Crystal River is a cool Florida destination to explore. With nicknames like “Water Lovers’ Paradise” and “Home of the Manatee,” we might also add “Boaters’ Dream.” This is Old Florida, with southern hospitality, deep history, fun watersports, classic seafood shacks — not just broad sandy beaches, though they have those, too. Crystal River is teeming with wildlife, parks and preserves, and a myriad of interconnected waterways stretching seven miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Most Great Loopers and pleasure boaters cut the corner and skip this special section of Florida’s Gulf Coast due to its challenging shallow navigation. But intrepid captains willing to venture up the Crystal River are in for a real treat. These waterways are U.S. Coast Guard marked for navigation and a sanctuary in winter for over 1,000 manatees munching on the abundance of healthy seagrass.
A convenient way to boat the inlets of beautiful Citrus County is to trailer your own boat or rent one to explore Crystal River, Ozello Keys and Homosassa just south. We enjoyed 72 hours in Crystal River, exploring the waterways, meeting manatees, touring lush parks and nature preserves, and feasting on delish local fish, crab and scallops. Folks in this part of Florida are genuine, friendly and proud of their seaside scene.
Arriving in Crystal River, we checked in to the Plantation, a grand old hotel and resort on the waterfront where our room overlooked the lawn and inlet leading to the river. The Plantation has its own marina where you can dock, launch or rent a boat, kayak or paddleboard, or hop on a scenic tour from manatee encounters to sunset cruises.
We chose to stretch our legs by biking 1.8 miles to the historic downtown of Crystal River, riding the scenic designated Three Sisters Springs Crosstown Trail and passing the Mermaid House. We poked around unique boutiques on Citrus Avenue, such as Amy’s on the Avenue, Salty Girls Beach Shop and Fishhook Outfitters. Hand-painted murals throughout the colorful village add to its vibrance, along with manatee sculptures, Crystal River’s mascot. From the town center, Crystal River Preserve State Park is just 4 miles north and west to a peaceful waterfront setting with dramatic ancient burial mounds dating back to 2,000 A.D.
Back at the Plantation, we refreshed with a swim in the resort’s expansive riverfront pool and drinks from the Tiki Bar. Dinner that evening was extraordinary at Vintage on 5th in town. Sitting on the veranda of this 1940s church- turned-gourmet bistro was sublime, so was the She Crab soup and fried green tomatoes smothered in goat cheese and bacon. Live music from next door Norton’s Riverside Sports Bar & Grill was our entertainment.
Get Up and Go Kayaking was our calling next morning, just south in Homosassa. Following our guide, we paddled up the “Chaz” in clear bottom kayaks through a maze of mossy oak-shaded canals. The Chassahowitzka River (aka the Chaz), is teeming with waterbirds and marine life. Schools of fish swam under our clear kayaks, massive manatees floated lazily by, and turtles sunned on rocks. Passing one alligator, I paddled a little faster.
Soon we reached the glittering deep-water pools of Seven Sisters Springs and then the dramatic “Crack” where we swam in an iridescent fissure in the rock bottom where millions of gallons of freshwater pump into the river every minute. Magical.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park was our next stop. Boarding a boat at Pepper Creek, our park guide plied the peaceful waters into the park grounds where we discovered an extensive wildlife park devoted to rehabilitating Florida animals and mammals with various injuries in this protected preserve. From the huge old hippo named Lu to a panther, bear, deer, fox, owl, otter and manatee, this rescue center is the kindest example of a zoo we’d ever witnessed.
That evening, our activity-fueled appetites were perfectly satiated at Wallace’s at the Greenhouse in Homosassa. From the chef ’s scratch kitchen, we ordered the best smoky fish dip with homemade chips, followed by the freshest fish du jour with delicious sides. In this cheerful greenhouse eatery, the locally sourced menu changes daily.
Next morning, we boarded our much-an- ticipated swim with the manatees encounter from the Plantation Resort’s own Adventure Center. Our captain and guide told us all about the wildlife-rich Crystal River on our boat ride into the bay. We learned about manatees and soon were floating right next to these most gentle of marine giants.
We had been coached on mimicking the manatees’ behavior in our black wet suits, so they’d approach us, and it worked! We were eye to eye, whisker to snorkel, with these docile but huge sea cows. Amazing! Along our tour, we also stopped to swim in percolating crystal-clear freshwater springs (hence the river’s name, which hosts over 70 springs in its 600-acre bay).
A beautiful swerving seaside drive out Ozello Keys brought us to a fun old fish shack for lunch, Peck’s Old Port Cove. We devoured sweet salty crab, blackened shrimp and the most outrageously tasty thin-sliced onion rings, made fresh daily and complemented by the turquoise water view.
After eating so much delish fish, we wanted to go fishing in this water lover’s paradise! That afternoon Captain Gary Bartell took us on a charter from his family-owned Ozello Keys Marina. He expertly sped us across calm bays to his spot and hooked us up for success, literally.
After a bit of bait, wait and chat about his show Fish Talk Live, we were reeling in redfish, including Greg’s 32-inch trophy fish that was too big to keep. So, we only “caught” the photo before releasing it, proof it wasn’t just a fish tale. Captain Gary cleaned and fileted our keeper fish back at the dock, and sent us to Seafood Seller, where they’d cook our catch.
We found Seafood Seller & Café in a humble strip mall. Locals were lined up at this mom-and-pop affordable seafood joint. Folks were feasting on piles of shrimp, crawfish and oysters. But we brought our own fish, and the chef prepared our redfish perfectly — blackened and served with tasty homemade sides.
On our reluctant departure from a fun-filled Crystal River visit, we passed through Inverness, another idyllic little town and boaters’ heaven. Boaters can launch here into the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes to explore a 23-mile-long freshwater haven. Since we had bikes, we rode part of the Withlacoochee State Trail, a 46-mile paved designated pedestrian and bike path that stretches the entire East Citrus County of Florida along old train tracks, beautiful farms and lakeshores.
We vowed to return to the abundant water world of Crystal River and BYOB (bring your own boat) next time.
This 196-room full-service hotel has a marina, boat tours, launch, dock slips, pool and tiki bar. Bring your own boat or rent from their fleet. Boater, family and pet friendly.
The waterfront mermaid-inspired house is a rental with a riverfront lawn, firepit and complimentary clear kayaks and bikes for guests. Walking distance to downtown Crystal River, also on the Crosstown bike path.
Crystal River is busiest in scallop season, July to mid-September, when docks slips are challenging to find, so book well in advance.
The marina offers a few transient boat slips at King’s Bay Marina on Crystal River, with new docks built in 2023. Great location near town.
As the largest marina on Crystal River, it offers easy access to the Gulf and Kings Bay, but it is 6 miles to downtown Crystal River. Boat rentals are available, limited transient dock slips, better availability in winter months.
Find boat rentals, launch and transient dock slips, kayaks and SUPs for rent, and daily boat excursions.
At the head of Kings Bay is a former crab processing plant and super casual eatery that serves big portions of local fish, shrimp and crabs. Cash only.
This classic Old-Florida seafood shack for lunch or dinner is reached by a scenic swerving drive out to this dramatic land on Ozello Keys.
Visit a fabulous scratch kitchen for lunch or dinner with a very talented chef.
Enjoy a gourmet wine and delicious dinner experience in a 1940s church in town.