By Kathleen Bunn, Taking the Kids Correspondent
As soon as my plane hit the ground in Miami, it felt like time stopped. Things seemed to move at a slower pace, and that was okay with me. Riding down the highway towards the Florida Keys, I caught a glimpse of aqua marine colored medians, and even they began to soothe my stressed soul. I needed this, I break from the hustle and bustle of every day life, to an island paradise.
The Florida Keys are an island archipelago extending from the tip of Florida down to Key West. Time seems to stand still here, and everyone has a story of how they came to call The Keys their home. A story like our server at Chef Michael’s who packed her bags and traveled to the Keys with her family and best friend from Las Vegas without looking back, or our host at Tiki Jet who was an investment banker in his former life. Quiet, peaceful, serene, but at the same time adventurous, thrilling and educational, these words all represent the environment the Florida Keys offers visitors, and they all explain exactly why this is the perfect destination for families.
Where to Stay?
When visiting the Florida Keys with your family, you have two choices, you can either choose to go all out and splurge, or choose to be conservative and save some money. During my visit, I had the opportunity to experience two different types of accommodations, both stunning, but offering visiting families two completely different experiences.
Plan on spending most of your time together as a family? Looking to save some money making your own meals, want plenty of room for everyone to spread out, and want all that in a gorgeous tropical setting? If so, Tranquility Bay Resort is the perfect choice. With two and three bedroom beach houses available with a variety of views, there is plenty of room for even large families and you can save a bundle making some of your own meals in their full kitchens. If you’re traveling as a couple or as a smaller family, Tranquility Bay has recently added 16 new single level tropical garden guestrooms that feature a smaller size and price point. The white sand beach, water sports, three tropical pools and award winning restaurant on this Marathon resort’s 12 acres of lush gardens is the perfect haven for families visiting The Keys.
If you’re looking to splurge on a family vacation that includes quiet time for mom and dad, plenty of included activities, and fine dining, then you could not find a better location in the Florida Keys than Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. This sprawling oceanfront resort includes 27 acres of lush gardens, an indulgent spa, a Jack Nicklaus designed 9-hole golf course, included family fun activities, and even a day camp for the kids aptly names Camp Cheeca. The accommodations here are the very definition of luxury, whether you want a beachfront bungalow for privacy, or a spacious oceanfront suite that includes a tub with a view.
Unlimited use of fishing equipment for use on the resort’s pier, kayaks, bikes and more are included in the price of your stay, and the hotel features 3 high quality restaurants for all your dining needs. While the prices here are a bit more on the exclusive side, so is the experience of a stay at this breathtaking resort.
What to Do?
While there are a wealth of attractions and activities available throughout the Florida Keys depending on what you’re looking for, they really are a thrill seekers paradise. Jetpacking was not something I ever thought I would find myself doing, but as I strapped into a device and flew around above the ocean resembling Iron Man, the thrill was like none other. The staff at Tiki Jet truly know how to put you at ease and if you are traveling with older teenagers or just adults, a stop here is a must! Riders must be at least 14 years old and weight at least 85 pounds.
If jetpacking a little too wild for you, take a small step down on the adrenaline meter and give cable wakeboarding a try then. Keys Cable in Marathon gives you the chance to try wakeboarding in a more controlled environment, with first class coaching. Their two 2 point cable systems allow you to take trips up and down the run on a continuous loop, and it’s a ton of fun for all ages. Rates start at $22 for half an hour, and private cable rental for groups of five or more is $150/hr.
If getting up close and personal with marine life is at the top of your list, then there are ample opportunities to do so for families visiting The Keys. Hall’s Diving Center provides snorkeling excursions out to various reefs in the area. At our stop at Sombrero Reef, I was amazed by the wide array of marine life I was able to spot in the crystal clear waters. Our captains were great, and they were even able to accommodate my poor vision with a prescription mask. Snorkeling trips start at $45 for adults and $35 for children for a 4 hour excursion.
The Dolphin Research Center and The Turtle Hospital are two ideal stops for up-close marine animal encounters for all ages. Paint, swim, train or shake hands with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, all while learning more about how dolphin research is done and how the facility is helping to rescue marine life. Take a tour of The Turtle Hospital and learn about the Bubble Butt Syndrome that is plaguing many of its patients. Feed the sea turtles a snack and even get a glimpse of a sea turtle surgery during your visit. Admission to the Dolphin Research Center is $23 for adults and $18 for children, while a tour of The Turtle Hospital runs $18 for adults and $9 for children.
Learn about the heart and soul of the Florida Keys at the Coral Restoration Center. Here, you can see the impact that environmental factors have had on the coral reefs along The Keys. Hear about the history of coral restoration, and how they are now growing new coral to help restore the reefs to their former beauty.
Where to Eat?
When I visit someplace new, I always try to eat like a local. This means avoiding fast food and chain restaurants found on the main drag, and wandering past the tourist facade to find the hidden gems an area has to offer. I had the opportunity to eat at many of these hidden gems in both Marathon and Islamorada. Each of these locations is family friendly, with delicious seafood dishes that are fresh off the boat. Literally.
The Key Largo Conch House was my first meal in the Florida Keys, and their conch tacos were a new and delicious experience. The conch fritters are a must try item as well, and their prices are very reasonable.
Keys Fisheries may not look like much at first glance, but they’re home to the legendary lobster Reuben, and their tradition of asking you for a TV show to call out when your order is ready is both a unique and entertaining change from the norm.
For a hearty home cooked breakfast in a one of a kind setting, head on over to Porky’s Bayside BBQ in Marathon. Dollar bills litter the rafters, beams and just about everywhere else in this joint, scrawled with handwritten messages and names left by previous diners. Their shrimp and grits really hit the spot on a particularly chilly morning.
My favorite meal of the trip was a dinner at Chef Michael’s in Islamorada. Not only was the food divine (I had the filet mignon), but the service was top notch. Remember that server who packed up and left Las Vegas destined for The Keys? I had the pleasure of meeting her at Chef Michael’s. Her and her story have now become a part of my experience in The Keys.
Maybe that is what makes the Florida Keys so special. Aside from the host of family friend accommodations, attractions and delicious food options, the people you encounter here are incredible. Each has their own story to tell and their stories become intertwined with your own. What story will you bring back with you from your visit to the Florida Keys?
(Kathleen Bunn is the creator of the blog Life With Four Boys)