Conch Out in the Florida Keys

From dolphin excursions to a tour of Hemingway’s house, check out the myriad of family vacation activities in the quirky and charming Florida Keys.

The sun is going down over Key West as my family strolls around Mallory Square. There is perhaps no place that typifies the Florida Keys more than this historic square along the pier at the southern tip of the United States. Every evening before sunset, the pier comes alive with perhaps the most eclectic assembly of street performers imaginable. And that’s what the Florida Keys are all about—eclectic and quirky, charming and rustic, what the locals call “Keysey.” Throw in sea, sun, and a myriad of fun and intriguing attractions, and it’s easy to see why this destination is among the most endeared of vacation spots.

The Keys comprise a 125-mile long island chain south of Miami that begins with Key Largo, of Bogey and Bacall fame, continuing on down to the Middle Keys of Marathon and culminating in Key West, the southernmost point in the United States. U.S. Route 1 connects the island chain with highlights along the way easily navigated by mile markers (“MM”), Key West being at MM zero and the numbers climbing up from there.

Upper Keys—Snorkeling & Fishing Mecca

The Upper Keys around Key Largo are perhaps best known for their good snorkeling and diving. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, site of the nation’s first underwater park, is one of the area’s highlights at MM 102.5. The colorful coral reef, complete with a famed bronze statue of Christ of the Abyss, can be viewed via glass-bottom boat. John Pennekamp is also a popular spot for camping, canoeing and kayaking.

Islamorada in the Upper Keys is a center for fly-fishing. “This was the birthplace of fly-fishing,” Sandy Moret, owner of Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada, told me. “It’s a mecca. Any avid fly fisherman is likely to come to Islamorada at some point. The most world records are here.” (I know this all too well as an acquaintance of mine holds several of those records.) Moret cites the appeal of seemingly endless flats, where bonefish, snook, and tarpon are easily visible for the taking.

It is just such tarpon that make for a fun family activity at the Hungry Tarpon restaurant overlooking Robbie’s Marina at MM 77.5 in Islamorada. Robbie’s Marina is renowned for drawing enormous tarpon that can be hand fed, though sometimes even grown men jump as the tarpon hurl their bodies above water for handouts.

The Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort or Ocean Pointe Suites at Key Largo are good family friendly places to stay in the Upper Keys, as is The Islander Resort, Cheeca Lodge & Spa, and Pines and Palms Resort in Islamorada.

Middle Keys—Dolphin Central

In Marathon, the halfway point between Key Largo and Key West, don’t miss the Dolphin Research Center at MM 59. The center is home to 19 dolphins, who educate guests on the sea mammals’ likes and dislikes (hula hoops are a favorite of one dolphin), as well as a research hub, where scientists study dolphin behavior. It’s also where the original Flipper movie was filmed. The center’s setting is like old Florida, with sand underfoot and the wind rustling the tiki roofs surrounding the lagoons—very “Keysey,” as I’m told. Plan on visiting the center for an hour, and you may stay the day. Read more about dolphin-related adventures in the Florida Keys here.

In nearby Duck Key, you’ll find the Hawks Cay resort, which recently completed a $35 million renovation. It’s a luxury property, marina and spa that is quite family friendly. There’s a pirate ship pool for younger kids (one of five pools in all), a ‘tween and teen room, snorkeling, kayaking, parasailing and more. And here too, you’ll find dolphin activities. My 6-year-old daughter and I each participated in dolphin encounters, getting up close and personal with the mammals in a very natural setting. It was like the dolphins had invited us into their world, instead of us intruding on them. The resort’s villas are perfect for family travel and relatively reasonable in cost. Rates start at $395 a night. 

For a taste of funky Florida fare try The Wreck, MM 59 Bayside, tel. 305-743-8282, nearly adjacent to the Dolphin Research Center, or Island Tiki Bar, MM 54, Bayside, 12648 Overseas Hwy., tel. 305-743-4191, in Marathon. Like on most Florida Key menus, look for conch fritters and Key Lime pie among the local dishes.

Heading still further south along U.S. 1 toward the Lower Keys, the towns are mostly nondescript, but there are parks and campgrounds galore that hold hidden secrets. The National Key Deer Refuge around MM 30 hosts 8,000 acres of protected habitat for the endangered Key deer, a small, sprightly deer no bigger than a mid-sized dog, along with many nature trails. Nearby Looe Key is the site of some of the richest coral reefs in the area for snorkeling and diving.

Key West—As Good As It Gets

At the most southern point of the island chain is Key West, the most popular destination in the Florida Keys. There are more reasons to like Key West than there are keys in Florida, and there are an awful lot of keys.

My daughter and I hop on the Old Town Trolley tour, a perfect introduction to the town for those unfamiliar with Key West; for those more familiar, like me, it’s an easy way to get around while being refreshed on the town’s history. (Younger kids prefer the Conch Train tour, but riders can’t get on and off as with the trolley). The trolley winds its way around Key West’s charming streets while a guide tells tall tales of shipwrecks and pirate life. One good place to hop off and explore some of those tales in more detail is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, founded by the legendary shipwreck salvor. It contains the richest collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in this hemisphere—most from area waters.

Just a few steps away is the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, a testament to John James Audubon’s years spent documenting bird species. It’s full of memories of Key West’s early days. And for literary fans, there’s Ernest Hemingway’s house—Key West was the author’s home and inspiration for years. Don’t count kids out for a visit to the house as they might enjoy the 47 cats on property, most with six toes. The accident-prone Hemingway considered such cats good luck.

Other highlights for which we jump off the trolley include a butterfly farm, and the “southernmost point” in the United States, just 90 miles from Cuba. We disembark for the Lighthouse Museum & Keeper’s Quarters, restored to its 1847 heyday, which illuminates the historic business of warning ships of imminent shores—presuming those ships weren’t taken over by pirates. Pirate and shipwreck themes are aplenty in Key West. The Pirate Soul Museum is a hit with children of all ages with a re-created pirate haven and dungeons for the more daring. And there’s a Shipwreck Historeum and Museum with artifacts from vessels that fared none too well in hurricanes. My daughter liked the latter museum’s lookout, which boasts some of the best views in Key West.

Take in the Street Life

But there’s much more to Key West than attractions and museums. It’s a vibrant, colorful town ruled by pedestrians, bicycles … and watering holes. This is Margaritaville after all (look for the original Jimmy Buffet restaurant). It’s said that there’s a bar for every day of the year. The streets of Key West are always teeming with people from all walks of life enjoying a casual, laid-back atmosphere with endless blocks of restaurants, shopping and colorful kiosks.

A perfect home base for taking in the whole scene is the Ocean Key Resort nestled at the very foot of Duvall Street, Key West’s central street. The resort has oversized rooms with living areas that are perfect for small families (two-bedroom suites are available for larger families), and with designs delightfully in sync with local Key West tropical flare. The resort’s Sunset Pier is one of the hottest spots for sunset dining overlooking the water.

Just next door is Mallory Square, which transforms before sunset into an oasis of street performers. My daughter and I watched acrobats juggling machetes atop a ladder (how did they think of that act?), cats jumping through fiery hoops, magicians, a flame thrower, and a gymnast who does handstand pushups among other performers—all acts require audience participation in one form or another. The performances are all kind of normal for the Florida Keys, where quirky is the norm, and there are no worries.

As one person summed it up for me, “When you drive down [to the Florida Keys], there’s a sense of ‘ahhh’ we’re here.” It’s a sigh of relief, and I totally understand what she means. In the words of another fellow traveler, this one awaiting a delayed flight to the Keys, “It’ll all be okay once we’re there.”

So relax, enjoy and revel in the quirks of the Florida Keys. If it’s your first visit, it most assuredly won’t be your last.

Destinations: Florida, Key West

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Bird Watching, Deep-sea Fishing, Fishing, Fly Fishing, Kayaking, Museums, Scuba Diving, Snorkeling

User Comments

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Adding this to my Trips... Great guide to the Keys; thanks for all the internal links to speed up my research process!