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As a spring break getaway, we went camping with a couple of friends. One friend had been a tad obsessed with the idea of swimming with the manatees at Crystal River, so that was our first stop.

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We spent the night at an Encore RV park. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t get cold in Florida. Sure, it wasn’t snowing (though I did camp in snow once) and the temperature stayed in double digits, but with only layers of our tropical-weather clothes it was chilly. Really really chilly.

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Frankly, I wasn’t so sure about the whole swimming with manatees thing for a couple of reasons. A) Cold. The springs are in the low 70s (F) year-round, which might sound warm to cold-climate people, but I prefer swimming in bathwater temperatures. B) Nature. I’m not terribly convinced swimming with manatees is good for the manatees. A good tour might go a long way toward helping tourists understand the creatures and encouraging distance and safe interaction. We saw way too many bad tour operators, though, who encouraged people to approach and distress the manatees.

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And in all honestly, I mostly hung out, floating in my wetsuit, making as few movements as possible because I was cold and didn’t want to bump people or animals. There was one little manatee that came right up to me, though. Stared at me like I was a weird-ass sea creature and nudged me like my orange cat does. I scratched him on his belly a bit, which only seemed to make him want to follow me. They feel like wet, slimy elephants. The slime is algae and the algae-covered ones are manatees that don’t migrate out to the ocean in warmer weather. Which means my little manatee buddy has become adapted to the tourists and that’s likely why he approached me.

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The particular tour operator we went with turned out to be very good. He was very adamant about staying out of the sanctuary (something we noticed some other operators didn’t do). He also followed a pair of playing dolphins on our way back in so everyone had a chance to take pictures. For this, only our group tipped him. (Related: People, tip the tour operator. It doesn’t have to be much, but they usually aren’t getting a high wage and if they go out of their way for you, toss them a few extra dollars.)

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After the manatee tour, we headed northeast and stopped for lunch at a place on the river that, without Google, we’d have never found. Good food and a couple of vegetarian options, though vegan would be pushing our luck. (If I find the name of the place, I’ll come back and link to it.) Found it: Ike’s Old Florida Kitchen.

Then, we cut through Gainesville for air mattresses and a stop at The Devil’s Millhopper. If you’ve never been to the Millhopper, it’s worth a stop. The stairs are a great workout and the size of this ancient sinkhole is incredible. It’s also beautiful and a few degrees cooler than the city on hot days.

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From there, we drove to Ichetucknee Springs Campground where we spent two nights. That campground is great. Just terrific and I’d highly recommend it. In winter months, it’s managed by Victor and his wife and they’re super-helpful. He’ll deliver firewood to your site and drop you and your rental kayaks off at the state park for a lazy river float.

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The game room is old-fashioned goodness and the sites themselves are large enough and have plenty of trees so they feel semi-private. Oh, and HOT showers! Seriously, unlike the RV park, which ran out of hot water, this place had on-demand hot water. That, alone, makes them an awesome place to camp. (They accept cash only, but it’s worth the trip to the ATM.)

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