Friday, January 17, 2014

Visit Crystal River this weekend: Manatee Festival by day, Plantation overnight

Posted by on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 2:29 PM

NEARBY ESCAPE: Crystal River offers more than transparent waters.
Nondescript strip malls and corporate retail have been more invasive than kudzu in our Old South state. If you're craving an old-fashioned Florida setting, take a day trip or spend the weekend in Crystal River.

An hour and 20 minutes from Tampa, Crystal River encompasses the last unspoiled and undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay, the headwaters of the river. The bay is critical for the protection of the West Indian Manatee. The springs in the bay, with their constant 72 degree Fahrenheit water, provide a warm water refuge for the manatees that gather there in the winter months.

Tomorrow and Sunday, Jan. 18-19, the 7th Annual Manatee Festival celebrates its representative docile mammal in downtown Crystal River. The event offers down-home fun with live music, a juried art show, arts and crafts booths, and food and beverage vendors.

ON THE PLANTATION: View of the hotel from the river.
Arrive in the morning to swim with the manatees and stay the night at the hospitable Plantation on Crystal River, a colonial-style resort that really is right on the river. With Old Florida trappings and cool clear waters for aquatic fun, the inn offers a variety of amenities for fishing, diving, boat tours, golfing and more. The rooms are clean with comfortable beds, flatscreen TVs and lovely views of the river.

SWIM WITH THE MANATEES: Plantation offers tour, wetsuits and hot cocoa for a fun experience.
  • SWIM WITH THE MANATEES: Plantation offers tour, wetsuits and hot cocoa for a fun experience.
You could easily plan a weeklong family-fun vacation at the resort alone.

Photographer Daniel Veintimilla and I got to visit recently, accompanied by our new puppy, Obi. The pet-friendly resort offered friendly and clean accommodations with a good restaurant on the property and fun activities. We took the swimming with the manatee tour. The Plantation Adventure Center also has a marina and dive shop on the premises, with everything needed to enjoy a day on the water, including tackle, ice, area charts and current fishing reports. Marina captains can schedule a launch from the boat ramp and trailer storage on-property, or coordinate one of the best charters in the area, supplying provisions and all necessary fishing equipment.

UP CLOSE: A manatee swims up to a tour boat.
We endured rainy weather on our visit but still found plenty to do even on a weekend with no special events happening. The Crawdaddy's restaurant near the hotel serves affordable, fresh-caught seafood, and we took some strolls in the nature preserves and old neighborhoods of the area between downpours.

The Plantation on Crystal River announced this year that it is now home to the only official International Game Fish Association (IGFA) weigh station for more than 400 miles to the north or south on Florida’s West Coast. If you're an amateur, you can have back-up for those tales about the big catch. If you're a serious angler/competing pro, this service allows what you need to be considered for one of IGFA’s nearly 7,000 world records.

PET-FRIENDLY: We took our puppy, Obi, for a walk outside the Plantation, which allows pets for a $25 deposit.
  • Daniel Veintimilla
  • PET-FRIENDLY: We took our puppy for walk outside the Plantation, which allows pets for a $25 deposit.
Located at the resort’s Plantation Adventure Center, the weigh station has made arrangements to weigh fish up to 2,000 pounds. The Adventure Center will also have all the documents necessary to submit a catch for a world record, and with the knowledge of all the rules and regulations, will assist in completing them so that they have the best chance of being considered.

Non-fishing enthusiasts can take snorkeling tours and swim with the manatees. Humane and carefully managed, the tours at Plantation are fun and oh-so-rewarding, respecting the guidelines the federal government allows for "passive interaction" between manatees and people in Kings Bay and surrounding area. You can get face-to-face and gently touch and stroke manatees only if the manatee approaches you — and they do.

BOAT TOURS: Roll out of bed and swim with the manatees at Plantation.
Swimming with the manatees is an experience beyond words. Few mammals that large are as friendly toward humans. Some might swim right up to your face and nuzzle your nose, or swim up the front of your body toe to head as if inviting you to hover above them. It's truly amazing.

Plantation provides a pre-tour education video to train participants how to engage the manatees with passive interaction. Swim, snorkel and dive experience manatee tour available with a hotel package that includes accommodations and breakfast with the Florida manatee tour. More info here.

HISTORIC: The old City Hall of Crystal River is now a cultural museum.

The festival takes place in downtown Crystal River 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, at the intersection of Citrus Avenue and U.S. 19, where you'll find the shops and restaurants of Heritage Village and the waterside area along King’s Bay. $4 per person, 12 and younger admitted free. Parking: Free parking at the Crystal River Mall at 1801 NW U.S. 19 (approximately one mile north of the event). Shuttle buses will offer $1 rides to the event. There is limited street and handicap parking available.

Take a boat tour while you're there. Local boat captains will offer boat tours on a first-come, first-served basis. $10 for adults, children 12 and younger ride for free. The tickets are good only on the date purchased and are sold at the boat dock area near Northwest Third Street. In addition, Three Sisters Springs: Shuttles will transport visitors to Three Sisters Springs from the bus stop on Northeast Fifth Street.

More Crystal River photos below.

RIGHT OFF U.S. 19: Entrance to Plantation.

VIEWS FROM THE PLANTATION: Residential riverfront properties.

LOVELY GAZEBO: Plantation riverfront view.

STAR MAPPED: See one of John Travolta's homes on Crystal River, indicated during a recent boat tour.
  • Daniel Veintimilla
  • STAR MAPPED: See one of John Travolta's homes on Crystal River, indicated during a recent boat tour.

NATURE EVERYWHERE: Grounds of Plantation on Crystal River.

IDYLLIC: Crystal River is a low-key getaway that requires less than a quarter-tank of gas for Tampa Bay residents.
  • Daniel Veintimilla
  • IDYLLIC: Crystal River is a low-key getaway that requires less than a quarter-tank of gas for Tampa Bay residents.

DRYING HER WINGS: An anhinga lands in Crystal River.

DOCK HERE: Several fishing docks and wildlife areas take you away from civilization.
  • Daniel Veintimilla
  • DOCK HERE: Several fishing docks and wildlife areas take you away from civilization.

NO-FRILLS LUNCH: Located across U.S. 19, Crawdaddy's offers affordable, fresh buckets of fish and shellfish.
  • Julie Garisto
  • NO-FRILLS LUNCH: Located across U.S. 19, Crawdaddy's spot offers affordable, fresh buckets of fish and shellfish.

RECOMMENDED FOR DINNER: Vintage on 5th is the best place to eat in Crystal River.
  • Daniel Veintimilla
  • RECOMMENDED FOR DINNER: Vintage on 5th is the best place to eat in Crystal River.

BYE PLANTATION: Lobby/main house at night.

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