Disclosure: Our visit to Crystal River, Florida was hosted by Discover Crystal River. Now we love it and think it is a Not To Miss Things To Do In Florida. As always, all opinions are my own.
Florida is high on the list of places to visit in the USA, especially in winter. Tourists flock to the sunshine state to visit Disney, beaches and more. What if I told you that there is a town in Florida that you’ve probably never heard that you need to add to your next Florida vacation? Crystal River is a small town in Southwest Florida with a rather unusual claim to fame. You can swim with manatees there which is unlike anywhere else in the US.
Manatees are gentle giants that are close cousins to the elephant. You can see the leftovers of this kinship when you notice the three toenails that they carry on each of their flippers. Their whiskery face is serene which tells you much about their personality. Though they are large in size, you can swim with them without any worry that they will hurt you. The worst that can happen is that they may nibble at your wetsuit or perhaps think that you would make a very pretty mate.
Crystal River has embraced their moniker of “The Manatee Capital of the World”. Everywhere you look you will see a manatee theme. From businesses that cater to manatee tourism, to manatee t-shirts to manatee plushies. Once you meet the manatees for yourself, you will understand why residents have gladly adopted their mascots. We *may* have left with 2 t-shirts, 2 hats, 2 plushies and 2 Christmas ornaments….all manatees.
So what do you DO in Crystal River? Well, there are lots of options!
See the Manatees
Short on time? Head to Kings Bay on a Manatee Swim with Manatee Tour and Dive. Your swim will give you around 2 hours in the water with the manatees. Your tour guides know the ins and outs of the bay and where the manatees can be found. They are also knowledgeable on how you can interact with the manatees in such a way to keep them healthy and happy.
Have a bit more time? Kayak down the Chassahowitzka with Hunter Springs Kayak. We saw manatees there too! Plus we got to see some of how Florida looked before all the growth in tourism. In fact, we even saw a guy in a motorized canoe. It was a peaceful kayak and felt like we were going back in time.
Looking for the up close and personal manatee experience in a more personal and relaxed setting? River Adventure Tours in Homosassa may be for you. We went for a tour with them and the group was tiny. Homosassa is just down the road from Crystal River and is the only other place you can swim with manatees.
All of the options above include jumping in the water in a wetsuit. The reason that manatees love the Crystal River area so much is their fresh water springs that keep the water a toasty 74 degrees. You will get cold after a while but it is totally worth it.
Want to forgo getting wet? Visit Three Sisters Springs instead. They have a horseshoe shaped boardwalk that allows viewing of the manatees in all their favourite spots. Catch the Three Sisters trolley in downtown Crystal River and ride to the Three Sisters in style. On the way back, the trolley will drop you off at your favourite spot along the way if you prefer.
Crystal River’s downtown shopping district, The Shoppes of Heritage Village, is adorable. It is a little area with probably 10-15 shops. My favourite thing about the shopping district is that the stores don’t all sell the same thing. How many times have you gone into the shops in a tourist area and they all have the exact same stuff? It happens often and it drives me nuts. Instead, each of the shops has their own “thing” that they do well. You can find everything from vintage items to women’s clothes to local art to anything and everything manatee. Evan even had a great time and he gets tired of shopping FAST.
You know that eating is one of my favourite hobbies! Crystal River has a wide variety of eateries for every taste and budget.
Looking for a high end meal? We can’t reccomend Katch Twenty-Two in Lecanto, FL enough. They have a small restaurant that is cozy and comfy with delightful service and amazing food. Evan was very happy with their upscale kid’s menu even if he ended up ordering the pasta with butter and parmesan.
I chose the Maryland Style crab cakes with corn pudding and it was amazing. While I love crab cakes, often they are more filler than crab. That was NOT the case at Katch Twenty-Two. In fact, one was so full of crab that I was stuffed and took the second home with me for later. Definitely add this to your must try list and call for reservations!
If you are looking for a big Southern meal, instead, then you have to try Grannie’s in Crystal River. It was one of my favourites and we returned at least three times. Grannie’s is only open for breakfast and lunch so make sure you plan to visit during those times and know that there is often a wait. Thankfully, the staff is very attentive and tables turn over frequently so the wait is rarely long.
Other Great Places to Visit
Make time to go out to Fort Island Gulf Beach to catch the sunset. It’s a small beach but we loved walking among the shore birds while the sun sank on the horizon.
The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park is a great place to visit to see loads of Florida wildlife such as alligators, manatees and more. We strolled around for an entire afternoon.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Best Western Crystal River. Their rooms were perfect for us. They allow dogs and have a kitchenette. Perfect for the family traveling with a pet. The only downer was that dogs can not stay in the room when you are not there. Thankfully, Daisy was parked in the lot next to our room so Cooper could hang out in there when we were away.
After a few days in Crystal River, we moved to Homosassa for a more small town experience. We stayed at Nature’s Resort RV Park. It is a HUGE resort that totally caters to snow birds. We met some of the best people and loved our time there. I would not hesitate to go back though their wifi is non-existent (you know that is a HUGE thing for me too). It is perfect for outgoing families or couples who are looking for a home away from home. There are tons of activities, people are outgoing and there is even a restaurant/bar in the resort. If you are a loner who is looking for quiet…it may not be for you.
Overall, we loved our stay in Crystal River and we can’t wait to return. Manatee season is from November to March but there is lots to do at other times of the year as well. On our next visit, we hope to visit in the summer to try our hand at scalloping!