Swimming with manatees and drinking margaritas the size of your head? Sounds like the perfect way to celebrate a birthday, right? Last weekend was a “big” birthday for my mom – let’s just say it was a monumental one (she would kill me if I revealed how “young” she is) so my family decided to do one of our favorite things to celebrate our favorite lady – head to Homosassa!
They call it “the Nature coast” and I absolutely see why. I grew up in Florida, living minutes away from best beach possible (hello, Anna Maria Island!) but Homosassa offers another side of Florida that’s not about white sand and sun sets, it’s about making your way down a lazy river where Manatees and Ospreys are the owners – you are just a lucky visitor.
We piled 10 members of our family onto our pontoon boat – from my two-year-old daughter to my 85-year-old grandma – and took a relaxing trip down the river. Here are three things you won’t want to miss when you make your trip to Homosassa.
Swim with the Manatees and Do Some Florida Bird-Watching
Located on Florida’s west coast, Homosassa is just nine miles south of Crystal River – an easy two hour drive from the Sarasota area up the Florida Turnpike. Homosassa Springs sits on, well, a spring which is what keeps the river at a nice, warm temperature of 72 degrees – OK, that might sound chilly to us Floridians who are used to 90 degree bathwater of the Gulf of Mexico, but trust me, getting into this rather frigid bathwater is so worth it! Make sure you have a snorkel and mask so you can see the magical world that waits beneath the water. Before you hop in, watch the water line to spot the manatees. When you see their bristly noses pop up for air, you’ve found ’em! So many manatees make this their home, it’s practically impossible not to see one. My family and I spotted at least a dozen. The nickname “sea cow” doesn’t seem fitting for these graceful herbivores – it’s just glorious to watch them glide through the clear water. My seven-year-old nephew had a thrilling experience when he observed a mommy manatee swimming with her baby – he said that was definitely worth getting in the freezing water!
Just a note about swimming with the manatees – Citrus County (which includes Homosassa) is the only county in Florida where it is legal to swim with the manatees. They are “gentle giants,” but please respect their personal space, keep your distance and refrain from touching them. Also, make sure your boat only goes idle speed down the river (no wake is allowed to protect the manatees, of course).
Keep your eyes peeled for other water creatures. We saw turtles sunning themselves on logs and dolphins showing off their moves (as if they were trying to take away some of the attention the manatees were getting.) Hey, maybe they’re jealous? Who knows what those high-pitched squeaks really mean.
The bird-watching is also incredible! We saw Ospreys, Eagles, Red-Shouldered Hawks and Swallow-Tailed Kites. You will also see Osprey and Blue Heron nests dangling off of marker signs or suspended from tree branches on tiny islands that are dotted throughout the river. In the spring, you’re likely to spot the adorable babies in the nests too.
See Monkey Island, Do Monkey Island
There is a cute little island located just off the riverbank (adjacent to the Riverside Resort) that is home to a play set, a mini lighthouse and five spider monkeys. Yes, monkeys! Not your typical river residents, but certainly entertaining ones! My family and I stayed at the Riverside Resort – the adults loved the large rooms with kitchens and balconies overlooking the river, and the view of Monkey Island made it a huge hit with the kids too.
There is much discussion about where these monkeys came from – some people say they were originally brought to the area during the filming of Tarzan movie, but according to the “true” story that the Riverside Resort tells, three of the monkeys were first brought to Homosassa live in the Homosassa Wildlife Park. In the 1960s the monkeys were causing trouble in the park (as you can only imagine monkeys would be doing) such as biting visitors, stealing candy and even getting into visitor’s cars (or so the legend says). So the monkeys were removed from the park and were relocated to their new home on the island which became known as Monkey Island and became a popular tourist attraction of its own. Today, you can boat around the island and watch the monkeys play – if you have any candy on board, hide it!
Wrap Up the Day with a Giant Margarita!
After a great day of cruising up and down the river, sighting manatees and monkeys, it’s now time for a margarita from “Marguerita Grill.” There is boat parking, so pull your boat on in, dock it up and head inside to the restaurant that is part Greek diner, part USA patriotic museum and part Margaritaville. It’s an interesting spot gets even more interesting after you down one of their ginormous margaritas. We went with the “medium” sized drink that our server said had three shots of tequila in it. After drinking maybe half the margarita, most of my family was out on the dance floor hula-hooping (OK, maybe just me), so I think there was an adequate amount of tequila included in the drinks! And to help soak up some of that tequila, try the Fish Dip that is a blend of Tuna and Mahi and served with Jalapenos and Saltines.
Ah, what a wonderful way to end the best day out on the water. Cheers to the manatees, monkeys and my mom! Happy birthday, mom. Hope you enjoyed your birthday celebration as much as I did. Let’s do it again next year!