Your Vacation Guide to Crystal River

Searching for manatees, scallops and year-round coastal fun in Crystal River.
A6 Manatee

Crystal River is one of the few places in the world where you can actually swim with manatees. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

A plunge into crystal-clear 72-degree water tickles the skin and clears the head. Anyone who loves frolicking in Florida’s waterways will find a visit to spring-fed Kings Bay and Crystal River a refreshing experience—or for some, downright chilly. But when you factor in the chance of spying a massive 1,000-pound manatee swimming underneath or alongside you, the experience becomes one of those bucket-list moments.

Tucked in Florida’s Big Bend, Crystal River is a small town of 3,200; it takes its name from the river. Life here revolves around the springs and a maze of islands and waterways stretching to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s no surprise that the water provides a livelihood for many, from fishing guides to outfitters to dive shop owners. Visitors can take their pick of how they want to explore: fishing, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling and most importantly, swimming with the manatees.

The sea cows have become so famous and sought-after that the town is known as the “Manatee Capital of the World.” From Nov. 15 to March 31, a constant parade of pontoons with photos of manatees or hand-painted signs of a tour company’s name on their sides ply the waters of Kings Bay in search of the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. On board, folks in sleek black wetsuits with neon-colored snorkel masks fitted tightly on their heads are eager to take the plunge.

Despite their size the aquatic mammals have very little body fat, so to survive winter’s cold waters (below 65 degrees), they shelter in the Crystal River area. Although a few hang around all year feasting on the abundance of eel grass here, your best chance for a sighting is during the winter months. (Tip: To avoid crowds, go on a chilly rainy day. The manatees will still be there, but the number of snorkelers willing to brave the weather is drastically reduced.)

Plantation 3 Exterior

Plantation on Crystal River resort offers a pool complex and access to water activities. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

Thanks to The Guardian Guides Manatee Stewardship Program, tourism and conservation groups working together, steps have been taken to protect the manatees while allowing eco-tourism to flourish. At Manatee Tour & Dive, housed in a bungalow surrounded by white picket fencing, swimmers wiggle into wetsuits, then walk a couple of shady blocks to the pier in Kings Bay Park and board a boat. Flotation devices, such as Styrofoam noodles, are provided for additional buoyancy.

The tour company’s seasoned captain knows where to find the manatees. Once in the water, the best way to see them is to do a gentle upper-body dog paddle or breaststroke rather than kicking your feet, which clouds the water and reduces visibility. Passive observation is encouraged. Floating peacefully and looking down, you might see a rotund gray mass resting on the bottom of the bay. Eventually the creature will swim to the surface revealing its flippers and flat tail. The aquatic mammals come up every one to three minutes to breathe.

Kings Bay boasts more than 70 springs, and another spot for manatee-seekers is the beautiful Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The 57 acres, located in the center of town, surround and protect the springs. Watercraft access is limited, and in winter, kayakers tie up their craft in Kings Bay and swim into the springs.

Framed by tall trees, the trio is clustered together. Most noteworthy is “Pretty Sister” spring with water that sparkles like gemstones, part aquamarine and part sapphire depending on the sunlight. “Big Sister” is the widest, and “Little Sister” is a quiet cove. On land, visitors can view the manatees in the gin-clear waters from a boardwalk and hike a two-mile loop past bluebird nesting boxes, a bat house and a stretch of wetlands.

If you can’t decide on which is the best way to explore the waters, an easy solution is a stay at the Plantation on Crystal River resort. A huge fountain with white manatee statues greets guests. Set on Kings Bay, the upscale, yet casual, property is home to the Plantation Adventure Center. From its dock you can rent a boat, hire a fishing guide and book a manatee tour. A family-friendly resort, it’s the perfect place to cast a line from the water’s edge with the kids or enjoy a game of horseshoes on the lawn. A pool complex and golf course add to the experience.

Scalloping Homosassa

Crystal River is the epicenter for summer scalloping on Florida’s Big Bend. (COURTESY DISCOVER CRYSTAL RIVER FLORIDA)

While in Crystal River, shoppers might want to spend some time at the Heritage Village shopping district in the historic downtown area. Cute tin-roof cottages and Craftsman-style homes with big porches have been converted to boutiques brimming with gifts, artwork, mementos and jars of local honey.

Stop in at Tea House 650 and grab a stool at the counter for an iced yerba mate paired with a pecan, Medjool date scone. A wall rack holds silver canisters filled with some 70 types of loose-leaf teas. Cozy and cluttered, the store/cafe is filled with floral teacups and shapely teapots that tempt shoppers.

Later, when it’s time to unwind, the Waterfront Social offers the perfect perch. The restaurant’s open-air Tiki Bar juts into Kings Bay, serving up cooling breezes on a warm evening, plus views of undeveloped islands thick with foliage and watercraft puttering home before dark. Sample the gator bites and Florida fish and chips while savoring a local beer—Kings Bay IPA by Copp Brewery or Red Right Return by Marker 48 Brewing—as you watch the blue bay waters shimmer under the last rays of sunlight.


By the Way…

Dive for Dinner

Scallops thrive in the seagrass beds of Florida’s Big Bend. The season for swimming in the Gulf’s shallow waters (3-6 feet) to collect the tasty mollusks runs July 1-Sept. 24. Guided charter boat tours provide snorkels, masks and bags; shuckers at the docks will clean your scallops for a fee. Bring a cooler.

Hang with the Locals

Jeff Countryman, owner of KC Wine and Koffee Bar, describes his cozy bar in Crystal River as a Florida-style “Cheers” with a patio and firepit. Friendly locals eagerly share their secret spots with visitors. Where to get the best shrimp? The Freezer Tiki Bar in neighboring Homosassa.

Coastal Art Gallery

Located in Heritage Village, this treasure trove of art inspired by Florida’s coastal beauty houses glass jellyfish wind chimes, coral-shaped glass bowls, and pottery featuring redfish and manatees. Local artist Jennifer Rogers’ queen palm boots, on which she paints intriguing faces of pelicans, hang on the walls.

Best-Kept Fishing Secrets

Capt. Glen Touchton, with Southern Fishing Guide Service, takes anglers into the unspoiled waters of Crystal River. Navigating grass flats surrounded by mangrove islands, he finds the best spots where redfish, grouper, trout, cobia and tripletail bite.

Categories: Local Getaways, Travel