01 MAR 2018: Since we've been coming to Jacksonville eight years ago we've been hearing references to "Old Florida". As in "yeah, it's pretty, but it's just not Old Florida" Old Florida is apparently a mythical place without strip-malls, without Walmarts, without chain hotels or chain restaurants. Where Disney's tentacles don't intrude. I've seen people go all dreamy-eyed over Old Florida. So, we set out to find this fabled place.  

We drove through a lot of towns where stores were boarded up.

And then we found Cedar Key, about two hours' drive north of Tampa. Sitting on an island three miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. One road in, same road out.

From the mid 1800's until 1930 a railroad ran from Cedar Key to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island on the Atlantic coast. It carried lumber - cedar, of course - and seafood, especially clams. The railroad meant that goods didn't have to be shipped all the way around Florida to reach New York and Boston. Cedar Key flourished.

Then a rival railroad was built to Tampa, bypassed Cedar Key, and the town went into decline.

According to the current residents Tampa won the harbour, but Cedar Key won the quality of life war.

It's not just spin.

Today Cedar Key a town of 800 residents. It attracts artists and craftspeople, kayakers and fishing enthusiasts.

And the locals grow clams. This little town of 800 is the biggest single supplier of sweet, plump, fresh clams to the people of America.

There's a nice little beach, and families crowd onto the fishing pier on a sunny day.

People know each other, talk to each other

I counted three tee-shirt stores total. Just three.

The only hotels are locally owned and operated. No big-brand names, no spa's.

There are no high-rises, no Walmarts, no Golden Arches. And nothing Disney. You have to drive 60 miles to Gainesville for a Starbucks low-fat-soy-demi-latte-fix.

We had lunch at Tony's Seafood restaurant. They serve - naturally - the best clam chowder in the world. And that's not advertising puffery: Tony's clam chowder won the World Clam Chowder Championship three years in a row (and yes: such a championship does exist!). They beat the New Englanders at their own game - in New England! After their third win they were asked to retire the recipe so that other people could have a shot at the prize.

And believe me - the chowder's good. It's thick and creamy, has a slight bite. And it's loaded with local clams, not canned ones from Thailand.

If you like New England clam chowder you have to make the pilgrimage to Tony's. (Or you can order it over the web, of course)

Cedar Key is about as far as you can get from the Florida that you and I know

But at the end of a relaxing day we drove back to our Airbnb cottage near Crystal River. We stopped at a chain gas station to fill upon the way, and bought the makings of dinner at the local Winn Dixie.

I guess I'm just a junkie, addicted to commercialism!

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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