A STOPOVER TO SWIM WITH MANATEES AT CRYSTAL RIVER (Florida Road Trip Part 5)
Please note that we were working with Visit Florida on parts of this trip. Full disclosure at the bottom of the post.
To give a quick overview of our trip, we flew into Miami and spent 16 nights travelling around the state of Florida, visiting Miami, the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale, Anna Maria Island, Crystal River, Panama City Beach and Pensacola Beach, before travelling to Louisiana and spending a couple of days in New Orleans. We covered 1825 miles in total. I will be doing blog posts on each destination we stayed in, as well as some practical trips for planning and going on a road trip with young children (mine are 8,6 and 3).
ROUTE ANNA MARIA ISLAND TO CRYSTAL RIVER- 124 MILES… 2 HOURS 15 MINUTES
Crystal River was always intended to be a stopover for us. When we were originally planning our Florida Road Trip we were looking for somewhere to stop for the evening between Anna Maria Island and our next stop Panama City Beach as it was a fair distance between the two destinations. I spent ages online looking at maps and deciding a spot which we could stay, when Crystal River was mentioned. I must admit I had never head of it, I googled it, and immediately when we realised what we could do there we were sold.
Crystal River is the manatee capital of the world. The manatee, according to Wikipedia ‘are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals, occasionally called sea cows, as they are slow plant-eaters, peaceful and similar to cows on land. They often graze on water plants in tropical seas.’ Crystal River is the one place in which you can safely swim with manatees and they are protected and respected there. We knew it would be the perfect place to do something that would be the experience of a lifetime, but not in a way which could potentially be deemed cruel (i.e I would never swim with dolphins in a tank or zoo type destination).
OUR PLAN & WHERE WE STAYED
Our original plan had been to stopover in Crystal River for just one night, but after looking into it we realised it would be the perfect place to relax, have a little downtime, and then swim with the manatees. Plantation on Crystal River looked the perfect place for it. Plantation on Crystal River is a 232 acre eco-friendly resort offering a spa, swimming pool, fun things for kids, and is surrounded by the natural springs of Kings Bay- the main area in Crystal River that over 400 manatees migrate to each year because of the warmth of the springs. (*Our accomodation was provided free of charge through our work with Visit Florida- disclosure at the end of the post).
The hotel indeed was set in beautiful surroundings and was so different to anything we had stayed in previously on our holiday so far. I think that is definitely the beauty of doing a road trip, each destination feels so different. We felt we were fully immersed in the Florida countryside staying here and it felt very different to the beach destinations we had visited previously.
There was lots to keep children amused, including a giant Connect 4, a basketball net by the pool and a giant chess set. There was also a splash area but unfortunately this was closed for refurbishment while we were there.
We decided to spend all our time at Crystal River enjoying the facilities of the hotel. Having had a brief look around, we felt there wasn’t anything in the immediate area that we wanted to explore, so bar our time swimming with the manatees we had some downtime and just relaxed- which was lovely and well needed after lots of travelling.
On our first evening we went for a meal in the hotel restaurant and on the walk there we went for a little stroll around the grounds. We took these photos while the sun was setting. It was a beautiful location and we sat while the kids played on the grass and watched the sunset over the river.
I will never ever take for granted the fact that we have been able to travel with our children. Our circumstances have changed a fair bit over the last couple of years, my husband and I both work for ourselves and I don’t think it will be like this forever, so while we can do it I won’t ever take it for granted. This was one of those simple evenings where you feel very thankful.
I love the fact that our phones nowadays come with such fantastic cameras but I still get such joy in getting my big DSLR camera out and taking photos.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MANATEES?
The main reason we were stopping over in Crystal River was to swim with the manatees. We knew that we would love the experience, but I cannot explain how wonderful it was. It was one of the best things we have ever done.
Swimming with manatees is extremely regulated in Florida, they are a protected species and before we left on the boat we were given a serious talk about how to safely swim with them. Manatees are gentle creatures, they aren’t aggressive, and it is so important to treat them with respect. We were told NEVER to touch a manatee and never to swim over one either. They don’t have great eyesight so they rely on thousands of little hairs on their body to keep them alert. You have to be so careful not to touch them, hence why you shouldn’t swim over them.
The guys who took us out on the boat were fantastic (we went out with the company attached to our hotel ), and they were knowledgeable, respectful and lots of fun.
Children of any age can swim with the manatees, you mainly just float near them and the boat is always in sight, so the plan had originally been for our three year old to join in. After hearing that you can’t splash near them we made the decision for him to stay on the boat, as he wouldn’t have understood that he couldn’t splash or make a noise. Jon and I took turns taking the girls out while one of us waited on the boat with him, but he still had fun watching us all and going on a boat in general. One of the guys who took the tour was also incredible in making sure that everyone got a turn in seeing the manatees, they swam over and grabbed our arms and led us slowly to where we could see one if they sensed anyone hanging back.
It truly was one of the most incredible experiences we have ever had. We were in awe of these amazing creatures and Lottie our middle daughter especially absolutely loved it. She is very gentle and I think swimming with them was something that really was special to her. She didn’t talk about anything else for weeks, and even now a few months on she often mentions the manatees.
I definitely think it is one of those experiences you will remember forever.
Warming up with a hot chocolate, it was so cold in the water!
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND A VISIT TO CRYSTAL RIVER?
Absolutely! Without a doubt if you have ever thought about swimming with manatees then I would 100 percent recommend a stop over at Crystal River do it. It’s a bit out of the way in the traditional Florida Road Trip sense, but you won’t regret making a detour whatsoever. Like I have said a few times it was one of the best things we have ever done.
Would we have visited Crystal River if not for the manatees? In all honesty probably not. We had a lovely stay there and it was nice to relax in the hotel (which was lovely), but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot there bar the manatees. So if you are thinking of visiting Crystal River and not taking part in the manatee activities, or doing something like kayaking etc, I probably would give it a miss. However swimming with manatees is one of the best experiences we have ever had, so if you are contemplating it then 100% go- you will not regret it!
Here is a video of our time in Crystal River, including snippets of us swimming with the manatees…
PREVIOUS FLORIDA ROAD TRIP POSTS-
PART SIX OF OUR ROAD TRIP COMING SOON… PANAMA CITY BEACH
NB We were working in partnership with Visit Florida on parts of this trip and some of our accommodation and activities were given to us in exchange for content. Check out their website for lots more advice and inspiration for planning your road trip.