Some travel destinations are so entwined with their gastronomical pleasures that they seem to shout at us: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD! Think New Orleans’ famous Cajun and Creole cooking, or how synonymous San Francisco is with “California Cuisine,” a form of dining that champions eating in-season local ingredients and which introduced us to fusion cooking and artful presentation.
And then there are some places that keep their mouths shut when it comes to food because, in keeping with an old adage, they have nothing nice to say. Such was the case with my family’s recent vacation to Crystal River, Florida. An inquiry I made on the celiac listserv about local restaurants and grocery stores netted me only two – TWO - responses. Neither of them encouraging.
Crystal River is situated along the west coast of Florida, about 70 miles north of Tampa and 70 miles west of Orlando. Yet it has little resemblance to either of these places. There is no thriving business culture, art scene, or vibrant Gulf coast beaches like Tampa. Nor any of the fantastical make-believe whimsy of Orlando’s theme park scene and the accompanying security of Disney’s noteworthy celiac-friendliness. Heck, Crystal River doesn’t even have chain restaurants. One guidebook I consulted went so far as to advise day trippers to pack a picnic lunch. That’s because Crystal River, and surrounding Citrus County, is known as the Nature Coast. Its main attraction is the great outdoors itself.
If nature is the draw to this area, then the West Indian manatee is the star. These large marine mammals are herbivores that inhabit warm, shallow, marshy coastal waters predominantly around Florida. In the winter months, they tend to congregate in mild, constant-temperature spring-fed rivers such as the seven-mile long Crystal River that flows through the town of the same name. The Homosassa River, seven miles further south, is another favorite hang-out.
The easiest way to observe manatees in this natural habitat is through a floating glass observatory at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, on the Homosassa River. Those willing to don a wetsuit and brave the 72-degree water can get up-close and personal with these 10-foot, 1200 pound creatures by joining a guided snorkel tour in either the Homosassa River or the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of Crystal River.
Manatees are an endangered species, protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Human interaction with them is controlled by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which makes it illegal to annoy, harass, or disturb one of these creatures. Before heading out by boat into Kings Bay with American Pro Diving Center, one of the largest outfitters in the area, we were shown a film about the dos and don’ts of our manatee meet up.
Once on the water, we were all on the lookout for manatees. A telltale sign is a circle on the water’s surface formed when the mammal must pop its nose up to breathe air every 3-5 minutes. Soon we were all slinking into the water, moving as softly as possible towards a small herd, with hopes that one of them would choose to come close to us. It is permissible to pet manatees if they initiate the encounter. Two of my sons, ages 12 and 14, got the biggest surprise when a 5-foot calf swam up to them, rolled over like a puppy, seeming to ask for a belly rub, and then excreted. Oh, it was a highlight!
Another day we rented a kayak and a canoe, and then paddled up the Homosassa River towards the state park. Along the way, we blissfully observed manatees surfacing, swimming, and resting in the shallow waters. Equally thrilling was the sight of two dolphins gliding beneath our boats before zealously slashing though the water in pursuit of a school of fish. Later, while sitting on the dock outside our rented cottage down river from the state park, we watched in awe as several manatees seemed to revel in the sunlight speckled afternoon.
Our “cottage,” however, was not so awesome. Basically a one-bedroom trailer set upon stilts, the putrid smell of fish was the first thing to greet us after we’d checked in at the “office” that was really a dry-docked boat. There are six rental units at the Last Resort in Homosassa, each with a full kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and deck. Our unit appeared to be halfway through a much-needed renovation. The bedroom and bathroom were completely worn out, with uncomfortable beds and broken built-in dresser drawers. The kitchen, though, was clean, and once the property owner disinfected the fishy refrigerator, we visited a nearby grocery store and a citrus stand to settle in.
Publix, Sweetbay, and Winn Dixie, were the three big grocery store chains we found in Crystal River and Homosassa. All three carried a good selection of gluten-free products, leading me to believe there must be people in the area with celiac disease. After trying to find gluten-free food at local restaurants, however, I also came to believe that none of these supposed people with celiac ever ate out.
We dined at three different restaurants in the area, and then only after scrutinizing a number of restaurant menus, assessing my chance of getting a gluten-free meal. At not one of these places had anyone ever heard of celiac disease. Being on the rivers, with the Gulf of Mexico a few miles away, at least seafood did figure prominently on the menus. Fried seafood! So at the Marguerita Grill in Homosassa, I stuck with a bunless hamburger and side salad with oil and vinegar. At the Homosassa Riverside Resort restaurant, where they understood I had a “wheat allergy,” I did enjoy grilled grouper, baked potato, and steamed vegetables. Still, the waitress wondered why I hadn’t yet outgrown my allergy. The third place we ate was a Thai restaurant, called Thai Phoon, where I had Pad Thai.
These dining experiences, though, were just a footnote in our overall vacation experience. We snorkeled two times with the manatees in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and my husband and I went scuba diving in an overhead cavern. Another afternoon we all snorkeled/scuba dived down the spring-fed Rainbow River, in Rainbow Springs State Park. With crystal clear water ranging in depth from 3-18 feet, the current pushed us along, providing an ever changing view of fish life and vegetation.
On the final full day of our vacation we hired a small fishing charter, hoping to catch enough for a fish fry of our own, gluten-free style. Despite our boat captain’s best efforts to help with our quest, we caught only one keeper; the dozens of others were either too small or not good eating. Not willing to stink up our kitchen for one measly fish, we tossed it to a blue heron that had been patiently watching us from a nearby rock crop. With one long gulp, the fish slowly disappeared down the heron’s throat. “That’s so cool,” exclaimed our boys. My husband snapped a picture. It was truly all about nature.
Citrus County Website
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Homosassa Springs State Park
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd.
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 S.W. 81st Pl. Rd.
American Pro Diving Center
821 S.E. Highway 19
Crystal River, FL
10738 Halls River Rd.
Homosassa Springs, FL
Homosassa Riverside Resort
5297 S. Cherokee Way
10200 W. Halls River Rd.