There’s a wonderful, wild-edged beauty to Crystal River – a unique and amazing place with crystal-clear reasons to be a ‘must’ spot to visit on any trip to Florida.
Some of those reasons come bubbling out of the ground to give the place its name, with spring after sweet spring emerging in and around the river, along with a spaghetti map of streams and small bays to make this gem of Citrus County a wondrous place to explore.
The springs and warm waters of the Gulf Coast make it the undeniable Manatee Capital of the World, and it’s the only place where you can legally swim in the wild with the endearing, gentle giants of the shallows, which flock here in their hundreds to enjoy the warmth and know they will be safe.
You can use all manner of ways to reach secluded corners of what is a huge natural playground, by canoe, kayak or even airboat on the labyrinth of open and tree-canopied ‘trails’ among the mangroves on fresh and salt water; or on foot, bike or horseback on boardwalks, paths and trails on the ground – and even by segway through the picturesque slice of ‘Old Florida’ in Crystal River’s historic Downtown district.
But just getting there in the first place is part of the excitement of finding somewhere new to explore, with a long-ish drive from our base near the very different, bustling Downtown area of cosmopolitan Sarasota.
By British standards, it’s a fair old journey, heading north through popular Bradenton and over the amazing Sunshine Skyway bridge across Tampa Bay to St Pete and Clearwater, before pointing yourself along US Highway 19 and just keeping going for mile after mile.
By Florida standards, it’s not very far at all, “just a couple of hours up the road, y’all”, which is the sort of car trip that locals take without batting an eyelid, but we decided to split the journey with a lunch stop and a bit of sightseeing.
Lunch was a pit stop at Frenchy’s Outpost, on the causeway to Honeymoon Island just through Dunedin, a delightful town with its Scottish roots still very much in evidence. A great spot for stone crab claws in season (which had just ended a few days before, sadly), Frenchy’s is still a laid-back stopping-off spot for a fresh seafood snack, like a pile of steamed peel-and-eat shrimp and a ‘side’ of rather tasty potato salad.
Back on Highway 19 and we couldn’t resist the next wonderful helping of transplanted homeland, with the Greek sponge-diving settlement of Tarpon Springs staging an inaugural Opa! Palooza festival weekend and laying on a fabulous array of Greek food, wine, music, crafts and artwork along Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street.
Forget the burgers, sliders and crab cakes for a while, for here was the chance to round off lunch with spanakopita and loukoumades, although the temptation of a spot of ouzo had to be resisted by the driver, who happened to be me. Definitely a place to visit, with or without the festival, with its still-thriving Mediterranean links reflected in its restaurants, tavernas, bakeries and shops along the dockside; and a gorgeous Orthodox cathedral.
Back on the road, it’s time to keep heading north as towns thin out and names grow more exotic among huge stretches of protected wilderness, countryside and coastline, with Weeki Wachee and its State Park, featuring natural springs and spectacular mermaid shows – really! Look it up! – giving way to protected forests on either side (and warnings about black bears much in evidence), before we pass Chassahowitzka and Homosassa Springs and reach our target destination and our ‘home’ for a few days at the Best Western Crystal River Resort, just off the main highway and bang on the waterfront of Kings Bay. It was just was well to have a locator map of the multi-block hotel complex to find our room, which was a handy, first-floor ‘efficiency’ with fridge and microwave, plus a balcony overlooking the boat-launch slipway and on-site dive shop alongside the marina.
Our visit had to be at the start of the summer rainy season due to school term dates back in the UK and, right on cue, the heavens opened as we contemplated setting out for dinner, with deafening cracks of thunder and a great view from the balcony of jagged forks of lightning arcing down from mountainous clouds. Within minutes, the car park below was ankle deep in water, so we took advantage of the fact that the Crackers Bar, Grill and Tiki was just a short distance away along a boardwalk by the marina, and headed there along with a good few like-minded locals. It’s a popular place with a great reputation, although our Brit appetites couldn’t do justice to the mighty helpings from the equally-mighty menu, offering an A to Z from alligator to zucchini and allsorts between. As we’ve found so many times in hospitable Florida, this is pretty much the norm, so be prepared to be offered a box for the inevitable leftovers, or find something you can share – there’s no shame in ordering one main course and paying a couple of dollars cover charge for an extra plate.
By the time we emerged a couple of hours later, the rain had stopped and the puddles were shrinking, and very soon, typically, there was no sign of it having rained at all; a pattern which was to become familiar over the next few days.
Next morning, fortified by the help-yourself complimentary breakfast from a huge-choice Best Western buffet, it was time to explore the settlement of Crystal River itself before getting more adventurous, and Downtown was a great place to start, with a wide, tree-lined, flower-bedecked Citrus Avenue ‘Main Street’ and original old buildings that have mercifully been preserved and restored rather than simply torn down and replaced – and it feels so right, with owners determined to retain the comfortable, welcoming, small town atmosphere.
That was very much in evidence when we were introduced to Tea House 650 by local tourism’s Veronica Davis, enjoying a delightful light lunch along with a party of village ladies of a certain age who were celebrating a birthday. Tea understandably tops the menu, with more than 70 loose-leaf varieties on offer, but there’s also a nice choice of wines to go with the excellent, imaginative food from owners Gail and Norman Willden, who settled here from Atlanta more than a decade ago.
Nice lunch, too, the following day, in one of four restaurants of a completely different scale in the full-on spa, golf, fishing and pretty-well-anything-else resort Plantation on Crystal River, helping to show the wide range of attractions on offer in such a compact part of the Nature Coast.
To linger on the subject of food, Crystal River might appear ‘small town’ and have all the right parochial virtues, but it also gave us a culinary tour of what the ‘real’ Florida has to offer when you escape the monster theme resorts which dominate holiday brochures, ranging from the expected, hearty all-American to high-standard fine dining.
Guidelines for the tour were laid out for us by Crystal River media and marketing specialist Miles Saunders, who pointed us towards the finer end of the foodie spectrum – also gave us a spot-on checklist of places and things to see on our sadly limited timescale, which we explore in Part 2.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.