Kissed by Manatees in Florida’s Crystal River
Much like a few of our commercial Montauk fishermen, manatees seek out a warmer spot when it gets nippy and swim south. There’s only one place in the United States where it’s legal to swim with manatees in the wild and that’s in Florida where hundreds of these gentle giants winter in the warm waters of the Crystal River. Crystal River is a city in Citrus County, Florida with an estimated population of about 3,200, and “Home of the Manatee”.
We booked a couple of nights at the Plantation on Crystal River, a beautiful 50-year-old, 232 acre eco-friendly resort, surrounded by the natural springs of Kings Bay, with an onsite Adventure center for boating, fishing, manatee and nature excursions; a full service spa and, YES, golf! I was certain that my husband would eventually succumb to his golf addiction and that I would be forced to kill some time at the spa. When we drove up to the stately, whitewashed resort entrance, under a canopy of Live Oaks and Spanish Moss, we were reminded of old Florida and a more genteel time. The pretty fountain and lovely grounds were well kept and our check-in done with true Southern hospitality. We found our waterfront accommodations to be neat and delightfully efficient. www.plantationoncrystalriver.com
We had booked our “Swimming with Manatees” excursion for the next morning at 6:45 am, but went to check out the Adventure center first to familiarize ourselves with the facilities, the boat and the crew that would assist us. I was excited and all gung-ho! My husband not so much, he seemed to be genuinely suspicious of the adventure I’d drummed up for us this month. These wrinkled, leathery manatees also known as “sea cows” can tip the scales at 3,500 pounds and can be seen grazing along Florida’s grass flats and aquatic meadows. They can be found at any time of year, but are more commonly spotted in the winter months from November to March.
We had a dinner reservation at “Vintage on 5th” our first evening, an eclectic destination restaurant located in a renovated church built in 1940 in the historic downtown area of Crystal River. We’d heard that they specialize in fresh local fish and steaks, but also serve regional southern favorites like Shrimp & Grits. Winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for several years they certainly offer an impressive wine menu and pour 25 wines by the glass. The dining room, still in original floor to ceiling pine wood, conveyed the kind of coziness that one especially appreciates on a chilly November night. I, now, after years of denial, a confirmed Shrimp & Grits worshipper, have to applaud Chef Aaron Davidson for his interpretation of the celebrated southern staple and our gracious server Michael Parker, who made our dining experience a tribute to the sea. The entire Vintage on 5th team is in sync and on top of their game. www.vintageon5th.com
By 7am the next morning we’d met the entire Adventure team including our diving instructor, watched a short film of how to behave in the water around the manatees and got into our wetsuits. With a depression from the North coming through it had gotten really cold that night and with a chilling 40 degrees we wore winter jackets over our wetsuits on the boat to our destination. The sounds of the birds and the magical haze lingering over the warm water alone was worth our early rise. Manatees are most active in the morning, besides it was mating time. Our group, besides the Captain and diving instructor included a party of 5, Mike Scibilia from Atlanta, GA with his 2 daughters Nicole and Emily, and us 2 seniors. I was excited, but my husband, suspicious over this adventure, seemed to be nervous. Our diving instructor Courtney Cicoria assured us that the temperature of the water is always 72 degrees and we would definitely not feel cold once we entered the water. I was the last person in and the first person to get out of the water, no kidding. As soon as my feet touched the leathery skin of one of these gentle giants, I panicked. What was I thinking? I can’t even swim in the ocean because I am scared of what might be swimming under me, but to my surprise my husband was doing just fine. His group was soon floating about a 1/4 mile from the boat over several manatees and they started to interact. Marcus got a couple of face to face-kisses on his snorkel mask and he, fascinatingly, held still. I, in the meantime back on board, had a hot cup of coffee and decided right then that I would get rid of my wetsuit and back into my winter jacket. Capt. Mike Bruce handed me a couple of towels and kindly turned his back to me so I was able to undress, dry off and put on my warm clothes. When the group returned to the boat, all hyped over their unique experience, they gladly reached for hot chocolate, and coffee as well. We’d like to thank our specialty diving instructor Courtney (www.facebook.com/ChicksInTrim ) for her caring guidance and Capt. Mike for his kindness and a safe ride.
Since our manatee adventure had started early, by 10 am we were ready to explore the beautiful, historic town of Crystal River. The town, incorporated as city in 1923, is proud of its fascinating history; from the mound-builder Native American settlement along the Crystal River that we visited in the Archaeological State Park to 1889 when phosphate was discovered on the east side of Citrus County. Historians have declared it to be one of the richest phosphate deposits in the world. The arrival of the railroad in 1888 proved to be a boom; it provided an easier way to ship and receive goods as it was an easier way for visitors to travel and sport fishing became a draw for many wealthy northerners. Along the way we checked out a couple of the cute shops and hopped into GlassWerx, an innovative art glass studio located in the art district. www.debsglasswerx.com
Further north we discovered local artist William Mickey who was working on a large-scale mural adorning the western wall of Explorida, serving as the backdrop for the city of Crystal River’s Town Square. Here in the Explorida shop, the owner Kim Altman shared a fascinating story. At one time, Three Sisters Springs was used by Jacques Cousteau to help rehabilitate “Sewer Sam,” a manatee named after he became trapped in a Miami sewer system and was subsequently rescued. Cousteau and his crew and volunteers kept Sam in Three Sisters Springs until the manatee was acclimated to the area. Upon release, Sewer Sam swam out into Kings Bay where he joined the other manatees. www.explorida.com
My husband loves golf, so when we travel and he gets a chance to play, I get a chance to shop or spa, and there are plenty of cute shops in town. The Plantation on Crystal River has a cute gift shop as well (we bought a “Mango the Manatee” book for our little grandson), a full-service spa and an 18-hole championship golf course with a full service pro-shop where we enjoyed a delicious lunch before his tee-time. The resort has hosted numerous legendary PGA and LPGA professionals like Tommy Bolt, a frequent visitor since they opened in the 60’s. Golfers enjoy a traditional Florida style course with water views along with challenging fairways lined by mature emerald pine and oak trees native to the region. Though my husband didn’t see any manatees or gators, he was quite complimentary about the quality of the practice greens and driving range and enjoyed his round of golf greatly while I had a fabulous massage and facial with Cheryl Ann at Spa Bleu.
Marcus and I had an awesome day hoping to top it off with another amazing dinner and we got exactly what we wished for when we walked into Wallace’s Greenhouse in Homosassa. Chef Wallace graduated from Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI where he received his degree with distinction in Culinary Arts. He was born and raised on the beautiful island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands where he’d pushed the limits of the local Crucian cuisine and received numerous awards. Wallace cooks from scratch, his homemade hummus “Nibbles” is a must while you’re waiting for a creative main course! Chef Wallace, his wife Stefanie, and the three children who are running Wallace’s Greenhouse as a team have not only found a new home in Citrus County but they have enriched the area with another amazing, creative destination restaurant. www.wallacesgreenhouse.com
Until next month from another interesting location!
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