Crystal River, a small Florida town located about an hour and a half north of Tampa, is famous for one thing: manatees.
Crystal River is known for being one of just a few places in Florida that native manatees flock to each year during the cooler months of November-March. The town and its surrounding waters are dotted with natural springs that remain 72 degrees year-round, drawing in the manatees that can’t survive in the colder coastal waters. Hundreds of these gentle giants stuff themselves into the springs and rivers around Crystal River each winter, bringing fame (and fortune) to this tiny Florida community.
And, while I can’t argue that getting up close and personal with manatees is fantastic, I’d like to show you that Crystal River is a great vacation spot even without the manatees.
Here are some (mostly) non-manatee-related things to do in and around Crystal River:
Rent a boat
Crystal River and nearby towns have plenty of easily accessible waterways. There’s King’s Bay (where the manatees come in each year), the river that the town is named after, and many other smaller rivers and springs nearby. One of my favorites is the Chassahowitzka River in southwestern Citrus County, south of Homosassa and Crystal River. Like many rivers in this part of Florida, The Chazz is spring-fed. I enjoyed kayaking here through the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
You can rent kayaks, canoes, and small motorboats to use on most of the waterways in and around Crystal River. You can even take boats you rent to Three Sisters Springs, where the manatees gather by the hundreds in the winter months. (In the warmer months, Three Sisters is a fantastic place for swimming since the water is so crystal clear.)
Go to the beach
Crystal River itself doesn’t really have a beach, but you can visit Fort Island Gulf Beach just a short 15-minute drive away. This beach on the Gulf of Mexico is perfect for an afternoon picnic or beachy sunset.
Find some unique eats
Once you get past the town’s love of manatees, you’ll soon discover that Crystal River is kind of adorable. The downtown area is peppered with little antique shops and cafes, and you’ll find quirky restaurants in all corners of the town. Grab a snack at the Tea House on Crystal Avenue, enjoy some laid-back waterfront dining at Crackers, or take a short drive for seafood and a sunset at Peck’s Old Port Cove.
Enjoy scallop season
Crystal River isn’t only known for manatees. It’s also known as being one of the best places in Florida for recreational scalloping. The season starts each year on July 1 and runs through late September. If you’ll be in Crystal River during these months, consider signing up for a scalloping tour. Going scalloping with a guide is a great option because they’ll bring all the gear you need, including fishing licenses. Some will even help you clean your scallops afterwards so you can enjoy them for dinner.
Meet Lucifer the hippo
Lastly, a trip to Crystal River would not be complete without a visit to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park today is run by the state of Florida, but it was originally opened as a kind of zoo in the early 1900’s. When the state took over the park, it slowly started removing animals that weren’t native to Florida and turned the park into a rehabilitation center for Florida wildlife. Today there are resident manatees, alligators, bald eagles, and even an orphaned Florida panther.
One odd animal you’ll still find here, though, is Lucifer (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 has 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.
Even though Crystal River is best known for its manatees, hopefully I’ve convinced you that there’s more to it than that.