Florida Keys: Top Attractions
|Ernest Hemingway's house, Key West (Corel)|
The Florida Keys, a 120-mile-long chain of islands, lures boaters, divers, and snorkelers with its turquoise waters, bountiful coral reefs, and sportfishing. Beach lovers will find some of the region's best sands at the state parks that line the Keys. Key West, the southernmost U.S. city, has a panache all its own. Stroll the shops, climb the lighthouse steps, visit Ernest Hemingway's home, and drop by Mallory Square for the sunset party.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Key Largo)
The nation's first underwater park boasts more than 100 square miles of land, surf and coral reefs beginning three to eight miles offshore. Along with glass-bottom boat tours, the park offers snorkeling outings with onboard lessons for beginners. From Cannon Beach, you can swim 100 feet to a submerged Spanish shipwreck. Local outfitters such as Sundiver Snorkel Tours also offer trips.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: 305.451.2220, www.pennekamppark.com
Sundiver Snorkel Tours: 305.451.6300, www.snorkelingisfun.com
Theater of the Sea (Islamorada)
Ever fed a sea lion? Here's your chance at this marine-life park where animals live in natural saltwater lagoons and share quality time with visitors. Dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows are followed by a guided tour of marine exhibits and a lagoon-side beach. Don't miss the boat ride. Conservation is a big theme here, and so is fun.
Theater of the Sea: 305.664-2431, www.theaterofthesea.com
Dolphin Research Center (Marathon)
Enjoy close encounters with one of the Keys' most popular residents at this not-for-profit facility. While standing on the dock, tots as young as three get a flipper shake and a wet kiss. In the water, ages five to 12 (with a parent) as well as adults can pet and play with the wet mammals while learning about their behavior. 12-year olds and up can be trainers for a day, assisting naturalists in teaching a friendly bottlenose hand signals and swimming with the dolphin, who bids farewell by using a paintbrush to color a personalized souvenir T-shirt.
Dolphin Research Center: 305.289.1121, www.dolphins.org
Turtle Hospital (Marathon)
Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, and Kemp's Ridley turtles are on view at this hospital, which has treated injured sea turtles since 1986. First, enjoy a slideshow about how these endangered creatures survive in a complex ecosystem, and then visit the surgical room where these critters are nursed back to health. Kids especially enjoy seeing the recovering turtles in the rehabilitation aquarium. Tours depart three times a day and reservations are recommended.
Turtle Hospital: 305.743.2552, www.turtlehospital.org
Crane Point (Marathon)
This 63-acre site, best for young children, offers a natural history museum, a children's museum, a wild bird refuge, an historic house, and Wild Willie, Casa Iguana's resident reptile. The Museum of Natural History displays remnants of pirate ships, a 600-year-old dugout canoe, and other artifacts of the Keys' history. The Children's Museum displays pirate clothes and a chance to climb aboard a replicated 17th-century galleon.
Crane Point: 305.743.9100, www.cranepoint.com
Bahia Honda State Park (Big Pine Key)
Beaches and beautiful coral reefs are what draw visitors to Bahia Honda State Park, 37 miles north of Key West. Sandspur is the largest beach, Loggerhead the shallowest and best for little kids, while Calusa is the smallest beach in the park. Paddle along the coast in a rented ocean kayak or fish for snapper and grouper from the sea walls.
Bahia Honda State Park: 305.872.3210, www.floridastateparks.org
National Key Deer Refuge (Big Pine and Lower Keys)
The Lower Keys provide verdant cover for indigenous deer at the National Key Deer Refuge, 8,300 acres comprised mostly of shrub wetlands and wetland marshes, and about 2,400 acres of upland forests. Almost extinct in the 1980s, Key deer now number about 800 and can be seen throughout the refuge. At the Blue Hole, a quarry filled with freshwater, visitor facilities include an observation deck from which kids can view alligators and other marsh creatures.
National Key Deer Refuge: 305.872.2239, nationalkeydeer.fws.gov
Conch Tour Train (Key West)
Older kids may think they're too cool for this ride, but they'll soon discover why it's a longtime favorite for families visiting Key West. The 90-minute trip takes you around the island spotlighting historic sites related to local loreÂ—from Spanish explorers to Ernest Hemingway's abode to President Harry Truman's Little White House. It's a fun way to get your Key West bearings and decide what you want to do on your visit.
Conch Tour Train: 305.294.5161, www.conchtourtrain.com
Key West Shipwreck Historeum (Key West)
When ships ran aground on Key West's reefs, the wreckers came out to salvage goods and rescue people in the water. Grade-schoolers like to relive their endeavors with the Historeum's combination of live actors, film, and artifacts from the Isaac Allerton, which went down off these waters in 1856. Before you leave, climb the 65-foot lookout tower for a sweeping view of the country's southerly endpoint.
Key West Shipwreck Historeum: 305.292.8990, www.shipwreckhistoreum.com
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration (Key West)
Magicians, jugglers, sword swallowers, and guitarists are just some of the performers who turn Mallory Square into a street party each night beginning about an hour before sunset. The lively gathering, complete with T-shirt and jewelry vendors and lots of tourists, lasts until shortly after sundown.
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration: 305.292-7700, www.sunsetcelebration.com
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication