Clear as crystal — the water for a start, warm and inviting just like the people and places on the Nature Coast of Florida, basking on the Gulf of Mexico.
And also clear is that the first part of our trip from Sarasota to Crystal River was just a taster for a menu full of treats in an area neglected — or not even known about — by many visitors from our side of the pond, who sadly think of Florida in terms of not much more than Orlando, the Keys, or Miami.
But Crystal River and the settlements nearby in this wild and wonderful part of the Sunshine State are an eye-opening counterpoint to all the glitzy razzmatazz elsewhere.
For a start, it’s steeped in history and it’s well worth taking a huge step back in time to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park to remind yourself that way back before tourists set foot here, Native Americans had been active in the area for thousands of years and settled in earnest around 2,500 years ago, going on to construct burial and temple mounds, a huge midden and a plaza during at least three cultural periods. A visitor centre with a collection of artefacts tells the story and seasonal highlights include guided walks under a full moon along the park’s paths, which are also promoted as ideal for birdwatching. The 61-acre site is on the edge of an extensive coastal marsh halfway between Kings Bay and the Gulf, therefore it’s inevitable that the richness in all sorts of wildlife happens to include mosquitos, so at certain times of year it’s wise to cover up and reach for the mossie spray or risk getting eaten alive — short shorts and sandals are certainly not recommended for pale and sensitive Brits.
The state parks hereabouts are certainly to be recommended and next on our list of must-see places was the award-winning Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a rehabilitation centre for injured and orphaned West Indian manatees, where the centrepiece is a huge freshwater sprin producing millions of gallons of clear, warm water every hour. The bubbling waters create the Homosassa River and both saltwater and freshwater fish are attracted by the year-round temperature of 72 degrees — and more than 30 varieties of fish have been identified.
Some of these, along with birds and other critters, were pointed out by our guide on a short pontoon boat ride from the car park to the park entrance, then we took to the trails and boardwalks which give access to black bear, Florida panther, cougar, red wolves, bobcats, deer, alligators, foxes and otters at close range. But top of our agenda was the floating observatory, where you can go downstairs below water level to get even closer to shoals of sometimes enormous fish – and be just the thickness of a pane of glass away from slow-moving, majestic manatees, seemingly ponderous yet often oh-so-graceful in their own environment and always the most endearing of gentle giants.
If you want an even closer look, you can get in the water yourself in Crystal Springs and be just the thickness of a swim mask away, as this is the only place in the world where you can legally swim with the lovely creatures.
Getting into the water rather than just being near it is also a good way to dodge the mossies in summer, flagging up one of the most popular pastimes for locals and hundreds of visitors clutching swim fins, masks, snorkels and small mesh bags. Their quarry is the Florida bay scallop, which lives in the enormous seagrass beds offshore in relatively shallow water, between four and ten feet deep. Commercial harvesting of the once-threatened scallop is banned, but you too can be a recreational scalloper and harvest them by hand or with a landing or dip net in designated areas, if you or your pleasure-trip boat has a saltwater fishing licence. There’s a generous daily bag limit of two gallons of whole scallops per person, and if you don’t fancy cooking them yourself, then you can take advantage of a great local Cook Your Catch tradition.
More than a dozen restaurants in and around Crystal Springs offer this service for freshly-caught and cleaned fish and scallops and you can have them prepared in any number of ways, from rustic home cooking style to fine dining, because it’s not just a case of slapping them on the BBQ.
There’s no shortage of diners taking up the offer, and there’s no shortage of fish to cook, either, whether catching them with bait or lure from boat, dock or fishing pier, or by indulging in a spot of fly fishing. Catches can include grouper, mullet, snapper, snook, redfish, sea bass and sea trout as well as many more species, and to have a chef prepare something you’ve only just landed is a major Crystal River bonus.
Eating treats that someone else has caught is also big on the holiday programme, even though sadly, we just missed out on the renowned stone crab season by only a matter of days.
Great compensation was a visit to the Crab Plant on King’s Bay in Crystal River, a working commercial processing operation as well as a no-frills eatery, where we were able to roll up our sleeves and tackle a piled-up alternative platter of in-season Dungeness crab, which was simply steamed and simply delicious.
Fish cookery on another level was the order of the day at Katch Twenty Two, in nearby Lecanto, where top chef Richard Wiggins has realised a career-long dream by creating a distinctive upscale restaurant.
No airs and graces, but friendly, spot-on service to bring us the best of Florida fine dining, with two beautifully-presented main course dishes in particular, showcasing locally-caught snapper and shrimp. Homemade ice cream and caramel and a mango sorbet rounded off our leisurely dinner, which wasn’t in the budget bracket, but was definitely one to remember.
We only had a few days on the Nature Coast, with little time to explore further inland, but we happily pencilled in a few towns and villages to return to the next time we’re in the area, with Inverness and Floral City high on the list.
The beautiful county is not all that far across from Orlando on the map and is more accessible from there than my usual stamping ground further south. If you get there before me, let me know what you think — I’m sure you won’t be in the least disappointed.
David Graham flew with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta from Manchester to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, via Atlanta, before picking up a hire car. Using Sarasota-Bradenton rather than one of the more usual large ‘gateway’ airports was a revelation — a brilliant alternative that deserves a review of its own.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.