Deciding to get away for a few days, we headed south on the Florida Turnpike and in less than a few hours, we were officially in the Florida Keys - Key Largo to be specific. What I have noticed is that each Key has its own distinct feel and benefits. For me, Key Largo's biggest draw is its affordability and nearness to the mainland. Just enough of an escape to paradise without the traffic and additional hours to the keys further south including the world famous Key West which I have only experienced twice and only as a stop on a cruise. Not a bad way to taste the environment of Key West, by the way, but probably not the most family friendly destination.
Key Largo, on the other hand, is family-friendly and only a short drive away from Islamorada where there are lots of other great family hotspots like Theater of the Sea (which we may check out next time down here), History of Diving Museum, and shopping, restaurants and art galleries. On our one raining morning, the kids even had fun exploring World Wide Sportsman, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, and the best of of the cheesy gift shops Shell World!
Of course you can't come to the keys and not experience the many water activities. This is a diving and snorkeling haven and there are tours and equipment rentals everywhere. While most first-timers want to (and should) find a place to take an airboat ride in the Everglades, which you can find in the Miami-Dade area just before hitting the Keys, we, having done that a couple of times already, opted for a different kind of boating experience. Here's where I give a shout out to Capt. Sterling's Everglades Eco-Tours. Departing a few times a day, this 6-person maximum or private charter boat took us on a scenic and educational tour of the saltwater regions of the Everglades including the mangrove tunnel which is credited as being the most beautiful spot in the park. Our guide, Captain Dave, has lived in Key Largo for decades and gave a very personal view of the island as we explored the mangroves. We were even lucky enough to run into a family of seven manatees in addition to numerous wetland birds. The tour also swings by some of the residential areas of Key Largo and the million-year-old fossilized reef cut in half to create a passageway for boaters. But the absolute best part of the tour?? My sons LOVED it and were fascinated by Captain Dave's stories of the island, the eco-system, and the dangers threatening the Everglades today, mainly the explosive - and invasive - Burmese python population.
The boys also snorkeled for hours on end right at the hotel. They saw nurse sharks, mangrove jellyfish (Don't worry, they don't sting!), barracuda, tons of starfish and countless other fish. One night while watching the sunset, a baby manatee ventured into the shallow waters of the hotel's beach delighting some lucky swimmers before the youngster returned to his mother waiting not far off. My sons say they are ready for a snorkeling tour the next time we come down here. Most likely we would head over to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for this adventure and maybe take in a glassbottom boat tour too!
Overall, the Keys are known for their seafood restaurants, bars, and music - particularly Jimmy Buffett! There is truly something for everyone whether you're looking an active getaway or a completely relaxing one! If possible, avoid weekends and holidays when traffic on the islands can be a bear! One of the unique things I noticed about the area is that directions are given in terms of mile markers. On more than one occasion, I wanted someone to just give me directions the old-fashion way. Plus, there is key lime everything. Key lime soap, key lime candles, and of course, key lime pie!! I took in a key lime mojito on my first night there.
At the end of the day, it just isn't a trip to the Florida Keys without taking in the breathtaking sunsets. When all was said and done, we had a great time and I see us coming back again and again and partaking in more of the activities and attractions available here on the islands.