Traveling to Florida’s Nature Coast
It was an embarrassing lapse.
Despite decades of living and traveling throughout Florida, neither my husband nor I had ever seen the famous Weeki Wachee mermaids.
Nor had we visited their isolated home habitat, the Nature Coast, that spreads across nine rural counties north of Tarpon Springs to just past the Panhandle’s deep western curve.
Once known as the state’s “lonesome leg,” this sparsely settled section of Old Florida has been re-branded in recent years to reflect its half-land, half-water tangle of forests, clear springs, dark rivers and saw grass swamp.
Over New Year’s weekend, we took a nature cure on the Nature Coast.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee’s whitewashed mermaid statues, scrubby landscaping and tame posse of show-off peacocks catapulted me back to my ’60s Florida childhood: the Florida of juice stands, orange blossom perfume and those Citra sippers you pushed into an orange to suck out the juice.
That Florida has been condoized, concreted, compromised.
But here, a world where all it took to thrill the tourists was pretty girls in sparkly bikini tops swimming underwater in mermaid tails, endures.
It’s not Disney, thank goodness, but this slightly shabby park has an authentic vintage charm not even the Mouse House can manufacture.
The mermaid show takes place in an underwater theater built into the side of one of Florida’s deepest springs in 1947 by a diver and entrepreneur named Newton Perry.
The day we were there, three mermaids performed a red-white-and-blue tribute to America, as a spray of bubbles functioned as the “curtain” between a half dozen acts. Wearing feathery tails with their long hair floating around them like seaweed, the smiling women performed an underwater ballet, maintaining buoyancy by regulating their intake of air from the hoses floating nearby. A deep breath would send them floating toward the top of the springlike aquatic angels.
They managed to ignore a scene-stealing turtle that paddled blithely back and forth through each act, apparently attracted by the excess oxygen in the water.
Springs and Rivers
On a cool morning, the Chassahowitzka River makes its own fog.
Spectral wisps hovered a few feet above the wilderness river’s dark surface, while manatees lay in the shallows, where the spring-fed water stays a uniform 72 degrees.
It felt miles from anywhere, which is why we’d come to this spot in still-wild Citrus County.
There are more than 700 natural freshwater springs in Florida, according to the Florida Geological Survey, more than anywhere else in the world.
And, the Nature Coast contains dozens of them, bubbling up from underground to form crystalline blue-green swimming holes which, in turn, become rivers, like the “Chaz,” meandering toward the Gulf.
We rented kayaks from the Chassahowitka River Campground and took off downriver. Five minutes of paddling took us into the North Florida wilderness, under a thick canopy of cypress, oak and cabbage palm, without a single building in sight.
Turns out that if we’d paddled another hour up a tributary of the Chaz we would have come to a spring erupting from a large split in the earth that locals call the Crack.
It’s a reason to return.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park
You have to be outside the park’s boundaries to swim with manatees, but from a pedestrian bridge, we peered down at dozens of sea cows, many of them babies, basking in the warm water close to this spring.
On cold mornings, a ranger told us, the mothers park their babies here while they forage in the river’s colder water, then return for “afternoon pickup.”
From the park’s underwater “fish bowl” observatory, we had a rare up-close view of the spring’s other winter residents — thousands of the huge jacks, snook and mullet that swim miles upstream from the Gulf to the warm mineral-rich fresh water.
Once just another roadside attraction, the park was taken over by the state in 1989. When officials decreed the wildlife park should contain only native Florida species, park fans protested the removal of Lu, the beloved hippo, a leftover from the days when Ivan Tors Animal Actors rehearsed here.
In response, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles made Lu an honorary Florida citizen. Now 57 and one of the oldest hippos in captivity, he’s ruled this jungle kingdom ever since.
Lu was getting a scrubdown from his adoring subjects (handler) while we watched, then he took a post-spa swim in his royal bathing pool.
Aiming for the sunset one night, we took a lonely causeway west through the saw grass marsh, past Yankeetown, as solid ground gradually gave way to more and more water, until the pavement ran out at a spot that seemed stuck miles out in the Gulf.
Shivering in the wind, we watched an orange sun sink past dozens of tiny islands into the choppy, gray water at the edge of nowhere.
Which is right where we wanted to be.
Barbara Marshall is an award-winning feature writer at The Palm Beach Post who lives in West Palm Beach, FL. She writes about Florida people and places.
Where to stay
The century-old Chassahowitzka Hotel is set up to accomodate large groups, 8551 W. Miss Maggie Drive, Homossassa, 352-382-2075. chazhotel.com.
The Plantation Inn is probably the area’s most luxurious stay, 9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, 352-795-4211, toll-free 800-632-6262.
Where to eat
Peck’s Old Port Cove, 139 N. Ozello Trail, Crystal River, 352-795-2806, (no website.)
Riverside Inn at Izaak Walton Lodge, 6301 Riverside Drive, Yankeetown, 352-447-2595.
The Freezer, 5590 S. Boulevard Drive, Homosassa, 352-628-2452, (no website.)
What to see, what to do
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, an Old Florida attraction where mermaids swim. Boat cruise, swimming, animal shows and water park (summers,) 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, 352- 592-5656.
Homosassa Springs State Park, see manatees and other Florida wildlife, including two Florida panthers, red wolves, flamingoes and Lu, the hippo, made an official Florida resident, 4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard, Homosassa, 352-628-5343.
Rent canoes and kayaks at Chassahowitzka River Campground, 8600 W. Miss Maggie Drive, Homosassa, 352-382-2200.
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