The clear, fresh spring waters of the Weeki Wachee River bubble up from a dark cavern, then flow along a winding path 5 miles west, where at the historic town of Bayport they mix and become one with the salty Gulf.
The journey and transformation could be a metaphor for this beautiful stretch of the Nature Coast — after all, the Lower Creek Indians flowed there from Georgia and Alabama in the 1700s to begin new lives. They would go on to become what today are the Seminole tribe.
Nearly 300 years later, people continue to settle in Weeki Wachee, a western iteration of the name Seminoles gave its river: wekiwa (“spring”) and chee (“little”). The transformation they seek is facilitated by a place where the living is easy, less costly, less crowded, and a place that’s an ideal combination of nature and old Florida but with all the convenience and benefits of modern day.
These two Hernando County worlds merge at the intersection of Cortez Boulevard and U.S. 19, where the famous Weeki Wachee mermaid attraction is located. From there, head east on Cortez and within five or 10 minutes you’ll find yourself in the midst of wall-to-wall shops, major retailers, strip centers, auto dealers, restaurants, entertainment outlets and professional and medical offices. It’s easy to imagine you’re driving through one of the bustling commercial districts in North Pinellas or Hillsborough counties; most everything you might need is there.
But head west on Cortez from where the mermaids frolic in the spring and time magically turns back. Ahead are places to rent canoes and kayaks to paddle the Weeki Wachee River. You’ll pass Mary’s Fish Camp (open since 1946), where you can engage in the traditional Cracker pastime of hook-and-line fishing for mullet behind the camp store — ask Bell to show you how it’s done.
If you’d rather fish for trout, redfish or snook, stop in at Dixie Lee Bait and Tackle, where Eric or Mark will fill your bucket with live shrimp you can take to the Jenkins Creek fishing pier, or maybe the Bayport pier, which was the site of a once booming port that brought lumber, cotton, food and other goods to Hernando back in 1850. Bayport also is where Union troops landed on April 3, 1863, to raid the port and destroy Confederate ships that had been slipping through Union blockades. Today, the remains of one Confederate ship rest on the bottom under the fishing pier.
In the neighborhood, stop in at in the historic Bayport Inn, the original of which opened in 1919, for lunch. Sitting at a table on the deck out back, diners gaze across a seemingly endless needle rush savannah, divided by winding tidal creeks and dotted here and there with palm hammocks. When you’re done, might as well take the wild and narrow causeway there out to Pine Island, where you’ll find Alfred McKethan Pine Island Park, three acres of white sand beach on the Gulf.
If it’s getting close to dinner time, head south on Shoal Line to Hernando Beach, where there are no fewer than a dozen restaurants specializing in seafood; or just kick back and have a drink at a tiki bar and listen to some live music as you contemplate what to make for dinner at home.
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If it’s seafood, stay on the coast road south just a couple miles on your way home and you’ll find the tiny fishing village of Aripeka (settled in 1873). Pull in at the bridge over Hammock Creek at the Aripeka Stone Crab Company, where you can pick up succulent crab claws, fresh or smoked fish, oysters and other seafood delights. Kerri and Matt own the little shop on the creek. She’s a former Weeki Wachee mermaid; he captains the stone crab boat docked out back.
“It’s just a wonderful place to live,” said Cindy Rusher, an agent with Tropic Shores Realty who came here from New Jersey. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Rusher has a lot of clients who agree, the problem being that like most everywhere in this part of the state, the inventory of available homes is very low — so house hunters must be dogged and be ready to pounce when a home comes on the market. A refurbished 3/2 single-family home built in the 1980s or ‘90s on a small lot in a subdivision can start around $250,000, while something in a neighborhood with larger, half-acre parcels usually starts at around $300,000.
But many come to the Weeki Wachee area to build a new home, Rusher said, and the community of Royal Highlands, just north of the Weeki Wachee attraction, has plenty of lots available. Prices for a half acre or more run from about $23,000 to $28,000, she said. The neighborhood is not deed restricted, and indeed some of the roads have not yet been paved. Homes there need septic systems and wells, as county utilities have not yet been extended into the area.
Royal Highlands is where husband-and-wife Tropic Shores agents Richard and Yen Rovinsky live. They love the neighborhood, and plan to build a new home on a nearby lot they own.
Richard says the demand for building lots in the community has been off the charts the past couple of years, in part driven by the lack of homes on the market. Many of the buyers are from the northeast U.S. looking to escape to a new lifestyle in Weeki Wachee.
“They say, why should I live on a small lot in New York locked down when I can live in a beautiful area on a large piece of property?” Rovinsky said. He sold 75 lots in Royal Highlands last year. He’s on track to repeat or exceed those numbers in 2022, closing on three lots in one day the second week of this month.
The Heather, a community just north of Weeki Wachee Springs, is a community to find pre-owned homes on oversized lots (a handful of 3/2/2s currently are listed between $275,000 and $325,000). It’s a golf community and there are condo units situated along the fairways (a 2/2 unit currently listed for $154,200).
“It’s a very nice neighborhood,” said Rusher, adding homes there date to the early 1980s, but almost all have been updated with new flooring, granite counters and the like.
Another subdivision where homes on larger parcels can be found is River Country Estates, which backs up to the south side of the Weeki Wachee River. Homes range from older and modest to newer, large and luxurious.
“It’s a great neighborhood, but can be pricier,” said Rusher, but often that’s due to the greater number of newer four-bedroom two-story homes. A 4/4/2 two-story pool home on a half-acre there is listed now at $609,000. Listings for smaller 3/2 homes start in the low $300,000s. Other subdivisions in the area that interest buyers include Lake in the Woods and Berkley Manor.
Homes on the Weeki Wachee River rarely come on the market, though neighborhoods like Weeki Wachee Gardens offer river and Gulf access. It’s an older community on river canals in the midst of transition, as small older homes and mobiles are demolished to raise elevated luxury homes. Small, 2/1 older homes and mobiles under 1,000 square feet on the water come on the market for $325,000 to $350,000, which Rusher said amounts to the land value only.
The community is coveted for its close proximity and access to the Gulf. It also is neighbors with popular Rogers Park, a beach and boat launch on the Weeki Wachee that has kayak rentals, and a great local restaurant and watering hole overlooking the river called the Upper Deck.
Rovinsky said all of the nature and water Weeki Wachee has to offer factors into buyer interest, but he thinks impact fees being just a third of what’s charged for a new home in neighboring Pasco County, lower property taxes, more affordable land, a low crime rate and the relative ease of getting to Tampa via the Suncoast Parkway seal the deal for many. “You can be to the airport (Tampa International) in less than 75 minutes, which is important to a lot of people,” he said. “Along with that, it’s affordable and a beautiful place to live; what more could you want?”