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The Good Old Days are just up the road

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There is no oil washing ashore at Cedar Key but peace and tranquility are in abundance.  (Photo gallery below)

A full moon rises over the Gulf of Mexico and a stilthouse, just off of Cedar Key. (Mitch Traphagen photo)
CEDAR KEY - At midnight, lightning from a distant squall created a show in the sky while a full moon bathed the island in a soft light.  Two young women walked down the dark, quiet street to the Gulf of Mexico, dropped their robes and went into the water au natural. They didn’t appear to be immodest or scandalous; they simply wanted to enjoy the water and the moonlight on their skin. On this island, they could do just that.  If there were laws against nude swimming, chances are no one would care to enforce them in this case. It was a victimless crime.

A few hours earlier in the evening, the trickle of cars driving around the island had given way to couples walking down the road holding hands. And now most of them were tucked inside darkened rooms in the nearby motels and bed and breakfasts.  In Havana or another Spanish coastal city, that road would have been known as the Malecón, or something equally grand.  Here it is just called 1st Street.  There are few pretensions in Cedar Key.

There might be a handful of similar communities inland, but on the coast Cedar Key stands alone as one of the few remaining Old Florida towns. Children are taught to say sir and ma’am.  There is little in the way of real crime.  It is as if a buffer of history, some of it horrific, much of it proud, has protected this place in the gulf.

Whatever the reason, time moves gently here. This is the kind of place where streets curve around trees rather than having cut the trees down for ramrod straight roads.  It is a place in which most of the businesses are family owned, and many of the families have been here for generations.  There are stately old mansions that still retain their glory, the humble homes of hardworking people, and the kinds of places that put the shack into ramshackle. It all adds up to an unequaled charm.  A town’s charm is a nearly undefinable element that comes from within — it can’t be manufactured by a developer. Cedar Key is loaded with charm.

The moment you turn off of US Highway 19 to Highway 24 bound for Cedar Key, you know you have entered a different kind of Florida — the Old Florida. The road is almost entirely devoid of traffic. Otter Creek, Ellzey and Rosewood are the towns you pass, each with homes bearing open windows to catch the breeze in the summer heat. The back roads and highways are nearly empty of traffic. This is not the Florida most people have come to know or expect.

Oil is not washing up on the beaches of this island. There are no tar balls. The water isn’t the blue-green of the Keys, but it is cleaner, nearly pristine. There are dolphins — an estimated 300 of them that live around the island year around. And there are fish and egrets, herons and osprey that make up a seemingly endless array of wildlife.

It is 2:30 a.m. at the Faraway Inn on Cedar Key. The distant squall has faded and a cool breeze has softened the warm, humid air from hours earlier. The young women have returned to their rooms at a bed and breakfast up the street. The full moon reflects upon the water and upon the island.

Amidst the tranquility in this late hour comes the realization that time cannot be saved. Regardless of how time is used, tomorrow will arrive just the same. For all of us there are a finite number of tomorrows. It is possible, however, to take advantage of time. It moves slowly on this island.

Like most businesses on the island, the Faraway Inn is not owned by a faceless corporation, but by a couple who call Cedar Key home. Oliver and Doreen Bauer have owned the motel since 2000. They have weathered both hurricanes and crises such as September 11 and, more recently, the economic downturn. Through it all they have created an oasis of peace and tranquility. They have worked to make their inn a home to strangers.

“We have tried to make the kind of place where you don’t feel like you need a vacation after your vacation,” Oliver said.

Nightfall at the Faraway Inn on Cedar Key. (Mitch Traphagen photo)
On a recent weekday, Doreen and Oliver held an office meeting of sorts with their three employees. The meeting was offsite - aboard a pontoon boat anchored in the cove of a nearby island. Dolphins swam, pelicans floated and mullets jumped as sandwiches were consumed over laughter and stories. Oliver said that perhaps only one in 500 guests caused headaches. But when asked for specifics, he could only recall one. That man complained about the color of the meticulously painted walls, the fluffy towels, the soft pillows and even the bedspreads.

“It turned out he was a drinker and he hadn’t had a drink in a while riding his motorcycle here,” Oliver said with a smile. “Once he had a shot of whiskey, he was pretty happy with everything.”

“I can only recall getting angry once. No, twice. No, three times,” Doreen added as everyone on the boat laughed. In the end, she, too, could only describe one time.

With just the slightest twist of fate, Oliver may have been a hard charging business owner in New York City with a couple of heart attacks under his belt and a sizable bank account. Doreen may well have been a high level executive putting in 60 or 80 hours per week. But on Cedar Key, they have found a home; as have their employees, including sisters Wendy and Stacy, both originally from Maine.

“Once you have found the right place for you, life is easier,” Oliver said.

Many of their guests have discovered the same thing. In each room and cottage, there is a book for guests to leave messages and memories. Many of the entries use the same words: “peaceful” and “beautiful” and “loved”. One note was left by two Florida natives, “Most of Florida’s coastal areas don’t even resemble the Florida that we knew,” they wrote. “It is wonderful and refreshing to visit Cedar Key and see that there is an Old Florida community that has been preserved. This is a very special place.”

More than a few notes were left by furrier guests, signing their names with paw prints. Their owners thrilled to find a place in which they can vacation with their canine companions. Doreen and Oliver are animal lovers and the Faraway Inn is very pet friendly. The couple also founded and manages a neutering program for feral cats on the island. To date, they have neutered and released more than 600 cats.

Reading the guestbook, history unfolds and it is clear that lives are started, built and refreshed here. One couple writes of their wedding on the veranda. Another writes of celebrating their fourth anniversary here, in the place they married, but now of also enjoying the presence of their young daughter. Another couple writes of how much they enjoyed their 30th anniversary on the island upon which they were married. Almost every note mentions how much they want to return. For those guests, this is the right place.

Doreen quickly learned how attached her guests became to the place — and how badly they hoped to maintain a connection to it.

“It is really nice that people want to stay in touch with us,” she said. “But I was really surprised when some people called or emailed us every day after leaving.”

If nothing else, their words or their voice could be carried through the telephone lines to Cedar Key. It was a connection. A part of them, at least, was still there.

The deep blue of the late afternoon sky had given way to darkness of another night. The quiet island became still in the late hours. Soon I would be leaving, too. In the morning on my way out I lingered, driving slowly down Dock Street, the thoroughfare through the tiny downtown. Like someone blinking the sleep out of their eyes, the community was beginning to come to life for another day. At the boat ramp downtown, a fisherman — a man who actually worked on the sea for a living — helped a group of tourists launch their shiny, new powerboat. It is a near certainty the boat cost more than the fisherman earned in several years. But he helped them as though they were friends.

Cedar Key is more than a preserved Old Florida community. It is a living example of the Good Old Days. Like everywhere else, there are problems and challenges. But on this island, time has moved more slowly. Visiting Cedar Key is like stepping back in time to a day when simple courtesy still mattered.

The drive is short by miles, but long in the changing attitude. Back through Rosewood, Ellzey and Otter Creek, through the stoplights in Crystal River, and then the traffic, freeways and bustle of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area is only a few hours; but is now viewed with an entirely new perspective. Driving south on the Veterans Expressway, I think about the peace and solitude only a few hours removed. I decide to call Doreen when I get home. Just to say, “Hi”.

The Faraway Inn offers specials to retirees over the age of 58 as well as to members of the military. For more information call 888-543-5330 or email info@farawayinn.com.

Cedar Key Faraway Inn - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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