Insider Guide: Florida Keys
Best Things to Do with Kids in the Florida Keys By Erin Gifford
Sunset in the Key West (Flickr: Luca Esposti)
Why Go: Families will love how there are so many things to do with kids along the 120-mile journey across the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West. While the views alone are worth the drive, you’ll want to make stops for snorkeling, swimming and sea turtles. Plus, no trip across the Keys is complete without a magnificent sunset at Mallory Square and Frozen Key Lime Pie on a Stick (available throughout Key West).
While Key West is the best-known of the Florida Keys, slow down along the way for turtle hospitals, wild bird sanctuaries and dolphin experiences that occupy various other islands. Kids will love learning about and exploring the environment, as well as plants and animals indigenous to the Florida Keys.
Here’s what you need to know about the Florida Keys, including where to stay, what to do and where to eat during your visit:
Best Kid-Friendly Hotels:
Beach houses at Tranquility Bay (Tranquility Bay Resort)
Tranquility Bay Resort (2600 Overseas Hwy, Marathon; 305/289-0888). Located just steps from the beach, you’ll find standard hotel guest rooms, as well as family-friendly two- and three-bedroom beach houses. Enjoy three swimming pools, sunset cruises and sailing at the resort. Or head into Marathon to explore the Turtle Hospital and the Dolphin Research Center.
Hawks Cay Resort (61 Hawks Cay Blvd, Duck Key; 305/743-7000). This family-friendly resort boasts five swimming pools, including a pirate ship pool, as well as multiple restaurants, a marina and a saltwater lagoon. See dolphins every day, and even feed or swim with them as part of the Dolphin Connection program.
Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds Street, Key West; 305/296-3535). Sun yourself by the pool or take a family walk along the largest private beach on the island. Kids will love splashing in the resort’s two pools or renting kayaks, waverunners and bicycles. Look for sport fishing and snorkeling trips, too.
Get Your Bearings
Key Largo is just an hour south of Miami and is your starting point to exploring the Florida Keys. Take U.S. 1 all the way across the Keys until you reach Mile Marker 0 in Key West. While there are 1,700 islands that make up the Florida Keys, just 43 are connected by bridges, the longest of which is Seven Mile Bridge, which connects Knight’s Key (in the Middle Keys) to Little Duck Key (in the Lower Keys).
Most Fun Way to Get Around:
Conch Tour Train. While you’ll need a car to drive across the keys, make time for a 90-minute hop-on, hop-off train tour around the island once you arrive in Key West. The drivers are entertaining and knowledgeable, and it’s an easy way to learn about the history of Key West. Tickets are $30.45 for adults. Children 12 and under ride for free.
Key West Lighthouse. Climb 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse for 360-degree views of Key West, complete with placards letting you know what you see in the distance. As a bonus, check out the keeper’s quarters to learn about the life of a lighthouse keeper in the 19th century. Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for children 6 and up.
Performer at Mallory Square, a Key West attraction (Flickr: Ed Schipul)
Mallory Square. For the most fabulous sunsets in Key West, it’s a must to head to Mallory Square. Enjoy the views as well as free nightly performances by jugglers and acrobats, even animal trainers showing off tiny pups jumping through hoops.
Let the Fun Shine In
Sand Key. Just seven miles south of Key West, Sand Key is a popular snorkeling spot due to the beautiful coral and colorful fish. It’s also a well-protected area, so expect calm conditions.
Cottrell Key. Cottrell Key boasts shallow reefs and sponges. You may also find sea urchins, grouper and stingrays in this shallow area five miles west of Key West.
Reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Flickr: Matt Kieffer)
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Located in Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the nation’s first underwater state park. Look for coral reefs and tropical fish. Take the extended snorkeling trip for a look at the bronze Christ of the Abyss statue six miles east of shore.
Bahia Honda State Park. Head to kid-friendly Calusa Beach on Big Pine Key for calm waters. Take a hike on the Silver Palm Trail and stop in the Sand & Sea Nature Center for a Junior Ranger activity booklet.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. One of the best beaches in Key West, snorkel off the beach and keep your eyes open for tropical marine life. Enjoy wooded nature trails and a narrated tour of Fort Zachary Taylor.
Sombrero Beach. Located in Marathon, Sombrero Beach boasts a children’s playground, volleyball courts and picnic tables. The beach is small but clean, and it’s a nice place to stop to splash in the water and enjoy the shade of the palm trees.
Turtle Hospital. Learn all about sea turtles, including how the Turtle Hospital in Marathon helps sea turtles and how the hospital got its start. See where turtle surgeries take place and meet current patients in small pools. Before the tour is over, feed the sea turtles a bit of “catfish chow.”
The Little White House. Our 33rd President, Harry S. Truman, was a big fan of Key West. So much so that he spent 175 days of his presidency in this home, now known as the Harry S. Truman Little White House. Take the one-hour tour and you’ll come away with a lot of fun facts and trivia.
Southernmost Point in the US (Flickr: Fen Labalme)
Southernmost Point. Sure, it’s touristy, but you really can’t leave Key West without waiting in line to take a picture with the huge buoy that marks the Southernmost Point in the United States. While you wait, enjoy the views and see if you can spot Cuba 90 miles away.
Dolphin Research Center. Test your kids’ marine knowledge, get up-close with dolphins in their natural lagoons and learn about the work done at this research center in Tavernier. Before you go, visit with the wild birds and sea lions, then splash around in the sprayground.
Key West Shipwreck Museum. Little ones will love this museum experience, which provides a look into Key West’s maritime heritage in a fun way that involves actors, short films, even a 65’ lookout tower. You can also explore various artifacts and shipwrecks dredged up from the under the sea.
Best Kid-Friendly Restaurants:
Hobo’s Café (Key Largo). You’ll find delicious seafood and a family-friendly atmosphere. Frequented by both locals and tourists, dishes like Bahamian Yellowtail Snapper and Shrimp Bruschetta should please your crew.
Blue Heaven (Key West). Ideal for families, enjoy dishes like Caribbean BBQ Shrimp, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and of course, Key Lime Pie. Kids will love the roosters that run around the restaurant.
Sandy’s Café (Key West). Head to Sandy’s Café to enjoy Cuban flavors at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Open 24 hours a day, the portions are large and you’ll find one of the best Cuban sandwiches in the area.