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By Susan & Simon Veness

When you’re ready to go beyond the obvious places in the Sunshine State, there are a wealth of small towns and other ‘secret’ destinations that the locals know about but which are often unknown to visitors. This series is dedicated to revealing these hidden gems.

Some 80 miles north-west of Orlando and 78 north of Tampa is a very special coastal location that is home to a wealth of unique wildlife experiences, taking visitors into a little-known realm of natural springs, outdoor pursuits, rural charm – and manatees. Lots of manatees.

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In fact, Crystal River, and its attendant towns of Homosassa, Inverness and Floral City, is positively Manatee Central for much of the year, and especially during manatee ‘season’ from late November to the end of March.

Thanks to the mild year-round water temperatures generated by the series of springs that bubble up in and around Kings Bay (almost 100 springs in total), the endangered Caribbean manatee finds this the perfect winter ‘retreat.’ And, while you can usually find these gentle, humorous creatures lolling around the waterways at any time of year, they throng here in their hundreds from November to March – more than anywhere else on earth.

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That means this is one of THE great places to come for any kind of paddling or snorkelling adventure. It is the ONLY place in America where it is legal to swim with these wonderful animals – as long as you don’t harass or initiate contact with them – and there are a number of operators that run daily tours to kayak, snorkel or dive among them.

The crystal clear quality of the water only enhances the opportunity to view manatees in their natural habitat, and the backwoods nature of the surroundings ensures this is one of the most scenic and peaceful locations anywhere in the state.

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And, for Max Manatee, you need to be here in January for the Florida Manatee Festival, one of the great regional highlights, with live entertainment, fine arts, craft beers and local food specialities, all coupled with ample opportunity to see the animals at their most plentiful. In 2020, January 18-19 will be the key weekend in question, well worth making special plans for.

Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards are all plentiful along these tranquil waterways and, if you’ve never tried paddle-boarding, these calm, flat waters are definitely the place to get the hang of it.

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There are plenty of other reasons to visit Crystal River, too. Ever heard of scalloping? If not, it should be on your ‘To Do’ list ASAP. From the last Saturday in June to the end of September, tours go out daily to the shallow seagrass beds just offshore where it’s possible go diving for delicious sea scallops. Gather a bagful of these curious creatures, and many local restaurants will cook them for you for dinner. It’s an unmistakably Floridian experience.

Then there are opportunities to go biking, hiking, bird-watching and fishing, as well as visit some of the charming shops and museums tucked away among the friendly confines of the city of Crystal River, or check out the history and heritage at places like Crystal River Archaeological State Park, Fort Cooper State Park and Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins.

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If nothing else, you should visit Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where you can hike, cycle, swim, snorkel or paddle around this truly gorgeous natural wonderland.

Finally, you don’t have to go far to discover more genuine Florida fascination in nearby Homosassa Springs, where the Wildlife State Park provides great close-ups with the local flora and fauna and the dining is suitably local, too, at restaurants such as Shelley’s Seafood & Fish Market, The Starting Gate and the Cedar Key Fish & Oyster Company (complete with the iconic The Freezer Tiki Bar).

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Nearby, inland Inverness (a thriving, bike-friendly community) is another repository of bona fide small-town America, boasting the Historic Old Courthouse Museum and beautifully restored Valerie Theatre, while Floral City offers the majestic Avenue of the Oaks and period style of East Orange Avenue, taking visitors back to the turn of the 20th century.

It all adds up to an absolute bonanza of Sunshine State discovery and authenticity, and rightly secures its place among the ‘hidden gems’ that sprinkle this wonderful holiday destination.

Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.

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