Sure, we all love the Disney and Universal theme parks in Orlando, but there’s a world of fun just south of Orlando – a string of small islands in the southern tip of Florida known as the Keys.
Forming a barrier between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, the year-round tropical climate from Key Largo to Key West makes it a desirable destination in any season. As an added bonus, you get the Caribbean vibe without the hassle of obtaining passports for the whole family.
The Keys have a laid-back, retro charm that is appealing to children and parents alike, and there are a variety of activities that run the gamut from relaxation to water sports.
The calm waters along much of the Keys make it especially attractive for families with young children who like to wade in tranquil, bath-like warm water, collect sea shells along the coastline, and build castles in the soft sand. Anne’s Beach on the island of Islamorada, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park on Key West, and Sandspur Beach in Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key are among the favorites.
For families with older children, there is no shortage of water sports to pique their interests. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo is arguably the best place for snorkeling in the United States. A catamaran whisks passengers daily out to the crystal aqua and azure waters of the undersea park. The coral reef is considered one the most beautiful and diverse in the world, teeming with healthy marine life such as parrotfish, stingrays, trumpet fish, and other varieties of fish. The reef and marine life can also be viewed in a glass-bottomed boat.
Tweens and teens will also love activities like kite-boarding, kayaking, water-trampoline, wave runners, and parasailing. Viator Tours offers a full day power adventure which allows participants to experience several water activities in one day.
The Turtle Hospital on the island of Marathon is a non-profit veterinary hospital for sick or injured turtles. The eco-tour is excellent for all ages, taking visitors through the educational process and then a guided tour to meet turtles in various stages of recovery.
Key West is overflowing with architectural and historical sights and amusements. Get a feel for the city and determine which locations to spend more time exploring by taking the Conch Train Tour. The train is an open-air trolley which drives leisurely by the Hemmingway House, the lighthouse, the southernmost point marker, Mallory Square, rowdy Duval Street, and other highlights of the historic old town.
To experience one of the Keys exquisite sunsets, Mallory Square in Key West and the Bayside Grille in Key Largo are two of the best spots, along with Danger Charters which offers sunset cruises.
The ghost walking tour is also a hit with elementary-aged children, although it but might be a bit campy for older teens.
The Keys are seafood heaven with everything from fine dining on freshly caught fish, crab and lobster at The Stoned Crab for adults, to fried conch fritters everywhere along the Keys that the kids will love.
For an all-around fun resort for all, head over to Ibis Bay Resort in northern Key West. The bohemian vibe mixed with modern amenities make Ibis Bay a favorite for families. Visitors are first greeted by a talking macaw as they enter the vibrantly colored lobby. The cottages are bright and cheerful, and each room has a private terrace with palm-strung hammocks overlooking the bay. There are also live turtles with a daily feeding on the premises.
Another option is the two and three-bedroom rentals at Tranquility Bay with fully equipped kitchens. For the most luxurious accommodations, the Cheeca Lodge has oversized rooms and a small golf course.
There are no thrill rides or princesses on the Keys, but they offer a different and perhaps more valuable vacation experience – the opportunity to spend quality family time and make life-long memories.
All photos by Patti Morrow, except under Accommodations above