NATURAL AREAS
 
Parks and preserves abound in west-central Florida, offering everything from long-distance bike trails to remote sand beaches. Here are a few good ones to explore.

The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge protects more than 31,000 acres of saltwater bays and brackish marshes west of the communities of  Homosassa Springs and Crystal River. Most famous for the manatees that frequent its waters, Chassahowitzka also is home to endangered whooping cranes. Start at the refuge headquarters in Crystal River for maps and information.

With its mild climate and its mix of salt water and freshwater, west-central Florida attracts a remarkable array of birds. North of Brooksville, the Chinsegut Conservation Center offers a great introduction to the area’s terrific birdwatching opportunities. Its upland hiking trails are part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a 2,000-mile highway route that wanders through the state, linking and highlighting its best wildlife viewing areas.

The 42,000-acre Withlacoochee State Forest pretty much offers something for everyone, with distinct tracts set aside specifically for hiking, mountain biking, paddling, horseback riding, and motorcycle/all-terrain-vehicle use.

Cyclists spin through a bucolic “Old Florida” landscape of fat cypress trees, small towns, and rolling farmland on the Withlacoochee State Trail, a 46-mile paved pathway that roughly parallels the Withlacoochee River along an old railroad route. It’s the longest of several paved bike trails in the state. Rent bikes from Hampton’s Edge Trailside Bicycles, right on the trail in Floral City.

The central Gulf Coast has lovely sand beaches, hidden gems enjoyed mostly by locals. Three miles out in the Gulf waters, Anclote Key is the northernmost of Florida’s long string of sandy barrier islands that stretch down the Gulf Coast to Sanibel. Anclote Key Preserve State Park protects an uninhabited arc of sugar-white sand, a primitive campground, and an 1887 lighthouse at its southern tip. Private boats anchor right off the beach; Island Paradise Charters leads half-day trips out of New Port Richey.

West of Crystal River, Fort Island Gulf Beach offers 1,000 feet of sand and fantastic Gulf sunsets. From U.S. 19, follow Florida 44/Fort Island Trail west about nine miles.

 

The Homosassa – Where the River Meets the Sea

 

If your timing doesn’t work out for a wild manatee encounter, you still can get an up-close look at nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Part zoo, part wildlife rehabilitation center, this excellent facility is a great place to learn about native (and often endangered) Florida animals such as the Florida panther, red wolf, alligator, and whooping crane. Several manatees loll in a protected section of the pristine Homosassa River and are fed near an underwater window at the river’s headwater spring.

 

The state park lies on Florida 490, a driver’s delight that curves through oak hammocks draped with Spanish moss. It passes the ruins of a Civil War-era sugar mill. The funky fishing outpost of Old Homosassa marks the end of the road, where spider monkeys swing around a small island to the delight of patrons at The Monkey Bar – classic Florida kitsch – and restaurants like the Yardarm cook up customers’ catches just pulled from the nearby Gulf. Sign on with a fishing guide like Don Chancey (grouperhunter.com) to get yours. Soon he’ll have the Flats Chance humming down the Homosassa River through a watery world of remote cabins, screeching osprey, and grassy islands tugged by tides.

 

In seven miles, you’ll leave all land behind for the Gulf of Mexico’s wide-open waters. With an ocean floor that drops just 10 feet for every mile offshore, the Gulf’s vast grassy flats are world-class waters for redfish, trout, grouper, cobia, and huge tarpon, a tenacious game fish. Guides also offer scalloping trips July through September, when all it takes is a snorkel, mask, and mesh bag to hunt for the bay scallops that hide in the shallow grass beds. Keep an eye out for the native sea horses that live there, too.

 

 

The Quiet Coast

 

Forty miles south, Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park protects four miles of coastline and 4,000 acres of tidal marsh, mangroves, creeks, and deep saltwater springs. A kayak is the ideal way to explore its leafy labyrinth – and to spot the park’s abundant birds. Shy night herons peer out from the arched mangrove knees; egrets stalk through the shallows. We spot endangered wood storks, too, flapping languidly through a cerulean sky. Hundreds of species are drawn to the region’s diverse environment of fresh and salt water, sand and scrub.

  

   

LODGING AND DINING

 

At the north end of this region, the Plantation on Crystal River makes a great base, a genteel southern beauty surrounded by stately live oaks. The 232-acre property comprises a golf course, spa, pool, dive center, and great location on the Crystal River, near prime manatee and bird viewing. 

 

At the south end of this region, opt for a stay at Saddlebrook Resort. The sprawling complex is best known as a premier tennis and golf destination, with condominium accommodations, large pool, spa, and lovely grounds home to nesting wood storks, egrets, and other wildlife.

 

Saddlebrook’s Dempsey’s Steak House lives up to its name, with excellent aged prime steaks, a bountiful salad bar, great service, and plenty of seafood on the menu, too.

 

Miss Vicki’s on the River is the kind of restaurant that you probably wouldn’t find without the help of a local – tucked behind a marina on the Anclote River, a casual, open-air place with crushed shells underfoot. You don’t need to advertise when you serve up fresh grilled fish, homemade crab cakes, succulent shrimp po’boys, and even that classic Southern snack, hot boiled peanuts.

 

In Brooksville, dining at Mallie Kyla’s Café feels like you’re having lunch in someone’s home – someone who really knows how to cook. Everything is made from scratch, from the soups to the salad dressings to the desserts, which are Southern to the core and not to be missed. A favorite: hummingbird cake, made with bananas, pineapple, and nuts. 

 

In Hernando Beach, Brian’s Place blends Italian, Spanish, and Cuban flavors, with outstanding results such as grouper with plantains and seafood paella. Great house-made sangria, too. 

 

In Old Homosassa, the Riverside Crab House is a classic nautical seafood spot on the Homosassa River, featuring fresh blue crabs and an ever-changing fresh catch of the day. It’s part of the Homosassa Riverside Resort, which also owns the Yardarm Lounge and The Monkey Bar, overlooking a tiny island that’s home to the resort’s spider monkeys.

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