When people think of Florida they typically think of beaches.
And why not? Florida has some of the best beaches in the country so it’s only natural to think of them first. What people tend to forget is that Florida has much more to offer. The trick is knowing which cities to visit in order to find it.
Crystal River is a perfect example of this. Have you ever been? It’s located on Florida’s nature coast. I can tell you this – a beach isn’t going to be your first thought when visiting here. Crystal River is full of nature to take in, springs to visit and wildlife to uncover.
Recently, Ben and I snuck away to Crystal River for a weekend. We stayed for two nights at a Hampton Inn and had quite a trip planned. Our guide was an itinerary full of outdoor activities to enjoy courtesy of Discover Crystal River.
The trip kicked off with a winery date at Copp Winery & Brewery.
This intimate winery and brewery combo is the perfect place for pre-dinner drinks. With the temp at a Florida spring 75 degrees, Ben and I hung on the patio for a little while. If you visit Copp, don’t be surprised to spot a couple of roaming kitties. They kept sneaking into our photos, so cute.
Copp offers a full list of wines and beers to try. I love experiencing a variety, so in my opinion the flight is the way to go. The Starberry, Wahoo Watermelon, Tropical Turtle and Blue Marlin make for the perfect wine flight. In the mood for a beer? That’s great because Copp has that as well. Ben’s beer flight hosted the Cucumber, Blood Orange, King’s Bay and Poh-Poh brews.
Hungry for a taste of Crystal River, we ventured to Vintage on 5th for dinner.
Don’t let the humble outside fool you. Vo5 is great for a date night with your beau or an upscale GNO. Their wine list is extensive and somewhat of an adventure if you’re green to the wine world like I am. Not to worry though. Vo5’s servers are able to give you recommendations based on your meal choices and wine preferences. I opted for a crisp rosé. Perfect for an evening on the patio.
Feeling the urge to try a few things, Ben and I kicked asked for two appetizers to share: the pork belly and the cheese board. While I enjoyed both, I have to say that pork belly was something else. Vo5 nails the crispy texture you hope for in a pork belly dish in each bite.
For my main dish, I opted for the sesame soy glazed ahi tuna. I wish I had asked for extra wasabi cream drizzle (big sauce girl over here 😉). The tuna was perfectly rare – just the way I like it. Ben ordered the blackened fresh cut gulf grouper. It was like a taste of home from Clearwater – fresh and flaky.
Just when you think the night is about to conclude, your waiter will make you an offer you can’t refuse: dessert. For us, it was the pineapple cheesecake special. Holy WOW. If you get the chance to order this, do it. Your sweet tooth will sing and the tangy pings of pineapple are sure to please.
Sunday had us up at an early call time, but for good reason: to go swimming with manatees.
Crystal River Watersports easily provided the highlight of our entire trip. This tour center has been family owned for over 20 years. It’s one of the first companies to become a member of the Save the Manatee Club Guardian Guide program. Being a member allows CRWS to create an incredible experience for guests while also protecting the manatees.
Our guides (Alyssa, Cody and Mike) were friendly and knowledgeable. On the ride out be prepared to get schooled on manatee facts. I think the most surprising fact for me was learning that manatees aren’t large because of their body fat – it’s mostly due to the fact that their their digestive tract is so large.
Swimming with the manatees was such a unique experience.
It was what I was looking forward to the entire trip and I couldn’t have been happier. Crystal River Watersports gave me exactly what I was hoping for. As soon as we found our manatee, we hopped in the water with her – carefully of course as to not disturb her. The snorkeling took a second to get used to (I’m a rookie), but once I did it was smooth sailing (err, floating?) from there.
Admittedly along with my excitement, I was a bit nervous. Not because of the manatees themselves, I just didn’t want to do anything to disrupt them or their environment. Luckily, our guide Alyssa was in the water with us the whole time and kept us on track. She also snapped some incredible photos of the manatee as well as of Ben and I so we could enjoy the experience. We watched as our manatee went on her merry way chomping sea grass.
Peak season for manatees in Crystal River is from November through March.
It’s incredible too because even coming to visit on the cusp of that we were able to spot multiple manatees along the way. It’s funny to think that in order to get a headcount, planes actually fly over the manatees and count noses. This activity helps them determine a minimum number of manatees in the water.
Shortly after our manatee encounter we took the boat over to an entrance for Three Sisters Springs. Off we jumped into the water so we could continue our snorkeling adventure.
Snorkeling around Three Sisters Springs was INCREDIBLE. The water was so still and clear. Shades of blue and green cascaded all around us. What’s astonishing to me is that something so beautiful exists right in my home state. Three Sisters Springs is truly a sight to be seen and best done so when you submerse yourself in it.
After such an active and eventful morning, Ben and I had our sights set on food.
Cue Florida Cracker Kitchen. At this spot you’ll find breakfast and lunch picks that aim to please. I reviewed the menu and absolutely knew I needed the Cracker Cristo Sandwich. Ben scored with the Hen House Skillet. We were in comfort food heaven. Be warned: Florida Cracker Kitchen does not skimp on the portion sizes. Come hungry – you’ll be glad you did.
We fueled up on our main meals, but couldn’t leave without trying MeMa’s Giant Cinnamon Roll. This is the kind of sweet roll you hope to find at brunch on Sunday. The gooey cinnamon pieces in each bite were irresistible. It kicked my sweet tooth to bed and had me ready for a nap.
There was no time to nap though because we had an afternoon full of nature ahead.
The Chassahowitzka Salt Marsh Trails were a nice way to ease back into something active following a big meal.
Ben and I walked the trail all the way to its wooden lookout structure. We were able to see far and wide from the top. On the way back we took the *treacherous* path (if you watched my IG stories, you know haha). In all seriousness both trails were extremely doable. It was nice to keep moving especially after a large meal. If you do the trails just make sure you wear the appropriate shoes and bug spray.
Speaking of which – if you take a trip to Crystal River you should assume bug spray is part of your skincare routine. Ben and I learned the hard way the first night that the no-see-ums are still very much you-feel-ums. Our bug spray saved the day (and night) more times than not.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is one of Florida’s most visited state parks.
The variety of animals found here were rescued in Florida. They’ve either suffered an injury or were orphaned. Because of this they’re unable to survive in the wild on their own and live in the park.
We entered the park and received a guide that gave us the lay of the land. It showed us each animal we could expect to see. Which Florida animal would you want to see? For me, it was the grey fox. We walked by him a few times. The first walk by he was napping, but by the third he was up and moving. As soon as I saw him he immediately reminded me of a Nash and Kip hybrid. SO darn cute.
Aside from the grey fox we also spotted birds, a hippo, gators, big cats and more. There were a bunch of animals to see and observe. Ben and I actually spent a good chunk of our afternoon here so we could take it all in.
The day ended with a sunset dinner at Waterfront Social.
This girl loves a dinner on the patio moment. Ben and I sipped cocktails as we recapped the eventful Sunday we had in Crystal River. The view from our table gave us an uninterrupted landscape so that we could watch boats zoom by as they basked in the sunset glow.
Waterfront Social hits the mark on southern coastal fare. No sweat if you don’t love seafood because they also offer a range of other crowd favorites. Beyond the fish, you’ll find pork wings as well as their chicken and waffle sandwich.
Our coconut shrimp and crab cake apps hit the table while I was still trying to decide on dinner. My heart was torn between the fish and chips plate or the lobster shrimp po boy. The fish and chips won me over and I’m glad they did! Ben opted for the mahi tacos which were fittingly perfect for our breezy evening near King’s Bay.
While we ate, we shared laughs over how nervous Ben was that same morning before swimming with the manatees and I shared that I was too. You wouldn’t know it for Ben though. In the photos our guide captured, Ben looked like a pro.
It was wild to think about just how much we had fit in that day. Between swimming with manatees and all of the nature-fueled outings, I appreciated the chance to relax with an evening meal near the water.
Before we knew it the sun had set and our last night in Crystal River had come to a close. We went back to our hotel for the evening and settled in.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel and swung by Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters.
Cattle Dog had a rustic, homey feel and it was fitting for Crystal River. The cafe was conveniently located to Crystal River’s downtown area. I could totally see snagging a coffee to-go and taking a stroll around downtown.
They have quite a menu of breakfast sandwiches and on specific days they serve lobster rolls (check ahead). A breakfast sandwich sounded ideal, so Ben and I both ordered ourselves one. You guys – if you take anything from this post please take this: get the bacon breakfast sandwich on a croissant. Unmatched. The croissants at Cattle Dog are honestly a game changer and I am so happy our server offered them up as an option.
Before heading home to Clearwater, there was one more stop to make: Three Sisters Springs: Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Ben and I got the ultimate experience at Three Sisters Springs during our manatee excursion on Sunday. Snorkeling around the springs was unreal. The views I took in that day really opened my eyes to all of the nature-filled beauty that Florida truly has. Being immersed in the water was was one thing, but visiting on land gave me a completely different experience.
Before entering the refuge you receive a guide. It lays out the potential animals you may see alongside a map. The wildlife refuge offered a few walking path options so we had our choice of route. I started a walk on my Apple Watch and off we went.
Ben and I walked around the wildlife refuge, once again taking in the beautiful colors of the springs. Even from above ground it was still stunning. The water is just so crisp and clear – it almost seems fake. Like I’m staring at a postcard from Crystal River.
I kept my eyes peeled for animals so I could see them as they came up. Truthfully I was hoping to spot another fox like the one we saw at the Wildlife State Park, but alas no luck. I did see bunnies, snakes, birds and we briefly saw a manatee from afar.
Watch where you’re stepping on the path though because I did almost step on a snake. Yikes. Aside from that it was so nice to breathe in the fresh air and appreciate the nature around us.
Crystal River truly has something for everyone.
Looking to reconnect with nature and wildlife? They’ve got you. Want to try out a new foodie spot with water views? It’s there. Even as a Floridian I forget that Florida can really serve up some unique experiences outside of beach weekends. You just have to know where to find them. I’ll be the first to tell you: you can find it in Crystal River if you’re willing to take the chance to discover it.
Thank you to Hayworth PR and Discover Crystal River for hosting us! All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.