Monday, July 27, 2015

Crystal River, FL Travel with Children

Last week, we embarked on our second mini-vacation of the year.  Because we are staying local this year, I chose a spot that would get the most “oohs and aahs” from my little girls.  I figured a place that allows swimming with manatees would be perfect.  For all of the non-locals, swimming with or touching manatees is illegal in all parts of Florida, with the exception of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.  So, Crystal River it was!

Upon arrival, my youngest could barely contain her excitement and exclaimed, “It looks like the White House!”  She was, of course, speaking of our hotel, Plantation on Crystal River.  I have to slightly agree with her initial assessment, as it definitely did look regal. 

For roughly $200 per night, we got a spacious room overlooking the river.  The room itself was not glamourous.  If anything, it was a bit dated.  However, the beds were very comfortable, and the room had a mini refrigerator, which is a huge bonus when traveling with children. The surroundings were postcard-worthy, as we were literally steps from the river, so that really made up for the quality of the room. 

Once we got settled in, we immediately hit the hotel pool.  The pool was a nice size and it went from three feet to four and a half feet deep.  In other words, it was perfect for the kids.  There was also a sand volleyball court area, a shuffleboard area and a giant size chess game (which we took advantage of on our second day).  Just steps away from the pool, a tiki bar awaited the adult crowd.

After a few hours in the pool, it was time for dinner.  We decided against the hotel restaurant, as the menu wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  There were many local “mom and pop” restaurants to choose from, but on our first night, we played it safe and had dinner a mile away at Applebee’s.  After dinner, we just relaxed in the hotel room and got to bed early in preparation for the next day.

We started our second day at 6am with a substantial buffet breakfast at the West 82 Bar and Grill.  Our scheduled manatee tour time was 6:45am, so after breakfast, we headed to the dive shop.  Once we were there, we were given our dive suits.  Attention parents:  your kids are probably going to HATE the suit.  They are tight and uncomfortable and warm (especially when you are sitting in the Florida heat).  They also take quite some time to get on, so make sure to arrive early if there is a whole clan of you participating in the tour.  PS-Make sure everyone uses the bathrooms before putting the suits on.

Our captain, John, was knowledgeable, friendly and really loved his job.  Being that the entire river is a manatee zone, the boat ride was a very slow one.   After a few minutes, Captain John showed us what to look for and all of the passengers were on the lookout for manatees.  We were in luck!  The captain let us know that some tours don’t leave until much later, which reduces the chances of seeing a manatee.  Fortunately for us, we were the first tour of the morning, and we found some right away.  We even saw a mama with her baby!  Note to readers-The colder the weather, the better chance at seeing more manatees.  Also, the tour does not guarantee that you will see any at all.  Remember, this is their natural habitat and not a theme park where the manatees are in captivity.

The captain was looking for a manatee who was settled and might be interested in playing.  He found one easily, and after going over the rules for swimming with manatees, he let us all off the boat into the 74 degree water to try our hand at interacting with the manatee.  Our manatee was a girl and she was really friendly.  She did a few barrel rolls and seemed as though she wanted to play with everyone. My oldest daughter even got to touch her!

After the manatee experience, we went to our next destination, which was Three Sisters Springs.  Because they need fresh water and a place to stay warm, this is where the manatees gather in the winter.  Note to parents-this is quite a long swim, but my girls (seven and ten years old) were able to do it with ease.  Also, even with the suits, be prepared for shockingly cold water. 

We swam to each of the three springs-Pretty Sister, Deep Sister and Little Sister.  The girls loved the Deep Sister the best because of the debris at the bottom, which reminded them of an abandoned ship.  They each tried to touch the bottom, but it proved difficult because of their buoyant suits.  Even after touching manatees just minutes before, splashing and swimming around the springs was everyone's favorite part of the tour. My words simply cannot describe what an amazing and breathtaking place this was! 

Once back on the boat, the captain offered everyone hot chocolate or coffee, and we headed back to the dock.  I feel privileged to have had this experience, and I am so happy I got to share it with my family.

The captain had a GoPro device, and for about $32, you could have the pictures and video that he took during the trip.  It came out to be a total of 82 different pictures and videos, so it was well worth the money.  The cost of the manatee tour was $55 per person, which is a total steal!  Plantation also offers scalloping tours, and kayak and boat rentals, so there is plenty to do if you happen to stay there longer than three days.

The tour ended around 10:30am, so we still had the entire day ahead of us when we got back to the dive shop.  Normally, I am a planner and would have each day mapped out.  However, other than the manatee tour, I made no plans for this mini holiday, and I loved every second of relaxation!  After the tour, we headed back to the pool.  So we played and relaxed for a few hours, had a late lunch, and though it started raining, we didn’t let that stop us from playing on the giant chess board.  After our chess game, we went for a late dinner at the Olive Tree, which is a Greek diner-like restaurant about a mile away from the hotel.  It is definitely family friendly and a bonus is that it serves breakfast all day, so bring on the pancakes!  After a few games of Clue (yes, I packed board games just in case of rain), we all went to bed after a tiring, yet exhilarating day.

The next morning was our last day in Crystal River.  We got up early and hit the pool for the few hours remaining before checkout time.  On our walk to the car, both girls asked when we could return, which is the ultimate sign of a great vacation!

About forty minutes into the drive home, we stopped in Wildwood, Florida to check out the Russell Stover Factory store.  Being that I’m a little bit of a Godiva chocolate snob, I admit that I wasn’t expecting much.  But as soon as we opened the doors, chocolate heaven greeted us.  Not only was the store overflowing with every kind of chocolate you could think of, they also offered ice cream.  So, to keep the vacation mood going strong, we all ordered an ice cream treat and sat down in the café section of the store to sit back and enjoy.  After our ice cream, we chose some treats to bring home with us.

Just a quick note to readers:  Along the way home, about thirty minutes from Crystal River, was Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours.  We did not get a chance to do this, but if you’ve never been on an airboat, I would definitely recommend making a stop here.

Of the two mini-vacations we have taken so far this year, this was, by far, my favorite.  I have learned that being organized and having planned trips is always helpful when on vacation.  But there is definitely something to be said about being completely relaxed and carefree, spending every moment just being present with the people I cherish the most.