There is a legend of which the sailors speak, the mermaid. These beautiful creatures live under the sea and wave to those poor deprived men, setting their hearts aflutter. Well, you may not believe in mermaids but have you ever heard that they may actually have been manatees with seaweed on their heads? Either that, or they were synchronised swimmers with incredible breath control. On Florida’s west coast, you can go in search of mermaids and find both. This is the perfect day in Crystal River.
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Wake Up Early for Breakfast at Crystal Manatee
We think it is a great idea to arrive in Crystal River the night before your full day. Driving to Crystal River in the morning would mean being really tired all day Morning tours start at 09:00 and it is best to arrive full of energy.
When choosing your accommodation in Crystal River, pick somewhere clean, cute and well-located. We loved The Retreat at Crystal Manatee. The huge rooms have obviously had a facelift recently with very coastal white walls and blue accents. Each room has a big TV, a bigger bed and a huge sink! The en suite bathrooms are small but have coo showers with an array of knobs and some lovely green tea toiletries. Oh, and speaking of breakfast, every guest gets homemade pasties daily and there is a breakfast selection of coffees, juices, cereals and toastable breads.
Take a Manatee Tour with Explorida
Manatees head for Crystal River and the nearby springs during winter to live in the warmer waters. Manatee season runs from mid March to the end of March so we visited right at the tail end (and what a cute flappy tail it is). During this time there can be thousands of manatees. Don’t worry if you are not due to arrive right in the middle of the season though, there is a population of around 60 .that lives here all years round.
Explorida takes manatee welfare seriously so the first thing you will do when you arrive is to watch a video all about how to observe them without impacting them too much. Basically, you float about being as still as possible and trying to avoid touching, scaring or harassing them. It can be tricky not to surround them when the water is murky as you can’t see them from further away but just thy to stick to the rules and take turns.
To help with buoyancy, and body temperature in the water, everyone changes into wet suits and then hops into a minivan to the quay. The boat ride out to King’s Bay is about 29 minutes. Just before arriving, the group is kitted out with a snorkel and mask set to breathe comfortably underwater. Then it’s time to slide into the water.
Now you are free to float on your pool noodle. This, plus the wetsuit will keep you extremely buoyant. If you stick close to the guide they will show you where to observe the manatee and can answer any questions you have about them. In all, you should get 1.5-2 hours in the water.
Manatees are incredibly gentle. They are big but completely harmless. They are known as sea cows but are much cuter and less scary when you are right next to one. If they come towards you, don’t worry, they are probably just eating along the sea grass and haven’t even noticed you.
Prepare for a few too many pictures of manatees taken through the murky water…
Grab a Latte and Lunch at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters
After a swim, I am always in the mood for a treat and the drinks at Cattle Dog Roaster are definitely a treat! There seems to be two sides to this local roastery. They both take their coffee very seriously and turn them onto exceedingly naughty, creamy beverages. If you are a purist, you can pick from over 20 different single origin coffees, and have one straight up. You can also buy a bag or two to take with you. However, if you are feeling frivolous, you can have one of their lattes which include options such as raspberry and white chocolate, hazelnut, banana and chocolate or cinnamon, French vanill
Of course, this being lunchtime, you should also have a pastry, sandwich, famous weekend brunch or a delicious lobster roll or bisque (if it’s Friday).
Spot Mermaids of Weeki Wachee
A 40 minute drive south of Crystal River is the Weeki Wachee State Park. This plays host to the iconic mermaid show that has been running since 1947! The show lasts about 30 minutes and involves incredible underwater performers acting and doing acrobatics in a HUGE natural spring. The theatre building was built to observe the spring, not the other way around. There are currently two shows, The Little Mermaid being the one that you might recognise.
Performers demonstrate incredible breath control and they pretend to speak and sing whilst flapping there tails and performing all kinds of tricks throughout the show. You will see hoses around the space from which, they snatch oxygen, allowing them to remain underwater. It is so impressive!
There are only 500 seats and people start queueing early. Aim to arrive at the park 50 minutes before the show and get into the queue at least 30 minutes prior to the show time. Oh, and lots of the queue isn’t covered so make sure to bring a hat or umbrella to create some shade.
After the show, it is your time to take a dip. Sadly, you are not allowed to wear mermaid tails in the spring (I think it is probably to stop people from trying stunts they can’t do and getting in trouble). The water is cool and clear with a couple of water slides int eh summer and a diving platform you can use all year. There is a fake beach to relax on but there are some hidden costs (the deck chairs cost extra so bring a beach throw to sit here without paying). There are also animal shows and a short river cruise to enjoy at no extra cost.
A Few Other Afternoon Ideas
- Three Sisters Spring is not only another wonderful place to meet manatees but the most beautiful spot with clear, turquoise water and stunning foliage. You can swim with the manatees again, rent kayaks for a guided paddle or just stroll the raised walkways.
- Airboat rides are an amazing way to see more of the local coast. They will take you along those parts you can’t get to by car, spotting dolphins, otters and bird life along the way.
- If you are visiting between July and September, you could try your hand at scalloping. As with the manatee encounter, the best way to behave it to float along the surface but the difference is, if you see a jaunty scallop, dive down and get it!
- If you are interested in weird wine, craft beer or just enjoy an adult beverage then head to Copp Winery and Brewery for a tasting. They have a few reds and whites but that’s not the interesting part. This winery is famous for their fruity wines like apple and cranberry. They do wine flights that are a total bargain and beer flights for those that are that way inclined.
Enjoy Dinner at Waterfront Social
The most popular spot in town is a wonderfully chilled out restaurant called The Waterfront Social. When the sky is clearer, it has a great sunset view over the water. Before or after dinner, pop into the attached Tiki bar for an abundance of rum-based cocktails.
The main chunk of the menu at Waterfront Social is seafood and plenty of it! On the starters menu you will find a creamy clam chowder and lots of fishy finger food. The coconut shrimp is seriously juicy and the grouper bites a little better than the gator bites (but less exciting). The crab cakes are densely filled with crab and potato so you are definitely getting your money’s worth.
Then, for mains you could opt for a burger or steak but why would you pass up the chance to savour a blackened grouper or grilled salmon? Everything is served with delicious vegetables and potato (chips or mash), rice or salad so there is something for everyone (that eats fish or meat).
Finally, if you have room for dessert, you cannot beat their amazing peanut butter pie. It’s lighter than you might expect but still pretty rich. For something with a little zing to it, the key lime pie is a Florida classic, executed fabulously.
Final Thoughts for Your Perfect Day in Crystal River
Crystal River is quite a sleepy town but you can have a whale of a time (or is that a manatee)? There is plenty of activities, mostly based around the glorious seaside in the waters that surround it, add to that a few rum cocktails and you have a perfect day in Crystal River!