Crystal River, Florida

Swimming with manatees!

I am not a local floridian, but I knew when moving down here that I should expect beach, sun, sand, etc. Never did it cross my mind that Florida is the only place in the WORLD where you can legally swim with manatees! (I read this interesting fact in one of my favorite travel books… “1,000 places to visit before you die”.)

My husband, Laurence, and I decided to take the 5 hour drive up to Crystal River from Fort Lauderdale on our one year wedding anniversary. After the first experience, we both fell in love all over again.. with the manatees! There’s something about a huge grey blob slowly swimming by that fascinates you. A year later, on our second anniversary, we traveled there yet again.


If you are traveling from southern Florida, I highly recommend taking alligator alley that cuts the state horizontally from Davie->Naples (it’s going to be your fastest route!) We took this way on our first trip and it took about 4 hours without traffic. On our second trip from the east coast to west of Florida we took the northern route up towards Orlando and then cross over. This way was a MISTAKE! Combine rush hour traffic, Orlando traffic, and the back roads through a million tiny neighborhoods…yeah, don’t take this route, you’ll just add on an extra hour or two to your trip (along with a headache!)

My husband and I booked the ‘Best Western Crystal River Resort‘ both times we went on this trip. I wouldn’t say it was the nicest hotel ever BUT it was clean, great location, relatively cheap, and dog friendly! We’re Best Western reward members, so we try to stay at Best Westerns wherever we go, but we went back to the same hotel the second time mostly because of its location. The hotel is located within walking distance to shops, restaurants, bars, and right on the bay.

There are a few restaurants within walking distance from the hotel so we ended up trying:
1.) “Cracker’s Bar & Grill” which is a big thumbs up from both of us. If you like a massive platter of nachos and a literal bucket of booze called the Malibu rum bucket, then you have to try this place! They have live music going on at night and there’s inside and outside dining right on the water with affordable prices.
2.) “Charlie’s Fish House” gets packed fast and for good reason. Prices are a little more expensive but they also have a more “mature vibe” and great food. Also within walking distance from Best Western.
3.) “Burkes of Ireland” probably isn’t what you would expect in a small town dominated by manatees, but this cool little irish bar is a relaxing place to get a drink without all the partying. If you catch this place during St. Patricks Day, then get ready for an even greater time.
4.) “Peck’s Old Port Cove” is a bit further away (37 minute drive from Best Western) but if you’re craving a peaceful fresh oyster dinner with a view…this is the spot to go. It’s kinda hidden and there will be moments where you ask yourself, “did I make a wrong turn somewhere?” but keep going. It’s definitely a hidden secret that only the locals know about!

We went to Crystal River two times so far and both times we made reservations with River Ventures to snorkel with the manatees for 3 hours. The best time to go is as early as possible before the crowds start coming. Our first time we went around 8am and the swimming area quickly became populated with crowds and children swimming. Manatees are quiet and peaceful creatures, loud noises and lots of kicking and screaming is not the way to draw them closer- but quite the opposite. River Ventures even supplies you with swimming noodle to float one.


Our second time swimming with River Ventures we choose the time slot near 6am! Yes, it’s early but it’s the best time to go!
If you don’t want to book with a company and instead just wonder around yourself, you totally can. But, companies that offer time to swim with manatees–know where the manatees are! The area is vast, and even though there are a lot of manatees swimming around, they mostly travel in giant groups, and if you want to swim with these giant groups, a tour guide might be the best way.
However, if you know the area, or this isn’t going to be your first time swimming with manatees, maybe bringing along your own kayak would be the better choice. My husband and I haven’t done this yet, but for our third year anniversary, we’ll probably end up bringing our own kayaks so try to get a private manatee heard to ourselves! 😉