Nature Coast, Florida

14 Aug

This past weekend, we took a long overdue weekend trip away from our house.  I have a problem with travel—I can never have enough of it.  I need it.  I crave it….I don’t know what I would do without it.  With two kids, two dogs, work and school schedules-not to mention, finances, I have to count our weekend getaways as travel.   And a weekend getaway accomplishes exactly what I need from travel—quality time with my family, new and interesting experiences, and a separation from our daily distractions.

Aaron’s parents were in town from Vermont and we decided to take them up the Florida Nature Coast–a place none of us had ever been.  We knew we wanted to see manatees, mermaids, and spend some time in freshwater and figured that would be the best place to do so.

We started by driving up US 19 to the little town of Weeki Wachee, for our first stop at the beautiful Weeki Wachee springs….probably the only place on Earth that exists to honor the mermaid.  Founded in 1946, Weeki Wachee Springs was a tourist destination for the movie stars is kind of like going back in time.  Though modernized with its small spring fed waterpark, most of the park has a retro feel to it.

Everywhere you look, there were mermaid statues and sculptures.  The main attraction though is the live mermaid show, where mermaids perform for an audience in a sunken theater in the spring.  The spring itself is supposed to be the deepest in the country (world?) and releases over 100 million gallons of water per day from the underground aquifer.  The water was crystal clear and so beautiful.  The mermaids, as you may have guessed are not real mermaids at all—but rather, young women in tails, who have learned to breath through these hoses as they dance and sing–UNDERWATER!  It was really quite odd to see them, underwater—singing, eating, drinking–all while holding their breath.  They would perform little song and dance numbers and then disappear behind a curtain of bubbles.  It may sound kind of cheesy–and it is–but it is also kind of cool and very unique.  If you are in Florida, I highly recommend it.

After Weeki Wachee, we continued up HWY 19 to the town of Crystal River and checked into a Best Western located on Kings’s Bay.  This is where I got a little bit confused.  You see, the plan was to rent our boat the next morning and take it up the Crystal River to look for manatees and crystal clear water.  I had been told that manatees congregate in the crystal clear waters of the spring fed Crystal River.  Everyone I talked to said, “There is no Crystal River, you gotta go out into the bay.”

“The Bay??”  I would ask, seriously confused.   “I thought that the manatees were going to be in freshwater–not salt water.”

“The bay is freshwater”, they would reply, “Have fun and make sure to get under the bridge before the tide comes in.”

Okaaaay.  Whatever.  Maybe in Northwestern Florida they have different terminology.

We rented our boat and we went out into the “bay” and up a little canal, which was lined with fancy houses.  I had thought we would be in a rural area but was totally wrong.  We got to the entrance to the 3 sisters springs and there were tons of other boaters, kayaks, swimmers in the water.  After some gentle coaxing and then some passionate coaxing to get the kids in the water—we started our 100 yard swim to the 3 sisters springs.

In the picture below, you can catch a glimpse of the springs……although you are NOT allowed to go across this grassy field—you must swim around.

Let me  tell you a little bit more about this.  We had to jump off the boat and into the canal that was lined with other motorboats and lots of people.  The water did not look inviting at all.  It was deep and dark.  It smelled of gasoline from the boats motoring by and it was cold.  72 degrees year-round.  Needless to say, it was a little bit difficult to get the kids off the boat.

Actually, it was very difficult to get S off the boat—N was the first one in.  That girl has no fear.  S took about ten minutes with his toes dangling from the ladder-until I got frustrated and pulled him in.  The screaming and yelling that ensued after that was horrifying.  It was not one of my finer parenting moments.  And, if you dear reader, happened to be out there that day–I am sorry that you had to witness that.  You may be glad to know that he perked up very soon after that–as soon as we entered the springs.

And how could you not, the springs were so beautiful.  Crystal clear water.  Perfect.  Deep, cool, tree-lined.  I was a little hesitant as we had to swim through this small canal maybe 2 feet across and I kept thinking of things like crayfish, leeches and snakes.  You know, creepy freshwater things.

But after about ten feet through the tiny canal, it just opened up into a huge blue pool.  At one point, the water must have been close to 40 feet deep and the visibility was so good that you could see all the way to the bottom. Trees had fallen into the water and they made such pretty underwater sculptures.  It was really something to see.  Aaron saw some fish and some crabs and other than that we didn’t see anymore wildlife.  There were about four other springs that we had planned to explore but the sky was beginning to darken and we thought it was better that we head back to port.  Good thing too…..as soon as we got back, a huge thunderstorm erupted.   Perfect time for lunch!

The Crystal River area is not known for their excellent cuisine and although we didn’t have super high expectations we did want to have some good fish.  We tried.  The first night we drove 9.5 miles down this beautiful road, into the middle of nowhere.  As we turned a corner, there was a completely filled parking lot.  A good sign, right?

We had arrived at “Peck’s Old Port House” for a dinner of fresh crabs (they farm them there) and other seafood.  I don’t want to spend much time reviewing the place but I should say, that Jennie (my mother-in-law) went for their fresh soft shell crab and was not disappointed.  The rest of us were.  My grouper was fine—just completely uninspired.  And, the french fries were cold and awful.  Aaron and I tried the clam chowder and it was excellent.  Thick and chunky–just how we like it.  We all liked the hushpuppies.  For dessert, we had to try their Key Lime Pie —and would never recommend it.  It tasted like Cool-Whip mixed with a bit of lime flavoring.  Ugh.  In summary, the drive to Peck’s is nice and if you go and just get the clam chowder you will be happy.

Oyster’s was our lunch destination after our boat trip.  We were happy and hungry when we pulled into their parking lot.  The place seems kind of dive-y……  It is right on the main highway, and was a big room filled with mis-matched tables and chairs.  I thought it looked full of potential.  And, all of the various awards on the walls made me feel like we had made a good choice.

Our server was very nice and she brought lots of stuff out to distract the kids.  The meals, were once again, nothing special.   My in-laws really liked their gumbo but my clam chowder was runny and thin.  We ordered a side of hushpuppies so that I could do a comparison between the hushpuppies at Peck’s—but they never came.  The kids did have great french fries with their meal.  And, to top it off, we shared a slice of Key Lime Pie—-and it was good.  100 times better than the Key Lime Pie of the previous evening……..but still not the best ever.  I did love that Oyster’s was owned by a local family and there were pictures of the chef’s kids all over the walls…..very cozy and homey.

After lunch, we had some time and decided to check out Homossassa Springs State Wildlife Preserve.  It was right up the road and since I love state parks, I wanted to check it out.  This park is more like a zoo…for injured and rehabilitated Florida animals.  The weather was very stormy that day and the radar showed more and more storms popping up—at the entrance, they told us that some of the animals wouldn’t be coming out and that the boat ride had been canceled because of lightning.  We decided to go anyway–cause we are ADVENTUROUS like that.

The place is set up kind of Disney-like.  The visitor’s center is right off the main highway–but once you get in, they take you via boat or tram to the actual park.  The boat ride would have been neat—but the tram ride was nice too.  We went down a little road with beautiful foliage.  Once in the park, we headed straight to the manatee and floating underwater viewing platform.  This platform was built over another natural spring (Homossassa Springs) and was another crystal clear pool….I wanted to jump in so badly.  The pool was filled with fish—mullet, sheepshead, snook.  But, the stars of the show were the manatees.  They would swim by, so close, spinning and spinning……slowly eating, just begging us to jump in and play with them…(don’t worry,  I know that they are a protected marine mammal and touching, harassing, playing with them is illegal.)  The manatees there had been struck by boats or had flippers wrapped in trash and were held in captivity because of their injuries.

The weather seemed to be on our side.  And luckily, it kept the crowds down.  There was no one there—-and it seemed like the kind of place that was used to some serious crowds.  We got to see a famous Hippo, who used to be in the movies.  He almost pooped on me as I was taking this picture:

The park ranger came running up, yelling, “Move back!  Get out of the way!  You’ll be sorry!”  I thought he had to be talking to someone else….I would never be so stupid to stand next to a pooping hippo.

Um. Yeah.

There were foxes, hungry wolves, amazing birds, a Florida bobcat, the requisite alligators, and even a bear–but I was focused on the manatees.  (The Florida panther and the bear were in hiding….)  There was a nice boardwalk that we walked around to see all of the animals and the weather was cooperating.  The clouds kept it cool but it wasn’t raining and the rumbling thunder we kept hearing seemed far enough away. And like I mentioned, there was no one there.  (The gift shops were immense—and you can tell that it gets crazy there.)

I recommend the place if 1) you like animals, 2) you have kids and 3) especially, if it is a stormy day and you know no one would be there.  I think that if it had been crowded, we would have hated it.

We ended our weekend get-away with burgers from Five Guys.  The in-laws had never heard of the place—(What do they eat in Vermont?) and we had promised to take them there.  They were impressed with the french fries for sure……

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