For a variety of reasons, Crystal River, Fla., was our vacation destination in 2009
Let me say up front that fishing is not really my sport. Like a lot of people, however, I enjoy it from the standpoint of a challenge.
There is an engaging cat-and-mouse game that comes from having a fish nibbling on your bait until he either steals it from you or you are able to set the hook in his mouth and haul him out of the water. I am not very successful at it but it is one reason I readily agreed to spend a week in the Crystal Springs, Florida, area in July 2009 with our son Jeff, his wife and their children, (aka, “our grandchildren.”) That, and the fact that Jeff “lured” me with the promise of a tasty bay scallop dinner and my wife “reeled” me in by saying I could play as much golf as I wanted.
OK, I knew the latter ploy was just a come on. She knows I can’t play as much golf as I want to because, A) I don’t have that much money, and B) I don’t have that much energy.
Why did we choose Crystal River for a vacation? There are several reasons from our perspective.
1. COST: Rental prices were very reasonable and as long as that nuclear power plant is sitting dead in the middle of Crystal River as it empties into the gulf, they will likely remain so. We paid $100 a night for a 3-bedroom condo that sleeps six on a canal with easy access to the river and Gulf of Mexico. Also, it had a pool, tennis court, locked gate and a handy boat dock within 100 yards of our quarters. Be sure to shop around because good deals can be found in the economic conditions of the late 2000s.
If you are interested in a condo rental in Crystal River, go to www.thecrystalrivercondo.com.
2. THINGS TO DO: There is a variety of activities nearby, from golf, to fishing, to scalloping, to bird watching, to dining, to shopping at gift and antique boutiques and swimming with the manatees, if you really want to do that. There is also the Crystal River Archeological State Park and Homosassa Springs
State Park nearby. Both are good bargains. You can read all about state parks at floidastateparks.org. Boating and fishing are the big things in the Crystal River area. You should be prepared to do a little of each to get the full benefit of a trip to Florida’s Nature Coast. One of our trips to the gulf sand bar for scallops was disappointing, so we headed for deeper waters. One of our crew landed a nice salt-water trout and hooked a 3-foot shark (which Jeff promptly cut loose. “I don’t want to have to deal with a shark on my boat, no matter how tasty some people say they are,” he said. I would tend to agree.)
3. SCALLOPS: Jeff introduced me to the tasty delights of fresh bay scallops during a three-day trip to Steinhatchee, Florida, in the early 2000s and I have been anxious to savor them again. While not a fan of scallops sold in seafood restaurants, (which often are not even scallops and definitely not bay scallops) I am “hooked” on the taste of these morsels from the Gulf of Mexico. In a word, they are simply delicious. In Steinhatchee, Jeff sauteed them in butter. This time, he deep fried them with his own special coating. In both cases, the spongy texture and sweet flavor were delightful experiences for the pallet. A boatload of us caught our limit of scallops the first day out but rain the next several days apparently sent the crustaceans into deeper water, where they proved much more difficult to gather, especially for me. Since I don’t wear contacts, stand only 5-foot-7 and sport a beard, the deeper water was a definite handicap. I couldn’t spot the scallops without glasses and the beard made for a leaky snorkel mask. Being short prevented me from being able to stand up and frequently empty the water from the mask. Scalloping season runs from July 1 to Sept. 30.
Some things you should know about the area
1. ELVIS IS IN THE AREA
If you drive slowly past the Chamber of Commerce on Follow That Dream Parkway (aka State Road 40) in the little town of Inglis north of Crystal River, you can catch a glimpse Elvis Presley in the window of the small concrete building. (Actually, it is a cutout of the King of Rock ‘n Roll —Take that, Michael!) Inglis is near the site of the 1962 movie “Follow That Dream” that was filmed in nearby Yankeetown, just down SR 40. You won’t find any mention of the movie in Yankeetown, however, because the city fathers didn’t like the image of Elvis as a drug user in his later life. Too bad, especially since there is an historical marker just off U.S. 19 indicating the bridge that was supposed to be the location of
much of the movie was only 5.8 miles due west. And you can bet that I made the jaunt the site, being the Elvis fan that I am. I was disappointed, however, in the lack of a sign or any other indication Elvis had been there. Since the Inglis Chamber office was closed both times I rode by there I couldn’t get any more information about the bridge, except what is available on the Internet. I do remember the movie fondly and that it was made in Florida. Many bloggers agree with my assessment that it was among the top two or three movies that Elvis made, not that any of them were picture of the year candidates.
2. AN EARLY BOOMTOWN IS NEARBY
Believe it or not, a town not 15 miles from Crystal River was an early boomtown in a state known for boomtowns. The discovery of phosphate in Dunnellon by Albertus Vogt and his subsequent purchase of as much land as he could, fueled a land grab in the tiny hamlet in the late 1880s. A six-block section of town just west of U.S. 41 still has a number of old structures that hark back to those days and the town celebrates its early status with an annual arts and crafts festival in April. My wife and I visited the historic area on our way home from Crystal River and found it a delightful experience. I bought a compilation of short stories by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and she got a book for her students at a 40 percent discount at a bookstore that is slated to close in a couple of weeks. It is too bad because they had a good collection of books, including a first-edition by my favorite author, John D. MacDonald. It wasn’t 40 percent off, however.
3. STOP AT THE GIANT SHELL SHOP
About 15 miles north of Crystal River is a real treasure of a shell shop called Seaforest Gifts and Shell Factory. Since our grandchildren love shells, we browsed on our way to our condo. We were not disappointed. In addition to getting a free sand dollar just for stopping, we discovered lots of bargain prices and some really unique items. I didn’t realize how much of a bargain they were until I priced a bag of shells at a gift shop for $14.95. Seaforest was selling them for $4.95. One of the owners told me that his family had been in the business since the 1950s, wholesaling to gift shops from Maine to Miami and Corpus Christi to Chicago.
With a group of six and on a limited budget, we didn’t sample a lot of the area cuisine, so I can’t give you a complete rundown of what’s available. I will tell you that if you are hungry and don’t mind waiting, be sure to hit Cody’s on U.S. 19 in Crystal River. First, you can get your fill of warm, fluffy yeast rolls and an endless salad bowl with an entree. My wife and I split a chicken-and-ribs combo with two veggie sides, which neither one of us could finish, all for $15.95. The ribs were melt-in-your mouth delicious and the chicken was moist and tender. What more could you ask for? On a recommendation and because of the name, we visited Marguerita Grill on Halls River Road in Homosassa Springs. Needless to say, it has nothing to do with Jimmy Buffett. Our review was mixed but I’ll let you be the judge. Numerous internet reviews are similarly mixed. The owner is a big patriot and the restaurant pays homage to the terrorist attacks of 9-11. We also saw but didn’t visit Charlie’s Fish House and Cracker’s Bar & Grill, both on U.S. 19. They both looked like the typical touristy spots with decent food, but we can’t vouch for either one. Cracker’s seemed interesting but their web site lists frequent bikini contests, just so you know.
5. SWIMMING WITH THE MANATEES:
According to visitcitrus.com, the Crystal River area has the largest gathering of manatees in North America, primarily because of the springs that feed Kings Bay and the rivers, keeping the water at a comfortable year-round temperature of 72. Therefore, a handful of operators conduct manatee swims for an average of $35 per person. Most of the operators state on their web sites that they respect the manatees and try to balance the wants of tourists who seek to get closer to the lovable mammals and the environmental issues involved with human contact. Recent news articles indicate some environmental groups want to crack down on contact with manatees because of the potential for abuse of the animals. My wife and I don’t participate in those kinds of swims for environmental reasons but that would be a personal decision.
HOW TO GET THERE — Crystal River is located about an hour and a half north of Tampa on U.S. 19.