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Fernando Harb

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Authentic Florida Experience at Crystal River

Florida is synonymous with Disney, the beaches and the everglades. And with that, Orlando/Tampa, Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Naples/Fort Myers see the largest number of visitors.

But as southeast Florida residents, we are always in search of something else, something different to do in Florida. What can we do with two teenagers in tow that will entertain them and maybe even make travel with parents cool again? OK, perhaps that is a stretch, but you get my point.

Crystal River – A hidden gem in Central Florida

Through my friend Adam, who at the time was working at the Discover Crystal River tourism office, I learned about Citrus County, located on west-central coast of Florida, approximately 5 hours by car from Miami. Seems like a leisurely road trip with kids (it minimizes how many times you hear “Are we there yet?”)

Adam explained that the must-do activity is “scalloping,” held during the summer season, July to September.

Scalloping is a popular activity in Florida, where avid seafood enthusiasts snorkel in the pursuit of this tasty mollusk.   The challenge, I am one of the few Florida residents that do not eat seafood, so it didn’t sound very “appetizing” to me. But apparently, the real fun lies in hunting them, which resembles an Easter Egg hunt on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico. 

So, after a little bit of research and a lot of advice from Adam, we packed up the car and headed to Citrus County.

Plantation at Crystal River

We arrived at the Plantation on Crystal River, located right on the water’s edge, a combination of pristine lakes and rivers fed by natural springs from Kings Bay. Wild refuges and state parks surrounded us.

I was excited to see that it had not one, but two golf courses! An 18-hole and 9-hole executive course just steps away from the resort. It even has an Aveda Spa.

But I never got to enjoy either… there is too much to do!

Crystal River Manatees

Upon arrival, we couldn’t resist the allure of swimming with the manatees. This particular area boasts over 400 West Indian manatees who migrate to the year-round warm waters. This is as close as I will get to feeling like a SeaWorld trainer.  Gentle and big, I equate the experience with visiting the Pandas of China.

With the heat of the summer sun beating down on us, we opted for chilling on the water’s edge pool of the resort. It was there that I had the opportunity to meet a resort guest who arrived on his own boat. You couldn’t miss it as the resort has over 80 spaces right on the seawall, and his was by far the largest. OK, maybe I was angling for a free ride, but he was entertaining, nonetheless.

The Adventure Begins

Fernando on Crystal River

Upon arrival, we couldn’t resist the allure of swimming with the manatees. This particular area boasts over 400 West Indian manatees who migrate to the year-round warm waters. This is as close as I will get to feeling like a SeaWorld trainer.  Gentle and big, I equate the experience with visiting the Pandas of China.

With the heat of the summer sun beating down on us, we opted for chilling on the water’s edge pool of the resort. It was there that I had the opportunity to meet a resort guest who arrived on his own boat. You couldn’t miss it as the resort has over 80 spaces right on the seawall, and his was by far the largest. OK, maybe I was angling for a free ride, but he was entertaining, nonetheless.

The Adventure Begins

Scallops

Scallops are found in depths ranging from 3 to 8 feet along the grass flats of the Gulf of Mexico. The depth is perfect for all ages, as long as they can maneuver up and down the boat’s ladder.

They are about two to three inches wide with a typical fan-shaped shell. The cool feature is they have 30-40 bright blue eyes along the edge. This is what helps them detect predators and weekend scallop hunters like us.  The water has perfect salinity, temperature and sediment levels for bay scallops to thrive.

All we had to do is swim around, spot them, pick them up and into the mesh bag. Easy, right?

The four of us hit the water with the eagerness of a child awaiting Christmas. Training complete, gear on, bring on the scallops!  

After the first few minutes, I surmised we had hit a dry patch because it took me about 15 minutes just to find three scallops. Round and round we swam, it was slim pickings.

By the time I had 7 in my bag, I headed over to the Captain (who was also hunting) to ask about moving to another location. He raised his bag out of the water and smirked as he had collected over twenty already, and in half the time it took me to get my meager catch!

Do you remember those 30-40 blue eyes I mentioned? They really do help them avoid capture and hide. The Captain’s experience didn’t hurt either. There is a daily limit of two gallons of whole bay scallops in shell, or one pint of bay scallop meat per person.

Check out this video produced by River Ventures that features a scalloping trip.

Once back at the Plantation at Crystal River Marina, our 4-gallon bucket of scallops, thanks to the Captain’s contribution, are turned over to a family business of shuckers sitting under a canopy right at the dock.  They will separate the scallop from its shell, clean it and bag it for you.

Fresh catch in hand, we strolled over to the resort’s restaurant, West 82º Bar & Grill, to make an early dinner reservation and have our scallops prepared.

Shucked Scallops Bag

We asked for a combination of different preparations to meet the family’s individual requests. Although I was hesitant to eat scallops, the Chef’s creation was so well prepared, I ate them as if they were my favorite comfort food. This does not mean that I like seafood now; it means the Plantation at Crystal River has an amazing chef!

After dinner we managed to catch the sunset while enjoying drinks the Tiki Bar by the pool. Since we started really early in the day, the combination of boating, adventure, sun and superb meal, we were done!

Back in our room, I soon came to the realization that two days, one night, does not allow for true enjoyment and exploration of this slice of Florida paradise. Next time I will plan on additional days to see and do more of what Citrus Country has to offer.

Maybe I will finally get on that golf course!

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