Many people, including many Floridians, believe there are two Floridas. First, there is the southern part of the state known for its beaches, the Everglades, and an identity closer in some regards to Latin America than most of the United States. Then there is the northern and panhandle parts of the state, which share an identity with the rest of the Deep South, strong farming traditions, and more pine trees than palm trees by far. This division is thankfully not a political one nor one that bears conceit, but all the same, somewhere around Orlando and Tampa, Florida changes in character, and that change gets more nuanced and pronounced the closer you get to Miami.
Citrus County is in that northern part of Florida but not all that far north of Tampa and on the cusp of beginnings and endings of many aspects of Florida, which makes it a fascinating place. The county was created out of part of Hernando County in 1887 and gained its name for being at that time one of Florida’s largest areas of citrus production. At this point in Florida’s still young history, counties such as Marion and Alachua—both north of Citrus County—were also important producers of citrus, and the commonly-held view was that most citrus trees were hardy enough to be grown in this region.
But this belief soon changed in the most unfortunate of ways when an especially harsh freeze in the winter of 1894–1895 wiped out these groves. Many growers continued with citrus, but further freezes in the 1910’s proved citrus to be a poor crop for the area, and entire communities that grew up around citrus became ghost towns. Over the course of the twentieth century citrus kept moving south as areas considered viable for the crop were proven to have at least occasional severe freezes. Orange County, named for its once-crucial crop and the home of Orlando, up to the 1980’s was a vital citrus-growing region, but today you have to venture south of Orlando to find much commercial citrus, and the belt of counties from Polk on down to Hendry are responsible for most of Florida’s famed citrus production currently.
Since the fall-off of citrus as a crop, Citrus County has turned to other forms of agriculture including beef cattle and field crops but also has the fortune of being on the Gulf Coast with good waters for both commercial and recreational fishing. Those same waters were key in establishing one of three nuclear power plants in the state, though the reactor at Crystal River’s power plant is now shut down and slated for full closure. The most-promising industry now, however, is tourism, with fishing and exploration of the springs, rivers, and Gulf itself the key attraction.
And in this Citrus County has an ace up its sleeve that other Gulf Coast counties can’t match: its warm waters and geographic location attract swarms of the gentle aquatic mammals known as manatees, especially in the winter, and people flock to boat cruises to see these unique and lovable creatures in the wild. While manatees can be found in many parts of Florida, Citrus County seems to be the best place to ensure seeing one, and the specific allure of the manatees has allowed the county to attract people for diving and other water-related pastimes as well. The natural attributes Citrus County provides is coupled with the fact that, while it has the necessary outfitters, motels, and tours for visitors, the county is still very rural and therefore quite pristine. It is exactly the type of situation advocates of ecotourism claim as the ideal for a balance between stewardship of nature and viable tourism.
The county seat of Citrus County, Inverness, sits just like its Scottish namesake in the midst of lakes and, although inland, has an affinity for water of its own. The town is small and, for a Florida city, compact, displaying an astute sense of planning in its early years that resulted in a courthouse square literally in the center of town. The old courthouse now is a museum and visitors’ center as a larger, more modern facility was needed for trials, but it remains the visual focal point of the city nonetheless.
Surrounding the courthouse are a variety of shops, restaurants, and pubs all building a necessary and traditional sense of community. There is a sense of Mayberry here, of a Norman Rockwell painting of a town: there are several local ice cream parlors, including the Ice Cream Doctor which is located near the old courthouse and every bit what one would expect of a small-town ice cream shop with kids’ bikes parked outside the front door on lazy afternoons and an abundance of flavors both conventional and not so. The staff is friendly and acts as if they’ve known you all your life even if it’s your first visit.
Around the corner from the recently-restored historic Valerie Theatre—an attraction in its own right—is a sublime, quiet, and slightly posh place known as the Deco Café which caters to lawyers and business folks during the lunch hour and on weekends offers up a fine dining experience at very reasonable prices for dinner. The cluster of restaurants and bars here create the type of community we hope our small cities have, with people moving from offices to these shared spaces during the day, couples coming out for a drink or dinner later at night. Italian restaurants and delis are very popular—I counted at least six independent Italian restaurants in town and perhaps there are even more. And in general prices seem lower everywhere in Inverness than in most of Florida—perhaps it’s the Scottish influence, but thrift seems to be a community value.
Citrus County isn’t just Inverness, though. Crystal River is the center of the ecotourism trade here and the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, hosting a beach and some very good seafood restaurants including Charlie’s Fish House, Dan’s Clam Stand, and, perhaps most unique of all, the Seafood Seller and Café, which is a locally-loved Cajun-inspired seafood restaurant located in, of all places, the rear of the regional shopping mall. The food is beyond phenomenal: classics like crawfish étouffée, catfish Louisianne, jambalaya, and authentic gumbo cooked perfectly. The humble interior wouldn’t suggest such a find, but happy customers don’t lie.
If Thai food is more appealing than seafood, Thai-Phoon surprises in its authenticity and high quality despite its location in a local strip-mall. As surprising a find as an outstanding Thai restaurant is a great Irish pub, but Burke’s of Ireland is just that, offering a plentitude of Irish and other beers, a warm and friendly atmosphere, and everything from a book club to live music to a 5K run with beer afterwards. And if it’s Shark Week, they have events to honor that, as well.
BMX bikes have become very popular with local youth—while BMX is big in much of America, it seems to be especially strong in Inverness, and you’ll see in the summer evening hours boys cruising the streets on these short bikes, popping tricks here and there. Several dive stores cater to the interest in SCUBA diving shared by visitors and locals alike, and tour operators offer cruises to see manatees or dolphins.
There are a number of Florida’s famed springs in Citrus County with some in the middle of rivers and other places that can only be accessed by kayak or canoe, but to see perhaps the most spectacular spring in the region one needs to travel just northward outside of Citrus County and into the southwestern corner of neighboring Marion County to Rainbow Springs State Park. This property has a long history. Having been known to Seminoles in the region, it began its applied life as a quarry, and remains of the quarry can still be seen. But the headspring of the Rainbow River always has delighted people, and the property was made into one of Florida’s first theme parks in 1930 and featured boat tours—including ones that functioned as submarines and allowed an underwater view of the springs and river—while imported exotic plants and manmade waterfalls transformed the landscape into something between Hawai’i and a fictional paradise. Now this property is in the hands of the Florida State Parks, and the parks service has reached a rather unique balance between returning the park to its natural state and retaining historic features such as these waterfalls, making it one of the most interesting and especially beautiful scenic areas in the entire state.
With the theme parks of Orlando and the beaches of both coasts, the tranquil waters and shores of Citrus County long were overlooked by all but a select few who were in the know, but that’s changing for the benefit of all with ecotourism—a resolution of stewardship and at the same time prudent use of the bountiful natural resources of the region.
See More Mike Walker Photos of Citrus County, Inverness, and Florida’s Gulf Frontier Here