Trace a map of Florida’s Gulf Coast and your finger might skip right over Citrus County, home to the communities of Floral City, Inverness, Homosassa, and Crystal River. This place flies under the radar — and that should be your first hint to look closer.
Here, roads you may think lead to nowhere end at hidden beaches. And all of a sudden, your plans for the day (and your small-town assumptions) are thrown right out the window. That’s the charm. After a day or two, you’ll start rethinking a few assumptions, because there’s more than one thing we could all learn from the Crystal River region. And take note: Manatees, margaritas, and mermaids are only the beginning.
1. Your mother taught you manners for a reason.
Well, “manatee manners” to be exact. The Crystal River area is the Manatee Capital of the World, thanks to its prime real estate on the Gulf and abundance of natural springs — the ideal shelter for these marine mammals. And while the manatees are technically here all year long, the winter months are best for seeing them, as they huddle into the springs for warmth.
Head to Three Sisters Springs on a clear, cool winter morning for a good chance at catching these gentle giants wiling away the hours. From here, there are two ways to experience the magic: safe and sound on the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk, or right in the water. You can’t enter the spring from the boardwalk, though — if you want to swim, you’re best off going in with the pros.
Kings Bay, home of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is the only place in the USA where you can legally swim with manatees. Hit up one of the local outfitters, brush up on your “manatee manners”, and you’re good to go.
2. Sometimes life’s better on the fly.
The coastline here is lined by mangroves, and that makes for one awesome fly-fishing scene. Tarpon, snook, redfish, speckled sea trout, and tons of other species are hauled in on the daily.
Getting to the “secret” flats of Crystal River and Homosassa requires good knowledge of the area, but local guides like those with the venerable Homosassa Guides Association will hook you up with that (as well as the appropriate gear). No, you don’t have to know how to cast a line, and yes, watching old-school Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It qualifies as studying up.
3. Life can be a walk on the beach.
Down a stretch of road known as the Fort Island Trail — yes, one of those roads that seem to go nowhere — the marshland on either side slowly transforms into Fort Island Gulf Beach. This is where the waters of Crystal Bay feed into the Gulf of Mexico…if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, you’ve found it.
The beach isn’t huge, but since so many flock to larger beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast, this local oasis feels much, much bigger. It has roped-off swimming, pavilions, food vendors (mainly in summer), a fishing pier, picnic tables, and the occasional friendly dolphin causing a stir.
4. Music sounds better in a canyon.
If you head into town and the fire-lit patios over the Gulf are looking sparse, you didn’t happen upon a dead weekend — you’re just in the wrong place. Everyone else is in the canyon.
Rock Crusher Canyon, to be exact. It’s played host to music legends like Joan Jett, Trace Adkins, and the Charlie Daniels Band, and local groups with not-so-local followings get their share of the stage, too. It’s technically a pavilion and amphitheater, and most shows have both reserved seating and bring-your-own-chair sections (so pack that picnic!).
5. The well-traveled path can still pay off.
The Crystal River region is one of those places where the lines between city and nature are totally blurred. You can go from shops and outdoor malls to state parks, quiet biking trails, and eco walks in a matter of minutes.
What’s an “eco walk?” Glad you asked. The only one you need to know about begins in Crystal River Preserve State Park — it’s a two-mile path that takes you through meadows, pine forests, oak savanna, and to a freshwater marsh. The park itself borders 20 miles of the Gulf Coast, and there’s four other awesome trails that take you along its islands, inlets, and backwaters. Stick to these, and you can’t go wrong.
6. You don’t have to be home for a home-cooked meal.
There’s dinner, and then there’s dining. The McLeod House Bistro in Inverness is one of those places where you can just sit back, enjoy the local ingredients, and head-bob to live music between bites. And, yes, it’s actually in a house — one that was built in 1915 — so “home-cooking” and “plenty of charm” are on the menu, too.
Pro tip: They’re only open for dinner, and you should definitely make a reservation in advance.
7. Fresh seafood is the only seafood.
Finding locally caught seafood isn’t a challenge here — finding a place without seafood on the menu might be.
But just eating it isn’t enough. Head over to Charlie’s Fish House — one of a few seafood markets in town — and they’ll show you how to fake some serious seafood-cooking chops once you get back home. If you decide to grab a bite here (which would be a good choice), traditionalists can try the Seafood Gumbo, while risk-takers should nab the frog legs, calamari rings, or conch fritters.
8. Traditions are the spice (and the sweetness?) of life.
The Floral City Strawberry Festival, held annually in the first weekend of March, is a celebration of local agriculture. Check it out for just $5 per adult (kids 12 and under are free), and put away as many strawberries and helpings of strawberry shortcake as you can handle.
Keep the calendar as open as you can when it comes to local events, though. You’ll also want to hit up Fort Cooper Days, The Taste Festival in Inverness, and — the money-maker — the Mermaids & Margaritas Festival. That last one takes place in April each year, and apart from the homemade ice cream and super-fresh margs, you’ll come back with the ultimate souvenir: a swimmable mermaid tail. Here, mermaids are real, and you can be one.
9. Life’s always better in the fast lane.
Speed limits need not apply. Citrus County Motor Speedway may not have all of the pomp and circumstance of Daytona, but with street stock car races and a good ol’-fashioned demolition derby, no one needs “pomp” anyway. Besides, general admission is $10, kids up to 18 are $5, and six and under are free — try to beat that for a fast-paced evening.
10. And the rest is history.
It won’t look like it heading down the main drag, but just past Crystal River’s historic downtown shops is a site that makes most out-of-towners do a double-take. The jump from modern, urban, and contemporary to ancient, historic, and natural happens in a matter of blocks.
All of a sudden, you’re transported 1,600 years into the past, faced with six preserved Native American temple mounds rising out of the otherwise flat terrain. Crystal River Archaeological State Park is also a US National Historic Landmark, protected as one of the longest continually occupied sites in Florida.
Once you take a walk around the interior plaza of the site, you have the option to head into the museum, grab a seat, and watch a film on the area’s history, or head out past the largest temple mound and take in a picnic lunch overlooking the nearby coastal marsh…though why not both? Bonus lesson: When you can, always choose both.