For some reason, manatee-watching always seems like a winter diversion. Observing benign, 1-ton sea cows glide in spring-fed waters is a ritual at January manatee festivals in Orange City and Crystal River.
Yet manatees are a year-round attraction at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings), on U.S. Highway 19 roughly 100 miles west of Orlando in Citrus County.
The park's four resident sea cows spend afternoons drifting serenely past underwater observation windows where even thumb-in-front-of-the-lens photographers, including a certain travel columnist, can snap impressive portraits. The manatees also star in multiple ranger-hosted educational programs daily, but I had the most fun competing with them in staring contests through the underwater windows.
For its bargain $13 admission, the park offers an old-school glimpse at Florida's natural resources. Guests travel a mile in a pontoon boat along the winding Pepper Creek from the air-conditioned visitor center to the park's main entrance. Our pilot offered well-worn jokes as he pointed out gators, turtles, an osprey nest and an anhinga on the way.
A shaded boardwalk leads to the manatees, part of a cozy, zoolike exhibit that also features a hippopotamus, bald eagles, key deer, foxes, birds and more gators. In addition to the manatee programs, there are daily sessions about the gators, hippo, birds and reptiles.
Alas, my visit was shortened by an afternoon thunderstorm, but the rain was relaxing under the covered waiting area where a tram substituted for boat transportation to the visitor center.
From July to mid-September, the Gulf Coast in Citrus County also is a prime locale for bay scallops, plucked by visitors from shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico by a process that combines elements of snorkeling, treasure hunting and saltwater fishing.
I didn't get wet, but I enjoyed watching boaters on the docks off South Cherokee Way in Historic Old Homosassa, 10 minutes west of the state park. Later I perched within view of the marina at the boisterous Freezer Tiki Bar, where a foam container of delicious steamed shrimp and a beer go for about $12. It's cash only, so make sure to stop at an ATM first.
I highly recommend it.
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