by Carmel L. Mooney
Looking for a tropical paradise vacation for your family? You don’t even have to fly over the oceans or borders, and you don’t need a passport for the best family vacation complete with tropical beaches, snorkeling, dolphins, parrots, coral reefs, excellent food, shopping, and balmy breezes.
No, it isn’t Mexico and it’s not Hawaii, but somewhere that has the best of those and so much more: The Florida Keys.
With a unique history and diverse cultural offerings, The Florida Keys is an amazing destination for families of all types and sizes. The Keys offer a multitude of outdoor tropical wildlife exploration, fine dining, shopping, and art that will tickle your fancy.
Once you arrive, you’ll be mesmerized by the beauty and hospitality of the Keys. Cobalt crystalline waters, white sandy beaches, docks, piers, harbors, boats, and if you’re lucky an iguana or gator, all make the magic come alive as you start your exploration of a magical place where life slows down to a pace in sync with the gentle sway of the palm trees carrying the scent of fragrant flowers and blooms.
Ocean Pointe Suites in Tavernier is a great location to start. For a lodging choice that provides everything a family needs and great proximity to all the highlights, this beautiful property has a wonderful pool, private beach, and gorgeous views.
The Florida Keys have a never-ending selection of both quaint and lavish dining options, each unique and offering a very different perspective of the local lore and seafood – most with lovely views of the coast. One family favorite is worth a lengthier visit than most and that’s the World Wide Sportsman in beautiful Islamorada. A clothing store to whet the appetite of any outdoor lover, a gallery, free outdoor skills classes, a marina, and even fishing charters, this place is like none other. But the best waits at the marina at the Islamorada Fish Company with a famous grouper Reuben, signature tropical drinks, and a menu of wonderful local specialties to please the most discriminating palettes of all ages.
You’ll have to allow time to board Hemingway’s boat inside the store and to take a peek at Zane Grey’s lounge where the sunsets melt into the bay. There’s plenty to keep you busy with shopping and dining here for hours.
A piece of Floridian history for animal lovers is the amazing Theater of the Sea. This unusual Marine Mammal Park and Tropical Gardens are open 365 days a year in Islamorada. You’ll want to allow at least three hours to experience the full excitement of the continuously running shows and attractions as well as the beautiful private beach and swimming area stocked with tame resident tropical fish to feed, pet, and swim with.
Award-winning trainers will introduce you to the wonder of the mammals of the area during performances, all in unforgettable ways, while you’re entertained and educated at the same time. Learning has never been such fun!
All the natural wonders of the Florida Keys are brought up close and personal with visitors on this 17-acre wonderland of marine life, exotic plants, and botanical spectacles.
Admission to this magical paradise includes live performances by sea lions, a bottomless boat trip through the lagoon, plus much more. Special programs not included in admission allow further opportunities to get intimate with marine mammals in interactive activities.
Islamorada is known as the Sportfishing Capital of the World, and Theater of the Sea also partners with Fishin’ Mission to offer full or half-day fishing excursions where anglers of all ages can catch not only a limit of fun but Mahi Mahi, Grouper, Tuna, Sailfish, Kingfish, Wahoo, and Snapper as well.
Other family favorites include the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada featuring incredible collections of diving helmets a related gear dating back to the inception of diving.
The Rain Barrel Artists Village is a great place to shop and see local artists working on their crafts in Islamorada also.
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier is a great place with a natural trail where visitors can watch the inhabitants being fed each afternoon.
In Marathon, the Turtle Hospital is a family favorite. This hospital is the only one of its kind where turtles are treated, rehabilitated, and released. Public tours are available. And nearby the Crane Point Hammock offers a museum, nature trail, and historic house.
Perhaps the highlight of the Keys for so many families is the awe-inspiring Dolphin Research Center. This home to dolphins for half a decade is a truly magical place whose mission is to “promote peaceful coexistence between marine mammals and humans through research and education.”
Funded by visitors who come to visit the dolphins and sea lions, this haven for sea mammals offers a wide range of encounters for its guests to choose from, including unique opportunities to become a trainer for a day, a researcher for a day, play with a dolphin, paint with a dolphin, and many others. Shows, activities, and various educational and research-based activities provide guests many opportunities for the price of admission to learn aspects and facets of dolphins that most would never be afforded and chance to see or experience.
An added plus for visitors to the Florida Keys is the proximity to Miami and the Everglades which both offer an enormous array of sightseeing and adventurous excursions.
Miami is also an embarkation port for Carnival Cruise Lines with four and five-day cruises departing to the Caribbean. One great option, popular for many vacationing families, is to spend five or six days in the Florida Keys and then depart from the port of Miami on an exciting four or five-day cruise on the Carnival Imagination. One family favorite is the itinerary to Grand Cayman and Jamaica. Should you decide on this fun itinerary, explore Jamaica with Yardie Tours where your safe, courteous, and helpful tour guides can show your family the beauty of the Dunn’s River Falls, Coyabe Gardens, and the culture of Ochos Rios.
Carnival remains the top choice for families to cruise with the industry’s biggest and best children’s programs.
So explore the magnificent beauty of the Florida Keys, a true tropical adventure on the mainland.
Carmel L. Mooney is a mom and travel columnist, travel author, and radio talk show host.