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Road Trip Florida: 5 Tips For Visiting Crystal River

August 20, 2020 Will McGough
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Located an hour and a half from Tampa Bay and Orlando, Crystal River in Citrus County is an appealing road trip destination for those looking to get out of the city.

The area is blessed with a combination of fresh water springs and the salty Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a vibrant ecosystem of bright-blue clear water, healthy forests, and an abundance of sea life. Boating, fishing, and water sports are the main lifestyle activities of the locals, whose hometown blends feelings of “Old Florida” with Southern hospitality.

For the visitor, there are many opportunities to experience this lifestyle, as well as buckletlist-type adventures, such as swimming with manatees or scalloping, all the while enjoying some of the region’s best cuisine.

Below, we provide five tips to help you get the most of your trip.

First Things First: Stay at the Plantation

The Plantation will not blow you away with anything flashy. The rooms are comfortable but basic, the extra amenities few. Yet what it lacks in modern flair it makes up for with its atmosphere and location, two things that I believe override everything else on a visit to Crystal River.

Everything you want to do in the area revolves around the water, and easy access is key to a relaxing trip. The Plantation not only sits right on the water, with direct access to the Kings Bay and its springs, it has one of the area’s largest adventure centers right on site. Boat tours, SUP rentals, and snorkeling trips all leave from the property, which offers a tremendous amount of convenience, especially for families with kids (no getting in and out of the car).

The Plantation is an active marina for tour boats and private vessels, and the grounds have lots of green space and huge live oak trees, perfect for sitting out and watching the boats come in and out. The onsite Tiki Bar serves fresh seafood, and with other attractions within a bike or kayak ride away, it’s a shrewd location for a homebase.

Low Season Snorkeling: ‘To See the Manatee, Be the Manatee’

One of the main natural attractions of the area is the manatee migration that takes place every winter, beginning in November and going through March.

During this time, hundreds of manatees visit Crystal River’s fresh water bays, where they rest, re-coop, and escape the cold waters of the Gulf winter.

With my trip planned for July, I knew I wouldn’t see the hoards of manatees I’ve seen in the photos. But, the gentle giants can still be found during the summer, and although initially skeptical, I found the experience to be plenty rewarding.

Here, an obvious tradeoff exists: If you come during the winter, there will be a lot of manatees, but also a lot of people. In the summer, there are less manatees, but also less people trying to see them.

From the Plantation Adventure Center, we hopped aboard a manatee snorkeling cruise. Our guide, Courtney, told us there were a handful of manatees in the bay at the moment, and before long we found ourselves in the water with one, floating above it as it munched on sea grass, oblivious (or seemingly so) to our presence.

Courtney offered us some sage advice as we got into the water: “To see the manatee, you have to be the manatee.” That is, don’t rush up on the animal; instead, mimic its relaxed behavior and simply float above it. This will provide the best outcome for both you and the manatee, she explained.

While the experience certainly wasn’t as otherworldly as it might be to see hundreds of manatees in the water, I was happy not to see hundreds of other people, and having one-on-one time with the manatee was a treat you probably wouldn’t get in high season.

In fact, what we experienced that day was perhaps more in tune with the true personality of a manatee and the Crystal River area - a relaxed, up-close-and-personal interaction, slow-going in nature, peaceful in its energy.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to go in high season - I too would like to experience it some day - but don’t sleep on low season, as it does have its perks (not to mention, rates are lower!).

Scallop Season: Cook Your Own Catch

When the manatees head out for the summer months, another novelty takes center stage: The scallop.

Scallop season runs from July through September (exact dates vary year to year), and it’s one of the most exciting times in Crystal River for both locals and visitors. There are many tours that offer scallop fishing excursions, where you go out and collect them from shallow waters in the Gulf.

The experience amounts to an underwater Easter egg hunt: Using snorkel gear and a mesh bag, you float above the waving sea grass in shallow water, looking for the dark-colored clam shells that blend in with the sea floor.

A trained eye (such as our guide) could collect dozens in less than a hour; for me, spotting the clams amongst the grass and sand was a challenge, but even as a rookie, I was able to collect nearly thirty in two hours.

The process is fun and addicting - you might go five or ten minutes without finding one, and then, bam, you spot one and feel that rush of excitement, diving down and grabbing it and putting it into your bag. Off you go, looking for the next, and before you know it you’ve been in the water for hours, consistently telling yourself that you’ll get “just one more” before getting out.

There are many tour operators that offer scalloping in the Crystal River area, and all provide generally the same experience. We went out of the Plantation Adventure Center, and after, took our scallop catch to the on-site Tiki Bar, where they offer a cook-your-catch special for $15.

Navigate the Popular Springs, But Don’t Miss the Others

When researching Crystal River, you will surely come across some of the more popular springs, such as Three Sisters, Kings, Hunter, House, Jurassic, etc. Each is unique and should definitely be checked out early in the morning, when they are calm and less boats are on the water.

But also, be sure to investigate some of the lesser-known springs, which can be more tranquil and can lead you off the beaten path. There are more than 70 springs within the confines of Kings Bay - ask locals about their favorites, the ones that don’t appear on the tourist maps.

Don’t Forget About Downtown and the Beaches

Fresh seafood, including scallops, shrimp, and fish, is at the heart of the culinary offerings in Crystal River, and you should indulge whenever you can. But don’t be afraid to explore a little deeper. In addition to the cook-your-catch and local seafood options (like Oysters of Crystal River), there are several restaurants that add a dose of creativity and fusion.

From the Plantation, downtown Crystal River is just a fifteen minute bike ride. There you will find small, locally-owned shops, cafes, and restaurants. For a laid-back lunch with sandwiches, shrimp cocktail, key lime pie, and a glass of wine, try the back patio Amy’s on the Avenue. It can’t be seen from the road, and offers a quiet, artistic setting with a large mural, greenery, and lots of shade. For dinner, Vintage on 5th combines the area’s fresh seafood with traditional, down-home southern cooking (shrimp and grits; fried green tomatoes) and the best wine pairing program in town.

One other place of note is Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller and Cafe. Located in a strip mall, the place is unassuming (to say the least) from the outside. Yet inside, the place bursts with Southern and Creole flair, offering local seafood prepared New Orleans’ style - think po boys, gumbo, and spicy fish dishes. There is also a to-go seafood counter/market.

When in Crystal River, it’s easy to become focused on the bay and its water activities - fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, etc - and forget that there are beautiful beaches to visit. Pencil in an afternoon and a sunset at Fort Island Beach to round out your trip.

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