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Road Trips:
Surprising Central Florida

 

The Weeki Wachee

 


Photo: Kevin Mims


Photo: Kevin Mims


© Jason Hahn, HahnNaturePhotography.com

Some of the world’s largest, purest springs percolate up through west Florida’s bedrock, feeding a remarkable array of crystalline lakes and rivers. The Weeki Wachee is one of the easiest rivers to explore, thanks to kayak rentals (paddlingadventures.com) within Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, west of Brooksville. You’ll put in near the spring, float more than five miles through an undeveloped tunnel of trees, then catch a shuttle back to your car.

 

The park’s other main attraction is rife with nostalgia: the Weeki Wachee mermaid show, virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Young women with flowing hair and mermaid tails perform balletic underwater routines in the Weeki Wachee spring, to the delight of audiences watching through an underwater viewing window. In their 1950s heyday, the mermaids were glamorous celebrities, famous for sitting on the entrance wall along U.S. Highway 19 and flipping their tails to entice visitors. Modern theme parks threatened the show’s viability, but its status as a state park now helps preserve this slice of roadside nostalgia.

 

West of the park are coastal marsh and salt ponds and one of the area’s finest sand beaches. Find a list of more nearby natural areas on page 3.

 

Crystal River Manatees

 

According to legend, early sailors imagined mermaids when they actually spotted the manatee. Although not a shapely mermaid, this native marine mammal is completely endearing: a surprisingly graceful, gentle giant with a bulbous body that often tops 1,200 pounds. Fewer than 4,000 of these endangered creatures live in Florida’s Gulf waters, and there’s probably no better place in the world to see one in the wild than near the town of Crystal River, 30 miles north of Weeki Wachee.

 


 © Jason Hahn,
HahnNaturePhotography.com

Extremely susceptible to cold, manatees know to head inland to freshwater springs – flowing at a constant 72 degrees – when a cold snap hits the Gulf. Hundreds sometimes gather around the Crystal River’s many springs within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Pontoon boat tours, like the excellent naturalist-led tours from the Plantation Inn (plantationinn.com), transport you to the manatees’ favorite hangouts, where you can easily view them and even slip in the water alongside them – an unforgettable wildlife experience.

 

Turns out, a stand-up paddleboard also makes the perfect manatee-viewing platform. I slide one off the top of my Outback and into Kings Bay, and slowly stroke my way upstream toward Three Sisters Spring. Before I know it, I’m surrounded by nearly a dozen manatees, casually feeding and resting just a few feet below. Although I’m careful not to disturb them, this proves to be a moot point. A young manatee soon approaches me, practically resting its whiskered snout on my board and gazing up with sweet, soulful eyes.

 

I’m increasingly drawn to this area’s natural diversity. The more time I spend along this hidden coast, the more I’m smitten by its dense fringed shoreline and the spring-fed rivers that feel like secret routes to the sea.

 

Evening comes as we land our kayaks, the sky blooming into shades of shrimp pink, then gaudy flamingo orange. We watch as the sun slips behind a snarl of mangroves, into a Gulf that somehow seems wilder than ever before.

 

Tina Lassen is a freelance writer who specializes in travel and outdoor recreation. She divides her time between Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and Florida’s Gulf Coast, exploring both corners of the country in her trusty 2008 Outback.

 


© Jason Hahn, HahnNaturePhotography.com

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