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Large group of people at Florida Cracker Resort

Florida Cracker Resort: a Great Place to Monkey Around

By Kent Smith Posted on June 22, 2021

On a quiet corner of the Homosassa River two local families have banded together celebrating “Old Florida” with a goal of preserving the tradition of Southern gentility, a culture of kindness and grace that has been disappearing all too quickly in America.

Just a few miles west of U.S. 19 on the Homosassa River, at 5297 S. Cherokee Way, lies the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort. With 54 rooms for lodging, a waterfront swimming pool, bar and grill, banquet facilities, hospitality room, and a full-service boating marina, there is a lot to offer here, but the facilities had begun to show their age.

This location is also known for a unique attraction, Monkey Island, a rock island that’s currently home to a family of three spider monkeys. To learn more about the history of Monkey Island, click here.

The Homosassa Riverside Resort was built in 1963. The Lowman family of Brooksville purchased the property in 2019 under the corporate name Monkey Island Holdings according to patriarch, Matt Lowman, who noted the resort “needed a lot of investment and cleanup that they were willing to tackle.”

“The old Homosassa community has given us overwhelming support and hospitality,” he added.

FL Cracker resort sign
The sign at the resort reminds visitors that this location is a throwback to old Florida. The tall sabal palms and Oaks add to the ambiance. Image by Diane Bedard

Reviving the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort is a Labor of Love for Two Local Families

The project really came together when the Lowmans formed a partnership with Blair and Ethan Hensley, members of another prominent Brooksville clan who created a chain of restaurants called the Florida Cracker Kitchen.

Under the direct leadership of Blair Hensley and Blake Lowman, Matt’s son, the resort is being expanded to accommodate clients of all ages and interests.

The boat slips have been renovated by the Lowman family. The canal was dredged along the resort. Improvements are obvious. Image courtesy of the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort.

“We’re done renovating the boat slips for the marina, we dredged the canal, renovated the (hotel) rooms, added 12 golf carts and a fleet of kayaks for rentals,” Blake said of the improvements. “The community is backing us, and Blair’s doing a great job. This place is a hidden gem where we’ll have lots of amenities for everybody.”

Hotel rooms range from studios and standard garden view layouts to 2-bedroom, 2-bath river view suites with a kitchen. All have wireless internet and some feature wood floors.

Florida cracker resort hotel room view
2 BR 2 BA Waterfront Villas, studio and garden rooms are available for rent at the resort. Image courtesy of the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort.

The group facilities offer a chance to “get married right on the water” and plenty of room to hold a corporate retreat or family reunion. Group deals, lots of banquet space and activities are part of the packages available.

Resort Improvements include Amenities for Land & Sea

The Florida Cracker Riverside Resort Marina has 85 slips and two ramps for launching pontoon boats, kayak and paddle board rentals, along with water-sport accessories such as snorkeling gear for scalloping and manatee tours. Even landlubbers are accommodated, with golf carts and bicycles available to explore the local area.

Florida Cracker Riverside Resort has golf carts, kayaks, paddleboards, and watersport and scalloping gear available for guests. Image courtesy of Florida Cracker Riverside Resort.

Adjacent to the restaurant is the Florida Cracker Monkey Bar, a two-story, open-air tiki deck serving signature cocktails and gorgeous sunsets. Other amenities include the Ice Cream Company and Monkey Bar Pizzas.

The Florida Cracker Kitchen and Monkey Bar offer visitors waterfront dining options. Image by Kent Smith.

Monkey Island Features Prominently in the Resort’s History and Future Plans

The bar is so named because the resort is the “Home of the World-Famous Monkey Island”, an island directly in front of the property where guests can watch several spider monkeys that live there. Unable to swim, the monkeys bask in the sunshine, swing from ropes and play in a scale-model lighthouse for the enjoyment of spectators.

These monkeys are the descendants of simians that escaped from the predecessor to the Ellie Schiller Homosasssa Springs Wildlife State Park three miles up the river half a century ago. The Florida Cracker Resort officials care for the animals, including twice-daily feedings and a change of habitat three times a year.

Monkey Island 2021
The world-famous Monkey Island is cared for by the Resort. Plans are underway to rebuild the buildings, barriers, and a monkey cam! Image by Diane Bedard.

“We’re rebuilding the entire Monkey Island with new buildings, new barriers to keep boaters from pulling in, and we’re running electricity and water to the island with video cameras so you can watch the monkeys playing,” Blake explained.

Is Homosassa truly ready for Monkey-Vision?

Florida Cracker Resort Will Feature a full Florida Cracker Kitchen

Enjoy Granny McKethan’s Hot Blue Crab Dip along the river. Image by Diane Bedard.

Now under construction, the Florida Cracker Kitchen will feature authentic native dishes like the 10,000 Island Shrimp and Grits, Granny McKethan’s Hot Blue Crab Dip and the Crab and Corn Chowder Soup.

You can wash it all down with rare house cocktails like the Chazz Swamp Gimlet or the Homosassa Springs Lemonade. Grab some cinnamon raisin bread on the way out from the fresh-daily bakery.

3) Bartender Haley Beauchene and Assistant Manager Marcos DelaFuente show off their Monkey Juice (right) and Old Cracker cocktails. Image by Kent Smith.

At this restaurant you’ll find “a lifestyle driven by the roots of old Florida…where everyone is treated like family with true Southern hospitality” for breakfast and lunch.

It’s more than a boast because the restaurant chain is the cumulative brainchild of the Hensley brothers.

The seeds of their passion for Southern cooking were planted early by Granny Lewis, who cooked three meals a day for them the old way, from scratch. They cut their teeth in the restaurant business early working for their mother Larie in her popular, longtime Brooksville eatery, Mallie Kylas Café.

2) Left to right: Bosom buddies Ford Rogers, Rylan Shirley and William Fleming of Savannah, Georgia, enjoy “the best pizza we ever had.” Image by Kent Smith.

Ethan then enjoyed an impressive culinary career that included working with Chef Mike Lascola and a stint at the prestigious James Beard House; a savvy businessman, Blair once owned Brooksville’s iconic Coney Island Drive-In before joining his brother to open the Florida Cracker Kitchen down the street. There are also two Florida Cracker Kitchens now in Jacksonville and one in Keystone Heights outside of Gainesville, all under the logo Blair created of an upside-down cowboy boot resembling a map of Florida bearing the motto “In Grits We Trust.”

“If we take care of the small details and follow our model, we’ll have created an ambience people will enjoy here,” Blair said of the new restaurant. “It’s about Florida hospitality and customer service.

True entrepreneurs, the Hensley brothers have even established the Florida Cracker Trading Company, an online store selling items from t-shirts to native foods that are emblematic of their brand at floridacrackerstyle.com and there is a pop up shop featuring some of their most popular items onsite at the Resort.

Preserving and Celebrating Old Florida to Keep it Alive

Florida Cracker Riverside Resort overview
Florida Cracker Riverside Resort is a landmark of Old Homosassa. Image courtesy of the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort.

“Old Homosassa is a special place. The resort is a landmark here. It’s a natural fit for what we do: Preserving and celebrating old Florida and keeping it alive!”

Events, Activities, and Old Florida Fun are on the Menu

“Whether your dream vacation includes fishing with local guides by boat or specially outfitted kayaks, swimming with the lovable manatee, taking a leisurely river cruise followed by a casual waterfront dining experience…the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort is truly nature’s playground,” their website states.

Ensuring your experience meets these standards is the responsibility of Resort/Hotel Manager Laura Torregrossa and Monkey Bar Manager Keith “Fish” Fischer.

According to Special Events Coordinator Lisa Knous, folks are getting ready for the Homosassa Fireworks Festival June 26. Starting at 9 p.m. the 30-minute fireworks show hosted by the Monkey Bar and local contributors will take place at the resort. Knous said, “It’s a great community event… Come in your boat to watch.”

In addition to skyrockets, live outdoor music concerts are slated on a stage going up in the parking lot area featuring national headliners like the Bellamy Brothers.  

For more details or to make a reservation, call the resort at 352-628-2474 or email [email protected]

Comments

Flagirl67 says

Used to be nice until the Lowman greeds started charging to park just to enjoy the restaurant. No thanks. Plenty of other great places I enjoy visiting who will not charge to park. Bye.

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