I’ve got a thing about kitschy, Old Florida towns. I love the history and the quirky character of them. In the past, Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast used to be my favorite.
But I think I have a new favorite now after visiting the coastal town of Crystal River.
Located about an hour and a half north of Tampa, Crystal River is exactly the sort of funky, slightly touristy, laid-back Florida town that I love. There’s great seafood, nearby beaches, and more than enough to do to keep you busy for a short visit.
Many people skip this part of Florida, but here are five reasons why you shouldn’t skip Crystal River:
Swimming with manatees
Crystal River is known for being one of just a few places in Florida that native manatees flock to each year during the cold months. The town and its surrounding waters are dotted with natural springs that remain a balmy 72 degrees year-round, drawing in the manatees that can’t survive in colder water (because yes, it DOES get chilly in Florida in the winter).
Hundreds of these gentle giants stuff themselves into springs and rivers around Crystal River each winter (and a handful are “residents,” who live in the area year-round), making manatee sightseeing tours really popular. I went swimming with manatees on my visit to Crystal River, and it was nothing short of incredible!
Visiting the Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk
One of the most famous places that the manatees gather is at Three Sisters Springs, a collection of (you guessed it) three natural springs that feed the Crystal River. Swimming in the springs (like you do on a manatee tour) is amazing because the water is so clear. But if swimming isn’t your thing, don’t worry — you can walk the boardwalk above the springs, too, which is nearly just as awesome.
You can book this visit through River Ventures in Crystal River. They’ll bus you out to the boardwalk, and then you’ll have an hour to wander around and talk to the volunteers who watch over the springs. It’s a beautiful location well worth visiting.
Kayaking “The Chazz”
One of my favorite non-manatee things I did in Crystal River was kayaking on the beautiful Chassahowitzka River. Like many rivers in this part of Florida, “The Chazz” is spring-fed. Along with Tara from Citrus County tourism and Dennis who runs the campground where you can rent boats and kayaks, I paddled leisurely along the Chazz to its source — a spring everyone just calls “The Crack.”
While there were no manatees around, we did see plenty of mullet (fish that like to leap out of the water and scare you) and lots and lots of birds. The Chazz is part of the larger Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and should be on your list if you’re looking for a chilled-out morning or afternoon.
Catching a beach sunset
Crystal River isn’t directly on the coast, but Fort Island Gulf Beach is a short 15-minute drive away. This beach on the Gulf of Mexico is perfect for an afternoon picnic or beachy sunset.
Meeting Lu at Homosassa Springs
Lastly, you should make a stop at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Originally opened as a kind of zoo in the early 1900s, today the park is run by the state of Florida.
When the state took over the park a few decades ago, it slowly started whittling down the animals living there to ones that you’ll find in Florida, keeping humane captivity in mind. Today, there are resident manatees, alligators, bald eagles, and even an orphaned Florida panther.
One odd animal you’ll still find here is Lu the hippo. Hippos are certainly not indigenous to Florida, but when the state took over the park the locals petitioned for Lu the hippo to be able to stay since he’d been a staple at the park for so long. The state ended up granting Lu honorary Florida citizenship so he could continue living at Homosassa Springs.
Where to stay
I stayed at The Plantation on Crystal River, a lovely historic hotel that resembles (you guessed it) an old antebellum plantation. The rooms are large and comfortable, and the pool is the perfect spot to relax after a day of sightseeing. The Plantation also has an on-site restaurant and offers its own dive shop and manatee tours, meaning you don’t have to go far.