A 12th Stone travel post:
A wonderful thing about retirement is the freedom to wander at will. Just pick up and go with no plans. Do people actually do that? Back in Pennsylvania when I was still working and our gang hung out at the VFW on Friday nights, I was the least spontaneous. If someone suggested taking off for the Jersey shore I was the predictable spoilsport. Usually because I had to clean my bathroom the next morning or do something equally as important. Five years into retirement, I’m still a slave to schedules.
Then I did it. How liberating to explore unfamiliar parts of Florida with no deadline—if even for a day!
Our recent overnight trip with another couple to Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico less than a three-hour drive from Jacksonville had been planned with confirmed reservations, of course. At checkout our friends suggested that we not go home until tomorrow and that we wander wherever the roads take us. Uh, sure, I agreed, mentally scanning my to-do list, all of which could wait, most of it indefinitely.
By then, we were already under the spell of Old Florida, having surrendered to its tranquility crossing the salt marshes under the Highway 24 bridges on our way into Cedar Key the day before. And who couldn’t relax at the Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, a beautifully preserved nearly 140-year old house with lace curtains, gorgeous garden, gourmet breakfasts and bottomless cookie jar. We relished spending the late afternoon on the veranda with other guests who ended up joining us for dinner at the historic Island Hotel near the harbor, walking back arm-in-arm singing tunes from the Great American Songbook. That bonding wouldn’t happen at a motel, we concurred.
Besides the water that nearly surrounds Florida’s second oldest city, Cedar Key is defined by enormous oak trees, some more than 200 years old. A short walk from our B&B to the quaint shopping district or the water’s edge took us under and around many of these graceful giants.
After checking out of the B&B with no agenda, we drove through parts of the island village we hadn’t explored on foot. Intrigued by the boardwalk over a tidal marsh at Cemetery Point Park we pulled over and parked but never took a step on it. The cemetery itself, with its decorated graves and storytelling markers, captivated us for more than an hour. The most impressive and heart-wrenching was the ornate gravesite of Lance Cpl. Brian Rory Buesing who died during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. His headstone features a photo of him in a desert holding a gecko in his hand. While we paid our respects a live gecko jumped onto the gecko in the picture. “Brian’s here,” one of us said. “Thank you, Brian,” we said in unison.
On a tip from friends back home, we stopped at The Hideaway Tiki Bar on our way out of Cedar Key. We caught co-owner Mo leaving to run early afternoon errands but she opened the bar for us instead. As we sipped craft beers—some brewed in Jacksonville—she told us about the popular Low-Key Hideaway motel with bicycles on the roof, adjacent RV campground and the waterfront tiki bar with walls made of colorful bottles, and how she and her husband moved from up north to take them over. A highlight of our trip, it will be our destination next time.
Taking Mo’s advice for a good lunch spot, we drove through 20 miles of pine forest to the Treasure Camp on the Suwannee at Fowler’s Bluff—a gem, indeed. The restaurant in the rear of the supply store serves great shrimp and offers a glorious view of the Suwannee River flowing a few feet away. A couple in search of the gold and silver rumored to have been buried by pirate Jean LaFitte two centuries ago pored over maps spread out on their table. Happens all the time, the waitress told us of hopefuls looking for the loot that local lore puts “near a big live oak tree in a bend of the Suwannee.”
Heading in the general direction of Jacksonville in the late afternoon, we came across a winery advertising free tastings. Dakotah Winery near Chiefland was a pleasant stop for sure, the experience enhanced greatly by its wildlife refuge out back. After some sipping and shopping we watched brilliant wood ducks swim in a pond with colorful koi.
As evening approached we began looking for a place to stay for the night. A Horseshoe Beach directional sign caught our attention. Didn’t matter that we would backtrack more than 40 miles to the gulf. It would be another new adventure. Like Cedar Key, however, Horseshoe Beach had been hit by Hurricane Hermine last year. New construction and devastation told tales. Our drive along the water’s edge shortly before sunset was spectacular, but we found nowhere to stay in the mostly residential community.
Remembering an interesting place we passed at Cross City, we drove nearly a half hour back to the Putnam Lodge. Touting Southern hospitality and elegant charm, it did not disappoint. We opted for dinner at the bar, entertained by Krista the lounge singer. A picture of the late gangster Al Capone, a frequent guest, peered back at us across the bottles. The next morning the owner gave us a tour of the historic estate, showing us a hideout behind the fireplace and a peephole in the mantle. Both were used to warn Capone of approaching authorities.
Still savoring sweet memories of that taste of spontaneity that begs for more.