Known as a premiere destination for its beaches, theme parks, and even nightlife, Florida has a lot to offer its visitors. But away from the tourist hotspots Florida is known for – and the traffic, the hustle and bustle, and bright lights that come with those buzzy spots – is another side of Florida that offers ample opportunities to connect with nature.
Needing a long weekend getaway from the busy South Florida area, one of our Driven to Roam team members recently booked a long weekend to Citrus County, located in the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast. An easy 4.5-hour drive from the Fort Lauderdale area, this destination would also be a great add-on to a more extended stay in places like Orlando, Tampa, and some panhandle-area beaches.
Plan your drive to the area so that you arrive in the late afternoon, just in time to start your weekend. Enjoy dinner with a view in Homosassa at Crumps’ Landing Waterfront Tiki.
Crumps offers an expansive outdoor space featuring numerous thatched-roof tiki huts, outdoor tables, and Adirondack chairs overlooking the Homosassa River. Plus, they feature live music five nights a week – a laid-back way to start your weekend with fresh air and fun tunes.
Start your day at 9:00 with a two-hour kayak rental from River Adventure Tours at their Homosassa location. You’ll paddle on the Halls River, a tributary of the Homosassa River, in well-equipped kayaks that include zipped storage compartments, comfy seats, and soft rubber grips on the paddle to help protect your hands.
The morning start time will offer a quiet river, perfect for spotting the local wildlife and enjoying the clear water in many places. As you paddle, you’ll likely see many kinds of fish, birds, turtles, and even manatees.
Local seafood lunch
After kayaking, get an early start on lunch by making a
short drive southbound to Wild
Sassa, a food trailer overlooking the Homosassa River by Shelly’s Seafood
Market. Open from 11:00 to 4:00, Thursday through Sunday, everything offered at
Wild Sassa is freshly made and prepared to order, and they specialize in wild-caught
local seafood and local produce.
Due to Wild Sassa’s size, seating is limited, and thanks to their rave reviews, they often sell out of items. But if your timing is right (ahem, early) and you get a seat, you can watch boats cruising by and see more local wildlife like pelicans and ibises. If seats aren’t available, it’s easy to order your food to go.
After lunch, head to Ellie
Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park for an animal afternoon. The
state park is unique because they keep many animals in captivity who cannot
survive in the wild for various reasons (think flightless birds, for example). While
there, you can participate in educational opportunities and learn about
The park’s most famous resident is Lu, an African Hippo born in 1960 in San Diego. Once an animal actor starring in 1960s series like “Cowboy in Africa” and “Daktari,” Lu nearly faced eviction from Florida in 1989, but locals petitioned the Governor to let him stay. Thanks to Lu’s popularity, he’s since been an honorary Florida citizen, so he’s guaranteed to stay in the Florida State Park as a non-native animal. You can keep up with Lu on his Facebook page.
Other attractions at the park include alligators, otters, a bobcat, a Florida panther, a reptile house, Key deer, a black bear, a red wolf, and more. You’ll also see plenty of birds at the park, like the fan-favorite flamingos, cormorants, vultures, crested caracara, pelicans, a bald eagle, red-tailed hawks, heron, and more. All the animals are viewable from a boardwalk, so the park is an excellent option for groups with strollers or wheelchairs.
While at the park, you can also explore an underwater observatory in crystal-clear water where you can see fish, and sometimes manatees swim by. And at certain times during the day, you can also listen to a park worker give an educational lesson at the on-site Manatee Care Center.
After your wildlife walk, it’s a perfect time to check out
the Gulf of Mexico. Head off the beaten path to Ozello Keys via US-19 for a
glimpse of Old Florida. Stop at Backwater Fins if your
early lunch means you’re out of fuel and need a snack or a cold drink.
Then it’s time to fly on the water! Head across the street to Ms. Fins Oarhouse Marina, where you’ll meet your airboat captain from Florida Airboat Adventure Tours (make sure you book your tour in advance). This is the only airboat company in Citrus County where you’ll find a female airboat captain – and likely the coolest-looking airboat too!
On your tour, you’ll skim across the water in a unique flat-bottomed boat powered by a giant fan-like propeller (rather than a motor, like other boats). The tour is an excellent opportunity to enjoy more of the natural beauty of the area’s unique ecosystem, created when the freshwater from local river springs combines with the saltwater of the Gulf. But perhaps the most exciting part of your airboat ride will be the wind in your face, the buzz of the propeller, and the slalom-like movements as the boat navigates through narrow openings in the sawgrass scrub and around the mangrove patches.
Along the way, it’s common to see dolphins, turtles, fish,
and many other creatures – sometimes wild pigs, manatees, or alligators are
visible from the boat. Take your camera but be ready to hold on tight! Hats are
optional, but remember to place the noise-canceling headphones (provided by
Florida Airboat Adventure Tours) on top, or else your hat will be missing soon
after your tour starts.
In addition to airboat rides, Florida Airboat Adventure Tours offers pontoon boat tours, summer scallop tours, and winter manatee tours through their sister company, Ozello Keys Pontoon Tours. Learn more about services from both companies at their shared website.
The waters of Crystal River are the only place in the US
where you can legally swim with manatees, and each winter (November through
April), the area plays host to hundreds of manatees in the local waterway as
the gentle creatures leave the colder waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Sea cows,
as they are known, are attracted to Crystal River because of its constant
temperature; fed by the second-largest group of springs in Florida, nearly 64
million gallons of spring water flow into the Crystal River daily, keeping the
water at a constant 72 degrees year-round.
Though you can spot manatees year-round here, our trip occurred during peak manatee season, from December through February each year.
Manatee Swim Tour
Start your day with a 7:30 departure to swim
with manatees in their natural habitat! Crystal River Watersports (CRWS) offers
Manatee Swim Tour that takes small groups of 6 people maximum to swim with
the gentle creatures, and they provide everything you need. Make sure you book
your appointment in advance – your tour includes a wetsuit rental, snorkel, and
face mask. You should arrive wearing a bathing suit and bring warm clothes to
put on once you get out of the water.
Before you board the boat, your guide will educate you on the dos and don’ts of swimming with manatees (and wetsuit dressing tips). CWRS was one of the first companies to become a member of the Save the Manatee Club Guardian Guide program and is also a charter member of the Manatee Eco-Tourism Association (META) of Citrus County. As a result, their team focuses on ensuring their guests have a great time while minimizing adverse impacts on the manatees.
As you depart from the CRWS facility, your excursion starts with a scenic cruise to the Crystal River, so you’re likely to see all kinds of birds and other wildlife along the way. Upon arrival in Kings Bay, your guide and captain begin looking for the telltale signs of manatees – like the snort and spray of water created each time a manatee comes to the surface for air. Now, it’s swim time!
Because CRWS practices sustainable tourism, your swim will
focus on observing the manatees instead of trying to touch them – though a
curious manatee may touch you! Underwater cameras are welcome to capture your
experience, but your guide will have one if you don’t. Your guide’s photos of
the excursion will be available for purchase at the end of your tour.
Other services offered by CRWS include summer scalloping tours, PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International) Scuba certification, and Scuba excursions. But perhaps their most unique services are their Mermaid and Mermen courses, where SSI teaches people of all ages, shapes, and sizes how to swim with a mermaid tail.
Picnic and more
After snorkeling with manatees, it’s time to enjoy a
leisurely stop to wrap up your afternoon. Pack your lunch, a blanket, and
swimming gear, and head to Rainbow
Springs State Park (use the Headsprings entrance) in Dunnellon. General
entry is $2 per person, and thanks to your early start time with the manatees,
you’ll likely make it to the park in time to get in – weekends and holidays are
popular visiting days.
Some of the most popular activities at Rainbow Springs are swimming and snorkeling in the cool, clear headsprings. Buoys mark the swim space, and like other water activities in the area, you can expect the water temperature to stay at 72 degrees year-round, thanks to the spring water constantly pouring in. Additionally, the park offers visitors geocaching, leisurely nature trails and pathways, and is part of The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Activities such as seasonal tubing, canoe, and kayak rentals are available for an additional fee. Plus, the park offers camping facilities whether you bring a tent, sleep in your Toyota, or haul a trailer. Restroom and laundry facilities are available, along with a campground store. Learn more at the Florida State Park reservation website.
Visit Florida’s Nature Coast
Now is the time to enjoy the great outdoors, treat yourself to some southern hospitality, and indulge in a slower pace. Pack up your Toyota soon for a journey to a lesser-known part of Florida!