Monday, April 9, 2007

Manatee Springs, Chiefland, and Cedar Key

Manatee Springs State Park is located at the end of CR 320, due west of Chiefland. The road heads directly into the park, which has a pleasant, but very well used campground, particularly in comparison to some others we've stayed in. Arriving on a Sunday morning around 10:30, we had to wait until 1:00 PM to get into our site, a fairly spacious but very sandy one in the Hickory loop. Sites are not as well separated as they are at Oscar Scherer or Payne's Prairie and the bath houses are not as well cleaned. On the other hand, the park is fairly quiet, even though we are here during spring break week in Florida and there are many kids here.

The main reason for having a park here is a lovely spring welling out of the ground and filling a cypress encircled pond. Millions of gallans of water a day rush from the ground at a constant temperature of 72 degrees and provide a warm resting place for manatees during the chilly winter months. Now, in the first days of April, they have mostly returned to the Suwannee River, leaving the pool for swimmers and snorklers. The pool has crystal clear water and there are many turtles. Further down the outlet toward the river there are alligators. This is a good spot for a respite for us before heading for our last Florida bluegrass festival at Perry on Thursday. A sink hole, fancifully called The Catfish Hotel, though covered with duck weed, the bottom is 90 feet deep and it provides an entrance to an underwater cave system, the mapped part of which covers at least five miles. A raised walk leads along the outlet through a cypress swamp featuring huge knees to the Suwannee River. This walk provides a good sense of the depth and quiet of the cypress swamp. We are told that at night a light flashed on the water here reveals dozens of pairs of red alligator eyes.

Chiefland would be a run-down town if it had ever been run up. With a population just short of 2000, it has little to recommend it except for a lovely little coffee shop called Sunday’s that functions as the local Wi-Fi hot spot. Having been suffering from computer withdrawal for several days, we spend a couple of hours a day at Sunday’s to post blogs entries, catch up on e-mail, and check out web sites we like to visit regularly. The coffee and pastries here are delicious and we are never rushed as we spend time doing the computer work. The staff here is welcoming and helpful. We also find a relatively clean and smoke free Laundromat. When you live as we do, that’s an important plus. Otherwise, Chiefland has the inevitable and invaluable Wal-Mart superstore and a Walgreen’s pharmacy where the computer has made it possible to refill prescriptions without having to carry the scrips.

On Tuesday afternoon we drive down to Cedar Key, about thirty miles west. We drive across miles of Florida prairie; cattle grazing on palm and tree studded fields. There are almost no stores, gas stations, or houses along the road until we near the bridge to the island where things pick up a little. Cedar Key is pretty close to being what a tourist would call “unspoiled.” It has no high rises and only a few fairly recent condos. The back-bay features low hummocks covered with trees and vast salt marshes. The Gulf shore is more rocky than beachy and smaller islands with white strips of beach can be seen scattered a mile or two away. There are almost none of the gaudy McMansions seen further south along the west coast and no major hotels. The main street has a few artist’s shops, a book store calling itself curmudgeonly, some restaurants, and some old, quirky buildings that are examples of what is called Cracker architecture. We stop at the Chamber of Commerce for some literature, walk around a pier covered with gift shops and restaurants, and stop for lunch at Tony’s restaurant which offers a fish platter we share for too much money. Later we drive the length of the key and across a small bridge to another small key and drive along beside the airport landing strip until we reach a private development where we turn around and return. On the back streets of Cedar Key are a lot of littered yards, tin-roofed houses, and what tourists call character and local reformers call poverty. Cedar Key is worth a stay for a couple or family seeking out of the way quiet or at least a few hours for people looking for the fabled “old Florida” which may no longer exist.