Miles from Jupiter: 231, Drive Time: 3.5 hours
Orlando isn’t the only family-friendly vacation spot within driving distance. Leave Disney World for the tourists and take the kids somewhere off the beaten path instead. Located on Kings Bay, about 80 miles north of Tampa, Crystal River offers a laid-back vibe with an abundance of outdoor adventures ready to be had.
Sitting at the center of it all is the eco-conscious Plantation on Crystal River. Delivering a polished take on Old Florida for more than 50 years, this 232-acre riverfront resort provides all the ingredients of a picture-perfect getaway that will appeal to both parents and their little ones alike. Villas and spacious suites afford everyone comfort while an endless stream of water activities ensures days’ worth of device-free fun for kids. And when parents need a break, The Spa Bleu (an Aveda spa) beckons with a variety of treatments such as the Botanical Skin Resurfacing Facial, which uses the power of tourmaline to turn back the hands of time; the centering Chakra Balancing Massage, which employs Ayurvedic techniques and guided meditation; and the rejuvenating HydroVichy Salt Glow Body Treatment, featuring an immunity-boosting Vichy shower.
The resort’s main attractions include diving, fishing charters, and manatee tours. West Indian manatees flock to Crystal River’s 72-degree waters year-round, and The Plantation Adventure Center provides guests a rare chance to swim, dive, and snorkel alongside these gentle giants. In fact, Citrus County is the only area in the country where such interaction is actually legal. In addition to manatees, visitors are also likely to spot dolphins and a variety of both freshwater and saltwater fish. The Adventure Center can also book fishing charters to hunt some of these species, such as largemouth bass, grouper, redfish, and, when in season, scallops. A huge draw for the resort, scallop season begins July 1 and runs through September 24. Guided scallop tours allow kids to strap on goggles, snorkels, and fins, chase after the little fan-shaped shells that hide in the shallow grass flats, and fill mesh bags with their haul. Best of all, the skilled chefs at the hotel’s West 82º Bar and Grill will prepare a sea-to-table meal with your catch.
Days spent on the water can really work up an appetite, and the resort doesn’t disappoint with dining options. In addition to West 82º, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a sleek yet welcoming indoor-outdoor setting, there’s also the Tiki Bar by the lagoon-style pool for casual bites and tropical cocktails and the 19th Hole Sports Bar and Grill at the Golf Shop.
Although you could easily spend your entire vacation never leaving the Plantation, more outdoor pursuits await off the resort. Be sure to plan a visit to Three Sisters Springs, where you can launch kayaks from Hunter Springs Park or Kings Bay Park, navigate the crystal- clear waters, and swoon over the lush flora and fauna. On the way back to the resort, refuel at The Crab Plant or Hardwood Smokehouse for a messy, fun, and unforgettable spread the kids will love. It’s this kind of low-key, nature-driven appeal that makes Crystal River a hidden gem that families return to time and time again.