Swim with Sea Creatures in This Little-Known Florida Town

Don’t worry, it’s not crocodiles. Or sharks.

You can’t swim the length of two pools in the bay of Crystal River without bumping into a wild manatee. That’s because this city in Florida is the only place in North America where you can legally (and ethically) swim with arguably one of the cutest marine creatures. Thanks to a vital winter habitat in these warm southern waters, you’ll find tons of these gigantic gray mammals in Crystal River, looking like they’re made out of clay with stubby snouts and rotund bodies. It takes some imagination to see the resemblance, but the closest living relatives to manatees (so-called sea cows) are actually elephants.

Nicknamed the “Gem of the Nature Coast,” the city of Crystal River lives up to its name with aquamarine waters coursing through the area. The warm swamp lands offer lush, green trails through the local state park, as well as paddle boating or kayaking on calm waters of the river.

The quaint river-side city has small-town charm thanks to homes with white-picket-fences and a candy-cane-striped lighthouse on Monkey Island. In the small downtown area at Heritage Village on Citrus Ave, you’ll find souvenir shops with gator jerky or manatee stuffed animals. That's also where some of the city’s best restaurants are located, offering a decadent mixture of seafood and southern comfort with meals like shrimp and grits for breakfast or Florida lobster next to juicy beef for a surf ‘n turf dinner

Here are all the places to feel happy as a clam in Crystal Water, Florida.

Chrystal River National Refuge
Paddle or swim with gentle giants. | Alex Couto/Shutterstock

Swim with manatees

Spend the morning floating around in the slow-moving waters of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge from November 15th to March 1st and you’re basically guaranteed to have a face-to-face encounter with a wild manatee. About 400 migrate to these balmy waters every year, hence the self-proclaimed title of Manatee Capital of the World.

The docile mammal grazes on water plants (it eats 150 pounds daily!) and won’t be fussed by your presence as long as you remain calm. That could be a challenge as your natural instinct may be to panic when you realize the massive nine-foot-long object next to you isn’t a rock, but an animal. While you’re not in any danger, raising your voice and splashing around will disturb it. The goal is not to startle the manatee so you can get up-close-and-personal as you watch it glide slowly and elegantly through the water and maximize your time enjoying its squishy features. It’s believed that pirates often mistook West Indian manatees for mermaids as they have such a human-like face.

Chrystal River manatees
Just look at those cheeks. | Colors and shapes of underwater world/Moment/Getty Images

The gentle giant may swim right up to you and give you a smooch. But don’t be a jerk and try to touch, feed, or harass a manatee. Not only is it unethical to interact with wildlife, but the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws protect manatees, and harassing one can land you with a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail. In fact, with no natural predators, humans are their biggest threat—mostly because of boat collisions. Manatees were one of the original species listed as being threatened with extinction on the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. By 1991, there were only 1,267 manatees recorded in Florida. Manatees are a conservation success story, as they’re now listed as vulnerable instead of endangered and there are at least 6,300 in Florida.

Swimming with manatees is the best way to learn about the animal, but if you’re not too keen on being in the water with the creatures, you can take a boat tour and see them feeding from the deck. For an overhead view of the manatees, stroll along the elevated 1,300-foot Three Sisters Springs boardwalk.

Chrystal River Preserve State Park
So many waterways to explore. | Michael Warren/E+/Getty Images

Stroll through ancient sites and wildlife-filled swamps

Swimming with manatees isn’t all there is to do in Crystal River. Go for a hike on the trails of the Crystal River Preserve State Park, or rent a bike to ride along the nine-mile route. On the two-and-a-half-mile interpretive trail keep an eye out for raccoons, wild pigs, and turtles as you make your way through meadows, forests of pine trees, and a freshwater marsh. You can also rent a kayak or canoe to cruise around the area’s waterways.

At the National Historic Landmark of Crystal River Archaeological State Park, you could count each of the 51 steps as you climb to the top of enormous temples and burial mounds that overlook the surrounding marshes. Hear where Native American river dwellers buried their dead here and how they used the ceremonial hills, or sift through BC arrowheads and pottery in the mid-century modern (and air-conditioned!) museum. You could also just basque in nature by wandering the three-quarter mile paved loop weaving past six ancient sites, where you can spot osprey, herons, and bald eagles.

Plantation West 82 Bar & Grill
Expect hearty dishes here. | Plantation West 82 Bar & Grill

Feast on Southern classics and seafood

If all that swimming with sea cows and climbing ancient graves has you feeling peckish, Crystal River offers tons of fresh seafood and southern comfort dishes. Dine with the locals at Amy's On The Avenue for juicy roast beef on a croissant or lump blue crab bisque. Don’t leave without a slice of pie, like the Pumpkin Crunch or Key Lime Cake.

At Vintage on 5th, choose from southern classics including shrimp and smoked-gouda grits, mac and (goat) cheese, or fried green tomatoes with apple-wood bacon. You might not automatically hear those dishes and think “wine pairing,” but you’d be proven wrong by the selection of 25 wines by the glass.

For a quintessential water-front dining experience, go to West 82 and eat freshly-caught local scallops or Florida beef. If you’re after crab, don’t skip the rustic Pecks Old Port Cove Seafood Restaurant and Blue Crab Farm—go at sunset to see that blood-red Florida sun reflecting off the lake water under the deck.

Kings Bay Lodge
Pretty much everywhere will be mossy trees meets swampy waters. | Kings Bay Lodge

Where to stay in Crystal River

If you haven’t gotten enough manatees or feeling like a mermaid around so much water, head to the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast, located on a natural spring where manatees swim. You’ll find murals and statues of mermaids, seashells, and aquatic creatures all around the hotel, as well as bonfires on the patio and roof lounges overlooking the water. In fact, the dining room, with its funky chandeliers and lamps, floats atop that water with some assistance from a raft. You can rent bikes or kayaks from the hotel, including a couple clear, see-through kayaks so you can watch fish darting under your boat.

A couple blocks away, you’ll find the Retreat at Crystal Manatee definitely leans into the modern art feel; the bathroom is like a dizzying MC Escher painting. Other than the pops of color thanks to accent walls in each room, what really stands out here is the outdoor and patio spaces—its curated fronds and tropical leaves make it seem like you’re sleeping in a lush, swampy garden. Which is pretty impressive considering the hotel is located in the historic downtown of the city.

For a retro vibe, check out the old school King’s Bay Lodge, established in 1957. The hotel sits on the water and started off as a fishing camp; today it still has floating docks and even fish cleaning stations for those looking to cast a line into the quiet, peaceful waters.

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Lola Méndez is a contributor for Thrillist.