Plantation Inn offers a quiet Disney alternative

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. -- It may happen as you're driving down the Interstate-4 Super Speedway, hemmed in by swaying semis driven by truckers jacked up on amphetamines, kids screaming in the back as they hard-target yet another Mickey Mouse billboard.

It may happen as you're driving down Dale Mabry in Tampa, strip joints on one side, strip malls on the other, traffic stretched out endlessly before you.

But, at some point during your central Florida golf outing, you may find yourself wondering if the state offers another option, a place where the Spanish moss hangs easy from old oaks instead of faux pink flamingoes adorning cheap motels.

There is, actually, and it isn't too far away.

About an hour and a half northeast from the over-developed mess of central Florida, is Old Florida, where you can still see open fields of wildflowers and tent revivals, where Jesus' ongoing battle with Satan is big news.

The Plantation Inn and Golf Resort spreads out off US 19 along the Crystal River, a waterway as beautiful as its name. The area is nuts about manatees; they even have their own manatee radio station.

Located in the heart of what the marketers call the "Nature Coast," the inn is a quiet, shady antidote for the vulgar Land of Mickey.

And the golf isn't bad either.

This is one of the prettiest parts of the Florida Gulf Coast, with little coastal development to mar the natural landscape of tidal marshes, hammocks and rives flowing into the Gulf, about 20 miles to the east.

With fewer people, there are more animals: red-wing blackbirds, scissor-tailed flycatchers, sandhill cranes, to name a few birds that flit around the course.

"The wildlife is phenomenal," said head pro Randy Robbins.

That includes alligators, which we'll get into later.

The front nine of Plantation's 18-hole course, designed in the early 1950s, loops around the outside, and when you first tee off on, you'll find a typically flat, watery Florida course. There is water on 14 of the holes, and you'll also find tight fairways.

"They didn't have all that fancy earth-moving equipment back then, so they made the fairways small," Robbins said. "You don't get much roll. You'd better hit it down the middle or you won't score well."

Despite the skinny fairways, the front nine is relatively easy. But, as you make the turn, suddenly the course changes personality; it reaches out bites you.

"The front nine is pretty easy," said 12-handicapper Bob Martins, who said he's played the course for about 13 years. "But, the back nine is more than you can handle. The back nine is a killer."

That includes No. 17, where an eight-foot gator stood defiantly on all fours in the middle of the cart path on one recent tour of the course - talk about the yips. That one was a little bigger than the one that lurked barely underwater right by the clubhouse pond.

The course's signature hole is the par-5 11th, 552 yards from the back tees. The tee shot is over water to a landing area no more than 35 yards wide, with heavy trees on both sides and, of course, water.

"You're forced to use driver or two 3-woods," Robbins said. "It's about 230 yards to clear the water, and you have to avoid the pond on the right."

The approach shot is tricky as well. The undulating green is protected by bunkers on all sides, and water again comes into play. "You can't be short or too long," said Robbins.

No. 13, a 421-yard par-4, is a dogleg right with water along most of the right side. Aim for the weeping willow off the tee, and then try to avoid more bunkers that protect another tricky green.

Another long, accurate drive is required on the 14th, a 387-yard par-4. You have to steer it right off the tee to avoid the trees, then come back left to avoid trees on your approach.

You have to carry the two fairway bunkers on the 484-yard 16th hole, then deal with another pond on your approach; you have to either fly over the pond or stay left to keep out of the bunkers guarding the left side of the green.

"This course has the six toughest, consecutive holes on the back nine, I would think, in the state," said Greg Johns, a six-handicapper who said he's played most courses in the state. "And that includes Doral."

Another selling point for the course involves its greens, which the maintenance staff manages to keep green year-round. Other area courses battle greens that turn brown this time of year, when the rains that usually come sweeping in off the Gulf of Mexico on a regular basis are notably absent.

The back nine, plus the greens, make this course one of the best in east-central Florida.

"It has probably some of the best greens around, for consistency," Martins said. "They don't lose them in the summer like a lot of them do. Being situated where it is, I think it's the best around. The only drawback is it' s too far away from Tampa or Orlando."

To some, that's an advantage.

The resort also has a nine-hole "executive" course, for children and those wanting to practice on their game.

Stay and play

The Plantation has 126 guest rooms in two-story manor houses, including 12 golf villas and five condos. The resort offers a big, heated pool and tiki bar, a hot tub, a dive center that rents scuba and snorkel equipment, boat rentals and guided manatee tours. Golf packages and picnic lunches at secluded islands are available as well.

Tennis courts, a putting green, volleyball, croquet, shuffleboard and a driving range (irons only) are also available.

Dining out

The resort's Savannah Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are two bars, plus the Tiki hut at the pool.

Other restaurants nearby include Charlie's Fish House (stay away from the shrimp sandwich); Fat Boys Barbecue and Grannie's Restaurant, for down-home cooking.

Fast Fact

There are 10 courses within a 20-minute drive from Plantation.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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