Crystal River, Florida
Helen Hatzis
Helen Hatzis
June 12, 2024 ·  13 min read

Crystal River, Florida – Manatees and More!

FLORIDA SERIES – First stop, Crystal River See below for some ideas on where to EAT, PLAY, CHILL and STAY in this “small town done right!” I loved that this was my first stop after a long day of travel. I could feel my shoulders drop and smile widen. I love me a small town!


After collecting my rental car from the Tampa Airport, I plugged in my first destination “Heritage Village” in downtown Crystal River. It is a 90-minute drive northwest of the evolving metropolis that continues to experience significant growth. More on that later! It is an easy drive along the Veterans Expressway and Suncoast Parkway to get you to the Citrus counties – I love that name!

Within the short drive, you go from a bustling expressway to a quieter pace. You can feel the energy level drop to a point where your shoulders drop and the sounds of birds chirping is prevalent. Here in Crystal River, aka the manatee capital of the world is akin to driving north to cottage country in Ontario – however, the drive here is much shorter. 

Crystal River, Florida, is a serene escape along the Gulf Coast, renowned for its clear waters and lush surroundings. Home to one of the largest populations of manatees, it attracts nature lovers eager to see these gentle creatures up close.

The town’s rich history is evident in ancient Native American mounds, adding a sense of heritage. Crystal River offers a relaxed, inviting atmosphere, blending small-town warmth with outdoor adventures like kayaking and diving in the famous springs. Visitors can explore local shops and restaurants, enjoying fresh seafood and a tranquil vibe. This hidden gem provides a peaceful retreat for those looking to connect with nature and unwind.


Crystal River, Florida, is the best place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees, thanks to certified local guides who ensure the safety of these threatened species through rigorous rules and educational efforts, while also reminding those kayaking or paddleboarding to be mindful of these gentle giants. Click here to watch a short video on “Manatee Manners” when swimming near manatees. This video was produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

I had scheduled 3 full days to explore and engage in the small town vibe of Crystal River. Let’s go!


Upon arrival, I explored the heart of downtown Crystal River – the Heritage Village, a charming enclave that exudes old Florida charm. The village is adorned with towering oak trees draped in Spanish moss, their gnarled branches providing ample shade. Native plants and vibrant flowers bloom throughout, adding splashes of color and a touch of wild beauty.

The architecture of Heritage Village reflects the classic Cracker style, characterized by wood-framed homes with wide, welcoming porches, tin roofs, and raised foundations to catch the breezes. These historic buildings, often painted in soft pastels or muted earth tones, harken back to a simpler time and are lovingly preserved to maintain their rustic charm. The village’s narrow pathways invite leisurely strolls, offering glimpses of quaint boutiques, artisan shops, and cozy cafes that blend seamlessly into this picturesque, nostalgic setting with quirky art installations gracing the landscape.

By early afternoon, the temperature was rising, so I hopped in my air-conditioned car to explore the neighbourhoods outside the small downtown core. I also visited Hunter Springs Park, a local beach near Heritage Village. This scenic spot is known for its crystal-clear waters and sandy shores, making it a perfect place to cool off and relax.

Hunter Springs Park is also a popular launch site for kayakers and paddleboarders, offering a chance to paddle through the serene springs and possibly spot manatees in their natural habitat. The park’s picnic areas and playgrounds provide additional amenities, making it a delightful spot for families and nature enthusiasts alike.


After a 3.5-hour flight and an over one-hour drive, I decided to have lunch at BubbaQue’s BBQ. There are many options, but this is what I was craving! With free parking everywhere in the area, I was parked and seated within minutes.

BubbaQue’s BBQ offers a welcoming, rustic ambiance with its wooden decor, friendly service, and the mouthwatering aroma of smoked meats wafting through the air. The menu boasts a variety of barbecue classics, from tender ribs and pulled pork to juicy brisket, all cooked to perfection and served with an array of savory sides like baked beans, coleslaw, and cornbread. This spot is a haven for barbecue lovers, providing a hearty meal in a relaxed, down-home setting.


Kane’s Cattle Co exudes a laid-back, rustic charm that perfectly complements its hearty, Southern-inspired cuisine. The ambiance is warm and welcoming, with a decor that reflects the region’s rich agricultural heritage. Diners can indulge in a variety of expertly prepared steaks, burgers, and barbecue dishes, all crafted from high-quality, locally sourced meats. The menu also features a selection of comfort food classics and fresh, seasonal sides, offering a satisfying and authentic taste of Florida’s culinary traditions.

West 82 Bar and Grill offers a relaxed yet refined dining experience, characterized by its elegant coastal vibe and scenic waterfront views. The cuisine at West 82 is a delightful fusion of contemporary American fare with a strong emphasis on fresh, locally sourced seafood. Guests can savor dishes like succulent crab cakes, perfectly seared scallops, and inventive seafood pasta, alongside a selection of expertly crafted cocktails and an extensive wine list. The inviting atmosphere, combined with exceptional service and a picturesque setting, makes West 82 Bar and Grill a standout dining destination in Crystal River.

Bayside Craft Kitchen offers a vibrant and contemporary dining atmosphere with a strong focus on fresh, locally inspired cuisine. The vibe is casual yet trendy, featuring a modern decor that embraces the coastal charm of the area. The menu highlights creative and expertly prepared dishes, including fresh seafood, artisanal flatbreads, and gourmet salads, all made with locally sourced ingredients. Guests can also enjoy a variety of craft beers, fine wines, and signature cocktails, making Bayside Craft Kitchen a perfect spot for a relaxed meal with friends or a special night out.

Crumps Landing offers a quintessential vacation vibe that transports you to a tropical paradise. The atmosphere is laid-back and fun, with tiki huts dotting the beach, providing the perfect spot to sip on refreshing Pina coladas while enjoying the serene waterfront views. The menu features a delightful array of coastal favorites, including fresh seafood, tropical cocktails, and casual American fare. Adding to the charm, Crumps Landing also offers a variety of activities to keep the kids entertained, making it an ideal spot for a family outing where everyone can relax and enjoy the vacation-like ambiance.



I was up before the crack of dawn to meet with Dive Master Linda Vendetti and Captain Dave Huston of Plantation Adventure Center. Along with a couple from England, we watched an 8-minute video on manatee manners and received further instruction from Linda. Once we were thoroughly briefed, we headed out to see manatees in their quiet, natural habitat.

Linda led a guided snorkeling tour, while I opted to observe the manatees from the boat. Captain Dave provided a comprehensive lesson on these beautiful mammals, detailing everything from their snouts to their tails. It was a fascinating and educational experience, allowing me to appreciate the manatees in a respectful and informed manner.

Did you know that manatees have a unique way of dealing with tooth wear? Their teeth march forward in their mouths, continuously replaced from the back as they wear down. These gentle giants also have tiny, sensitive hairs covering their bodies, helping them detect changes in their environment. Manatees are voracious eaters, consuming about 10-15% of their body weight in aquatic vegetation every day. For a 1,000-pound manatee, that’s around 100-150 pounds of food daily! Thanks Captain Dave for the education!

I enjoyed watching from above as Linda and the British couple respectfully navigated quietly in the shallow water. No fins or splashing are permitted; only a gentle, slow-motion doggy paddle is allowed. Passive interaction is emphasized, meaning no touching—just kind observation. While you cannot approach or touch the manatees, they may approach and nudge you with their snouts. This respectful approach ensures a safe, non-intrusive experience for both manatees and snorkelers, allowing a harmonious encounter with these gentle creatures.



I visited Three Sisters Springs, known as the crown jewel of the 70 springs of Kings Bay. This one-acre spring is part of the 57-acre Three Sisters Springs Refuge, which was saved from imminent development in 2010. The refuge, owned by the City of Crystal River and managed by the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, opened to the public in 2015. It is one of the most important springs for manatees in Florida, providing a crucial sanctuary for them to survive the winter months.

During the manatee off-season (spring, summer, and fall), Three Sisters Springs becomes a popular spot for swimming and paddling, drawing visitors with its stunning turquoise waters. The refuge also features boardwalks and walking trails, offering scenic views and opportunities to observe wildlife in their natural habitat. I was taken aback by the vibrant, clear blue color of the springs, a breathtaking sight that underscored the natural beauty and ecological significance of this special place.


The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge offers several safe zones specifically designed to protect manatees and their critical habitats. These designated areas are off-limits to human activity to ensure the manatees have a safe and undisturbed environment, especially during the peak season from November to March. The refuge includes sanctuaries such as Three Sisters Springs, where human access is strictly regulated to prevent disturbance to the manatees. Buoys and signs clearly mark these safe zones, indicating areas where boating, swimming, and other water activities are prohibited.

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only U.S. refuge created to protect manatee habitats, highlighting its crucial role in conservation. It provides a sanctuary for manatees to feed, rest, and socialize safely, significantly contributing to the preservation of this threatened species.


Manatees can be found year-round in Crystal River, but the peak manatee season is from November 15 to March 31. During this time, as the water temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of West Indian manatees migrate to the spring-fed waters of Crystal River and Homosassa.

These warm springs provide a vital refuge for the manatees, offering a safe and comfortable environment during the colder months. Visitors flock to the area to witness this natural spectacle, where they can observe the manatees up close, either from the water or from designated viewing areas along the shore. The annual migration highlights the critical role these springs play in the survival of this threatened species.


I chatted with a volunteer who was on hand to educate visitors and keep an eye on those who might need a reminder of how to behave (insert facepalm). There is a resident manatee in the spring that doesn’t seem to want to leave. Local wildlife experts are closely monitoring it, and if they feel that the manatee is in distress—whether it’s not eating enough grasses or facing other health issues—they will place it under care until it is healthy enough to return to its natural habitat.

The trail through the refuge makes for a lovely walk, with some areas shaded by a canopy of lush flora. While there are wild cougars in the area, I didn’t catch a glimpse of one this time. The shaded paths, filled with the sounds of nature, provide a peaceful and immersive experience, making the walk both relaxing and enriching. The presence of dedicated volunteers and vigilant wildlife experts ensures that both manatees and visitors can enjoy the refuge safely and responsibly.


Crystal River Archaeological State Park, located in Citrus County, Florida, is a significant pre-Columbian Native American site that has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Spanning about 61 acres, the park is a remarkable testament to the ancient cultures that inhabited the region over 2,000 years ago. The site features a complex of six mounds, along with a plaza area and a midden, reflecting the sophisticated social and ceremonial practices of its ancient inhabitants.

The tallest mound, Mound A, stands about 28 feet high and was likely used for ceremonies or as a platform for important structures. The other mounds, varying in size and shape, include burial mounds where numerous artifacts and human remains have been discovered, providing insights into the burial practices and social hierarchy of the site’s ancient residents.

Crystal River Archaeological State Park is of immense historical importance as it offers a unique window into the lives of the early Native American cultures in Florida. The site’s strategic location along the Crystal River enabled it to become a bustling center for trade, as evidenced by the diverse array of artifacts found there, including items from as far away as the Ohio River Valley.

The park’s preservation allows visitors to explore and appreciate the rich cultural heritage of the Native American communities that once thrived in this region.

The site is located on the edge of the coastal marsh, which is also part of the The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. It is a network of over 500 wildlife viewing sites across the state of Florida, offering bird watchers and nature enthusiasts unparalleled opportunities to observe a diverse array of bird species in their natural habitats. The trail is divided into four sections: Panhandle, East, West, and South, each featuring distinct ecosystems and birding experiences.

Bird watchers can explore a wide range of environments, from coastal marshes and mangroves to hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods. The trail provides access to some of Florida’s most iconic birding spots, such as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Dry Tortugas, and Everglades National Park.

Each site is selected for its exceptional birding potential and offers amenities such as boardwalks, observation towers, and interpretive signage to enhance the birding experience.

The trail is home to a remarkable variety of bird species, making it a year-round destination for bird watchers. Visitors can spot migratory species during the spring and fall migrations, as well as resident birds that inhabit Florida’s diverse ecosystems. Highlights include sightings of roseate spoonbills, wood storks, bald eagles, and a plethora of wading birds, shorebirds, and songbirds.

In addition to bird watching, the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail promotes conservation and education. The trail’s website and guidebooks provide valuable resources, including species checklists, tips for birding, and information on habitat conservation.

Whether you’re a seasoned birder or a novice, the trail offers a rich and rewarding experience, fostering a deeper appreciation for Florida’s natural beauty and avian diversity.


Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a vital destination for wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers, offering a unique opportunity to observe Florida’s diverse native species up close. The park is renowned for its underwater observatory, where visitors can view manatees and fish in their natural spring habitat. Additionally, it serves as a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned animals, highlighting its crucial role in wildlife conservation. The park’s scenic trails, educational programs, and diverse wildlife exhibits, including alligators, black bears, and flamingos, make it an enriching experience that underscores the importance of preserving Florida’s natural heritage.


My place of refuge to lay my head (and tired body from travel) was Plantation on Crystal River. This historic, eco-friendly resort built in the 1960s is nestled on 232 acres of lush, waterfront property, offering a blend of Southern hospitality and modern amenities.

The resort features charming, old-Florida architecture, with spacious rooms and suites that provide a comfortable retreat. Guests can enjoy a variety of activities, including golf, spa services, and guided tours of the nearby springs and wildlife refuge. The resort’s commitment to sustainability is evident in its eco-friendly practices, ensuring a harmonious balance with the surrounding natural beauty. With its serene atmosphere and abundant recreational opportunities, Plantation on Crystal River is the perfect getaway for those seeking relaxation and adventure. I enjoyed my stay here!


Crystal River is a lovely destination for solo travellers, couples, friend’s retreat and families. If you are heading to Tampa Bay, be sure to carve out a couple of days (or more) in Crystal River.


There is nothing more important to our community than keeping our beautiful natural resources clean and intact! With several rivers, hiking trails, and wildlife sanctuaries, it is important for residents and visitors to remember a few small things that can make a big difference. If we all work together, we can ensure that the cities of Crystal River, Inverness, Floral City, and Homosassa stay pristine for generations to come!

Discover Crystal River, Florida

Thank you to the amazing team at Discovery Crystal River and all of the incredible people I met during my stay. You made it memorable.
xo Helen

COMING SOON – MY BLOG POST MY 2ND STOP —> 3 days in Lakeland (Central Florida)