Crys­tal River/Cit­rus County: Mana­tee cap­i­tal of the world

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY STEVE WIN­STON

What makes Crys­tal River so very spe­cial? First of all, it’s the mana­tee cap­i­tal of Florida . . . in fact, of the United States. And it’s the only place in the coun­try where you can legally in­ter­act with these beloved gen­tle, in­tel­li­gent “sea cows” weigh­ing as much as 2,000 pounds and ex­hibit­ing a great affin­ity for hu­mans. Ac­tu­ally, they’ll swim right up to you!

The wa­ter­ways in the Crys­tal River area at­tract be­tween 600 to 800 man­a­tees be­tween Novem­ber 15 and March 31. That’s more than any­where else, and rep­re­sents one-sixth of all the man­a­tees in Florida. Peo­ple come from all over the world to ob­serve or “swim” with these lov­able crea­tures.

“It’s an amaz­ing, pro­found, ex­pe­ri­ence,” one lo­cal tourism of­fi­cial com­ments. “And you’ll come out of the wa­ter a changed per­son.”

SEE AND DO

The Crys­tal River area is filled with nat­u­ral 72 F springs (one rea­son for the warmer rivers). One of the best places to ex­pe­ri­ence them is at Crys­tal River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Here, the Three Sis­ters Springs is sur­rounded by a board­walk al­low­ing you to see man­a­tees as well as the sur­round­ing wet­lands, with­out getting wet. How­ever, if you want to get wet, there are other lo­ca­tions where you can swim right into the springs and into Kings Bay, which has some 70 springs.

The east side of Cit­rus County boasts the 46-mile-long With­la­coochee State Trail—the long­est cy­cling trail in Florida. In ad­di­tion, the county also fea­tures great golf cour­ses, among them the Tom Fazio-de­signed Quarry Course at Black Di­a­mond Ranch, which was ac­tu­ally built in an old quarry.

An­other unique place in the Crys­tal River area is El­lie Schiller Ho­mosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a place you and your kids will love. It’s a per­ma­nent res­i­dence for na­tive Florida wildlife that has been in­jured and can’t be re­leased back into the wild. Dur­ing the mana­tee sea­son, many wild man­a­tees find their way here. And four of them are per­ma­nent res­i­dents, since they can no longer sur­vive in the wild. Their “neigh­bors” in the park in­clude two of the en­dan­gered (very rare) Florida pan­thers, two black bears and a breed­ing pair of red wolves.

For a taste of gen­uine wilder­ness, the Chas­sa­how­itzka River of­fers great pad­dling ex­pe­ri­ences, with warm springs per­fect for swim­ming and view­ing man­a­tees.

This re­gion has an in­ter­est­ing his­tory as well, and there are sev­eral spots where it comes to life. Lo­cated in the town of In­ver­ness, the Old Court­house Her­itage Mu­seum is one you’ll want to visit. An­other is the Na­tive Amer­i­can cer­e­mo­nial site at Crys­tal River Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal State Park. And Fort Cooper State Park fea­tures the re­mains of a fort be­sieged by the Semi­noles dur­ing the Sec­ond Semi­nole War in 1836.

DINE AND PLAY

Sev­eral in­ter­est­ing towns ex­ude the fla­vor of Old Florida. Down­town Crys­tal River, for ex­am­ple, is a pedes­trian-friendly place with

in­ter­est­ing shops, cafes, and two fish mar­kets with restau­rants. Seafood is a sta­ple here, as you’re sur­rounded by rivers and bays. Char­lie’s Fish House spe­cial­izes in menu del­i­ca­cies that were swim­ming in those wa­ter­ways just an hour be­fore. And the Crab Plant was once ac­tu­ally a can­ning plant for blue crab. To­day, it’s a busy fish mar­ket and a pop­u­lar restau­rant.

Crys­tal River also has a fas­ci­nat­ing His­toric District, with the color­ful old-time shops of Her­itage Village of­fer­ing items you won’t find any­where else.

Ho­mosassa is one of the old­est com­mu­ni­ties in this re­gion. It started out as a sugar cane plan­ta­tion in 1851, which was de­stroyed dur­ing the Civil War. But a town rose in its place as a fish­ing and recre­ational cen­ter. In­deed, some fish­ing clubs, such as Shelly’s Seafood Mar­ket housed in a com­mer­cial fish­ing site, harken back to those days. The Ho­mosassa Fish­ing Club has been around since the 1890s and you can also pur­chase your din­ner right off the com­mer­cial fish­ing boats that un­load their catches here.

In the small town of Le­canto, Katch Twenty-Two is a high-end, fresh-cui­sine fa­vorite with a for­mer head chef from the pres­ti­gious W hotel chain.

What’s good at lo­cal restau­rants? Grouper, mul­let and blue crab are pop­u­lar sta­ples. And if you’re vis­it­ing dur­ing stone crab sea­son (for a few months start­ing mid-Oc­to­ber), you must try these melt-in-your-mouth de­lights.

TOP: Swim with man­a­tees in Crys­tal River. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Tour­ing Ho­mosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

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