by Heather Mundt
The southernmost city in the continental U.S., Key West, may be best known as Jimmy Buffett’s inspiration for his song Margaritaville. But beyond the tequila and revelry of legendary Duval Street, there?s also plenty of G-rated fun for the family.
Key West is such a rich environment that it offers visitors a chance to tailor their vacation, says Carol Shaughnessy, a writer, publicist and 35-year Key West resident.
Whether that means partying all week or unplugging with activities like backcountry kayaking, she says, There are tremendous opportunities here. If parents want to create a shared experience with their children, Key West is a wonderful place for it.
From one of the country’s most unique and inaccessible national parks to shipwreck museums and sunset cruises, this city billed as close to perfect, far from normal offers a wealth of adventure for families, whether via seaplane, boat or land. Here are some of our favorite ways to experience Key West as a family.
Dry Tortugas National Park
As we flew over an area of the Gulf of Mexico known as The Flats, a 20-mile stretch of shallow water just west of Key West en route to Dry Tortugas National Park, I couldn’t believe the clarity of my view: three stingrays, fluttering in tandem through the cerulean waters as if I could reach down and touch them.
Instead we were 500 feet above, making the 35-minute flight toward one of the National Park System’s most unique sites: Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West. As the plane’s recorded narrator indicated during our flight, visiting Key West without visiting Dry Tortugas is akin to visiting Egypt without seeing the Pyramids of Giza. And as we prepared to land at our destination, it was clear why.
Flying overhead Garden Key, one of seven keys comprising the archipelago, I finally set eyes on one of the country’s most ambitious architectural feats in history: Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal fortress made of some 16 million bricks, the largest masonry structure in the Americas. Much like I imagine ancient Egyptians toiling on the Pyramids, I envision laborers and masons slogging to create this stunning structure in the middle of the ocean, thinking: How did they do that?
An undertaking nearly 30 years in the making (1846 to 1875), its goal was to protect the country’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. Used during the Civil War by Union warships to blockade Southern shipping and as a prison, primarily for Union deserters the U.S. Army abandoned the Fort around 1874. It now stands as the centerpiece of this National Park treasure.
Visitors today can take a self-guided tour throughout, taking time to snap photos of the structure’s 2,000 brick arches, or opt for a guided tour. Also make time for snorkeling from the area’s white, sandy beaches to spot colorful fish and coral, or picnic in one of the many shaded areas. Keep in mind, though, the area is primitive, with no running water, restrooms or food concessions. The ferry’s bathrooms are open to all daytime visitors.
In our experience, we learned the half-day seaplane trip was too short to explore all the area has to offer. So next time, we’ll opt for a full-day tour, allowing more time to snorkel and explore the expansive fort. Finally, while I’m told the ferry trips are enjoyable, the seaplane’s relatively quick travel time and aerial views of turtles and manta rays from the seaplane were worth the significant expense for a family of four. (The only seaplane company servicing the park is Key West Seaplane Charters.)
If you go: There is no car access to the Park, so visitors must arrive either via Key West Seaplane Adventures (half- or full-day options) or by boat, most commonly the full-day ferry tour.
Did you know Dry Tortugas is part of the Florida Keys Reef System, North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the world’s third largest barrier reef system (behind Australia and Belize). Originally discovered in 1513 by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, he named the area after the Spanish word for turtles, Las Tortugas, for its abundance of sea turtles. The word, Dry,was later added to warn seafarers of the area’s lack of fresh water. There are also 10 primitive campsites available. Visit the Dry Tortugas National Park site for more information.
Undoubtedly a family favorite in Key West, Fury’s selection of water adventures made it too hard for us to pick just one. So we settled on two excursions, starting with a Dolphin Watch & Snorkel Tour, which was dampened only by the chilly rain and elusive dolphins. (We did finally see a few of the cute buggers!) But the kids loved the second trip even more: Ultimate Adventure, a full-day catamaran tour focusing on All Things Watersports, from jet skiing to parasailing and kayaking, as well as a floating playground that included slides and climbing walls. And that was just in the morning. After lunch, we headed to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects more than 6,000 species of marine life, like the stingray that floated just beneath us as we snorkeled.
I can’t imagine a trip to Key West without witnessing its stunning sunsets by boat. And while the boys first option was to do so from one of the pirate-ship schooners, we opted for this cannon-fire-free Wind and Wine Sunset Sail, advertised as the only tour offering real wine. Truth be told, my kids ate more than their fair share of hors d’oeuvres, so we drank their share of wine (four reds, four whites). Everybody wins.
Visitors to this State Park will definitely want to tour the fort–a guided tour is offered daily at 11 a.m.-a National Historic Landmark used in Civil And Spanish-American Wars. But the biggest draw for kids here is the beach, what locals agree is the best in Key West, for swimming, picnicking or fishing. (You can also rent gear like snorkels, floats and chairs on-site.) And be sure to stick around for the area’s legendary sunsets, offering prime photo ops of the sunset-cruise boats along the horizon. Oh, and be sure to spend time at the nearby, free Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 6,000 square feet of educational exhibits including a reproduction of the world’s only undersea research laboratory, Aquarius.
There?s no getting around the fact that this is area feels like French Quarter of the Florida Keys, complete with endless choices of watering holes like the famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar. But it?s also worth the visit if only during the day for the kiddos to feel the festive Key West vibe and sample some of its local fare, particularly the chocolate-dipped key lime pie on a stick.
The historic and tourism hub of Key West, Mallory Square is the place to shop, eat and ride the Conch Tour Train or Old Town Trolley. And my kids especially loved visiting the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, which re-creates 1850s Key West and its lucrative shipwreck-salvage industry, and climbing the 65-foot observation tower for a spectacular city view. But the real fun starts around sunset during the Sunset Celebration, a free, nightly event with street performers, food trucks and vendors galore, and extraordinary waterfront views. And if you get a chance, get a mojito and listen to the live Cuban music at El Meson de Pepe, or eat authentic Cuban food that even my picky kids devoured.
Where to stay: There are endless options for families wanting to stay in the heart of Key West. But we wanted a quieter space away from the crowds and opted for VRBO (HomeAway) townhome Casa Coral on Stock Island, about 4 miles from the main tourist area in Key West. Located in a gated community with a hotel-quality pool, the 2-bedroom, 21/2-bath was comfortable and updated, plus its owner was flexible and responsive. It was also nice that just across the street were two fantastic eateries: Roostica Wood-Fired Pizza and Dolphin Deli (breakfast and lunch).
Where to go: With so many fun museums and destinations, in addition to the aforementioned ones, we visited the Ernest Hemingway House, where the kids enjoyed searching for the 50 or so remaining residents, the six-toed cats, descendants from Hemingway’s life there; the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, where kids 12 and under have free admission; and the kids’ hands-down favorite, Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Next time we’ll have to hit other tourist favorites like the Harry S. Truman Little White House, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Key West Aquarium and Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Click here more information on a planning a Key West vacation.
Editorial Disclaimer: The Mundt family received discounted media rates for lodging and activities.
Heather Mundt is contributing editor for Outdoor Families Magazine and authors her blog, Momfari. She lives in Colorado.