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Crystal River Travel Guide

August 13, 2020

We’ve had so much fun exploring more small towns in the South, and we’ve especially been loving our adventures to Florida! Y’all know I love to go on about Amelia Island. We just took our second trip there, which we actually combined with our trip to Crystal River, Florida. Located on the west coast of the state, Crystal River is a coastal city known for its manatee population and the incredible nature and culture you can experience there.

Crystal River is part of Florida’s “Nature Coast,” which is made up of the eight Florida counties surrounding the Big Bend Coast of the Gulf Bay. The Nature Coast is home to dense forests, prairies, and blackwater rivers. It’s an incredible place to explore the nature of Florida with outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and more. Crystal River in particular is the best place to see manatees. The waters around Crystal River have the most density of manatees compared to anywhere else, and the city is the only place in the world where you can legally experience swimming with manatees.

Crystal River’s popularity with the manatees has partially to do with the naturally occurring spring-fed waters that make the water warm and attractive, as well as the city’s dedicated restoration project. The Kings Bay Restoration project has been actively working to remove toxic blue-green algae that depletes manatees and other sea species’ food sources.

In addition to the natural wonders of Crystal River, the city is also home to a multitude of shops, historical sites, fishing splendors, delicious restaurants, and small-town charm.

Crystal River Travel Guide

Crystal River could be easy to overlook among the other metropolises of Florida, but it’s one that you’d definitely regret missing. There’s something to be said about exploring small towns and reconnecting with the beautiful nature that surrounds us, and Crystal River is the perfect place to do that. In this Crystal River Travel Guide, I’ll share what I learned about the town when I visited along with my recommendations for where to stay, what to do, and where to eat!

How to Get to Crystal River

Crystal River is a little bit far from Charleston at a 6-hour drive, but it’s perfectly situated in Florida to combine with any other trip. And considering how much we liked the area, it’s totally worth it for a memorable vacation! Crystal River was only a 3-hour drive from Amelia Island, so that was very easy. The city is also only 1.5 hours away from Tampa and Orlando, so you’re close to travel hubs across Florida.

Best Times to Travel to Crystal River

Crystal River stays warm for pretty much the whole year, with the lowest temperatures occurring December – February. Even then, the highs are 72 and the lows are 41-46. It definitely gets fairly hot and humid during the summer months, but you can always cool off in one of Crystal River’s primary draws – swimming in one of the always temperate springs, which keep the water at a perfect 72 degrees. As one of Florida’s top eco-tourism spots, Crystal River also boasts an impressive calendar of annual events that you can plan your trip around. Some of the offerings are below:

  • January: Florida Manatee Festival
  • February: Ozello Craft Show & Chili Cookoff
  • March: Shrimp-a-Palooza, Floral City Strawberry Festival
  • April: Fort Cooper Bluegrass Festival, Mermaids & Margaritas Festival
  • May: Kings Bay Pirate Fest
  • June: Homosassa River Fireworks Fest & Poker Run
  • July: 4th of July Festivals
  • August: Pine Street Jam & Parrothead Party
  • October: Citrus Sertoma Family Fall Festival
  • November: Blues ‘N Bar-B-Que, Stone Crab Jam, Ozello Arts, Crafts, & Blue Crab Festival
  • December: Crystal River Christmas Tree Lighting Festival, Fort Cooper Nights of Lights

Where to Stay

Plantation on Crystal River is a beautiful 50-year-old, 232-acre eco-friendly resort in Crystal River. The resort is surrounded by the natural springs of Kings Bay, which is home to more than 400 West Indian manatees that migrate each year to the warmth of the springs. The building has an old school Florida charm and offers incredible views of the bay. In addition to wonderfully spacious and comfortable rooms, the Plantation has a full-service spa, a 27-hole championship golf course, and 4 on-site restaurants. Plantation on Crystal River also offers a wide range of immersive activities, from boating and fishing to swimming with manatees. We had a great time exploring everything the resort had to offer, and would definitely recommend Plantation on Crystal River as the place to stay when you visit Crystal River!

What to Do in Crystal River

Swim with Manatees at the Plantation Adventure Center

Since Crystal River is the only place that you can swim with manatees and get to experience the gentle creatures up close, we obviously jumped on the chance while we were there! Plantation on Crystal River offers manatee tours (along with other experience) through the Plantation Adventure Center, and it was an absolute blast!

The tour was only $65 per person and included all equipment, 5mm wet suits, mask, snorkel, towel service, hot chocolate, coffee, hot showers, and a heated changing facility with no parking fees. Plantation Adventure Center is the only manatee tour in town with the 5mm wet suits, which you’ll definitely want because the thickness acts as a built-in float so you don’t need to use a swim noodle to float.

Meeting these gentle giants was like no other experience I’ve ever had. It was hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Kings Bay is home to a large number of manatees, and the allowance of “passive observation” in the bay means you get to interact with them face-to-face. Plantation Adventure Center had a pre-tour educational video that helped us get the best experience during the tour, and did we ever! Several manatees swam right up to me, Erik, and Harper. Harper did so great, I was so proud of him! He used the snorkel and didn’t get scared at all, he just held on to my hand and swam along with us!

Airboat Tour from River Safaris

An airboat tour with River Safaris is one of the best ways to explore Crystal River and the Homosassa River by boat. Propelled by the large onboard fan instead of a motor in the water, airboats can go where motorboats can’t, giving you a unique experience! All of River Safaris’ airboat tours take you by Monkey Island and through “downtown” Old Homosassa, passing historic homes, shrimp and crab boats, restaurants and residences. Monkey Island is a small island in the river that is home to five spider monkeys who were relocated there from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park in the 1960s. It was so fun to watch them play around on the lighthouse, trees, and their monkey “playground.” Airboat captains are on the lookout to point out wildlife like dolphins, manatees, alligators, turtles, herons, and more. In addition to the incredible sights and natural beauty, the speed and thrill of an airboat is so fun to enjoy.

Where to Eat

Vintage on 5th

After we checked in at the Plantation on Crystal River, we headed to Vintage on 5th for dinner. Vintage on 5th is an eclectic, destination restaurant located in the historic downtown area of Crystal River in an old renovated church that was originally built in 1940. The restaurant was absolutely adorable. We ate outside in the outdoor porch dining area.

We started with some freshly baked bread and one of my favorite wines, Rosa Regale, a sparkling red wine with the perfect balance of sweetness. We had steak and clams for dinner, which were delicious. I swear I could eat clams every single day! We finished the night with some creme brulée.

Amy’s on the Avenue

While exploring some of the cute shops and cafe’s in downtown Crystal River, we stopped for breakfast at Amy’s on the Avenue. The combination boutique and cafe has a lovely outdoor patio area that was perfect for enjoying our croissants. I also had to try the hummingbird cake, which has bananas, pineapple, pecans and spices, and is a fan favorite among customers!

Seafood Seller and Cafe

We got lunch at Seafood Seller and Cafe, but it’s also a great dinner option. Don’t be fooled by the strip mall location; this restaurant is a local favorite! The colorful, New Orleans-themed eatery features Cajun-style seafood and beer. The owner, Jimmy, is from Louisiana, and he brings that classic Creole flair to the menu. Jimmy was actually the highlight of our dinner. He came to our table and performed magic tricks for Harper. Harper is still talking about how he magically warped his fork.

We started off with drinks from Seafood Seller’s extensive cocktail menu. The Crystal River has Bacardi Superior White Rum, DeKuyper Blue Curaçao, simple syrup, lime slices, mint leaves, and soda. The Shrimp Wreck Mary has Absolut Vodka, spicy tomato, seafood seasoning, steamed shrimp, celery, lime and olive protein, fruit and veggies. Both were delicious!

For our food, we sampled a bunch of Seafood Seller’s great seafood dishes! We started with the smoked amberjack and habañero fish dip served with crackers. It had a nice kick of spice. We loved it! Seafood Seller and Cafe has a special on Cedar Key clams: 50 for $15, 100 for $25, or 150 for $35. Erik and I split 50 clams, of course smothered them in warm butter, and they were incredible! We also tried the special Sellers Shrimp, which is either a half or full pound of shrimp steamed in beer, butter, and Cajun seasoning and served with “Seller Sauce” and sliced loaf bread for dipping. The shrimp were insane, and the Seller Sauce was freaking fantastic!

All the fish served at Seafood Seller and Cafe is fresh daily and comes straight off of their boats. The restaurant is known for their fresh Florida grouper, so we got that, too. You can get it prepared blackened, grilled, or fried and served with a choice of two sides. We had it blackened and it was amazing! We finished the meal with Seafood Seller’s famous New Orleans beignets with chocolate and raspberry dip. They were perfect!

West 82 Bar & Grill

On the Plantation on Crystal River is the West 82 Bar & Grill. We ate here a couple of times during our trip to Crystal River, because you can opt to dine in the restaurant or order from the restaurant’s menu while you relax poolside! West 82 Bar & Grill is open for all meals during the day, and everything is prepared with natural, local ingredients.

Crystal River was the perfect relaxed getaway trip for our family. The opportunities for exploration and adventure are seemingly endless, all packaged inside the Southern charm of a small town in Florida. We had such a good time learning more about the Nature Coast and discovering all that it had to offer!

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