Crystal River and Homosassa are two of the most popular destinations for the Florida manatee during winter. Sitting on Florida’s Nature Coast, these two Citrus County cities are also two of the most naturally beautiful places in Florida.
The manatees travel down to Citrus County, Florida for its warm spring water, a constant 72 degrees. Your best chance to see the manatees is between January and March, when the temperature in Kings Bay drops below 68.
Day 1: Friday
check in at Plantation Inn, see the sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach, have dinner at West 82
Check in at the Plantation Inn on Fort Island Drive. This is my favorite place to stay in Crystal River. They have several restaurants, a golf course, manatee tours, and rooms with a view of Kings Bay/Crystal River. The Port Hotel and Marina also has its own restaurant, manatee tours, and rooms overlooking Kings Bay, but it is a bit older – Elvis stayed here in 1961 while filming Follow that Dream.
If you arrive at Crystal River before sundown, I recommend watching the sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach. To get there from the Plantation Inn, drive west on Fort Island Drive for about 10 minutes, watching the sun drop down through woods and wetlands, before reaching Fort Island Gulf Beach.
After what was probably a long travel day, I recommend dining at your hotel restaurant: West 82. The Plantation Seafood Pasta is outstanding. The scallops taste like salty sweet melt-in-your-mouth ocean candy.
Crystal River’s main attractions are best experienced in the daytime, so crack open a bottle of wine and discuss your plans for the rest of the weekend. This is best done on the patio/balcony of a room with a waterfront view.
Day 2: Saturday
see the manatees at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge, visit downtown Crystal River, take a scenic boat ride down Crystal River
Three Sister’s Springs is THE place to see manatees in Crystal River. They arrive in the hundreds as the water temperature in King’s Bay drops below 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months. Regardless of how warm or cold it is outside, Three Sisters Springs will be 72 degrees, making it a warm winter respite for the Florida manatee.
There’s more than one way to get there. You can take a bus from the visitor’s center (915 N Suncoast Blvd., Crystal River, FL) to an observation deck/boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs or you can take one of many local boat tours to the springs. The Plantation Inn and River Ventures offer several manatee swim and paddle tours. It’s best to take the bus to the boardwalk at Three Sister Springs in the morning, when most of the manatees are in the springs.
If you have some extra time in the afternoon, consider visiting the Shoppes of Heritage Village in historic downtown Crystal River. Downtown Crystal River is a great place to buy unique souvenirs, like the Manatea tea infuser at Tea House 650, Florida postcards and old fashioned candies at The General Store, or artwork by local artists at Franklin Anderson Gallery. Many of these stores are housed in old cracker cottages, once part of a small fishing village.
Start at the Heritage House Village Welcome Center, on 657 N. Citrus Ave., and walk around. If you’re looking to relax and have a drink, or eat lunch, there are several options in downtown Crystal River, including Tea House 650, River Ranch Bar & Grill, Highlander Café, Amy’s Bistro, and Burkes of Ireland. I recommend the chocolate cherry scone at Tea House 650 if you’re in the mood for something sweet.
Next, head back to The Plantation Inn to enjoy another Crystal River sunset on their sunset cruise.
For dinner, consider trying someplace new. Some of the more popular waterfront dining options in Crystal River are Charlie’s Fish House, Crackers, and the Crystal River Ale House (now Margarita Breeze) on King’s Bay.
Day 3: Sunday
Sunday brunch at West 82, see Homosassa Springs
West 82 at The Plantation Inn is well-known for their Sunday brunch, which features an omelet bar, carving station, raw seafood, salads, fruit, colds cuts and cheese, several warm breakfast and dinner entrees, and a dessert table.
West 82’s Valentine’s Day brunch, which fell on a Sunday this year, is in my top 4 brunches of all time. The Mahi Mahi with feta lime sauce was superb.
After brunch, head down to Homosassa to see Homosassa Springs. The best two ways to visit are through Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park or via River Safari, but you may only have time for one of the two. We chose a pontoon tour with River Safaris.
This tour takes you down the scenic Homosassa River, past Monkey Island, and to the Homosassa Springs head.
You can see a lot of wildlife on the tour, including manatees, herons, egrets, and cormorants.
The boat also passes Riverside Resort’s Monkey Island so you can see the monkeys.
As you approach the springhead, the water flowing into the river becomes more and more clear, and you can see manatees coming to and from the springs.
Living in Florida, it’s easy to take the state’s beauty for granted. Before Florida became more developed, and before Disney World moved in, Florida’s springs were the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Photographers still come out in droves, hoping to capture some of the most beautiful places in the world.