Your Crystal River Vacation Guide

Crystal River is one of the few places in the world where you can actually swim with manatees. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

A dip in crystal clear water at 72 degrees tickles the skin and clears the head. Anyone who enjoys frolicking Florida’s waterways will find a visit to spring-fed Kings Bay and Crystal River a refreshing – or for some, downright chilly experience. But when you factor in the possibility of spying on a massive 1,000-pound manatee swimming under or alongside you, the experience becomes one of those bucket list moments.

Nestled in Florida’s Big Bend, Crystal River is a small town of 3,200 people; it takes its name from the river. Life here revolves around the springs and a maze of islands and waterways stretching out to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s no surprise that water provides a livelihood for many, from fishing guides and outfitters to dive shop owners. Visitors can choose how they want to explore: fishing, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling and, most importantly, swimming with the manatees.

Sea cows have become so famous and sought after that the city is known as the “Manatee Capital of the World”. From November 15 to March 31, a constant parade of pontoons with pictures of manatees or hand-painted signs of the name of a tour company on their sides plies the waters of Kings Bay in search of the Florida manatee, a West Indian manatee subspecies. . On board, people dressed in sleek black suits with snug fitting neon-colored diving masks on their heads are eager to take the plunge.

Despite their size, aquatic mammals have very little body fat, so to survive the cold winter waters (below 65 degrees) they take shelter in the Crystal River area. Although a few hang around all year round feasting on the abundance of eels here, your best chance for a sighting is during the winter months. (Hint: To avoid the crowds, go on a cool rainy day. The manatees will still be there, but the number of divers ready to brave the weather is greatly reduced.)

Plantation 3 Outdoor

Plantation on Crystal River Resort offers an aquatic complex and access to water activities. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

Through the Guardian Guides manatee stewardship program, tourism and conservation groups working together, action has been taken to protect manatees while allowing ecotourism to flourish. At the Manatee Tour & Dive, housed in a bungalow surrounded by white fences, swimmers squirm in wetsuits, then walk a few shaded blocks to Kings Bay Park Pier and board a boat. Flotation devices, such as styrofoam noodles, are provided for additional buoyancy.

The tour operator’s seasoned captain knows where to find the manatees. Once in the water, the best way to see them is with a paddle or upper body breaststroke rather than kicking yourself, which obscures the water and reduces visibility. Passive observation is encouraged. Floating peacefully and looking down, you might see a round gray mass resting at the bottom of the bay. Eventually, the creature will swim to the surface, revealing its fins and flat tail. Aquatic mammals ascend every one to three minutes to breathe.

Kings Bay has over 70 springs, and another place for manatee enthusiasts is the beautiful Three Sisters Springs, which is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The 57 acres, located in the center of town, surround and protect the springs. Access to boats is limited and in winter, kayakers moor their boats at Kings Bay and swim in the springs.

Framed by large trees, the trio is grouped together. Most notable is the “Pretty Sister” spring with water that sparkles like gemstones, part aquamarine and part sapphire depending on the sunlight. “Big Sister” is the largest and “Little Sister” is a quiet cove. On land, visitors can see manatees in the crystal-clear waters from a boardwalk and walk a two-mile loop past blue bird nesting boxes, a bat house, and an expanse of wetlands.

If you can’t decide what’s the best way to explore the waters, an easy fix is ​​a stay at the Plantation on Crystal River Resort. A huge fountain adorned with statues of white manatees welcomes guests. Located on Kings Bay, the upscale, yet laid-back property is home to the Plantation Adventure Center. From its dock, you can hire a boat, hire a fishing guide, and book a manatee tour. A family resort is the perfect place to cast a line from the water’s edge with the kids or play a game of horseshoe on the lawn. An aquatic complex and a golf course add to the experience.

Scalloped homosassa

Crystal River is the epicenter of summer scallops on Big Bend, Florida. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

While in Crystal River, shoppers may want to spend some time in the Heritage Village shopping district in the historic downtown area. Pretty tin-roofed cottages and artisan-style houses with large porches have been converted into shops full of gifts, artwork, souvenirs, and local honeypots.

Stop by Tea House 650 and grab a stool from the counter for an iced yerba mate paired with a pecan scone, Medjool. A wall rack holds silver cans filled with some 70 types of loose leaf teas. Comfortable and cluttered, the store / cafe is filled with flowery tea cups and shapely teapots that tempt shoppers.

Later, when it’s time to unwind, the Waterfront Social offers the perfect perch. The restaurant’s open-air Tiki Bar juts out into Kings Bay, serving refreshing breezes on a warm evening, along with views of underdeveloped islands thick with foliage and personal watercraft coming home before dark. night. Sample alligator bites and Florida fish and chips while savoring a local beer – Kings Bay IPA by Copp Brewery or Red Right Return by Marker 48 Brewing – while watching the waters of Blue Bay sparkle under the last rays of the Sun.

Besides …

Dive for dinner

Scallops thrive in the seagrass beds of Big Bend, Florida. The swimming season in the shallow waters of the Gulf (3 to 6 feet) to collect the delicious mollusks runs from July 1 to September 1. 24. Guided charter boat trips provide snorkels, masks and bags; shuckers on the docks will clean your scallops for a fee. Bring a cooler.

Hang out with the locals

Jeff Countryman, owner of KC Wine and Koffee Bar, describes his cozy bar in Crystal River as a Florida-style “Cheers” with a patio and fire pit. The friendly locals enthusiastically share their secret spots with visitors. Where to find the best prawns? The Freezer Tiki Bar in neighboring Homosassa.

Coastal Art Gallery

Located in Heritage Village, this art treasure inspired by Florida’s coastal beauty is home to glass jellyfish wind chimes, coral-shaped glass bowls, and pottery featuring rockfish and manatees. Local artist Jennifer Rogers’ Queen’s palm boots, on which she paints intriguing pelican faces, hang on the walls.

The best kept fishing secrets

Captain Glen Touchton of the Southern Fishing Guide Service takes anglers to the unspoiled waters of Crystal River. As he navigates lawns surrounded by mangrove islands, he finds the best places to bite redfish, grouper, trout, cobia and tripletail.

About Patricia Kilgore

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