Dubbed the manatee capital of the world, Crystal River, just an hour’s drive north of Tampa, is one of the only places in the world where you can swim and snorkel alongside wild manatees.There I was, floating in the cold waters of Kings Bay, locking eyes with the 1,300 pound creature. It sounds a bit woo woo, but I swear there was a sense of peace that washed over me…a deep feeling of connection with nature, an unspoken understanding that passed between us. Swimming with manatees in Crystal River Florida is unbelievable. An amazing experience deserving of any enthusiast’s bucket list.

As a kid, I absolutely loved these “so-ugly-they’re cute” marine mammals. So, as an adult, when I learned that there was a chance to see them up close and personal, I had to check it out and share my manatee passion with my own kids. I packed up the two little ones and prepared myself for a few incredible days in Crystal River, Florida.

In terms of travel logistics, the best time to snorkel with manatees is from mid-November to March. It is during these months that these gentle giants migrate to the warm protected coves of Crystal River making it the perfect spot to observe them.

While there are many accommodation options in the area, we opted for Plantation on Crystal River. It’s a grand, family-friendly resort with amenities that the kids will love; a huge pool, bubbling jacuzzi, jumbo games of checkers, a fun splash pad and an on-site Adventure Center with guided manatee tours.

Our early morning snorkeling tour cost around $65 a person and was a two-minute walk from our hotel. We watched a short video about manatee etiquette, slipped into our wetsuits (a must since the water is chilly) and took a five-minute boat ride to Kings Bay’s.

One of the great things about tours offered at the Adventure Center is that there are no age restrictions. As long as an adult is present, kids of all ages can enjoy the boat ride and get in the water. All snorkeling gear and wet suits are provided but be sure to bring snacks, towels and warm clothes for the kids to change into. Toddlers are obviously too young to snorkel, but they can float in a life jacket beside these harmless herbivores.

My five-year-old animal-loving daughter was in heaven and delighted in seeing these beautiful creatures up close. She was able to touch them and, she claims that, one even smelled her toes.

Similarly, I was living out my childhood dreams dancing underwater with wild manatees. At first, I found the wetsuits to be awkwardly buoyant. After a while of floundering in the water, I realized that the best things to do is just relax and float. Once you’re calm, curious manatees will come up to you and boy do they come up close! I had one manatee in particular swim face-to-face with me, with only the pink plastic mask between us. They are such gentle giants. The experience so serene and special. Truly a bucket list item for anyone who has a fondness for manatees.

If you don’t know much about manatees. Here are a few fast facts:

They’re known as sea cows but manatees are actually related to elephants. They range in size from 8 to 13 feet and can weigh 1,300 lbs. Despite their size, these marine mammals are herbivores that eat sea grass and algae. They’re big, but they’re harmless. Manatees are considered a “threatened species” because they reproduce very slowly and trawling boats endanger these slow-moving mammals. When you get close to the manatees, you can see the scars left from boats propellers. Swimming with wild manatees made me appreciate how magical they are and made me want to protect them.

Sadly, we couldn’t bring a manatee home for the kids, but we did get a ton of manatee inspired souvenirs. For a little retail therapy, drive about five minutes to downtown Crystal River to check out Heritage Village. It’s a cluster of cool boutiques with local art, crafts, kids toys and every manatee-inspired souvenir imaginable.

Around the corner from Heritage Village, you’ll find an amazing play space called Creative Playground. With wooden climbing structures, rope bridges and slides. It was a huge hit with my kids.

For more manatee viewing (this time without getting wet), Three Sisters Springs wildlife refuge is a beautiful spot to check out. Buy a ticket at the information center, take the shuttle and within ten minutes you’ll find yourself at the refuge where you can see hundreds of manatees tucked away in warm protective coves. It’s a nice spot where the kids can run free, all while being somewhat wrangled within a flat fenced-in boardwalk.

Having worked up an appetite, we decided to check out Katch Twenty Two, a fine-dining restaurant in Lecanto, just a short drive away from Crystal River. The vibe was unpretentious, the space family-friendly and the food fabulous. The seafood risotto, piled high with lobster, shrimp, scallops, peas, parmesan and lemon butter crunch, was ahhhmazing. They also have a kids’ menu, so all macaroni and cheese palates are satisfied.

Another fun adventure, just a short drive from Crystal Springs, is a visit to River Safaris and Gulf Charters  in Homosassa, for an airboat tour. Skimming on the surface of the water, the airboat weaved down narrow marsh waterways past shrimp boats and historic homes. The kids squealed with delight as we cruised through backwaters and estuaries. It was fast, fun and very loud. It’s also a great chance to spot wildlife, like the elegant grey blue heron and iconic eagles soaring overhead. The tours also go by Monkey Island, a manmade island with howler monkey inhabitants. The kids loved seeing the mischievous monkey family and hearing the airboat captain’s stories.

After the boat ride, the kids will love spending time with River Safaris and Gulf Charters’ unusual pets. Sal, Mo, and Nella, three American alligators who live on property. There is a wooden platform where the kids can stand, overlooking the sunbathing “gaters” in their chain link fenced pen.

From airboats rides, to snorkeling with wild manatees, Crystal River is a great choice for families looking for an off-the-radar, eco-destination. A visit to this part of Florida is a chance to go beyond the state’s famous beaches and theme parks, to experience a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter with one of Florida’s most incredible creatures – the manatee.