On Central Florida’s west coast lies beautiful Citrus County, home to refreshing springs, colorful landscapes and enchanting marine animals.
Thanks to year-round mild weather, visitors can explore this beautiful vacation spot in many ways, from snorkeling and kayaking to bicycling and much more. The Plantation on Crystal River, with a friendly staff and stunning views of the river, is the perfect home base to this lovely haven that is still close to the major theme parks of Orlando and Tampa.
Manatees and Springs
This is the only place in North America where you can swim with West Indian manatees in their natural habitat, a sanctuary that’s home to 25 percent of the U.S. population. Tours leave from the Plantation Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River, which provides the snorkel, fins and wetsuit you’ll need. As you swim with these huge, gentle beings while they graze on aquatic plants in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, pay close attention to the captain’s directions to make sure you don’t interfere with the manatees’ habits. The center can certify beginners in scuba diving as well.
To stay mostly dry, join a kayak tour with the Crystal River Kayak Company. Visitors will find that the paddle is relaxed, with views on one side of beautiful homes, and on the other side a rather wild-looking marshland with dense mangroves. After about 20 minutes, you’ll approach the crystal-clear source of Three Sisters Springs. Equipped with mask and snorkel, visitors can explore the depth of the spring. The spring is frequently visited by manatees, especially when offshore waters cool off in winter. Try a paddle-boarding tour for a different perspective.
Nature on the Water
Visitors looking for a faster-paced adventure will enjoy an airboat tour from the Homosassa Riverside Resort’s Bait & Tackle Shop. The shallow-draft boats can explore the Homosassa River’s flora and fauna in areas where traditional motorboats can’t go. The reflection of the enormous trees on the water is disturbed only when a curious alligator or turtle raises its head.
In summer, adults and children of all ages search for scallops, a fun treasure hunt in the shallow flats of the Gulf of Mexico. Boats head into the Gulf for an hour before dropping anchor in water that’s less than two meters deep. Equipped with snorkel, mask and a small bag, visitors dive down and scoop up scallops hiding in the seagrass. Some local restaurants will prepare your fresh catch for you.
The next day, drive to the nearby Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, where you can rent kayaks near the camping area. Paddling on the Chassahowitzka River, you’ll see beautiful, untouched nature with wading birds searching for lunch and turtles and alligators basking in the sun.
The region is known as a bicyclists’ paradise. Head out for a ride along the Withlacoochee State Trail, the longest biking trail in Florida. The path, which follows an old train track, takes riders past wide marshlands, through a cypress forest, along fields and lakes and past farmhouses. The nearby Withlacoochee Bay Trail winds along the Gulf of Mexico and offers beautiful water views.
At Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, you might want to head straight to the underwater observatory, where you’ll come face-to-face with manatees, separated only by thick windows. You’ll also see large alligators, river otters, flamingos, swans, bobcats and even a Florida panther cub.
Crystal River Archaeological State Park, which is on the Crystal River, was once a ceremonial site used by prehistoric coastal dwellers thousands of years ago. They traveled long distances to bury their dead here, and six burial sites still remain. In the adjacent museum, find interesting artifacts and interactive exhibits that provide fascinating insights into ancient times.
The lovely Shoppes of Heritage Village offer unique treasures and unusual antiques. One of the area’s premier art galleries, the Franklin Anderson Gallery of Art, features painting, photography, sculpture, metalwork and more. After swimming with manatees, pick up a stuffed animal at the Manatee Toy Company to remember the experience. If you want a proper cup of tea and English scone, the Scottish family-owned Highlander Cafe is the perfect spot. Owner Collin is known to play the bagpipes out front. At Peck’s Old Port Cove, dine on fresh-caught seafood and enjoy a drink at the outdoor tiki bar.
Tracing Elvis' Steps
In downtown Inverness, visit the 1912 courthouse, which was made famous in a 1962 Elvis Presley movie called “Follow that Dream.” Today, the courthouse is home to the Old Courthouse Heritage Museum, which features exhibits about Citrus County history. In the second-floor courtroom, where Elvis shot a pivotal scene, learn interesting facts about the making of the movie. And be sure to take a selfie with the life-sized Elvis cardboard cut-outs.