Florida Getaways: How To Spend An Authentic Weekend in Florida

Florida Getaways: How To Spend An Authentic Weekend in Florida

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Have you ever wondered where the people who live in your vacation destination go on their vacation? Florida has a plethora of amusement parks, beaches, everglades, diving, animals, and all around fun – but when you have a short weekend, how do you choose? For those who like the more authentic experience, and doing what the locals do – here are my suggestions for your Florida getaway and how to have an authentic weekend in Florida. 

Arriving in Florida

Once arriving in Florida, I met up with some friends, and locals, Jen and Ed. We quickly grabbed our Latte’s and headed out the door towards the Devil’s Den. It is an hour and a half drive North from Orlando. You can drive straight through, or take the scenic route through Ocala National Forest (which adds an extra hour). 

There are plenty of rest stops along the way, with cute parks for picnics or for the dogs to stretch their legs. Road trips seemed quite common due to all of the RV‘s I saw on the road. 

 

The Devil’s Den

This dive is one of the more unique dive’s I have come across. We quickly paid, took some photos, checked all of our diving gear and made our way into the Devil’s Den. If this was truly the Devil’s Den, then hell has frozen over. Once you descend into this cavern the air and water get quite cold. This underground river is a consistent 72 degrees F (22 degrees C), while it doesn’t seem too cold, keep in mind you are essentially in a cave with very little light warming you or the water. 

The true reason it was called Devil’s Den, is because on cold mornings (well, as cold as Florida can get); you see smoke rising in visible plumes from the chimney opening. 

Devil’s Den is a perfect dive for new diver’s as the depth only reaches 54 feet (16.45m). It is a classic destination for Divers, and snorkelers who wish to experience its crystal clear waters and unique inverted mushroom formation. 

Fun Fact: There have been several animal fossils that have been found in these waters, dating all the way back to the Pleistocene age – displayed in the University of Florida’s Museum. 

 

What to Bring to Devil’s Den

Be sure to bring your Wetsuit! I live in a colder, and much drier climate. I was able to handle diving in this Cave with a shorty wetsuit; but I would not have been able to do another dive as I started to get cold at the end of this dive.

Bring a light, your GoPro and Diving Rig, with an experienced diver and would suggest getting your cave diving liscense unless you are diving with a Master/Rescue Diver. Luckily Ed is both of those. Some of the cave areas can get quite dark, and you squeeze through some tighter spots – so I was glad to have someone there who could navigate.

Creepy Fish and Caves

I will give you fair warning about the creepy fish in this place. Even though it is a river in Florida, don’t expect some beautiful tropical fish – expect creepy fish, huge catfish that hide in corners like a horrible underwater haunted house.

The caves are fun to explore, the water is gorgeous, experiencing a daytime dive but having to equip ourselves like it was a night dive was what was shocking to me (besides the cold water taking your breath away).

It was pretty incredible to think I was diving in a cave that was over 33 million years old. No matter what kind of dive it is, I pretty much just love blowing my bubbles. If you aren’t a diver though, you can bring some snorkel gear and just relax in the cool waters as well.

Other Amenities Available at Devil’s Den

I would make sure to head there early, as it can get quite crowded with the Dive schools and tourists headed in. You have to reserve a time slot in order to go, and they do have picnic tables available to lay your stuff on. No one will steal your belongings, but they do have lockers available. There is also a heated swimming pool if you have kiddos, 2 large makeshift changing areas and showers with bathrooms. There is an area to wash off your dive gear if needed, gear rental is available for all shapes and sizes in their office. There are more than thirty picnic tables, 5 cabanas, and assorted lawn games if you wanted to bring your family and make a weekend of it.

Get Some Authentic Southern Food in Florida

Searching on Yelp, we scrolled through some of the best restaurants near Devil’s Den. Still tired from my Red Eye, and being hungry makes me a bit grouchy – so finding some good Southern Comfort food was exactly what my taste buds were looking for. We settled on the Ivy House in Williston. 

This quaint, homey restaurant appeared to be quite popular with the locals which was not surprising once we sat down and looked at the menu. We chose to go with the Cajun Shrimp, Fried Green Tomatoes and some Hush puppies. It was the perfect blend of savory, with a little spice that made us feel warm from the inside out. 

After eating far too much, we headed back to the Hotel to check in in Crystal River Florida. My friend got a phone call from a buddy of his in the area that has a Pontoon boat and he invited us to come and relax with him and his family on the boat. 

To be honest I imagined some toothless guys, spitting their tobacco into the river wearing wife beater’s from last week, holding their fishing poles while the women sat there and listened to their pissing contest. This type of thinking tends to happen when I get tired. I was only running on 3 hours of sleep if I was lucky, and to be frank – I’m just not in my 20’s anymore and was getting cranky and tired. Yet I hate missing out, so cut the complaining and judgemental thoughts and went into auto pilot and just rolled with it. 

 

Pontoon Ride on the Homossassa River

The people we met up with were far from the chaw spittin, fly swingin people I had imagined in my head. While they are chain smokers, the amount they smoke was about how much kindness they all for each of us. Some of the most hospitable, funny, genuine people you will meet – and let me tell you – they gave all of us a run for our money. We started off just doing a leasuirely boat ride down the river, and then Katie (from The Traveling Spud) became so excited when we discovered that you can pull into pubs with your boat, buy a beer and then continue on down the river. 

Piper (the dog above) was so fluffy, and was wagging her tail like she was whacking weeds – I have never seen a dog get so excited about being on a boat. We passed by Crumps, a Tiki themed bar that is complete with huts, food trucks, white sandy beaches, night time shows and even a playground for the kids in the shape of a ship. 

Our host, Mike with his parent and friend Shelly , told us we were going to come back to this bar later as that is really when the party started. We continued to putter along the river, while Piper showed us all her fancy tricks. As the wide Homossassa River narrowed, we were told to keep an eye out for Manatees (which we were going to be swimming with the following day). In fact, we were told we were headed to the Manatee Pub….who knew these places actually existed. 

Mike’s Dad, Dick, told us that when we get to the Manatee Pub to make sure to hang onto our drinks because the Pub was damaged with the last hurricaine and the whole Pub is on a tilt. So if you don’t hang onto your drink, well, it may just slide right off the table into the water. 

Dick told us stories about what it is like to sit out a hurricaine, how the area changes after each one that comes through and many more stories for Clam hunting, diving, and so much more. (Watch the full experience on the Culture Trekking Channel). 

One such tale was of the Monkey bar, where this tiny island was built for a bar and a few monkeys were placed on it for the touristic draw. Well the pub went belly up, but the locals still take care of the monkeys, and have lovingly called this tiny island in the middle of the river – Monkey Island. The monkeys will give you quite the show in the mornings or evening when they are fed. 

We sat for a spell at the Manatee bar (on the right) while Mike, Shelly, Jan, and Dick told us more stories about the area – their son that did shipping, and the old lady who buys shrimp and ice cream for the fishermen that come into port and makes a mighty fine living doing it. 

We ended our night at Crump’s as promised listening to renditions of songs from the 80’s through the 2000’s. 

Swimming With Manatees in Crystal Rivers

The next morning we got up early to go and take a dip in Crystal River at Hunters Bay. This is where the Manatees swim, breed, and take refuge. We were taking a tour with Bird’s Underwater later that day and wanted to see if we could spot some manatees before all the crowds came. 

Hunters Bay can get quite crowded so be sure to get there early to get a good parking spot (there is a fee for parking – so make sure to bring some cash). 

We didn’t spot any manatees in Hunters Bay, but Birds Underwater took us up to the Three Sisters, and Jurassic Spring and we were able to see Mama’s with their babies. Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers is definitely something I will never forget. 

The Last Chapter in the Florida Getaway

We had spent most of the day in the Crystal Rivers area, swimming with Manatees, stopping by the Homossassa Wildlife Refuge – and headed to St. Petersburg Florida. We were dropping Katie off there as she wanted to explore the Dali Museum, take pictures of all the wonderful street art in the area. Unfortunately I had to head home the next day and wouldn’t be able to stay in the area – as my flight was leaving from Orlando. So we decided to catch the sunset and have some dinner in the area.

I had never heard of this place in my life, so didn’t think it would be anything special to photograph or remember— but I was entirely wrong. We raced the sunset to the beach. We pulled into the parking and walking onto this beach was like I was transported to the beaches on Grand Cayman Islands. The sand was perfectly white and clean, as the sun touched the water on the horizon all of the movement on the beach slowed to a stop – there was a peaceful quiet and serene feeling that descended upon everyone there and stayed with us as we all soaked in the sacrament of the sun setting on another wonderful day with friends. 

 

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How to Cope With Loneliness While Solo Traveling

How to Cope With Loneliness While Solo Traveling

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Anyone who says they have never been lonely while solo traveling is lying or they just don’t need that type of human connection. It can be hard to push those internal boundaries and make those connection with people in other countries, because somehow we still have that Highschool feeling of ‘needing to fit in’. So here are a few ways that I have found help me connect with others while I’m traveling and avoid that looming loneliness that seems to haunt me personally.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
Making friends with Omar in Cascades de Akchour in Morocco

Have a Plan

When you are traveling, have a plan in mind of where you would like to go – things you would like to see. While some people like to just let the wind direct their travels, having a plan gives you foresight so that you can invite other people to join you.

This hasn’t always worked for me, but it has allowed me to start a conversation with people that may not know anything about the location or activity you plan on seeing/doing.

The other part of this step, is that if you have a plan laid out – even if you can’t find a temporary travel buddy; your schedule will be full and you won’t have time to worry about being lonely.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
Young man passing out doughnuts to tourists in Austin – just to have a conversation

Connect through Tours or Viz Eats

I have grown to love Airbnb experiences! The activities they have are typically done by locals, who are a lot more affordable. They know all the back alleys and shortcuts to the best places in town, and are far more relaxed about timing and sharing their knowledge. They will also know where the locals’ hangout, where the best bars or places to meet people are which is another way to get an authentic experience while at your travel destination.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
This girl tied my headscarf for me, I talked to her for awhile about her life, bought one of her necklaces and she followed me around all day giving me ideas on pictures I could take. Even dusted me off. Making friends abroad isn’t hard, you just have to be open to it.

VizEats is another one I am going to be trying soon. I thought this idea was so spectacular! This app lets you pick a time and date to have a traditional dinner with a local! Some of the hosts will teach you how to cook, and have other travelers willing and wanting to connect in the same group. The only downside is, the host has to approve your attendence. The first time I tried, I mentioned I had a camera and wanted to film the experience and I don’t think it was appreciated. So keep that in mind, but what an amazing experience to be able to ask how life is like, where the best places to go are, and where to get produce for the meal (and all subsequent meals). Really excited to see if I can try this for my next trip.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
Started taking photos of the guy taking photos of me, and even though we didn’t speak the language – it was the small human interaction of being able to put a smile on his face that put a smile on mine.

Sit down and Observe –

It makes others feel uncomfortable when someone is sitting at a table alone in a crowded place. Observe the space around you, imagine the lives of those you observe. Eventually someone will make eye contact and give you a empathetic smile, and that will be your ‘in’ for a conversation with them. I have made so many friends by just being confident enough to sit alone.

Sometimes we feel lonely, or sad, and want to have or feel that human connection but don’t really feel like carrying on a conversation. Just going and doing some people watching in a public space is a great way to do this. You might even have a kindred spirit sit next to you and have a leisurely conversation. The possibilities are endless if you just take the time, to take your time while traveling.

Be prepared to put your plan aside

This is something I struggle with, but have started to set aside one day of my travel to do what the locals recommend – to go to that place my tour guide recommended. When I was in Amsterdam in November for my Birthday, I was so bummed out because the weather was so terrible it was going to be difficult to walk around the city and not destroy my camera gear from the rain.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
Walking through a labyrinth of sand in at Face-rock wayside beach in Oregon – called Circles in the Sand is an activity dedicated to bringing people together to have a meditative experience. One of the best happy accidents I have come across in my travels.

I Googled ‘things to see in the Netherlands’ and Castle De Haar popped up on my feed in one of those small picture boxes. It was about a 45 minute bus ride through the country, and walking onto the castle grounds made me feel like I was walking into a Fairytale. If I had not left enough time to explore options in Amsterdam while there, I would have never seen this fascinating place. So my tip to you, is to take your time, and be prepared to set aside your intricate plans to take one day where you can be a spontaneous explorer to the unique destinations suggested to you by Google or the locals. Trust me, you won’t be bored, and won’t regret it.

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
Friends I made while sailing in Seattle for the first time

Try a new activity

I was told I was too fat to go Scuba Diving, but I have the type of personality that if someone tells me what my limitations are- I have to blow that blockade to smitherines. So I got my certification for Scuba diving, and made some wonderful friends along the way. I also found a tremendous amount of healing when I realized that diving helps people with PTSD.

When I lived in Las Vegas, I had a thought of ‘it would be fun to go rock climbing’. So I bought a harness, and some rock climbing shoes and put the sticker from my climbing shoes on my bumper. A week later, I had a note left on my car from a girl (Bree) that was looking for a chill climbing partner and we became fast friends. I ended up going to Joshua Tree with her and Sheri Keller, who I will be visiting in Guatemala in a few months to do a video about how she has created a business there that helps children be able to go to school and not have to work. Bree also arranged for me to stay with her parents in Dallas when I moved there, and set me up with another dear friend Faryn (from Get Fit with Faryn).

How to cope with loneliness while solo traveling
My first ocean dive with my buddy James, I became fast friends with him and his wife Denise – lovely people, whom I would have never met had I not taken up diving.

By just trying one activity, I have made countless friends, found personal healing, and created this beautiful network of people from across the world. So when I tell you to go out and try something new, even if it is entirely uncomfortable – the rewards of having that type of courage to do so will come back ten-fold!

No Pity Party of One Here!

I hope these examples and suggestions give you a little peace when trying to go out into the world and not be afraid of traveling solo. Yes you will feel sad when you see beautiful things and don’t have friends from home to share those things with. Yet, when you truly see that there are people all over the world who might be just as lonely as you; it opens the door of being able to reach them and create friendships that will last a lifetime. Don’t have a pity part of one, have a party with anyone you meet! When you have self-confidence, a big smile, and mischevious eyes — the language of enthusiasm and joy can bridge any gap of awkwardness or cultural barriers.

If you have any suggestions on how to combat lonliness while solo traveling please leave them in the comments below.

Happy Travels, Happy Tales and see YOU on the flip side 😉

Things to Look For When Renting a Car While Traveling

Things to Look For When Renting a Car While Traveling

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Driving in another country can be a scary thing when you are doing it for the first time, but when you are responsible for any damage that might happen while in that country…..makes it even more scary. My first time driving internationally was when I went to Scotland on my first Solo Trip. So here are a few things to look for when renting a car either at home or abroad.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Renting the Right Car for Your Skill Set

Stick vs Manual —- Large vs Small — Car vs Motorbike. These are all questions to consider when renting a car. In European countries, many of their cars are stick shift, and personally I do not know how to drive one well without grinding the gears to oblivion. In many North American countries, they opt for the manual transmission – so you need to look at which car is right for you and the availability of that particular brand of transmission in the country you will be visiting. For example, renting my car in Scotland – they only had four manual cars available for the company I chose. I had to rent the car several months in advance, because there was a festival going on the week I was there and happened to get the last manual transmission left.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

It may be a simple question – but a large vs small car for where you are traveling can make a huge difference. If you typically drive a compact car, and have 6 friends coming with you on your trip that requires a large suburban/van – your going to have a difficult time adjusting to the maneuverability and inability to see the surrounding cars/area when turning, backing up etc…

There are some countries and even cities where having a motorbike vs a car is more practicle to get around traffic and find parking. If you aren’t conifdent in your motorbike skills though, get a car to have the added protection. They are called donor cycles for a reason my friends, especially in the USA it is hard for cars to see motorbikes on our huge roads- not like in Europe.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Look at Mileage Limitations

This was very important for me when I was in Scotland, as I was planning a road trip up to Culloden, near inverness, then to Dunrobin Castle, and up to John O’Groats and back down the NC500 to Edinburgh. It was a lot of driving time, and also a lot of miles on the car. It was important to find a car company that allowed unlimited miles. Some companies charged you after going over a certain amount of miles, which would have turned out to be an even bigger bill when I returned the car. So save yourself the extra bill and make sure your rental car has unlimited miles on it.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Look at Gas requirements

Most companies require you to return your rental car with a full tank of gas. They will offer to have you fill up the car at their station, but this is just another way to put some extra change in their pockets. Be sure to fill up your car before you bring it back.

The next question I would ask is, how common are gas stations between the locations you are traveling. Here in the United States, you can drive for several hours without seeing a single gas station (or sometimes a town). If you are in a snowstorm, or a hot and humid environment – the extreme weather can be life threatening. So be sure to notate how far each gas station is. When I go on road trips, I always make sure to have a quarter tank of gas as my emergency gas supply – that way, it gives me a few hours to find the nearest gas station.  

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Do They Require a Credit Card or a Deposit?

When I first went to rent a car on my own, it was such an exhilarating feeling— I felt I was finally an ADULT! They asked for a Credit Card, and I proudly told them I did not own one but had a Debit Card. With the straight (I call it a Bitch Lady) face, she told me there would need to be a temporary $400 with drawl from my account. WTH! Being young and dumb at the time, I quickly realized this would leave me with very little spending money or food money on my vacation. Luckily my friend was with me and had a credit card she put on file and no deposit was required.

Even though they didn’t charge her for the rental car, I felt completely mortified that I had to rely on someone else for this simple thing. So to all those rental car newbies, this is your fair warning.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

What are the extra fees they tack on?

The extra fees they tack onto the car rental can be quite absurd. They can charge you for extra mileage, a tank that isn’t quite full, picking up and dropping off at different locations. There are even extra fees for picking up your car at the airport vs within the town. 

The initial price of your car rental may beat the competitors, but they will make up for it when you go to pick up your vehicle at their desk. This is why I like to call the company and ask them, or email them and have them state what the fees I should expect to see on my bill upon check out. Then I can print out what they said, and show it to the desk if they try to charge me for something that was not mentioned beforehand.

The fact is, they are able to get you with those hidden fees when your standing at their desk, in a foreign country or state – all other cars are rented/leased and you have no choice but to proceed with your rental car.

If you do want to take the risk with the seemingly cheaper options, a good rule of thumb is to add about $300 to any rental car fee. This will cover any additional fees or deposits that they require.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Shop Around For Rental Car Insurance

Not all healthcare is created equal, and neither are rental car insurances. Getting the insurance from the rental car company might seem like a good, and convenient option at the time – but it is likely going to cost you your life savings. When we rented a car in Scotland, they tacked on another $400 to our bill for insurance purposes. The thing is, I got home, called my insurance company at home and they covered rental car insurance internationally….. this was very frustrating for me.

I also found out later, that because so many rental car companies require a credit card; the credit card companies have started offering rental car insurance as well.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Take a video or photo of any Damage on the car prior to leaving the Rental Company

This is imperative, because I have heard horror stories of rental companies claiming damage to the car that present before it left the lot and my friends were stuck with the bill. My suggestion would be to take a video, or photo of the person who checked you out; along with any photo/video or damages present inside or outside the car.

Take a photo of the miles driven before and after, and ensure the correct mileage is written down before leaving the lot. That way they can’t tell you that you drove more miles that you actually drove, and will avoid the extra fee.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

What Are the Restrictions For the Car?

It is a good rule of thumb to not go off roading with your rental car, unless it explicitly says you are allowed to do so. If you are in Hawaii on the Road to Hana and a portion of the road is not paved – you go a little too far over the edge and the car slides off the road. What about wanting to have a beach party, or drive onto a grassy area because there is no parking. Your car gets stuck, an axle breaks or any other number of horrible situations – most car rental insurances will not cover any damage to the vehicles in these particular situations.

Be careful where you drive your car, and take a careful look at your itinerary and what the rental insurance covers. There is nothing worse than having to pay out of pocket, especially in foreign currency for damages to a car.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Can you cross the border with their rental car?

If you are planning a road trip across Europe, and want to go to more of the off the beaten path places – is the car rental company able to accept the car in a different country? The answer I have typically encountered is a resounding no.

While there are buses, trains, and other quick transit for your backpacking needs through Europe – some countries do not have as reliable of transporation. So be sure to know the rules when crossing borders. A cheaper option might be to hire a guide, like I did in Morocco – where we were able to go to places the large buses just can’t go- and take his car off road.

Things To Look For When Renting A Car

Will it fit you and your luggage?

While the compact cars are fabulous on the budget, the car you rent may not be the best one for you and your luggage – especially in Europe. So make sure you know exactly what type of car your will be driving, and if it will fit your required luggage.

Bring your own extras

While it is convinvient to just utilize what the Rental company has as far as the ‘extras’ there are a few other things I would suggest bringing with you. Firstly bring your own music. There is only so far you can travel away from a large city until you lose music. Most cars are equipped with usb ports, and even third world countries have radio where you can plug in some of those old school transmitters for your phone. Next, I would bring your own gps. MOST of the time your phone can be a good guide, but when I was in Scotland it was nice to have two options because sometimes you lose signal in between mountians or in the really rural communities and need the satellite gps as backup.

Even at home I forget to bring sunglasses, when your driving in a new country (or even on the ‘wrong side’ of the road) it is stressful! So bring sunglasses to protect from the deadly glare. Some friends of mine have suggested getting an electronic toll pass rental. This is not just true for the toll roads, but also having one for trams and buses – many in Europe are electronic & very easy to recharge rather than getting cash from an ATM that can have a service fee to buy multiple tickets.

Find your perfect Vacation Vehicle

Europa Car is the one that I tend to use, while it is associated with an Affiliate link – and they have some hidden fees. They really were kind to me both of the instances I rented a car from them in Scotland.

There are a lot of little tidbits in this article, but after experiencing what it is like to rent a car at home and abroad I feel these guidelines have helped keep me safe and save money.

If you have any tips on what to look for when renting a car, feel free to add them in the comment section below. Happy Travels Friends!

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers as of 2019

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers as of 2019

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Won’t I get lonely? What happens if I get lost? I can’t afford it. These are all common questions and concerns Solo Travelers have for me since I started Culture Trekking. While I could explain and argue these and many more, the bottom line is that you need to first choose a destination that fits your concerns. So here are, what I consider to be, the Best Destinations for Solo Travelers in 2019.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Loch Ness

Scotland

This is by far one of my favorite countries, and the one I recommend to first time solo travelers- especially female solo travelers. It introduces you in a gentle way to a different transportation system than most Americans are used to. It is a smaller airport to fly lying (Edinburgh), English is the predominant language, and everything is so close in proximity in the center of the city that it is easy to walk everywhere. Entrance fees to the major historical sites are cheap, and the entire place is steeped in ancient history with plenty of Folklore, ghost stories, and Scottish Heroes to keep you entertained.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Sukhothai historical park, the old town of Thailand in 800 year ago

Thailand

This is a great location for those wanting to experience beaches, culture, great food, diving, and interaction with other travelers. The prices here are super cheap and you can get fairly good rates on flights because of its increasing popularity. The one drawback to this country is just how touristic it has become, the beaches are often over-crowded. On the other hand, it gives you plenty of opportunity to meet loads of internationals. If you go during the Thai-Laos New Year, you may just find yourself in the midst of a massive water-fight.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Reynisfjara Beach, Halsanefhellir, Iceland.

Iceland

Iceland was deemed as one of the safest countries in the world. Iceland’s popularity is growing though, ever since Game of Thrones was filmed here, and the photos of the Blue Pool emerged it has become a frequented location by travelers from around the world. While winters can be harsh, the Northern Lights are quite beautiful; the summers are filled with lush landscapes and plenty of Instagram worthy moments. Flight costs are very cheap, but once you arrive, the costs of food, gas, lodging, and entrance fees can really put a dent in the budget. Still, for the outdoor enthusiasts, it is a fantastic location for all those Solo Travelers.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Yes, Cabo is always beautiful no matter what time of year you go – marine life, parties, and plenty of beach and sunsets for all. There are scams that go on here, but if you reserve your adventures and hotels beforehand you should be just fine. Try to stay at an all-inclusive resort so that you don’t have to fight for your time on the beach with everyone else. There are several hotels like this in the area. My favorite thing is to be there during whale watching season, or when the sand falls are active. Diving here is an incredible experience if you are a first time diver.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Mykonos

Mykonos, Greece

This is also a party location, but for those who like to meet people- interact with the culture and yet also have a relaxing evening with beautiful sunset views then a visit to Mykonos is where you need to go for your first Solo Trip. It is a little more difficult to get around, and get to the Island – but due to the amount of tourists wanting to visit the Islands this has greatly improved over the years. There is plenty to see and do on Mykonos – it is an outdoor paradise with views that are unparalleled.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Oman

Oman

Get an authentic taste of the middle east by visiting this beautiful country. With teal waters, contrasting red/brown surrounding sands and mountains it is hard to not relax in this beautiful country. The people here are warm, inviting, and cater to the tourists. The traditional Bedouin values and warm hospitality will leave any traveler feeling refreshed by the new experiences and send you home with an infectious travel bug. It is a perfect destination for solo travelers.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

Tunisia

This location can be surprising for some to see on this list, but after hearing so many of my Scottish friends traveling to Tunisia – I had to include it. With the contrasting Roman mosaics to Islamic art, you will be visually enthralled by all things contained in this hidden gem of a country.

Bask on the beaches of this Mediterranean country and let the warm breeze wash over you and carry scents from nearby markets of Jasmine. Not only are there beaches, but beautifully forested coastlines, and a contrasting short mile away are the Sahara deserts. While some may caution against visiting this country, there are many Scottish Nationals who are choosing to retire here. Be cautious, but also take advantage of all this vastly under-rated country has to offer.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

This is an oldie but goodie, because of how many tourists visit Rome – it is a perfect destination for solo travelers. Transportation in Italy is some of the best in Europe – making it very easy to find your way up and down the coast of this beautiful country. After seeing some of the unique places in Rome, be sure to head to the Amalfi Coast and truly feel like royalty surrounded by all things bright and beautiful.

The prices are reasonable for accommodation because of all the competition, and entrance fees are moderate but reasonable. There is plenty to see and experience even for those on a budget. It does get crowded, but this city is so friendly – especially if you like to buy dinner for others- food is life in Italy. So Eat, Pray and maybe you’ll find some Italian Lover who will want to whisk you away on an Under the Tuscan Sun Adventure.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Kepler Track, New Zealand

New Zealand

New Zealand is an outdoor lover’s Paradise – with so many different activities along each coastline and atop the highest mountain peaks. From glo worm caves, diving, and even a hobbit town – you will come home with a new found love for traveling solo and plenty of stories to make your friends green with envy. Prices here can be a little steep, but the increased budget vs quality experience are well worth the extra effort to get there.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
The Netherlands

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Learn how a city runs green with an urban biking system so complex they even have their own traffic lights for the bike lanes. There is so much nautical history, World War II history, and heroes like Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank – all these are combined beautifully against the backdrop of the canals of the Netherlands.

Traveling through Amsterdam and the whole of the Netherlands was such a soul healing experience for me, even as a solo traveler. The raw beauty, structured and efficient way these people live makes traveling through this country effortless and a perfect experience for those new to solo traveling.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Costa Rica

Costa Rica

For all those beach bums, that don’t want to get too stressed with the requirements of traveling, Costa Rica is a perfect destination. Many of my Solo Female Traveler friends have Costa Rica saved as a favorite getaway. It is also home to one of the last remaining Cloud Forests in the world. Soon these unique environments will be extinct due to global warming.

Even if the beach is not for you, traipsing through the jungles, bungee jumping, rappelling down waterfalls or experiencing a zip line over the jungle canopies is a must. The diving available in this area is unparalleled and also considered a UNESCO heritage dive site. Many of the locals also speak English so it is very easy to make your way around. PURA VIDA!

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Las Vegas Red Rock National Park

Las Vegas

Hear me out on this one – as someone who lived in Las Vegas Metro area for over six years I would argue that this is a great place for Solo Travelers. It has something for everyone. Watch a few shows on the strip, I recommend the Cirque Du Soliel shows. Then head out to Red Rock National Park to get some hiking or rock climbing in with a guided tour from a local. At night go to the container park, and grab some fabulous food at Yardhouse – one of my favorite restaurants with plenty of drinks to choose from. If the container park isn’t your thing, there are plenty of unique things to do in Las Vegas you can choose from that are great experiences for Solo Travelers. The best part about Las Vegas is that once you get off the strip, most of the locals are transplants so many of them are warm, inviting, and inclusive – so it is easier to act like yourself.

Best Destinations for Solo Travelers
Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

This is the Italy of the South, but could you believe it is even more passionate? Pick any time of day and you will find something to do here as a Solo Traveler – from Tango Shows, to Memorial Parks, Recoleta Cemetary, and a Rose Garden full of concerts, paddle boats, feeding ducks and a poet garden you will never get bored. If you do, you can drop by the converted Opera House turned Library – find a book and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Many of the locals speak a little English and are so open and kind it won’t be hard to find and make friends quickly while there.

Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone

There are plenty of people who ask me ‘isn’t it hard traveling alone?’ I almost question myself for not feeling lonely on the majority of my trips. While there are admittedly times where I feel lonely that I don’t have someone to share the experience with. I wouldn’t trade the experiences and people I have met along the way for anything in this world.

So push those internal boundaries we all create for ourselves, and buy your first ticket for the year. Explore all the possibilities and friendships this world holds for you even as a solo travele.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Reading Time: 11 minutes

I met Jen and Ed from Coleman Concierge at a travel conference in 2017. We hit it off pretty well, considering she had lived in Utah for a while (my home state). They invited me down to Orlando and proposed we do some diving and go swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida. They had done some kayaking in Silver Springs where Manatees also visit, and raved about their experience. I decided to take them up on their offer, and promptly bought my ticket to Florida.

Knowing that Manatees are often killed by boats passing by, and they were slow and fat was about the extent of my knowledge about Manatees and their world. Luckily we were able to pair up with Birds Underwater for a tour and my knowledge about Manatees exponentially increased from one afternoon with them. So come take a virtual tour with me, Jen & Ed, and our other friend Katie from The Traveling Spud as we learn just how to ethically interact with Manatees.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida
From left to right: Emily, Jen, Ed, Janiel (me), Katie, Joe

The History of Hunters Springs Park

This area was previously owned by a single individual, who upon her death gifted the area to the city as long as it remained free to the public. It was utilized by the surrounding community for many years, with manatees competing for the safety and warmth of the springs.

Over time the area was inhabited by vagrants and unwanted guests that helped contribute to the death and disuse of the property. The city was able to buy an abandoned lot, gave the park a facelift with park benches, a beach, and a playground. This facelift cost around 2.2 million. In order to help maintain the new parking, and the kayak launch there is a minimal charge – but the park itself if free.

Please do not make your own parking spaces, only park in designated areas. Be sure to get there early to get a good parking space.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Starting the Manatee Tour with Important Safety instructions & Ethical Interaction

While it isn’t exactly illegal to see the manatees on your own, I wouldn’t really suggest it. I thought I knew how to responsibly interact with marine life, but I learned so much by taking a guided tour.

My friends and I decided to take a tour with Bird’s Underwater, who are very dedicated to maintaining an environment that is safe for the animals. It was nice to see they were talking about the animals like they would family members they were protecting.

When you arrive, you check in at the front desk to sign a waiver and watch the instructional video on ethical interaction with manatees. The video explains how you shouldn’t dive towards the manatee, reach towards the manatee, pinch them, attempt to ride them, dive near them, wear a wetsuit, don’t kick just use your arms and loads of other things.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

I know it sounds like a lot, but manatees are such shy and gentle creatures actions you take are akin to jumping on their bed while they are sleeping. One individual was kicking too much, and ended up kicking a manatee in the face on accident. He got scared, and scared all the other manatees out of the area.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Other general rules that those who were not on a guided tour didn’t quite understand are: don’t hover or corner them, stay a body length away, do not enter the area that says ‘manatee resting zone’, do not talk through the snorkel tube or make cooing noises, be mindful of people near you so everyone has a turn to observe quietly without getting kicked in the face, don’t use underwater lights as the manatees don’t have eyelids and it can blind them.

Do not attempt to feed manatees, this can decrease their fear of humans which can lead to more manatee deaths from boating propellers as they will learn to associate the bottom of the boat with food. Last but not least, don’t walk on the river bed, it is silt and if everyone walks or kicks vigorously it makes the water foggy and is more difficult to get good photos/video of the manatees.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Helpful tips: Use a noodle to help float so you don’t have to kick, Gopro beeping doesn’t bother them, be calm and quiet and they will come up to you, manatees love to look at themselves in the GoPro Dome, they are also fascinated with colorful toenails. If the manatee does approach you, always keep your elbow bent and palm open – if not and someone snaps a photo of you then you will be sent a fine of up to $10,000. There are several fish and wildlife patrols in the Crystal rivers area to enforce these rules.

This is the only place in the world that you can legally swim with manatees, so please try to be respectful and not ruin this opportunity for everyone else.

Bird's Underwater on board

What Birds Underwater has OnBoard

Birds Underwater outfitted us with snorkel gear, wetsuits, and flotation devices (foam noodles). They do a guided tour up the stream, making sure we stayed together as a group and lead you to the areas where the manatees are. Onboard they have hot drinks: coffee, tea, hot cocoa, granola bars etc… (if there is a good guide) available to you free of charge.

There are typically 12 people on the tour which is a little tight when your all there with your gear on and rucksacks and such. There really isn’t a dry area on the boat, so be sure to either have a dry bag or leave your things in a locker in the store. Once your in the boat, pay attention to instructions and stay seated when the engine is in gear (this is for insurance reasons).

When is the Best Time To See Manatees in Florida?

Out of all the companies we looked at in the Crytal River area, Birds Underwater seem to be the best on all spectrums for a safe, ethical, and flexible interaction with the manatees. They are one of the only tour group that start a tour at 630am, which puts you out in the rivers before all the silt is stirred up and the manatees are scared away. It also allows you to get up to the Three Sisters area (where many manatees go to rest) before the tide comes in and boats are no longer able to get under the bridge.

The best time to go is when there is cold front coming through Florida from November through February. When the ocean waters get cold, and the Manatees search out warmer waters. This can be really hard to time perfectly, but if all else fails, Birds Underwater also has Diving excursions available.

A Short Manatee Biology Biography

Manatees have seal like bodies that taper into a flat, large rear fin; with two forefins that also aid with maneuverability. Each forefin has 2-3 nails on each.

The Manatees closest relative is actually the elephant, even though they are commonly referred to as ‘sea cows’. (Sea cows were hunted to extinction as of 1741). There are three different types: West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, and the ones in Crystal Rivers area are mostly West Indies Manatees.

These mammals migrate mostly around the united states during the summer months have been tracked from Texas all the way up to Massachusetts. Despite popular belief, Manatees are pure muscle, which is why they have to seek those warmer waters during the winter months.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Manatees eat mostly aquatic plants and must surface to breathe air. They typically rest submerged at the bottom of the river bed or just below the surface of the water. When they surface, every 3-5 minutes, for breath, it is a subconscious action that puts them at risk for boat propeller injuries. When they are migrating, they expend a great deal of energy and can surface every 30 seconds. Despite being made of pure muscle, Manatees can only swim up to 20 miles per hour, which made them perfect targets for hunters.

Swimming with the Manatees in Crystal Rivers

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

After learning all of this information about Manatees, I found myself feeling protective of these unique and gentle creatures. My new found respect for them, allowed me to have a much better experience and appreciate just how lucky we are to have these types of interactions when a few of its marine cousins are already extinct.

Getting into the water, I was very careful to not kick my legs around. Tried to relax into the floating orange noodle I had been given and followed the guide up the river to where the manatees were resting.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

When I fist saw the manatee, it was almost as if it wasn’t real. This giant fish, that looked like a pug nose on a walrus body was one of the cutest things I have seen. Especially since it seems they love to push their nose into the silt, or into other object when they are resting peacefully. It endeared me to them in a way, as I can’t get to sleep until my mouth is covered.

I quickly became annoyed at other people who refused to follow the rules, or even the young man who dove down right in front of the manatee with his GoPro to get a picture up close. I was grateful my guide warned us about this, and just told us to worry about how we interact and notify a guide if a manatee is encroached upon or touched and the park rangers would take care of it.

I just calmly floated, enjoying the experience and being able to witness this incredible creature tucked into its river bed sleeping. The manatee started to float towards the surface, and watching it come up for air was like watching a ballarina dance gracefully across the stage – be lifted by her partner and the last stretch to the air above before descending to the floor below. Watching this incredibly large creature be so graceful truly gave me chills.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Eventually the manatee swam away because of a group that came in squealing, splashing and talking underwater. I was glad I was able to get a video before they came in and be able to be witness to something so intimately impactful to me.

After re-boarding the boat, slurping down some warm hot-cocoa and traveling to Jurassic Springs – we were able to see a Mama Manatee and her baby. Our guide told us to listen for the squeaks from the baby to its mama, and I was able to capture this on camera. How sweet the playfulness of the baby, and mindfulness of the Mama to her baby was. Our guide told us about how there are different squeaks for different states that the baby manatee can be in, and demonstrated those for us. This baby manatee was happily playful and wanting to explore a little more.

swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

After quite some time observing this sweet interaction between the two, we all headed back to our boat. While waiting to reboard, our guide called out ‘hey, there are a few coming right towards you’. I ducked my head underwater again, and the water in this area was quite murky so it was difficult to see. Then the massive Mama and her baby manatee swam within two feet of me, seemingly out of nowhere – it startled me quite a bit. It hit me, that even when looking for the manatees, it is still easy to miss them when they are literally right under you. This is the very reason it is so important to use boats without propellers in these high manatee traffic areas, and to be mindful of marine life – it would be so easy to kill a mama and leave her baby to fend for itself. That is one desperate squeaking I hope I never have to hear or witness in my life.

Other Activities Near Crystal Rivers

There are quite a few activities to do near Crystal Rivers once you finish your manatee tour. Birds Underwater have Kayaks you can rent to explore the place, Stand up paddle boards as well. If you are feeling more adventurous take a drift dive tour down Rainbow River where you will see a near natural environment with plenty of fresh water fish. Maybe you would like to take your diving a little deeper out in King’s Bay where the once barren area is showing signs of the bass, crustaceans, and other marine life that should be inhabiting one of the largest remaining saltmarsh estuary systems left along the US gulf coast.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Take a Tour with Birds Underwater

If you would like a similar experience to mine, be sure to head to Crystal Rivers in Florida and visit Birds Underwater for a group tour or private tour.

For my fellow Scuba Divers, Birds Underwater also offers a full-service scuba diving training and is a Scubapro Platinum dealership (one of only 23 Platinum facilities in the Eastern US). They offer dive training at all levels. Bill “Bird” Oestreich is the only cave diving, Tri – Mix, and Megalodon Re-breather diving instructor in Crystal River, FL, with over 25 years of technical diving, dive training, and dive exploration conducted in over 5 countries.  I will personally be revisiting this area, as I am attempting to be a Master Diver in the near future and would love to gain some of his invaluable knowledge. (Don’t tell, but I feel like I was secretly a mermaid in my past life).

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

How to Get to Crystal Rivers in Florida

It is 1.5 hours from Orlando if you are driving by car, and car rentals are around $13-$18/day for most rental companies.

If you don’t want to drive, or rent a car; then try to take the bus. This will take a considerable amount of time, but you can take a few different bus lines to Crystal Rivers. The Crystal Rivers bus line will cost around $84 round trip, and take around 4.5 hours to get there. What is hidden within the route, is a stop in Tampa Florida where you could grab lunch and maybe stay overnight before heading to Crystal Rivers.

Jen and Ed (locals) said that the beaches on the west coast of Florida are much better than the East coast. Tampa is also close to St Petersburg Florida which is full of beautiful street art, beaches and relaxed environment.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

What to Pack for Swimming with Manatees and What NOT to Pack

Selfie Sticks are illegal when swimming with Manatees. Please don’t bring them and ruin the privilege of swimming with these animals.

Wet suit and quality snorkel are a must, no matter what time of year you visit. I personally did not think I required a wetsuit, but was so grateful I ended up wearing my shorty wetsuit once I got in the water.

GoPro Diving Stabilizer or a Cannon with an underwater housing are what those in my group used and feel that we came out with some great shots. As I mentioned before, bringing a GoPro Dome was recommended by our guides – but with all the silt it may get dirty quite quickly.

Other items to pack: quality and eco-friendly defog, pink filter, snorkel, body glide (helps get the wetsuit on and off), microfiber towel, dry bag.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Rivers Florida

Where to Stay in Crystal Rivers

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