After a seven-hour drive from Atlanta and a restful night’s sleep at the comfortable and clean Central Motel (www.centralmotel.com) in Inverness, Fla., I was starving! Less than 100 yards from my room, my taste buds came alive with a special omelette at Cinnamon Sticks (www.cinnamon-sticks.com), which is the top-rated restaurant in Inverness on Trip Advisor as well as a local favorite!
Following that great breakfast, Yogi (my service dog) and I started the morning on the front seat of an airboat with a big propeller powered by a 450 horsepower Corvette engine. Within minutes, we were blasting our way through tiny watery trails, over expanses of lily pads and through beautiful stands of cypress trees at nearly 40 mph! Though we saw many alligators, raptors and wading birds, the highlight of this exciting trip was finding a mating pair of Sand Hill Cranes with two youngsters and another crane nest with two unhatched eggs!
All American Airboat Tours (www.allamericanairboattours.com) in Inverness had taken us on an adventure of a lifetime through the backwaters of the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes and the sawgrass swamps to experience native Florida wildlife in all their natural splendor. This trip is a must for visitors to this area!
Within walking distance of the airboat ramp is a fabulous place to experience great local food in an old Florida atmosphere! The Cove Pub and Grub (www.thecovepubandgrub.com) offers a unique setting right along the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes. It is popular with locals for boat-up dining, has great hamburgers and a homemade seafood chowder that is unforgettable!
While in Inverness, a great place to spend a few hours is the Inverness Golf and Country Club (www.golfinverness.com, which has long been known as one of Citrus County’s premier golf courses. The par 72 course has water coming into play on seven of the 18 holes. The greens are fast and sloping. It’s a fun place to play!
The main reason many tourists visit the Gulf side of Citrus County is to see and experience the manatees. The absolute best place to do that is by making the short drive to Crystal River and exploring the Three Sisters Springs (www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org) which is the crown jewel of the 70 springs of Kings Bay. This secluded one-acre spring is part of the 57-acre Three Sisters Springs Refuge that was saved from development in 2010. The Refuge, owned by the City of Crystal River and managed by the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, opened to the public in 2015 and is one of the most important springs manatees in Florida use to survive the winter months. In late spring, summer and fall, after the manatees leave, it becomes a popular spot for swimming and paddling.
Not too far away is a one-of-a-kind place for lunch that your taste buds will be remembering for years! It is a laid back and casual food truck known as the Katch-Mobile (www.katchtwentytwo.com/katch-mobile) featuring perfectly crafted sandwiches, fresh cut fries and delicious seafood options, including a blackened shrimp basket that is both inexpensive and tasty!
If you love nature and want to see the animals and birds that live in this part of Florida, spend an afternoon exploring the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (www.floridastateparks.org). Since the early 1900s, passengers on trains passing through this area could picnic and take a dip in the spring while train cars were being loaded up with cedar, crabs, fish and spring water. Most of these people proclaimed this to be the most beautiful river and springs in the world, and it hasn’t changed much.
A great number of interesting species of fresh and saltwater fish still congregate in the natural spring bowl that now has a unique underwater structure called the Underwater Observatory, which allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface to watch fish and manatees swim about. The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, Key deer, wading birds, a Florida Panther and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity.
No trip to Homosassa would be complete without seeing Monkey Island in the Homosassa River from the comfort of the Florida Cracker Monkey Bar, which is a part of the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort (www.floridacrackerriversideresort.com). This unique outdoor watering hole and cantina has been an attraction since the 1960s, and provides fantastic food and drinks plus a commanding view of the Homosassa River, Monkey Island and the festive river life of Old Homosassa!
Before reluctantly departing the natural beauty and wonderful eateries of Inverness, Crystal River and Homossasa, one more stop was necessary in nearby Floral City. I had heard of a unique breakfast place that was owned and operated by some delightful ladies. Robin’s Country Kitchen (search on Facebook) is a tiny place with mouth-watering homestyle cooking, homemade desserts and fast, friendly service that is well worth visiting!
Though many people come to Citrus County to see the manatees in the colder months and to harvest scallops when it’s warm, this area is one of Florida’s premier ecotourism destinations with pristine natural lakes, spring-fed rivers and some of the most unused shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico. Combine that with unique and scrumptious places to dine, and you have a destination that will thrill every visitor!
Photos (in video): by Bill Vanderford