Florida’s “nature coast” located on the Big Bend, is the part of Florida that gently curves around the western side of the state – north of Clearwater through Ochlocknee Bay – comprising Citrus, Dixie, Hernando, Jefferson, Pasco, Levy, Taylor and Wakulla Counties.
A funny thing happened while traveling north on Hwy 19. While in route to Cedar Key, my Authentic Florida “antennae” went up traveling through the town of Homosassa Springs. Old Florida was everywhere – unpretentious fishiness, fish camps and roadside seafood stands. We made a quick unplanned turn off 19 heading straight for the Homosassa River. We found a fishy motel, grabbed some dinner and hit the sack early. The following morning, we were heading up the River in our kayaks.
The spring fed Homosassa River is within the Springs Coast Watershed and is unique because the water is a combination of both salt and fresh water. Typical fresh water fish are bass, bream and gar and the saltwater fish are snook, mullet, jack and sheepshead. July through September 10th the river is filled with people scalloping for their dinners. Fishing is a true livelihood as well as a sport in Homosassa Springs.
The Homossasa River is busy with slow moving pontoon and motor boats. Kayaks are well suited to the tributaries off the main river. We kayaked through the back areas paddling to a salt marsh estuary. In this ecosystem, the tide influences the entire habitat. Salt marshes are drained of fresh water when the tide is out and flooded with salt water when the tide returns, bringing back precious nutrients for the habitat. It is considered one of the most productive ecosystems anywhere. Florida wildlife is everywhere. We saw manatees, spectacular birds, and in the marshes, beautiful grasses and scenery that takes your breath away.
The next day, we visited the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and enjoyed the nice array of Florida wildlife from manatees to Florida panthers. It was a relaxed environment, the springs were beautiful and the park is well run.
Homosassa is an authentic find and will leave you wondering why you never came here before. Few people I know have ever spent any time there, and the next time we return it will be with special friends and family.
Cedar Key is in the heart of the nature coast. It is no question why John Muir spent time there adding many birds to his famed collection. The first time I went to Cedar Key was when I was in college at the University of Florida. It hasn’t changed all that much – it’s off the beaten path and still very charming.
We stayed at the familiar Island Hotel & Restaurant. It still has the quaint old Florida feel – built of seashell tabby – a mixture of oyster shell and limestone – with 10” thick oak beams. It’s amazing that it still stands since it was built around 1860. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Island Hotel Bar is a fun hangout – with guests and locals – a colorful King Neptune painting welcomes you and is surrounded by authentic Cedar Key murals. On the second floor, you will find more 1948 Cedar Key Cedar Key murals. The rooms are lovely and the upstairs outside porch is ideal for relaxing in large rocking chairs.
The Island Hotel Restaurant is downstairs and well worth it for the clams – farm raised in Cedar Key. They were delicious and I now incorporate Cedar Key clams in many of my seafood recipes.
Cedar key has a distinctive quaintness and moves slow. It’s quiet, tranquil and when there is a sign on a business that says “gone fishin” they really mean it. Driving around the outskirts of the island, you will see old Florida everywhere – original homes, fishing nets strewn over fences, fish shacks, boats, and old Florida, interspersed with familiar tourism.
Lovely getaway weekend. My next feature will be on the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Can’t wait.
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
Also located along the southern end of the Big Bend region, not far from Cedar Key and approximately 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge contains over 52,000 acres of land – with 20 square miles of estuary and coastline. This was by far, my favorite part of the entire Nature Coast tour. The combination of marsh land and natural springs makes for some of the most breathtaking nature I have ever witnessed. The salt marshes and the tidal flats attract shorebirds, ducks and spectacular wildlife. A photographer’s dream. Floodplain wetlands with hardwood forests, swamps and marshes are also highlights not to miss.
The Suwannee River actually cuts through the middle of the refuge and the Manatee Springs State Park has a swim area and a scenic walkway to the Suwannee. One thing I noticed about the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge was the abundance of butterflies – I was dazzled by the variety of colorful species.
When you leave, you will be filled with gratitude that this area was preserved for us to enjoy. Another Authentic Florida experience awaits you.