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Manatees inside Three Sisters Springs, part of Kings Bay in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

One look at the clear spring-fed waters of the Crystal River and it’s obvious how this stretch of blue came to be named. The sparkling aquamarine river sits on Florida’s Gulf coast, 75 miles north of Tampa. Follow it inland to reach King’s Bay, one of the top spots in the world for viewing manatees. With upscale accommodations and fine dining close at hand, Crystal River offers the best of all worlds—access to natural spaces, views of rare manatees plus the creature comforts that make a weekend getaway so appealing.

Manatee Capital of the World

Manatees are the official marine mammal of the state of Florida, and the Sunshine State has done a remarkable job of protecting this species. In 2017, the aquatic mammals were taken off the endangered species list. But since, they’ve had a rough few years; last year was the deadliest year on record for manatees. Yet with renewed conservation efforts, wildlife biologists expect the population—currently around 13,000 in the wild—will continue to increase. Many gather in the waters of King’s Bay and Three Sisters Springs when the Gulf of Mexico turns cold in the winter months. The area claims the only National Wildlife Refuge in the United States specifically targeted to protect manatee habitats.

Close Encounters 

Plantation on Crystal River (9301 W. Fort Island Trail, 352.795.4211, plantationoncrystalriver.com), a full-service resort on 232 acres, is one of the rare places in the state of Florida where guests can legally swim and interact with manatees. In addition to the usual resort amenities such as golf and a spa, Plantation on Crystal River also offers group and private manatee snorkel trips. Federal law allows for passive observation in King’s Bay, so guests can swim near wild manatees (though touching and harassing are strictly verboten). The spring-fed waters are chilly year-round, so the Plantation’s tour packages include a 5 mm wetsuit, hot chocolate and towel service. Visitors will be thankful for access to the heated changing facilities and hot showers afterward. 

Fresh Catch

A visit to Crystal River means seafood—fresh Gulf fish and bay scallops, most of all. The Seafood Seller (300 S.E. U.S. Highway 19, 352.228.4936, seafoodsellerandcafe.net) does it all with a Cajun twist; plus the restaurant has its own boats so the kitchen knows the fish is fresh. For a more upscale fine-dining experience, head inland to Katch Twenty-Two (2924 Gulf to Lake Highway, Lecanto, 352.746.6691, katchtwentytwo.com). Helmed by a chef with a big-city pedigree, this tastefully decorated eatery offers dishes including house-made lobster and scallop ravioli in mango butter, as well as a fresh fish of the moment served with carrot puree, heirloom tomatoes and citrus foam. Don’t miss the restaurant’s thoughtfully curated wine selection. It’s just the thing after a day swimming with manatees.  

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