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Kid-Friendly Zones: the florida keys

by Elaine Labalme

The Florida Keys are a crescent-shaped, hundred-mile-long island chain at the tip of the Sunshine State. Think water sports, lazy days and old Florida but what you won’t find much of are beaches, since most of the Keys are built on coral rock. No matter, there’s plenty to catch your fancy, which is why you should plan on spending a week and stop in at assorted islands, from Key Largo near the top to Key West at the bottom.


Key Largo, about an hour from Miami, is one of the larger islands in the archipelago and a haven for snorkeling and diving thanks to its proximity to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The area’s pristine turquoise waters will delight and make water sports a must. Pirate Island Divers transports enthusiasts to Frenchman’s Reef aboard the roomy Sea Star. Along the way, you’ll spot egrets, great blue heron and cranes. At the reef, divers are sent on their way while snorkelers are fitted with slim vests that make floating a breeze. The maybe-35-foot-deep reef is filled with all manner of aquatic life including schools of neon blue fish and delicate coral formations. Kids will love the trip and the  crew couldn’t be more accommodating. Purchase a Pirate Island Divers tee back at the shop since the cool factor is a 10. http://www.pirateislanddivers.com/

On the bucket list of my husband, Fen, is a swim with dolphins and no one does it better than Dolphins Plus, an educational/recreational facility tucked away on a side street in Key Largo. The two-hour structured swim program spends an hour educating attendees prior to a swim in a seawater lagoon. We learn that Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have no nose and no sense of smell but can hear eight times better than humans. These mammals can average 20 m.p.h. in water and can outrace a shark. However, sharks are not their main predators – humans are, thanks to overfishing and pollution.  Once in the lagoon, we’re put through a series of paces with our dolphins, Bob and Squirt, including belly rubs, a dorsal fin swim, handshakes and kisses. Best of all is being pushed, by our feet, backwards and forwards across the water. Can you say “thrill ride?” http://www.dolphinsplus.com/


The Key Largo Marriott is home to Pirate Island Divers as well as a series of lemony-colored, low slung buildings facing an azure pool and the Gulf of Mexico. Lush foliage abounds and a thatched hut tops a poolside bar. A two-bedroom suite makes for a home-away-from-home, with a king in the master bedroom offering a water view and a second bedroom with two queens keen for kids. In between is a full kitchen, colorful living room and balcony that spans the suite. Close by the pool is Gus’ Grille, perched high so you can see the sea as you dig into tasty fare including a tropical salad plump with greens, hearts of palm and mango and where the key lime pie is served on a pooled berry compote surrounded by fresh strawberries. Our ten-year-old son, Steven, took to rating key lime pies on an Excel spreadsheet and noted that Gus’ version possessed “whipped cream that’s an A+.” http://marriottkeylargo.com/ Breakfast is at Harriette’s Restaurant, a tiny spot on U.S. 1 where basics are best and customers keep coming back. 95700 Overseas Highway, (305) 852-8689. Dinner at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is another glimpse into the local’s experience, a spacious dining room whose walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with license plates from around the globe. Yes, travelers have also caught on to Mrs. Mac’s thanks to fresh fish that’s grilled, broiled, blackened or fried. mrsmacskitchen.com

Visit the Island Grill on Islamorada on your way to the Middle Keys and indulge in a platter of tuna nachos. Expect chunks of glistening ahi-grade tuna served raw over a seaweed salad and perched atop crispy, palm-sized wontons. The whole is drizzled with wasabi, sesame seeds, scallions and a sweet soy sauce. The indoor/outdoor dining space is perched on a waterway that dumps into the Atlantic and it’s commonplace for diners to show up by boat. The key lime pie? “Super-creamy, and I love how it shines,” says Steven. http://www.keysislandgrill.com/


At Mile Marker 61 on Duck Key is Hawks Cay Resort, the beneficiary of a recent $42 million renovation. Think of the 60-acre property as a cruise ship on land: the resort is filled with plentiful amusements and you can choose to do everything or nothing at all. Among the options are five pools, tennis, a spa, bike rentals, fishing, water sports and a slate of programs for kids and teens. The lobby is a medley of chocolate-brown couches and sink-into-me chairs and has Steven shouting “this is NICE” almost instantly. We repair to the main pool, a serpentine plunge where kids and parents frolic. Royal blue umbrellas protect from the sun and attentive servers keep drink glasses filled. While a multi-story hotel wing surrounds this pool, guests often choose to stay at one of 225 villas that dot the property. Our three-bedroom villa, dubbed “Gone Fishing,” is laid out over two floors and akin to a roomy townhouse. The sunny yellow, shingled exterior belies an interior that is a riot of color, a series of boldly-painted rooms replete with dark wood furnishings and floral upholstery that are as elegant as they are cosseting. Steven chooses an upstairs bedroom across from ours and both sides of the villa have spacious balconies overlooking a placid canal. Back inside, flip the plantation shutters and cool off under one of many ceiling fans. It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this splendid accommodation but we do, if only for a game of tennis or to visit the resort pools.


On one afternoon, Steven pays a visit to the Indies Club, which hosts morning and afternoon programs for children that facilitate down time for parents. A vibrant clubhouse is where kids meet and quickly segue into arts and crafts including a necklace made with colored sand and a door hanger fused with glittering seahorses. In short order, the crew marches to the docks to feed the tarpon and spots a manatee, an unusual find in these parts. After that, it’s a swim in the Indies Pool followed by a spirited water cannon battle at the Pirate Pool. Ice cream for everyone is courtesy of the Emack & Bolio’s counter back at the clubhouse and it’s all over much too soon. No matter, Fen and I have whiled away the afternoon swimming and reading at the secluded, adults-only pool. Dinner is at Tom’s Harbor House, a casual table that’s an easy walk from our villa and serves upscale pub grub. My mutton snapper is flaky and tender and Fen’s seafood pasta is stocked with local fish including snapper, mahi mahi and cobia; Steven’s fish & chips is lightly breaded and easily meets his specifications.

Another winner is Lazy Days Restaurant on Islamorada, a local institution where fishing trophies line the walls and lacquered wood tables serve as backdrop for fresh fish served grilled, fried or with one of a handful of unique toppings. The house tomato-basil dressing is dreamy over fresh greens and the key lime pie possesses nice color and tartness. Post-meal, we return to the resort for a Sunset Bike Tour encompassing the five small islands that make up Duck Key. Our hour-long ride is led by Fith Fithian, a charming Canadian who runs the Indies Club. We peek at celebrity homes and hear local lore including the story of Judge Howe, who shipped 40,000 pounds of salt to Key West annually in the early 20th century. Was he an old salt? We end up at the bridge that connects the Overseas Highway to Duck Key to watch a spectacular sunset. http://www.hawkscay.com/


Bahia Honda State Park, at Mile Marker 37, is one of the few natural beaches in the Florida Keys. A narrow stretch of soft white sand meets crystalline blue-green water and you’ll amble out a good distance before the water touches your knees. Gaze down at your feet or, better yet, sit in the water and allow the warm waves to caress your shoulders. The beach, a well-kept secret, is rarely crowded and if you want a better view, climb up to the abandoned bridge at the southern end of the Park and look out over mangroves that hold the beach in a sweet embrace. http://bahiahondapark.com/ At the end of the line, or Mile Marker 0, is Key West, variously referred to as the “Conch Republic” by independent-minded locals and “Margaritaville” by fans of favorite son and singer Jimmy Buffett. The pace is languid on the Keys’ largest island, not surprising since tropical breezes are harder to come by. Pick up the island vibe at B.O.’s Fish Wagon, a sheet-metal-topped, open-air shack decorated with buoys and oars and where the rusted pickup truck out front speaks to the restaurant’s humble beginnings as a roving fishmonger. The fried grouper sandwich is lightly-breaded and napped in a delectable key lime mayo while the cracked conch sandwich boasts a softball-sized mound of fish stuffed between two pieces of Cuban bread. The conch fritters are arguably the best in the Keys. http://www.bosfishwagon.com/ End your meal with a slice of key lime pie from Pepe’s Cafe across the street – Steven noted that “the whipped cream + filling + crust = YUM!” http://pepescafe.net/


There is no lack of attractions to keep you busy on Key West and now that cruise ships are docking on the island, offerings will surely grow. Pick your spots and start at the iconic Ernest Hemingway Home, a whitewashed structure paired with lime green shutters. The novelist lived here with his second wife, Pauline, and wrote 70% of his works in a simple study in the back yard. Hemingway’s days epitomized easy living: up at dawn, the author spent his mornings writing and afternoons fishing aboard the Pilar. Evenings were spent at one of many local bars and the resulting rowdy behavior no doubt led to wives three and four. Six-toed cats were a totem for the superstitious Hemingway and the descendants of the first cat, Snowball, now number 44 and laze about the gardens. While younger kids may be unfamiliar with Hemingway, they’ll delight in the feline companions. http://www.hemingwayhome.com/

The Truman Little White House housed a part-time island resident, President Harry S. Truman. Our 33rd president took a liking to the rambling structure and spent many working vacations here, visiting the property 16 times. 95% of the home’s furnishings are authentic and include the president’s poker table, which featured a solid wood cover so as not to offend his prudish wife, Bess. A modest wood desk bears the requisite nameplate stating “The Buck Stops Here.” Ever a hard worker, Truman also had a romantic side and wrote his wife and childhood sweetheart 1,500 love letters over the course of a lifetime. http://www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com/ Enchanting if a bit impersonal is the self-styled Audubon House, where famed painter John James Audubon resided during six weeks in 1832. The painter visited Indian Key and the Dry Tortugas while in residence and painted a well-known series, “22 Birds of the Florida Keys.” Some of the life-size paintings still line the walls of the former residence of Captain John Geiger, who made his fortune in the wrecking industry. The gardens, as one would expect, are a horticulturist’s dream and kids can seek out a shady veranda while parents gawk. http://www.audubonhouse.com/ Tailor-made for kids is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, a repository for riches salvaged by acclaimed treasure hunter Fisher and his crew from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and a sister ship, the Margarita, which sunk off the coast of Key West in the early 1600s. Known to be loaded with silver, gold and jewels intended for the Spanish crown, Fisher began his search in 1969 and his son, Kane, found the mother lode in 1985, including “silver bars stacked like cordwood” at the bottom of the sea. Pieces of the haul, estimated to be worth over $200 million, are in display cases and include heavy gold chains, ingots, emeralds, pearls and religious artifacts. http://www.melfisher.org/


Strolling the quiet streets of Key West puts you in an island state of mind. A stop at the marker for the Southernmost Point in the U.S. at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets is mandated and if you squint really, really hard, you can see Cuba 90 miles away. Caroline Street boasts several home décor shops that epitomize island living and the best of the best include Fast Bucks at Home and Key Accents. If you can’t work with turquoise, don’t bother. Duval Street is far less serene and while the upper stretch of this main drag is home to worthy galleries and cafes, lower Duval is party central and populated by raucous bars including Hemingway’s old standby, Sloppy Joes, now known as Captain Tony’s. Postpone the margarita and head for the jet ski tour at Barefoot Billy’s at the Reach Resort. The two-hour guided tour circles Key West, hopscotching from the Atlantic to the Gulf side. In a counterintuitive twist, you’re likelier to stay upright if you go fast and, consequently, we race between our five designated stops, slowing down only to do the aquatic version of wheelies in a calm bay. It’s an exhilarating experience. If you hang around the beach afterward, you’ll  be pampered by Billy’s cabana staff. http://www.barefootbillys.com/ More aquatic pleasure comes aboard the Classic Schooner Line’s Adirondack III, a sleek 80-foot sailing vessel that goes out morning, noon and evening. We choose a sunset sail and take the boat to twelve knots, which means even more waterborne speed. Our crew of three graciously tends an open bar and platters of cheese and shrimp and, as expected, our sunset in paradise is memorable, a glowing orb that seems to wink as it settles into the Gulf of Mexico. http://www.sail-keywest.com/


The Westin Key West boasts a prime location at the foot of Front Street and close by popular attractions including Mallory Square, where landlubbers gather nightly to celebrate the sunset. Spacious oceanfront rooms are bright and filled with light, and sport balconies that look onto the sea. Soft white sheets are but one piece of Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed and, yes, they lead to sweet dreams. http://www.westinkeywestresort.com/ Breakfast is at Blue Heaven, under blue umbrellas and with a cast of characters including roaming roosters and leave-me-alone cats. The Rooster Special comes with two eggs your way and seasoned potatoes, and pancakes any way they make ‘em are worth your while. http://www.blueheavenkw.com/ Lunch at Sun Sun at the Casa Marina Resort is a beach-y affair since the surf is steps away. The modern setting reeks of understated elegance and a perfectly-prepared mojito is prelude to a refreshing Mediterranean salad or plump fish tacos. Kids will love the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries and the key lime pie souffle prompted Steven to say it was “a bit fluffy but absolutely beautiful.” http://www.casamarinaresort.com/Dining/Sun-Sun Dinner at Sarabeth’s is like being welcomed into a comfortable island home so it’s no surprise that this is a southern outpost for New York City’s Sarabeth’s Kitchen, a haven for comfort food. Cheery yellow walls play off orange pendant lamps casting a warm glow while lacquered wood tables bear fresh flowers. Starters including meaty fried calamari and a roasted beet and gorgonzola salad are expertly prepared as is a tender skirt steak drizzled with chimichurri sauce. Surprisingly, the key lime pie has a crumbled graham cracker crust on top but it’s better than good. http://www.sarabethskeywest.com/ This close to Havana, the Cuban food has to be good at it’s the real deal at El Siboney, where heaping platters of roast pork and fried plantains affirm the restaurant’s reputation. http://www.elsiboneyrestaurant.com/


Use Miami as your gateway to the Keys and spend a night at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, recently purchased by Donald Trump and in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation. Suites are spacious, the pools are huge and the Blue Monster (golf course) won’t bite – or will it? http://www.doralresort.com/ Dinner is at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Miami Design District and while the restaurant is all the rage among South Beach celebrities, it’s genuinely inviting for families. The unpretentious food includes wood-fired pizzas, a tantalizing fillet of grouper and sides like wood-roasted vegetables that are so tasty, your kids will fight you for them. http://www.michaelsgenuine.com/


After trying nearly a dozen different key lime pies over the course of a week, the winner is...Sarabeth’s!

Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

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