My grandparents made me fall in love with Florida. Not the Florida of retirement homes and expansive theme parks, but the old, real Florida, the magical place they’d lived all their lives.
Natives of the state, they introduced me the historic charm of St. Augustine, the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs, the dolphin shows at Marineland, and DeFuniak Springs, a Victorian town where theWinter Chatauqua camped out each year.
Crystal River: A Boater’s Heaven (and Of Course, Golf)
That lengthy stretch of West coast from Tampa to Panama City, the part not known for beaches and resorts, is filled with rivers, marshes and natural springs. Called Nature’s Coast, it’s a paradise for boating, fishing and nature-watching, along with spectacular sunsets and swimming with the manatees.
Driving to Crystal River takes you along back roads through farm and horse country to Highway 19, which is sparsely lined with strip malls and fast food restaurants. We weren’t sure what to expect when we got to our hotel; the area didn’t seem like the setting for a resort experience.
Then, we checked into the Plantation on Crystal River. We were immediately welcomed into a Southern Plantation style lobby flanked by wings of rooms set along the Crystal River. Half the rooms face the river, the other half face the property. Guests with a water view room can also tie up a boat to the seawall just outside their room. Water view rooms have patios for enjoying the view (or the view of your boat), and many face a wide lawn that leads down to the river.
We were among the only guests not to arrive by, or with, a boat. The parking lot was filled with Chevy Tahoes, Chevy Suburbans and GMC Yukons with boat trailers. In fact, we saw large SUVs everywhere in this part of Florida; boating is a way of life, and getting those boats from one boat launch to another requires a car that can tow.
Nature’s Air Conditioning
We checked in and headed straight for the pool, which sits just behind the main building and dining room. The pool is ample and stretches along the river, anchored at one end by a Tiki bar serving drinks and food. TheTiki bar also has table service, but we immediately set up in the poolside chairs. Even though it was a hot day, a breeze coming off the river continually flowed, keeping us comfortable in the sun or in the pool.
We learned during our stay that this is the magic of exploring Crystal River: the nearby springs continually pump perfect, fresh, clear 72-degree water into the rivers. The breeze from these springs cools the air in the summer and warms it in the winter. This is why Florida’s manatee population hangs around all year; it’s the perfect environment.
Seeking Out Local Flavor
That night we decided to explore the area a bit for dinner. Just two miles north of the resort is the town of Crystal River, anchored by Citrus Avenue which intersects with Highway 19. Citrus Avenue is dotted with historic buildings housing cute gift shops and dive and water sports shops; there is a wine bar, an ice cream shop and a cafe as well as some offices; most of the shops close by early evening. Citrus Avenue extends south to the water, lined by palm trees and charming homes, to a public park, dock and boat launch.
Dinner at a Local Favorite
Later that evening we headed a few miles south to the Ozello Keys to catch the sunset and sample a local favorite restaurant, Pecks Old Port Cove. Ozello Trail stretches 10 miles west and north from Highway 19 and is lined with marshes, inlets and homes, from posh newer homes to cottages on stilts. Pecks is almost at the end of the road on the inlet, perched at the water’s edge. There is an indoor restaurant (where, in August most diners preferred to sit) and an outdoor tiki hut and bar area (where we wanted to sit and watch the sunset). The staff kindly set up a table for us and we sat quite comfortably, despite it being August, and enjoyed a breeze, the rippling tide and the sinking afternoon sun. The menu is what I think of as typical Florida waterside: a variety of fish, fried, boiled or broiled, with sides of fries, hush puppies and coleslaw. We tried the fried grouper, boiled shrimp and crab cakes, with crab plucked fresh from Peck’s crab tank. The food was good and the experience was another wonderful summer memory.
Golf With Kids, My Way: Fun and Affordable
A note posted at the Plantation on Crystal River’s front desk got my attention: Guests were invited to play the Lagoon Course, a 9-hole golf course, for $12 (including a cart!). With two novice teen golfers, that sounded perfect. A call to the pro shop told us that, being August, we didn’t even need a tee time; they would accommodate us when we got there. Perfect.
The next morning we walked across the street to the pro shop and for $36 booked a round of golf, which included one golf cart per two players. Being August, and quite hot and humid, we were the only players on the course, a par-3 course that was perfect for us: not overly challenging and a lot of fun. The course winds alongside the Championship course, 18 holes of more challenging play, which my husband would have preferred had he been with us. The courses are lined with palmetto and Live Oaks dripping with Spanish Moss, reminding me of the courses in North Florida I’d played with my grandparents. And for us it was ideal; each hole was challenging enough to be fun but not too challenging to be frustrating.
After our round we settled into the restaurant area in the clubhouse, which also felt like places I’d been with my grandparents. A low, comfortable building with windows facing the golf course, the menu offered salads, sandwiches and wraps, and for me, a refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio. And, like everything else, it was nicely priced. Lunch and golf for 3 totaled about $75.
A Behind The Scenes Tour: Crystal River by Boat
The next day we headed out on a boat tour and finally got a peek at the life and lifestyle that unfolds on the water, and it’s magical. Our boat captain, Captain Ed (who made the kids giggle when he said we could also call him Mr. Ed, Special Ed or Phys Ed) motored our sightseeing boat along the warrens of seawalls that line the bay and river and that are dotted with beautiful waterfront homes and an old hotel with a popular Tiki bar.
We motored alongside the marshes, islands and springs that make up the area, finally coming to the entrance to Three Sisters Springs. The Spring is home to manatees and the entrance is blocked to boats, though it’s accessible by kayak or by swimming in.
At the entrance to the springs boats were anchored or tied up together and families were swimming, snorkeling and sunning; kayakers paddled along the marshes and islands, exploring the waterways too shallow and too filled with wildlife for boats to safely navigate. In the summer the manatee population scatters, the pups looking for easy shallow fishing areas, the adults finding cooler waters; in the winter, though, they tend to all congregate around the springs where the water is a warm and comfortable despite the weather.
Captain Ed pointed out a few manatee pups who stuck around for te summer, and said that if we return in the late winter or early spring, we’ll be able to see more and even swim with them; King’s Bay is their winter home.
An hour later we returned to the and the hotel and packed up for our next adventure: A trip to Universal Orlando for a bit of exciting New Florida (and Wizarding Old England) and a few days on the beach in St. Pete Beach
Disclosure: We were guests of the Plantation on Crystal River for one night and for the boat tour; we benefited from a media rate for the rest of our stay; opinions and photographs are my own.