fish, only to be told that the bar owner is Mare’s son!! Yep, it’s a small world.
21. Bronson Blue Springs County Park
The Blue Spring County Park in Bronson is open from March through September. It offers swimming, a diving platform, and an observation deck. The clear spring water allows visitors to actually see the “boiling” spot, where the spring water is entering the swimming area. Spring waters are 72º year-round. It was pretty nippy to me, visiting on a 95º day, but I know in the winter months, 72º would feel toasty warm!
22. The Nature Drive
The nine-mile lime rock road that is the Nature Drive in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge will take you through swamps, marshes, maritime hammocks, and pine uplands. A hammock, for you landlubbers, is a stand of trees that grow on elevated areas, often just a few inches high, surrounded by wetlands or on slopes between wetlands and uplands. They form an ecological island within a contrasting ecosystem.
Keep your eyes open, and you just may spot deer, alligators, wild hogs, bears, bobcats, otters, fox, mink, birds of prey, and wading birds.
23. The Train Depot Museum
The 1913 Chiefland Train Depot is now used for a museum and the town’s Chamber of Commerce. So, you have the perfect “kill two birds” opportunity—learn about Chiefland’s history in a historic railroad station and pick up brochures for other must-see spots in Levy County. Pro tip: leave your car here and just walk down the block to the Havana Cuban Café for lunch!
24. Havana Cuban Café
One of the newest businesses in Chiefland, the Havana Cuban Café, provides a delicious taste of Cuban cuisine. Their bread is baked fresh every morning. A long appetizer menu allows you to try a small sample of lots of new foods. Their Tamale is a hand-tied thing of beauty! (Yes, your server will show you how to get into it!) Save room for a Guava Pastelitos! Have I ever steered you wrong?
25. Chief Theatre
The Suwannee Valley Players have provided live theatrical productions for over 37 years (the oldest community theater in the area.) Chief Theatre’s next show starts December 3…get your tickets early for The Miracle Worker!
26. Bonus: Party Time
For a laid-back fishing community, Cedar Key knows how to throw a party. The 51st Annual Seafood Festival is held every fall. Plan now for a visit next October. The festival celebrates the area’s heritage of fishing. Seafood, art, crafts, local musicians providing music, and free admission! Who could ask for more? Uh, you say you could? Well, how about a scary train ride? This Levy County event is happening this week (or you could plan for a trip next October!)
On that same October trip, check the dates for Williston’s Central Florida Peanut Festival, held in early October.
The Kirby Family Farm in Williston hosts events throughout the year. The online calendar is updated regularly. The Wild West Weekend starts November 6. And beginning November 26, the Christmas Train runs until December 26. Just check the schedule for dates and times.
There is no shortage of Seafood Festivals in these Gulfside towns. Yankeetown has held its two-day festival the weekend before Thanksgiving for forty years and includes arts and crafts—think Christmas shopping! This “old Florida” coastal village is located on Florida’s Nature Coast.
Circle the weekend of April 9 on your calendar, too. Cedar Key hosts the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, a juried event of 100 fine artists and craftsmen. It has been named one of the top small-town art fairs in America. In the beachfront City Park, vendors serve up homemade goodies and local seafood (yes, more seafood…yum!)
So many more events happen in the confines of Levy County. For a complete list, visit Nature Coast’s website.
My time in Levy County was not nearly long enough when you consider all the things to see and all the seafood to try!
If these 25 ideas (ok, 30) don’t fill all your time, then pick up a booklet, Old Cedar Key Walking Tour Guide Book, and you will find a tour of 53 historic sites in Cedar Key!
I need another visit, to be sure, but I think I could learn to love the pace of life in Cedar Key and be just as happy as a clam!