Cedar Key, Fla. — As the west coast of Florida slowly succumbs to fast food and slow traffic, it is comforting to know there are still places like Cedar Key and Longboat Key. They are miles apart in every way - geographically, culturally, architecturally - but somehow share enough of the qualities that put me right at home, which was important on a frigid swing down the gulf coast last winter.
Cedar Key is one of Florida's best-kept secrets, unknown to the winter renegades who flock to Disney World, Miami Beach, and Key West. Cedar Key lies at the end of Highway 24 well up the coast from Tampa-St. Petersburg and just below the point where Stephen Foster's Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The key was not always so obscure. Once it was one of Florida's largest ports, and its factories turned out wood pencils made from the abundant cedar trees lining the shores. When the cedar supply gave out, so did Cedar Key.
This brief history lesson was absorbed on a chilly Monday afternoon in the only establishment in town that seemed to be open, the Island Hotel. A sign on the weathered frame building said ''1836,'' but the woman holding court behind the counter of the cafe inside observed: ''I don't believe that. The hotel's more like 1850, but anyway it's going on the National Register of Historic Places.''
Marcia Rogers, the owner, is a renegade herself, a former psychology instructor at the University of Vermont who pulled up stakes in 1980 and ''drove all over Florida looking for my place in the sun'' until she crossed the little bridge to Cedar Key. She bought the 10-room hotel, a durable but aging structure of cypress and heart of pine, filled it with her Vermont antiques - carved cherry-wood beds, dressers, piano - and gave a name to each room. Her favorite is the Richard Boone room, named for the late actor who often stayed at the hotel. (Rates are $20 to $30.)
Marcia, balancing a pet cherry-headed parrot on her shoulder, said the big news in Cedar Key was that the streets had recently been designated with letters or numbers: A,B,C,D, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th. She said the locals (Cedar Key's population is about 700) would not take easily to the change, nor were they happy with the coming of the town's first condominium development, the Cedar Cove Marina.
''I could see it existing on the other side of the bridge, but not here,'' said Marcia, a member of the local land-use committee. ''There was a quiet renaissance starting here and then, whoosh, the condo people came in. The new units will use up our water supply, and the residents will demand bigger and better services, throwing off the balance we have. They'll even demand a police force, which we don't need. We're all responsible to and for each other. Pretty soon the people who make Cedar Key what it is will have to move out.''
Twice a year the little town at the end of the road outdoes itself, first with a Sidewalk Art Festival in late April, then with a Seafood Festival in mid-October. ''We get 5,000 to 10,000 people for the art festival,'' said Marcia Rogers. ''The quality is very far-ranging - from junk to Picassos.''
On this raw January day, it was hard to imagine the warmth and throngs of late April. Even the shops with ''open'' signs in the windows looked deserted. Such was the case with the Cedar Key Country Store at the corner of 2nd and D, and with the Historical Society Museum across the street. But down at the docks, the restaurants that served Cedar Key's famous oysters, stone crabs, and palm-heart salad were open for business. Marcia Rogers and her patrons had insisted I stay around for Cedar Key's equally famous sunset, which I watched from the window of the Sea Breeze cafe. Two oystermen who had spent the day scraping ice from oyster beds in the area pointed to what looked like a tiny tufted island out on the sun-reddened water; it was a huge colony of cormorants huddling for warmth.
With the novel and conflicting images of Cedar Key still on my mind, I rolled into a key of a much different style the next afternoon. Longboat Key, a long bridge removed from Sarasota, was a wilderness of pine woods and gorgeous 12 -mile-long beach until the Arvida real estate developers moved in a few years ago. To their credit, they have tamed the key with taste. Hardly a blade of grass or frond of palm is out of place along the main avenue, Gulf of Mexico Drive, where hotels, condos, and residential tracts hide behind bougainvillea and hibiscus.
John Ringling, the circus magnate (whose mansion and art museum are major tourist attractions across the bay in Sarasota) built the main bridge to Longboat Key a half-century ago, and laid out an early shopping mall called St. Armand's Circle. The classical statuary he implanted, a bit chipped and weathered now, still stands on the palmy circle, and expensive shops and boutiques line the streets that radiate from the center. Ringling also built a big hotel, but it foundered in the Great Depression, stood for years as an eerie skeleton on the south end of the key, and was finally torn down to make way for Longboat's most ambitious lodgment, the Longboat Key Club, which opened this fall.
I stayed at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort down the road. A favorite retreat for tennis buffs (with 21 courts and nonstop instruction if you want it) , it is also winning a deserved reputation for its food and entertainment.
The hardest thing to find on Longboat Key is a building with age or character , but I found one: the Bridge Shack, a weathered cheeseburger parlor favored by underground gourmets from Sarasota and situated on the very edge of the isle. I sat down for lunch at one of the formica tables, and suddenly I was back on Cedar Key.