Crystal River/Citrus County: Manatee capital of the world
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.