By Lynn & Cele Seldon
Situated on the west coast of Florida, about 75 miles north of Tampa, Florida’s Crystal River area (which is Citrus County), is world-renowned as a world-class ecotourism destination. Known as “the Manatee Capital of the World,” nowhere else will you find more manatees in winter months than in the warm waters of the Crystal River and Homosassa.
Citrus County’s main towns are Homosassa, Crystal River, Inverness, and Floral City, each with their own charms, possibilities, and lures. Crystal River features epic manatee outings and other water activities. Homosassa offers fishing, scalloping, boating, paddling, and more. Inverness is a “small town” done right and is the center of the Withlacoochee State Trail. Floral City is the “Soul of Old Florida,” with its moss-draped tree canopy over the Avenue of the Oaks and lots of historic homes, plus shops and galleries.
But the surrounding countryside and waters also provide other outdoor pursuits and more. The manatees and warm Gulf waters and spring-fed springs may attract visitors every winter, but there’s much more to the Sunshine State’s Crystal River than endearing manatees.
The area provides one of the few places in the world where you can actually swim with manatees with outfitters like the waterfront Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River and Explorida Adventure Center. Local guides are trained to make sure this beloved threatened species is treated with the utmost care and respect. In addition to varied snorkeling outings to swim with the manatees, visitors can also meet manatees up-close while kayaking and paddleboarding — or from land on wheelchair-accessible boardwalks at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River and the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park down in Homosassa.
Kayaking and paddleboarding are easy in this paddling paradise, including a network of seven rivers, crystal-clear springs, open bays and freshwater lakes. Outfitters run varied trips.
As is obvious, boating is big in Citrus County, where it’s easy to find a fishing guide, an eco-tour, an air boat ride, or a relaxing area tour by boat. Those in search of the big one will find deep water offshore and saltwater flats inshore, while the 23-mile-long Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes is a top freshwater fishing spot.
Those who like to enjoy exploring the water with their own two feet (and arms) will find beach bumming easy at Fort Island Gulf Beach, Crystal River’s Hunter Springs Park, and Hernando Beach on the aforementioned Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes, plus lots of rivers and bays. There’s also lots of hiking for more two-foot travel.
Bicycling is also big in the area. First and foremost, there’s the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, with its forests, lakes, and small towns, plus more paved options and mountain bike trails leading through Withlacoochee State Forest and Crystal River Preserve State Park.
Golf is another great option. Florida’s Citrus County features highly rated public options, as well as semi-private courses that welcome guests. Plantation on Crystal River Golf Club is open to the public and also features the 19th Hole Sports Bar & Grill.
All of these outdoors activities will likely make visitors hungry, and the area accommodates with a wide range of dining options. The possibilities include: bustling West 82 Bar and Grill at Crystal River’s Plantation on Crystal River; Seafood Seller & Café and Amy’s on the Avenue, both also in Crystal River; Oscar Penn’s creative fare in Inverness; and Wallace’s at The Greenhouse down in Homosassa. Coffee lovers will want to head to Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, where locals love their varied egg dishes, flatbreads, and sandwiches, served up with famed coffee and more. Citrus lovers will definitely want to head to Floral City’s Ferris Groves Fruit Stand. For adult beverages, it’s hard to beat the fun waterfront Tiki Bar back at Plantation on Crystal River and the world-class beers and food at Nine State Brewing in Inverness, as well as great drinks, food, and views at Florida Cracker Kitchen & Monkey Bar (including views of live monkeys on Monkey Island).
And, speaking of food, come summer, the area’s delectable bay scallops can be found in the warm and shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in several local restaurants. All hungry visitors need for this family-friendly adventure are a mask, snorkel, flippers and an exceptional charter captain and crew. Once scallopers return to the dock, they don’t have to worry about cooking dinner in that some area restaurants will prepare them. For instance, those who go scalloping with aforementioned Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River can head to the resort’s popular West 82 Bar & Grill for a tasty and fresh Crystal River meal.
Lots of annual events also make the area a four-season destination. The possibilities include: Florida Manatee Festival (January); Floral City Strawberry Festival (March); Crystal River Scallop Festival (July); Cooter Music Festival (October); Stone Crab Jam (November); Homosassa Arts, Crafts, & Seafood Festival (November); and Floral City Heritage Days (December).