NATURE COAST BIRDING AND WILDLIFE EXPERIENCE
September 29 - October 2, 2005
Cedar Key, Florida
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All photos courtesy Cedar Key resident, John Lock. For more photos please click on "Spike" above.
Copyright 2005, American Senior Fitness Association
P.O. Box 2575, New Smyrna Beach FL, 32170
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Why would older adults who live in a pleasant, moderately sized beach town drive all the way across the state of Florida to vacation in another coastal town? After all, their hometown is a charming retirement and vacation destination itself. If an occasional getaway is needed at all, one would think these beach dwellers might seek some contrast, like a trip to the mountains. It didn't seem to add up, but we kept hearing about mature residents of New Smyrna Beach, located on the Atlantic, who regularly visit Cedar Key, located on the Gulf. We wanted to find out what they were getting out of this seemingly illogical habit. So SFA, which is based in New Smyrna, hit the road for Cedar Key.
Cedar Key is an island off the west coast of Florida, about 125 miles north of Tampa. It's acclaimed for its natural beauty and the local clams. We wondered what else we would find there to explain Cedar Key's draw to seniors from another bonny waterfront setting with plenty of fresh seafood dining of its own.
Grasping a Little Piece of Heaven
Our first clue toward solving the mystery came upon our arrival in Cedar Key. It's not just small, it's tiny. It retains the genuine quaintness lost by so many once enchanting -- now grossly overdeveloped -- Sunshine State communities. In Cedar Key you won't see "Old Florida" facades tacked onto soulless high-rises in a failed (and somewhat cynical) attempt to recapture the authenticity of smaller structures bulldozed down to make way for uncontrolled growth. Cedar Key's example as a working town that has managed to preserve its unique character may appeal to those who fondly recall earlier, less crass times.
Perhaps surprisingly, we discovered that Cedar Key's attraction to older pilgrims is not senior-targeted amenities. In fact, to conveniently get around the village one must mount stairs often (since many buildings are constructed on stilts to prevent flooding). It's not price either, as food and lodging expenses for visitors to Cedar Key are generally in line with other Florida resorts. It sure doesn't provide the atmosphere of an "adult community," that modern residential design wherein retirees may opt to largely avoid the boisterous carrying-ons of children. No, Cedar Key teems with wayfaring seniors, middle-agers, young couples, college students, and lots of kids. Indeed, some of its prime real estate is devoted to a sandy public beach that welcomes dogs and includes a seaside playground where local and tourist kids pervade the town with shrieks of laughter. Perhaps it's this intergenerational sense of community that acts as a siren's call to some of the healthy active seniors who frequent the key. The place is so alive.
Another enticement may be size. As mentioned, Cedar Key is small. How small? Well, we never needed a car during our stay. You can walk back and forth across this island in minutes. Its phone directory takes up four pages. We met a twenty-something native whose graduating class at the local high school numbered fifteen. Did you know public schools that size even existed anymore? (Fittingly, Cedar Key's little school boasts an excellent marine biology program.) Curtailing traffic congestion, golf cart rentals are allowed on the avenues leading to the town's history museum, art galleries, boutiques, seafood eateries, and dockside pubs. Though popular, the island doesn't feel crowded. Crossing any street, any time, is effortless. So is learning one's way around. We concluded that, compared to the huge tourist meccas for which Florida is famous, Cedar Key remains easy to handle and master -- which may help older guests feel comfortable and relaxed.
Keeping Active, Feeling Rested
About those golf cart rentals, SFA recommends that persons in reasonably good health forego them. Since this key is so small, exploring it on foot provides good, non-taxing exercise. If you need a break, there are benches everywhere -- including shady alcoves provided by the gift shops that line Dock Street, a Cedar Key tourist magnet. Mature adults who enjoy walking can also hike on bird watching and wildlife trails in the immediate vicinity. One night at dusk, scores of nature lovers strolled along the water's edge, witnessing an extravagant turquoise and coral sunset. It featured a fully formed rainbow that arced across the immense sky, culminating in a hot pink cloud that seemed to float just above a distant sailboat. Everyone was certain a pot of gold lay at its terminus! While in Cedar Key, we observed seniors boating, kayaking, fishing, and otherwise taking advantage of the fresh air and great outdoors. Maybe that, too, is one of the lures -- Cedar Key's combination of unadulterated nature and senior-friendly exercise opportunities.
Basking in the Mood
Speaking of "friendly," the island's personality also must account, in part, for its seduction of Florida seniors from across the state. Many Cedar Key natives choose to stay and live out their lives there -- and they clearly love the place. Southern accents and small-town good humor abound. (One amiable waitress jokingly offered us her college-age sons for adoption, saying, "Free to a Good Home!"). While many residents thrive on tourism, there's no hard-sell mentality about them. We were pleasantly shocked when a restaurant owner, temporarily out of New England clam chowder, cheerily recommended a competitor who she said "has great chowder today." There's a tolerant, caring trait among the population, most evident by its extension to Cedar Key's tribe of homeless dock cats. We counted about twenty under the porch of one art gallery whose proprietor feeds them. Some were as rough and scrappy as you might imagine dock cats to be, others quite chic and tame. A donation jar sitting amid the shop's impressive displays of fine art helps to finance the urchins' medical needs, including shots and neutering. These welcome experiences -- and more -- gave us another hint as to why Cedar Key attracts the mature and thoughtful. The little place is just so real, so honest, so funny, and so kind.
At this point in our quest to understand the pull of Cedar Key on cross-state seniors, things were starting to become clear to us. But we still had another epiphany to undergo: It's the pace, stupid! Accustomed to the hurry-scurry, constant traffic, and other minor vexations inherent in inhabiting even a medium sized Florida tourist town, we nearly missed the fact that upon entering Cedar Key our inner rhythms had slowed. Why did we feel so calm, so at peace? Eventually we realized we were responding to the laid back atmosphere of the island. Even those at work didn't seem rushed or harried. Wow, we'd almost forgotten having felt like this before! Places like Cedar Key provide refuge for those who can still remember and appreciate a simpler and slower past. That's got to be good for blood pressure as well as for stress management.
Dreaming of a Return Holiday
So finally we "got" it. What gains do these healthy active seniors who journey from one so-called paradise to another derive from their trek? The answer: emotional sustenance, enhanced quality of life, health and wellness benefits -- plus a shot of rejuvenation. Communities like New Smyrna Beach are fine now, but they're changing. Towering condos are sprouting up, the roads already growing crowded, the days faster-paced, and life more complicated than when many chose the sleepy little town as their perfect retirement nook. A time-honored Florida custom requires that if a place is picturesque and original, investors inevitably must over-build the area and despoil it forever. Eccentric old hamlets succumb to sprawl and run together these days, all shiny and new. They're indistinguishable one from another, having been relieved of their idiosyncrasies, individuality, their special identities. In fact, it's kind of amazing that places like Cedar Key still survive in this state. Locals there say ruinous development will never taint their isle due to its limited size and tight legal restrictions. Let's hope. If you ever visit Cedar Key, you well might be tempted to move there. Some folks do, but Florida's high shoreline property values deter most, and that's probably a good thing.
Cedar Key makes you cherish all those little, out-of-the-way spots to which you can escape for physical and personal renewal -- not only in Florida, but anywhere. The point of this article isn't necessarily to get you to book a vacation to Cedar Key, but rather to encourage you to discover (or rediscover) places that will do for you what Cedar Key does for its devotees. Wondrous havens are out there still. So go, enjoy them, recharge your body and spirit! Head home knowing that you'll be back again and again. Wherever you live, wherever you travel, find your Cedar Key.
From the Editor
Write to us about your "Cedar Key" and how it fosters mature health and fitness. We'll post interesting getaway ideas online and will consider publishing outstanding essays. SFA may edit for space and grammatical accuracy and will fact-check content when deemed advisable. If possible, include photographs of the location. All write-ups and visuals must be accompanied by written, signed permission for publication by SFA. (Retain text and photo duplicates, as materials will not be returned.)
Check our website to see if your entry has been chosen for publication. Sorry, there's no payment involved; it's all for fun and glory! Describe the special place that soothes your nerves and restores your energy -- unless you prefer to keep it a secret! Oh, come on and spread the joy!
Mail submissions to: ESCAPE, American Senior Fitness Association, P.O. Box 2575, New Smyrna Beach FL 32170.