This is the time of year when I like to think back on all our warm weather vacations and dream about palm trees, blue skies and sunshine. One of our favorite spring break trips was when we headed south for some family fun in the Florida Keys. When you think of the Keys, most people think about Key West, with its lure of Hemingway, Parrotheads, and the laid-back Conch Republic lifestyle. The reality is that while Key West has its charm, it is also redolent of a honky-tonk boardwalk, flush with cruise ship day trippers and risque t-shirt shops. Since we were seeking a more family friendly environment, we decided to headquarter halfway down the Keys at Hawk’s Cay on Duck Key.
You can fly into either Miami or connect directly into Key West but when it comes to the Keys, the gorgeous drive is half the fun so we flew into Miami, spent a few days in South Florida with family, before heading down to the Keys. The drive from Miami to Duck Key takes about two hours, and once you cross into Key Largo you can leave the stress behind and focus on the beauty all around. You’ll drive through mangroves, past beaches and crystal blue waters, enjoying sweeping views and frolicking water sports enthusiasts like kite surfers.
Where to Stay
We chose Hawk’s Cay because it is extremely family friendly, offering family size villas, water sports, a safe swimming lagoon, kids’ club, multiple pools including the toddler paradise of the Pirate Pool, mini golf, and various restaurants. I booked a two-bedroom Villa and was very pleasantly surprised when we arrived to see a two-bed, two-bath townhouse. Our vacation home was complete with full kitchen, dining area, living room and laundry facilities downstairs, as well as two bedrooms with two full baths upstairs, each with its own balcony. Our biggest surprise was out the back door — a patio with our very own splash pool. While it was a bit far to the main building and pool, we didn’t mind the 5-10 minute walk and when little legs were too tired, the resort was happy to send a golf cart shuttle to pick you up. Plus, the Pirate Pool and kids’ club was halfway between the villa and main hotel.
Where to Eat
There are some things you just HAVE to eat when you are in the Florida Keys — like stone crabs, conch fritters, and, of course, key lime pie! While Hawk’s Cay offers plenty of restaurant options on site, we found better options nearby so we took advantage of the rental car and explored a bit. Here were our favorites:
- Ballyhoo’s Historic Seafood Grille — the place to stop on your drive from Miami into the Keys, at least if it is in stone crab season, is Ballyhoo’s in Key Largo, located right in the median at mile-marker 97.8. This 1930’s conch house offers all-you-can-eat stone crabs as well as other local favorites with indoor and outdoor dining. This is where we kicked off our trip and got into “vacation mode.”
- Island Fish Company — The Island Fish Company in Marathon at mile-marker 54 boasts a tiki bar with an incredible view of the sunset and a perfect place for happy hour and dinner. With an expansive menu, there is plenty for even the finicky eaters, plus a nice gift shop for local souvenirs.
- Fogarty’s — located right at 227 Duval Street, Fogarty’s is perfect for families that just want to relax and people watch for a while. There are so many places lining Duval, but Fogarty’s offers good food and service, along with a fun selection of drinks (because it is Key West after all!)
- Mangoes — if you want to go a little more upscale, but still maintain the island-vibe and kid-friendly atmosphere, Mangoes, also on Duval Street in Key West, offers a perfect dinner option. This is where our now adventurous eater first ordered shrimp off the menu.
- Your villa — seriously…what is the point of having a kitchen if you can’t take the pressure off spending an arm-and-a-leg for every meal or having to entertain little ones for breakfast, lunch and dinner while waiting for island-speed wait service? We stocked up at Publix in Key Largo with the basics for breakfasts, the occasional lunch, and happy hour.
What to Do in the Florida Keys with Kids
There is no shortage of things to do in the FL Keys, but if you are looking for long stretches of white sandy beaches, you won’t find them here. The FL Keys are for more active enthusiasts that enjoy fishing, water sports, and happy hour ;).
- Swimming with the Dolphins — One of the other special features of Hawk’s Cay is the Dolphin Connection, which provides kids and adults a chance to swim with dolphins or just get up close to feed and pet these gentle creatures.
- Kayaking or Boating — there are plenty of charter companies if you want to spend a day at sea fishing or exploring the Keys. We opted for a simpler version and spent some time kayaking around the lagoon and feeding the fish down by the marina docks.
- Parasailing — my daughter first tried parasailing in Captiva Island, but I was still a parasailing virgin. Despite my fear of water, the two of them managed to convince me to give it a try. Not one to let a preschooler show me up, I was ready for the challenge, as long as they didn’t drop me into the ocean (Jaws left a permanent mark on my psyche). The two of us went up together and even when I was afraid, she talked me through it with promises of ice cream after and the treat of sleeping in her bed (who is the parent?). Once I got over the fear, I enjoyed looking at the shades of blue that stretched before me but the true highlight was tracking the progress of a sea turtle through the water below our feet.
- Glass-bottom boat in Key West — I’d highly recommend a day trip to Key West and a chance to explore the coral reef just off the coast via glass-bottom boat. You’ll enjoy the trip out on the water and the kids will get a kick out of huddling over the glass to catch a glimpse of the tropical fish and coral without having to jump in the water.
- Key West Aquarium — after seeing the fish in the wild, why not get a little closer at the Key West Aquarium. While not large, it is focused on local species. They offer touch tanks to get up close to sea stars, conch, and other crustaceans. You might also get a chance to pet a sand shark.
- Key West at Sunset — even though it was about an hour and a half drive from Key West back to Duck Key, we were hoping the little one would sleep in the car (and she actually did!) so that we could stay and enjoy the sunset. The Sunset Celebration takes place nightly at the Mallory Square Dock in Key West and this is where the locals and tourists hang out to watch the amazing sunsets and take in the street performances. You’ll see fire eaters, arts and crafts vendors, all sorts of street performers, and our favorite — a guy who gets cats to jump through hoops and do amazing tricks. Plus, you MUST, MUST, MUST try chocolate dipped key lime pie on a stick. They are delicious. I may have to go order some just thinking about them.
Our trip to the Keys was the beginning of many things, adventurous eating, water sports, and endless games of Uno back at the Villa. We came home with great memories and enjoyed seeing a part of Florida very different from what we had explored previously. If you are looking for other Florida ideas, be sure to check out my post about Captiva and Sanibel on the West Coast or Kennedy Space Center on the East Coast.
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Have you been to the Florida Keys? What would you recommend?