Let my Florida Keys vacation serve as a suggestion to “do as I say, not as I did.” I allowed only three days to explore the island chain from Key Largo to Key West during my family’s recent trip to South Florida. Instead of fully embracing the Florida Keys’ languid and laid-back lifestyle, I packed in a pile of activities. The speedy schedule left us with a brilliant overview of this scenic southernmost section of the continental United States, yet I wished I had more time to fully appreciate its historic sites, ecological treasures, water-based adventures, and darn good seafood.
It’s easy enough to explore the islands of this archipelago, flanked by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, since they are conveniently connected by the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1). Find attractions via their mile marker numbers: Key Largo visitor center in the Upper Keys stands at mile marker 106, and the highway stretches south-southwest to Key West to mile marker 0. Every bridge you cross – there are 42 – brings a new panoramic vantage point and splashes of color: green mangroves, golden beaches, and turquoise water.
Here are some of the spots we visited on our whirlwind visit with attractions I’d recommend, as well as some sights I’d like to hit the next time around:
Kayak around the entire island at Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Here you can rent a kayak or snorkel gear to explore the crystal-clear water around Bahia Honda State Park, accessible between mile markers 36 and 37. (We arrived too late in the day to borrow gear, as last rentals are made at about 3:30 p.m. since the concession area closes at 5 p.m.) There’s no seaweed mitigation along the park’s long stretches of shoreline, such as mile-long Sandspur Beach, so don’t expect a totally pristine beach; my kids and I still managed a walk along the shoreline, and we had fun playing in the mellow waves. Next time, I’d like to stick around until evening, when visitors gather on the old Bahia Honda Bridge for a front-row seat to the radiant Keys sunset.
You may have heard that Duval Street in Key West is known for its lively nightlife (i.e. “the Duval bar crawl”). But during daylight hours, the main drag is probably the best place to shop for souvenirs, with its T-shirt shops, jewelry stores, art galleries, cigar stands and much, much more. My children (ages 11 and 13) loved all the free samples at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, which sells everything key-lime flavored under the sun: taffy, jelly beans, salsa, crackers, and chocolate-covered pie on a stick.
Southernmost Point Marker
Viewfinder Tip: Arrive early in the day if you want to snap a pic at the Southernmost Point Marker.
The concrete buoy marking the “southernmost point in the continental U.S.” is a huge tourist attraction, at the corner of South and Whitehead streets in Key West. Unless you arrive first thing in the morning (i.e. before 9 a.m.), be prepared for a long line of visitors waiting to snap their photo of this Keys’ landmark. Is it an absolute must-do? Maybe not. But it does make a great family photo for the scrapbook or holiday card!
Key West Aquarium
Admittedly, I didn’t go to this small attraction near Mallory Square with my husband and children. I sent them to the Key West Aquarium while I took a much needed exercise walk down Duval Street to the Southernmost Point Marker – I needed to burn off all that key lime pie! But they reported that the attraction was worthy, namely for the shark feeding, where they got to touch a nurse shark on its tail. Guests can also pet and feed stingrays, and otherwise touch items like horseshoe crabs, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. Hands-on is always cool!
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
While there are dozens of fabulous spots to watch the renowned sunsets in the Florida Keys, the gathering at Key West’s Mallory Square each evening is the most popular. An hour before sunset, hundreds of visitors gather to watch magicians, acrobats, and jugglers entertain the masses. My 11-year-old loved it when a (mildly raunchy) magician-comedian called him out of the crowd to help with a trick. The sunset celebration is free, but bring along some bills to tip the hardworking entertainers – then ready your camera for Mother Nature’s brilliant display, as a giant fiery-orange sphere sinks into the sea.
Snorkeling and Wild Dolphin Encounter
Dozens of outfitters offer fishing charters, kayaking tours, and snorkeling excursions that depart from marinas throughout the Keys. We booked the Shipwreck Snorkel and Wild Dolphin Encounter with the sailing catamaran ECHO, which sails from the historic seaport area of Key West (definitely worth a stroll). While weather and water conditions didn’t allow us to snorkel above a shipwreck, we did spot colorful coral and schools of tropical fish – as well as nifty starfish – in a reef about an hour’s sail from land. We all used the floating noodles the ECHO crew offered us, which helped us from getting too fatigued while snorkeling. The highlight: spotting four Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who make their home in the waters off the coast of Key West.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of things to do with children in the Florida Keys – there’s also the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (with its resident six-toed cats), the Conch Tour Train, and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Key West, as well as the Turtle Hospital in Marathon.
What are your favorite things to do in Southern Florida?