Darn! My secret is out: Travel Channel has selected Crystal River, Florida — my hometown — as one of the best in America and the best in Florida. No matter where we travel, we inevitably return and wonder why we ever left this paradise. As I sit at my computer, I am looking out at the headwaters of a spring-fed river that meanders 8 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Crystal River is tidal, with fresh water bubbling out of the source at a constant 72 F and then turning brackish and finally salty. The result is an intermingling of both fresh and saltwater species of birds, fish and sea mammals — most famously, the West Indian manatee.
Located on Florida’s Nature Coast, Crystal River is 80 miles north of Tampa’s airport and 95 miles west of Orlando’s. This once-sleepy fishing village has been our base for producing documentary films, writing books and raising our family. Our home overlooks the manatee sanctuary, which is visited daily by dolphins herding mullets down the canals. The clue for a dolphin “show” is pelicans wheeling overhead or alighting on nearby “Idle Speed” sign poles while waiting for the snippets of fish that the dolphins leave behind. Gators loll in the shallows during the day and come out to feed at night. Ospreys build cavernous nests on any safe perches. Otters deposit emptied crab shells on our dock.
Most notably, it is the only place in the United States where people are allowed to swim with manatees. While novices are encouraged to hire trained guides who know where to find these docile giants, many rent boats from the waterfront resorts and putter around the river and snorkel on their own. Because propellers can maim and kill this endangered species, there are idle-speed zones and restricted areas.
Manatees loll underwater for long periods of time, only raising their heads to breathe every few minutes, so boaters have to use extreme caution everywhere, which can be difficult when the wind whips the water. Everyone must respect the rules about not harassing, corralling or touching the manatees — or face heavy fines. Kayaks and paddleboards are also popular and responsible ways to locate and observe manatees without causing harm.
When the temperature drops in winter, the manatees congregate in the warmth of the Three Sisters Springs, where visitors can be high and dry on a boardwalk that borders the sanctuary while glimpsing the manatees cuddling for warmth. Volunteer guides will explain that manatees are the only herbivore marine mammals and share a common ancestor with elephants.
Crystal River is also an ornithophile’s paradise. The local Christmas Bird Count regularly notes more than 120 different species here. On any given day, it is easy to spot osprey, American bald eagles, great blue herons, great white herons, white pelicans, yellow-crowned night herons, little blue herons, green herons, white ibises, wood storks, anhingas, coots, scaups. And those are just the common water species.
The first tourists to discover the area were anglers because of the unique access to both fresh and saltwater fish, and many fishing guides help negotiate the clear waters over the grass flats that extend west from the river’s mouth. There are seasons for cobias, king mackerel, spotted seatrout, redfish, grouper, snapper, amberjack and especially sport fishing for elusive tarpon.
Admittedly, there are no world-class restaurants. Affordable seafood is our forte. But if you want funky and authentic, we’ve got it. Until a few years ago, The Crab Plant was where freshly harvested blue crab was picked and packed in what is now the dining room. “Locally sourced” means it came off one of the fishing fleet boats at the dock that morning. This place has no-frills down to a science. Their homemade smoky mullet dip, gator bites, stuffed blue crab, soft-shell crab, stone crabs and coconut shrimp are the most popular starters. Everything is prepared simply. Frying is the most popular option — but not the only one.
If you want to get up close and personal with your dinner, come during the summer scalloping season and snorkel in the shallow gulf for these blue-eyed crustaceans — and get glimpses of tiny seahorses while you are at it.
There is a small museum at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a pre-Columbian site with a plaza area and a six-mound complex that for 1,600 years served as an imposing ceremonial center for Native Americans. Downtown Crystal River has boutiques and cafes that are worth a stroll. Fun festivals celebrate the manatee in January and stone crabs in November.
But if you do come, don’t tell anyone! Please.
WHEN YOU GO
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river/visit/plan_your_visit.html
Three Sisters Spring: www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org
Plantation Inn: www.plantationoncrystalriver.com
Manatee excursions: www.birdsunderwater.com
Scalloping excursions: www.discovercrystalriverfl.com/play/scalloping
Crystal River Archeological State Park: www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/crystal-river-archaeological-state-park