I have kayaked and fished on the waters around this tiny island since the early 1980s. It always was a vibrant place. On this recent visit, I did not find the old vibrancy.
The first indication that Cedar Key is languishing came when I drove along Second Street toward the Island Hotel, one of my favorite places. It was a little past noon on Saturday, and I saw only two late model cars and a beloved, ratty Dodge pickup. In the past, vehicles would be parked bumper-to-bumper around the hotel.
Inside the hotel, I was surprised when I did not see any other customers. I asked the desk assistant if the Neptune Bar was open for service. It would not open until 5. Business was "really slow," the woman said. Was the restaurant open? Not until 5. Naive me, I asked what was going on. I had never seen it so deserted on any of the many times I had visited the hotel and stayed overnight.
I walked to the Curmudgeonalia gift shop and bookstore, the only bookstore in what is known as the Tri-County area — Dixie, Levy and Taylor counties. I could see from the sidewalk that things were really slow inside. I learned that business has been down 50 percent to 60 percent since BP's well began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico five months ago.
On Dock Street, the island's main artery, where visitors come for a unique experience on Florida's Nature Coast, the economic impact of the spill is all too clear. The irony is that Cedar Key is hundreds of miles from the well site, and from all indications, the waters and shores are as safe as they were before the well blew out.
Cedar Key's coast is free of oil, free enough that state and federal biologists released 23 rehabilitated Kemp's ridley sea turtles near here in August. The animals had been victims of the spill. Their release is just one signal that Cedar Key's seafood is safe to eat.
This fact, however, brings little comfort to the businesses on Dock Street and elsewhere on the island.
Hungry and ready for a drink, I began a door-to-door search for what I wanted most: fried mullet and hush puppies. I walked all of Dock Street inspecting menus. At each place, I asked: "How's business been since the oil spill?"
At the Raw Bar on the Deck, a waitress, whose husband is an independent clam farmer, said business had been "dead slow" since Labor Day. She said other clam farmers like her husband were badly hit.
Only a handful of patrons were at Frog's Landing. It was the same at Coconuts of Cedar Key, formerly the Captain's Table. A bartender at the Black Dog Bar & Tables, where I was introduced to Chimay Ale, said, "Business was pretty good on Labor Day, but it's been slow since then."
I found fried mullet and hush puppies at the Seabreeze Restaurant. I was one of nine customers in a dining room that has one of the best views of the gulf. My waitress was pleasant, the food was delicious and the wine was passable. During my past visits, this eatery had been hopping.
"We don't have oil, but people think it's a mess here," my waitress said. "I tell customers to pass the word: We don't have any oil in Cedar Key."
The Water's Edge Gift Shop on the pier shut its doors a few weeks ago. For 28 years, this was one of the best places in town to buy souvenirs. Robinson's fish market, which also operates charter boats, has seen business drop by 80 percent. Other charter boat owners said their customers have declined. Tidal Wave Tours, for example, has seen a 12 percent to 13 percent drop since the beginning of June.
A few hours before I left Cedar Key, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's lead man on the spill disaster, announced that the BP well "is effectively dead."
This is good news, but it is bringing little relief to this island city that has depended on the abundance of the sea for most of its income for more than a century. Now, the future is a great unknown. Will false perceptions continue to trump reality? Will tourists continue to stay away?