Manatee Festival brings out the gentle in all of us
By JORGE SANCHEZ, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- The city's love affair with the gentle manatee continues its annual celebration this afternoon as the Florida Manatee Festival comes back for a second day.
Spread over a three-block area of downtown, with a side trip across U.S. 19 to Kings Bay, the Manatee Festival offers nature sightseeing boat tours, streets lined with fine arts and crafts and entertainment.
Also, if you come today, plan on skipping breakfast. The Manatee Festival has a sumptuous array of seafood vendors. Among the offerings are crab cake sandwiches along with platters of cajun and fried grouper offered at Captain Jack's booth. Other booths offer similar fare, with many shrimp dishes included.
"We walked around looking at things until the smell just got to be too much and we had to eat lunch," said Jim Halford of Homosassa Springs, referring to the odor of grilled seafood drifting across the festival grounds.
Many people who visited the festival on Saturday walked over to the gazebo bandstand to eat lunch on one of the many hay bales scattered around. By lunchtime, the lawn was nearly filled, as people waited on the annual "Sounds Like Buffett To Me" sound-alike contest to begin. The contest featured about 12 singers, each performing a couple of Jimmy Buffett tunes for the grand prize of a Key West vacation.
Also delivering a stimulating musical performance Saturday was the Amazing Steel Drum Band. The band finished its set with a patriotic medley, which featured the anthems of each branch of the armed forces. As each anthem was played, veterans in the audience stood up, saluting and cheering, as their organization's music was played.
The festival has about 120 crafters, lining NW First and Second avenues. Crafts include lots of wildlife wood carvings, along with some brilliantly colored oversized parrots. There are also hand-crafted jewels, wall hangings, wreaths, flavored oils and decorated clothing.
The fine arts exhibit, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, is on Citrus Avenue. Many local and regional painters have exhibits, mostly focusing on wildlife art.
The manatee education exhibits are at Heritage Village, a courtyard collection of shops on Citrus Avenue, close to U.S. 19. The exhibitors include the Friends of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, who brought along a couple of frisky baby alligators and a snake display. A park staffer greets passers-by in front of the booth, showing off a shiny 4-foot-long gray rat snake, which never fails to attract a crowd. Other wildlife exhibitors are the Manatee Rescue Group, which has safe boating information and the Save the Manatee Club.
Manatee education continues at City Hall, with several documentaries on video showing continuously.
On Saturday, hundreds of people took advantage of the warm weather to take a boat trip on Kings Bay. The trip included a pass-by of the manatee sanctuary in a portion of the bay. It was packed with the gentle, gray mammals. They seek the 72-degree waters of the bay as shelter from the cold which passed through earlier this week.
Festival hours are noon to 4 p.m. today. The best parking is available at Crystal River Mall, north of the festival on U.S. 19.
From there, you can board a shuttle bus to the festival site. There is a handicapped parking area at the mall, just north of Office Max. Otherwise, parking is available at two open fields at each end of the mall. Admission to the festival is $2 and boat rides cost $3 for adults and $1 for children ages 12 to 17. Boat ride tickets are available at the chamber of commerce booth on NW Seventh Street and Citrus Avenue.
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