Florida is rich with natural wonders, and exploring hidden, unspoiled spots is my favorite part about living here. The springs, the Gulf of Mexico, the history, the wildlife—I never tire of this beautiful state. But until earlier this month, I had never made it to Crystal River, an area about 130 miles north of Sarasota that is famous for its excellent scalloping and staggering natural beauty.
Much like Sarasota, Crystal River was originally inhabited by Indigenous people, likely beginning around the year 500 B.C., an indicator that the region was rich with natural resources. In the mid-1800s, families began to settle there and created the town of Crystal River, which has continued to grow since.
When I visited, the word "conservation" came up everywhere I went. The residents of the Nature Coast prioritize protecting wildlife and maintaining the area's beauty. In a year of staggering manatee deaths, Crystal River acted as a refuge for the mammals, thanks to an eel grass restoration program implemented in 2015.
The river is spring-fed, which provides a consistent temperature year-round. This attracts manatees in the winter, because they can stay warm as temperatures drop elsewhere along the coast. The animals are protected in specific areas of the river that are cordoned off, preventing kayaks and swimmers from pestering the creatures while they rest.
Still, visitors are invited to swim and kayak the springs with the hope of catching a glimpse of resting manatees. Three Sisters Spring, for example, has the most stunning visuals and can harbor nearly 500 manatees in the winter. The springs are not accessible by motored boat, providing a refuge for the animals.
As the year transitions into summer, the manatees dissipate to explore the rest of the coast, and scallop season brings a new crop of visitors, like me. From July 1 to Sept. 24 (the longest scallop season on Gulf coast), visitors search for bay scallops. My plan, when I arrived in Crystal River in early July, was to catch and eat as many scallops as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows.
"Swim against the current to find the scallops," Captain Katie Jo Davis told me as we put on our flippers and masks. Crystal River scallops are palm-sized, with dozens of blue eyes, an unsettling sight at first. Looking for them is like participating in an Easter egg hunt, peering between blades of green grass and searching for those haunting blue eyes.
"I found one!" I exclaimed. A wave of pride rushed through me. I had told a stranger the night before, "If I only find one, it will be a success."
Eventually, I found 12 more—a paltry haul compared to Davis and her first mate. They each surfaced with armloads of bivalves. My little shell bag looked depressingly small in comparison, but I hardly cared, as I swam and enjoyed the clear water, surrounded by giant snook and even, at one point, a sea turtle.
After four hours of scalloping, we returned to land where the restaurant at the Plantation on Crystal River resort cooked my scallops for me. Scallops there are prepared one of three ways: blackened, with lemon butter, or with a mushroom cream sauce. I worried that blackening seasoning would overpower the delicate scallop flavor and opted for the lemon butter instead. When they arrived, they were light and sweet and perfect, and they disappeared in a jiffy. I have rarely been happier.
Interested in visiting Crystal River? Here's how to do it right.
Where to Stay
9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, (352) 795-4211, plantationoncrystalriver.com
Crawling with crepe myrtle and situated on a small peninsula, the resort is both boat- and family-friendly and the pool is enormous, with sweeping views of the river. The hallways echo, which can make sleep difficult, but it's nothing a pair of earplugs can't fix. Before you leave, be sure to stop at the poolside tiki bar for a piña colada.
310 N. Citrus Ave., Crystal River, (352) 586-1813, crystalmanatee.com
A small retreat in the middle of town, the rooms here are beautiful and the space is calm. It's just steps from downtown and Hunter Springs Kayaks (more about them below), making it convenient for any adventure.
Where to Eat
114 Fifth Ave., Crystal River, (352) 94-0004, vintageon5th.com
Located in a historic home, Vintage on 5th offers an extensive menu of creative and flavorful cuisine. The shrimp and grits is the star: plump shrimp swimming in a pool of mushroom cream sauce, highlighted by bits of bacon. If Cedar Key clams are on special, do not miss them.
539 N. Citrus Ave., Crystal River, (352) 563-2697, amysontheavenue.com
A quaint breakfast and lunch joint, with a lovely outdoor patio, Amy's can best be described as friendly. My server recommended a wrap made with bacon, avocado and cream cheese, modified from a popular menu item. It's a hearty way to start a busy day.
Where to Drink
564 N. Citrus Ave., Crystal River, (352) 450-0008, kcwinecoffeebar.com
The wine offerings at KC are astonishing. The staff is knowledgeable and I was impressed by the rare varietals in the racks lining the walls. The server recommended a chenin blanc—my favorite, and not an easy find. I loved it here.
638 N. Citrus Ave., Crystal River, (352) 228-8818, cattledogcoffeeroasters.com
An adorable outpost with every type of coffee drink you could want. It's right down the street from Dunkin' and so much better.
What to Do
West Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, (772) 882-8932, fishcrystalriverflorida.com
There are several fishing charters to choose from in Crystal River, but I doubt any rival Davis and her vessel. She's interactive with her guests and helps during the scallop hunt. She even took us to a secret swimming spot teeming with wildlife.
36 N.E. Fourth St., Crystal River, (352) 228-4715, hunterspringskayak.com
For a comprehensive tour of the river, including manatee sightings and a swim in Three Sisters Spring, choose an adventure with Hunter Springs Kayaks. If you can, request Shawn as your tour guide. His personality is almost as exciting as spotting a manatee in the wild.
9350 W. Fishbowl Drive, Homosassa, (352) 628-2311
A quick jaunt down the highway and you will be greeted by more wildlife than you can photograph at this state park. An underwater manatee observatory, where creatures seem to pose for onlookers, is a highlight. Don't miss the aviary, where native birds preen alongside the spring.
4100 W. Gulf to Lake Highway, Lecanto, (352) 513-3278, mermaidaquariumencounter.com
A newish roadside attraction, the Mertailor is keeping Florida weird. It's a great place to spend a rainy day with the kids, with plenty of fish, crustaceans and touch tanks. The mermaids dance in sync in a giant tank, a delight for all ages.