When one thinks of going to Florida, the beaches or Disney are typically the first things to come to mind. But there are lots of cool “off the beaten path” places to visit beyond Disney. And the winter may be the best time to visit Florida.
If you’re looking for something fun and unique to do other than the magic kingdom, we recommend heading west to explore the natural springs on the Gulf side of Florida.
For this trip we recommend making Crystal River, Florida your home base to explore the area. From here you can swim with manatees, visit local springs with crystal clear waters (which stay the same temperatures year round), see mermaids, and even watch monkeys play on Monkey Island. Read on to find lodging, food and attraction recommendation that are off the beaten path in Florida.
We stayed at the Plantation On Crystal River, a Ascend Hotel Collection. A beautiful property in a town with not a lot of options for lodging. The rooms come with a mini fridge and have recently been updated but the best part is the amenities and the beautiful grounds. The hotel is located along the water and is very nicely landscaped.
They have a restaurant, Tiki bar,a gift shop, a marina, a large pool, and hot tub as well as a golf course. A new kids water area was under construction when we visited. They even have giant outdoor Connect Four, Chess and Checkers to play. PLUS the best part is they offer manatee tours and sunset cruises.
SWIM WITH MANATEES
Crystal River is the manatee capital of the world and the only place to actually swim with manatees in the United States. Plus the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is probably the single best place for manatee viewing in the world.
There are lots of operators that offer the opportunity to swim with manatees within the Refuge and all of them are carefully licensed and regulated by the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service. All visitors must adhere to guidelines on how to swim with manatees and your tour operator will go over these with you.
Your best chance of seeing them is in the winter as they tend to come into the warmer water of the springs this time of year. You can see manatees anytime of year but this is your best chance of seeing the highest concentration.
Because we were staying at The Plantation we booked our manatee swim with them. They offer a package which includes a night of lodging, a manatee swim, breakfast and a gift, which was a stuffed manatee when we were there.
We highly recommend that you book the 6:30 am swim. This way you are the first people in the spring and have a little time before the rest of the tours come out. Plus once others get out there the silt gets stirred up, which can make it a little difficult to see. So be the early bird and book the first tour. Then plan the rest of your activities around that.
When you arrive for your swim you will be fitted for a wetsuit, sign a waiver and review the video on how to safely swim with the manatees. Once suited up,you will board the boat for the short ride over to the bay. In transit you will be giving a snorkel and mask, no fins are allowed. I like to use my own snorkel gear and bring it with me when I travel.
Once your boat is docked you will join your guide in the water and swim over to the springs. You will spend about an hour in the water with the manatees but you are able to go to the boat should you wish. Your guide will take photos and videos that you can view and purchase once back to the dock.
After your swim you will be offered a towel as well as hot chocolate and coffee to warm you up. We highly recommend bringing a change of dry clothes, a fleece or jacket as well as a hat as you might feel very cold once you get out of the water.
VISIT A BEAUTIFUL SPRING-DEVIL'S DEN
Located about 45 minutes from Crystal Springs in Williston, Florida this crystal clear blue water is a unique location to snorkel or dive. Devil’s Den is so named because on cold winter mornings you can see steam rising from the chimney of the cave which looks like smoke.
Devil’s Den is a geological formation known as a karst cavern. The water is part of the Floridian Aquifer and the year around water temperature is 72 degrees. Devil’s Den is confirmed to be more than 10,000 years old. There has even been a fully intact fossil skeleton of an extinct bear species discovered in the spring, which is now on display at The University of Florida's Natural Museum of History.
Devil’s Den is open every day except Christmas from 9 am to 5 pm and you must be a good swimmer and over the age of 6 to participate. You must use a snorkel, mask, and fins to enjoy the springs. If you don't have your own snorkel gear they rent them for a reasonable $10. The cost to snorkel is $15 on weekdays and $20 on weekends. When we went late afternoon on a weekday in the winter there was hardly anyone there and at some points we had the whole spring to ourselves.
On site there is a changing area with shower as well as a small dive type shop. In addition, they offer tent and RV camping and cabins to rent. There are plenty of picnic tables if you want to bring lunch and there are nice trails that we walked after our snorkel.
TIP-We found this dive light to be very helpful in spotting turtles and fish. And recommend you have one for Devil's Den
Located about 35 minutes from Crystal Springs you will find Homosassa Springs State Park. Here you can discover the wild-side of Florida and view the endangered Florida panther, red wolves, manatees, whooping cranes, flamingos, black bears, bobcats, alligators and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. This park reminds me of a small zoo with several interesting ranger programs.
Be sure and visit the Underwater Observatory which allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the various fish and manatees swim about. And don’t miss the manatee education program to see manatees up close being fed.
Adults (age 13+) $13, Children (ages 6-12) $5, Children 5 and under are free. Hours are 9 am to 5:30 pm with the ticket counter closing at 4:45 pm.
Mermaids are real and they live in Florida at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Named by the Seminole Indians, Weeki Wachee means little spring or winding river. Here more than 117 million gallons of water flow from the caverns daily.
This is one of Florida's original roadside attractions and the mermaids have been entertaining guests since 1947. Shows are offered throughout the day inside the 400 seat submerged theater built by ABC in 1959.
In addition to the mermaids one can see roaming peacocks, visit the reptile exhibit and reptile show, walk the nature trail and take a river cruise. If you want a spot on the boat however, get there before noon.
The park also features Buccaneer Bay, open seasonally, which offers a flume ride along with the opportunity to swim in the clear waters of the spring. There is a white sandy beach area with a covered picnic area.
There is a gift shop and restaurant available as well. Admission is $13 for adults and $5 for kids and the park is open 365 days a year from 9am to 5:30 pm.
Did you know there is an island in Florida where only monkeys live?
While you can’t access the island, you can watch the monkeys play from the dock for free or enjoy a drink or bite to eat at the Monkey Island Bar and Grill located in Homosassa, Florida.
What was once a pile of rocks that boaters kept hitting became an island when dirt was placed on the rocks to save the boats. Later a local doctor had several monkeys he had been using to perfect the polio vaccination that needed a home. Thus Monkey Island was born. Learn more about the island and the monkeys here.
I know you are going to have to eat at some point, so here are the restaurants we enjoyed while staying in Crystal River, Florida.
The Biscuit Barn is the number 1 restaurant on Tripadvisor in Crystal River, Florida. They serve breakfast and lunch at very affordable prices. The biscuits are huge, the food is good, and the servings are very large.
The CRAB PLANT in Crystal River, Florida is located right on the water and they serve fresh seafood. Huge crab legs and crab cakes!!! And the mullet dip is so good we got more to go. Prices are reasonable but they only take cash.
Grannie's is very close to The Plantation Hotel and serves a great breakfast for cheap. The place is small but service is fast. Dine at the counter or get a booth.
I hope you are inspired to visit another side of Florida and get off the beaten path. Swim with manatees, watch the mermaid show, and swim in some crystal blue springs. Enjoy your next trip to the Sunshine State by doing something different!
Melissa & Wade
Penny Pinching Globetrotters