Florida’s Secret Manatee Retreat

If Florida’s manatees could name their favorite winter resort, it might just be Blue Spring State Park.

When their home waters get too chilly, hundreds of the 1,000-plus-pound (more than 450 kg) creatures journey down the St. Johns River to the central Florida spring, where temperatures stay warm and fairly even year-round.

From afar, it can look as though Blue Spring has been filled with oblong gray boulders. But peer into the water, and you’ll see that these slow-moving aquatic mammals really do seem to treat their time here as a well-deserved vacation.

When they’re not lounging, watch them turn logs into toys, gnaw on palm fronds, and spin through the water doing barrel rolls.

Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, says he’s even seen a curious manatee approach an alligator (don’t worry–the manatee wasn’t harmed). “With that many manatees there, the odds of some really cute thing happening is quite high,” he says.

Rose insists you’ll fall in love. But you might also have your heart broken. While manatee numbers are improving in Florida, it’s not hard to spot propeller scars on some of their backs.

> For Foodies:

Just 30 minutes from Blue Spring State Park, you can take a dip in a spring yourself and have an unusual breakfast to boot.

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At De Leon Springs State Park, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant is true to its name, with some of the old gears still in place and a small exhibit on how sugar was once milled here.

The restaurant specializes in pour-your-own—pancakes, that is. Servers deliver pitchers of batter that diners cook themselves on built-in griddles at the tables.

This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.

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