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Crystal River is one of Florida’s off the beaten path destinations worth adding to your next road trip. Book a stay at the casually elegant resort, The Plantation on Crystal River, and take a bucket list manatee swim with their adventure guides. Want more family fun? There’s golf at the resort and mermaids a short drive away. Read on to learn more about The Plantation on Crystal River.
The writer was hosted.
Some places are magical. Many are in Florida. And this time, I’m not talking about Walt Disney World (though it’s just a 90 minute drive away.) Crystal River is the “Manatee Capital of the World,” and there’s only one Florida resort where you must stay to guarantee tons of southern charm, stately elegance and family friendly full-service resort amenities — and that place is The Plantation on Crystal River.
Stay in Southern Charm at The Plantation on Crystal River
I believe in exploring new places. But I also support the notion that once you find a true gem, you keep checking in, just to make sure the sparkle is still there. For me, that place is The Plantation on Crystal River. I’ve been twice — once with the kids in 2018 and once this December for the holiday season (something I’d always dreamt of experiencing — a “holiday in paradise!”) And let me tell you, the sparkle is extra special here during Christmas.
The long drive is lined with lights twirled around what I think are grand Magnolia trees (they weren’t in bloom in December). And the porte cochere wraps around a fountain of spouting manatees, creating the instant ambiance of all the area represents. It oozes “Old Florida” charm and the magnitude of nature’s beauty. Welcome to Florida’s Nature Coast!
The grand staircase in the lobby provides a lovely backdrop with potted Majesty palms and watercolor paintings of indigenous birds of Florida lining the walls. The architecture is gorgeous and harkens to an earlier time.
The plantation spans over 200+ acres. The owners pride themselves on being an eco-friendly resort. It was immaculately clean from any trash or debris. Surrounded by Kings Bay, the spot that manatees migrate to each year, it only makes sense for the resort to be a good partner in doing their part to take care of the earth.
Your Ascend Hotel Collection Slice of Heaven
The resort is spread over well-manicured grounds. Rooms are dispersed across several buildings on either side of the main lobby. That’s where you’ll find the on-site restaurant West 82, a gift shop, family game room, business center and fitness center. Prefer to unwind with a facial or pedicure? Check out the Aveda Salon and full-service spa. Really all the conveniences you can conjure are available. And though it feels like you’re miles away from anywhere, Crystal River’s city amenities are mere blocks away. It is unbelievable how quiet and secluded the resort feels despite being easily accessible from the main highway.
Full-service Resort Layout and Amenities
The resort spans several two-story white buildings, fanning out from the front desk area, all named wonderful things like Jasmine and Rose and Magnolia. There is a conference center and it won’t surprise anyone who has seen the property to know that many weddings are held on-site as well. Air conditioning comes standard and there are also heaters and dehumidifiers — no matter what the weather, you’ll be comfortable. Free wifi was accessible throughout the property, though at times, my cellular service was slow (for live feeds, Ring security cameras, and other apps that suck a lot of bandwidth.) You’re in rural Florida, so unplug a bit and enjoy the getaway!
Parking Poses No Problems
For anyone who is used to any of the metro areas in the country, you don’t have to worry about paying for parking, crowded ramps or valet coordination to get the car in and out. The Plantation on Crystal River offers free parking which will delight those of you from LA and even Tampa!
TravelingMom Tip: The parking lot is actually quite serene! (So if they’ve sold out of water view rooms, and you have a parking lot view with a standard room, it’s really still quite lovely and the active anoles, a local lizard, will entertain all day.
Florida Adventures On Property
One of the most appealing features of the resort is the fact that there is lots of green space. My kids need space to get their wiggles out, especially after a long car ride. The Plantation on Crystal River certainly has ample space for kids to be kids and lots of inviting spots for parents to watch their children. We spent each morning (when we weren’t on a manatee swim) simply walking about, enjoying the natural beauty of the sprawling resort property.
Activities for All Ages On-site
On property, there is also a 27-hole golf course for those who love to hit the irons while unwinding on vacation. Golf not your thing? There’s tennis and croquet too. Another great choice for fun is the beautiful (heated) outdoor pool and hot tub. Located poolside, a large seating area and a lively Tiki Bar offer a selection of food items as well as drinks for the sun worshipping crowd. On some nights, live entertainment is planned and we enjoyed the music of a local young singer and songwriter over the holiday weekend. Activities are included in the hotel’s modest $20 resort fee.
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The Plantation Adventure Center offers boat rentals including pontoon boats, kayaks and stand up paddleboards. The Adventure Center is located steps away from the hotel on the waterfront. This is were you set up your bucket-list manatee tour experience and where you can also make reservations and check-in for things like guided fishing and scalloping, when in season.
Dining from Bite-Size to Grand Buffets
We enjoyed the breakfast buffet and a special (and very popular with both guests and locals) Christmas Buffet at the West 82 bar and restaurant in the main building directly across from the front desk. The food was always great whether we ordered at the tiki bar or in the main restaurant. Be sure to make reservations during any holiday weekends or just to be safe. The property was short-staffed, like everywhere seems to be in the current times, but we did not notice any dip in service at all. Bartenders, housekeeping staff, manatee tour guides, golf resort pros and front desk staff alike were all so helpful and courteous.
From the guest rooms to the snorkeling, the Plantation on Crystal River experience is all class, making it perfect for family friendly vacations or romantic getaways or even the perfect friends foray for some Florida adventures.
A Golf Resort from a Bygone Era
Though most travel here for the manatees, we also wanted to experience golf in Florida, after all the two are nearly synonymous. However, being a golf greenhorn, I didn’t want to find myself on a PGA pro course with impatient expert golfers waiting for my many mulligans and having to constantly let people play through.
Christmas tee-time anyone? If you haven’t had a stress-free holiday on holiday, I highly recommend going tropical and booking golf resort rentals including clubs and a cart. Not only did we check off the bucket-list manatee swim in Kings Bay we also played golf in the Sunshine State and I felt, for just a moment like a golf professional! The golf pro shop front desk person, Charlie, was really superbly sweet. He gave me some wizened words when I casually expressed my anxiety about being a newbie to the sport.
Newbie Golf Adventure
From check in and cart rental to cruising around the greens and admiring the wood storks, ibis, herons and egrets, this felt like something from an Audrey Hepburn era film. I really was experiencing the simplicity of enjoying the surroundings, communing with nature and harkening back to a simpler time. We did see a few other couples and some folks out for their morning jog from the adjacent Golf Villas The Plantation also has to offer guests. I can tell you I do not have the best golf handicap. I got to soak up some Vitamin D. The Championship Course offers a very aesthetic golf course experience while there is also a “Lagoon” executive course for more casual play and practice.
At each water hazard I half expected (half hoped) to see a lazy gator lounging in the rough, effectively ending my search for far flung and wayward bright yellow Callaway balls. Rest assured, there were no Christmas gators at the golf resort. But I’m sure occasionally golfers do see them and maybe that is just an adventure I’ll have to save for a different day.
Holes are well marked and the course is laid out pretty well, though holes 2-4 can get a bit confusing where the Lagoon and Championship courses blend, so make sure to use your map!
Attached to the Pro Shop is the 19th Hole Sports Bar and Grill–and the best burgers for hungry golfers fresh off the fairway! The air conditioning was fabulous and the food hit the spot. These mornings are what make a vacation serene. Every moment — little ones, and larger ones, come together to create a string of perfect days in paradise.
Things to Do Off-property in the Area
Places to Eat Authentic Florida Flavor
If you are staying for a longer duration and are looking for a quick getaway off-site, the nearby town of Homosassa offers some adventures and dining options. We really enjoyed the Marguerita Grill (make sure to try the Triggerfish), The Freezer Tiki Bar (for a large selection of seafood) and MacRae’s of Homosassa for amazing fish tacos and sitting as close as you can get to the water without going for a swim! This is directly across the water from the Crump’s Landing restaurant (think waterside music and party vibe) and MacRae’s offers a very chill, atmosphere where you can watch the shenanigans unfold across the way! You can get to both spots from the water.
Manatee Viewing for Land Lubbers
The area is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. You’ll want to look keenly at times, cost for admission and length of trails. This is a great way to still have chances to see the manatees without getting your feet wet. However, it is about $15 in the winter for each person and they do have a time when they will accept the last admissions, so plan ahead if you want to leisurely hike the Refuge.
Real Mermaids, Not Just Manatees
For some weird fun, check out the eclectic underwater shows at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. This famed mermaid hangout is about 40 minutes from The Plantation. It’s been a mainstay on the Nature Coast adventure list for many decades. The history of the park is very interesting. Research a bit about how the shows came to be and the progression of the amphitheater as it stands today. The park also has trails and day use picnic sites. Your admission fee covers many activities, including kayaking and paddleboarding. They are available via rentals from Weeki Freshwater Adventures, the only outfitter within the park.
Swamp Tours by Airboat
Airboats are another popular activity on the rural Nature Coast of Florida in the Crystal River area and there are at least three companies offering tours.
Bucket List Manatee Tour
When I was in third grade and other classmates were doing their reports on professional athletes and celebrities, or, even my fellow nerds, covering big predators like bears and wolves, I was reporting on West Indian manatees. To say seeing these creatures up close, in their own habitat in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and the waters surrounding the area, is an understatement. This was a true dream come true for me. To share the experience with my children made it even more special.
West Indian Manatee Natural History in Florida
There are manatees who live in the Crystal River area year around — resident manatees, if you will. There are also many hundreds which come from the ocean waters all around to the Kings Bay area of Florida’s wild Nature Coast in the Crystal River area because of the natural hot springs which are present there. These warmer waters offer respite from the colder temperatures and allow the manatees to graze and mingle in large groups. This natural migration is also the reason for the booming ecotourism industry in the area. Let’s face it — while the anoles and shells found on land are neat, any megafauna species a region can boast home to wins the contest! (Think: grizzlies and bison of Yellowstone, versus the also very cool but not as popular marmots.) The manatees are grazers — very fitting for their sea cow moniker — and unfortunately, they have had a rough go of it lately.
The Plight of Manatees
When I was an eight year-old, reporting on the creatures a world away for me, as a Midwesterner, I remember a lot of propaganda and education about boat propellers and the poor creatures being near the brink because of human carelessness. That seems to be very obvious now, but, not able to catch a break, the mammals are now starving in some areas, in desperate search of sea grass and finding the spots which were once lush with green morsels to be barren, outcompeted by rampant algal blooms which are directly related to polluting and human impacts in the coastal waters.
The manatee guide, Jacob, informed our group that a lot of effort has been made in the Crystal River ecosystem to grow and transplant sea grass in the area to offset the recent challenges with its natural regeneration. They are finding dispersal by natural means through animals excretion, that the sea grass is successfully extending its range, slowly. This is great news for manatees!
What a Manatee Swim Encounter is All About
Being down at the dock at 6:30 a.m. while on vacation was something that gained me some unenthusiastic stares from my snorkel buddy.
During my first tour in the Kings Bay area, my youngest was too afraid to get into the water and stayed on the boat. This is super common with little kids, but the tour is still extremely family friendly. I’d say anyone five and up could do this with ease and interest. The wetsuits give the wearer extra buoyancy, but being comfortable swimming is a good start. The Plantation Adventure Center had a surprising array of sizes and the guides were able to perfectly fit us with just a swift glance. (Scuba diving is currently on pause at the Adventure Center due to COVID 19.)
You will watch a short video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and sadly, the bad tourist behavior is not staged. Don’t be that person. Be an ambassador to the area with tourist integrity!
Passive Observation and Being a Good Ecotourist
Donning a mask and snorkel, I only stopped to give and receive an okay sign with my buddy and I was off to the races. If the races were incredibly abbreviated, tiny doggy-paddle movements and zero kicks. This subtle movement is optimal for staying passive and observant and not disruptive to the big mammals. Thankfully, the guides are all master divers and they have fins, so they are able to glide through the water AND haul guests to perfect viewing spots to witness cow and calf cuddles, manatee munching and playful rolling giants in their natural habitat.
Not all outfitters have in-water guides, which is why the Plantation Adventure Center is the best company to book with. They ensure the safety of the humans and the water giants who call Crystal River and the surrounding waterways home. They have pool noodles to help novice swimmers feel more steady in the water.
Bucket List Adventure
The “why” for me is simple — I’ve always adored these lovable lugs. I will be back to see the manatees a few more times, guaranteed. One woman in her fifties on the boat was “there by proxy” — having just lost her dad, she wore his wedding ring on her right hand. This was a dream her mother had on her bucket list, but hadn’t gotten around to completing before she too had passed away. She was there for both of them, boldly achieving a family dream.
TravelingMom Tip: Go early in the morning and book a semi-private tour. The guides with The Plantation Adventure Center are in-water and will make sure even the littlest in the group see manatees if they find them. (I’ve been on the tour three times and all three times they’ve found manatees.)
My swim partner told the captain (since everyone else was on the boat,) “you’re probably going to have to haul her out of the water, or we could be here all day.” He wasn’t wrong. I am so happy in the water. 90 minutes drifted away on the current. And before I knew it, I was back on the boat with my GoPro, grinning ear to ear.
Captain Ross imparted some wisdom — “There are two kinds of people. Those who pee in their wetsuits, and those who lie about it.” Unfortunately, I was neither. They graciously moored the boat for me (and another woman who jumped up with glee when I announced our change in the itinerary.) This seems like a silly aside, but that is super telling of the kind of operation The Plantation Adventure Center runs. Safety measures are accounted for, they adhere to passive observation and ethical wildlife viewing and they care about the guest experience. Again, the staff and entire experience offered up by the resort shatters and exceeds my expectations.
The tour concludes back at the Adventure Center shop. Load up on t-shirts and manatee everything and purchase a photo USB of YOUR manatee tour. It’s not just photos from stock footage, it’s your face likely in close proximity to a manatee face. The guides not only manage to haul you to a great view of the creatures, they also have GoPro cameras taking candid shots of everyone reacting to seeing these gentle giants in their natural setting. It’s really the coolest souvenir–it comes on a manatee shaped USB stick.
Getting There from Tampa and Orlando
Just outside of Tampa, there is a Manatee viewing center — it’s rather distant and you can expect BIG crowds, but the site is neat for a stop. However, it is nothing like what you’ll experience with a manatee swim tour at the Plantation on Crystal River, so make sure to do both!
The Plantation on Crystal River is 90 minutes from both Orlando (and you KNOW we have a few tips, tricks, articles, and experiences with Walt Disney World) and also 90 minutes north of Tampa, where there is a world of cuisine and nightlife for you to explore.
For something different and because we’d done Disney several times, I highly recommend flying in and out of Tampa, if airfare is reasonably equal in price. It’s an extremely easy drive north with few tolls and you get to explore parts of rural Florida where you can buy boiled peanuts, hot dogs and fresh citrus on the side of the road. Flea markets and small businesses dot the highway. The drive is an adventure to enjoy.
Flying in to Tampa – Adventure Abounds
While in Tampa, try one of two adventures — a taste of Cuban-influenced rich history in the Ybor City district with an opulent stay at Hotel Haya — and do take in the Showbar dueling piano performers. Or try the nightlife of the vibrant new neighborhood called Sparkman Wharf, on the waterfront downtown. A quick two-block stroll on The River Walk takes you to the trendy new luxury JW Marriott Tampa Waterfront.
Make it Magical, No Matter the Destination
The ENTIRE trip should be an adventure, from touchdown to wheels up. Bookend your Crystal River explorations with some Tampa dining and discoveries!