With its azure blue waters, swaying palm trees, year-round warm temps and bright blue skies, Key Largo makes for the perfect tropical escape. Two state parks, a national park and a national marine sanctuary offer plenty of opportunities to explore and learn. Plus it’s easy to reach, at just a little over an hour’s drive from Miami International Airport. Key Largo also makes for the perfect launching point for exploring the other nearby keys. Here are eight amazing, family-friendly Key Largo adventures in the upper Florida Keys.
Set off on an eco-adventure
One of the best ways to enjoy the natural beauty of the upper keys is by Zodiac inflatable. Hop on board a Caribbean Watersports’ Enviro-Tour and you’ll quietly zoom in close to quiet mangrove islands and hidden harbors. You’re sure to meet a few of the many natives, including iguanas, manatees, starfish and jellyfish. As you zip from island to island, you’ll likely spot frolicking dolphins. Trips last less than two hours, and since the Zodiacs are small–seating only about seven people plus the captain–tours are personalized and you’re encouraged to ask as many questions as you can imagine. If you’ve got inquisitive animal lovers in your family, this makes for a fun and educational tour.
Swim with dolphins
Turn your dreams into reality by swimming with a dolphin at the Theater of the Sea. Kids as young as five can experience the joy of mingling with these incredible marine mammals. The dolphins are able to swim in and out of this natural lagoon by their own choice, so you can be assured that they’re friendly and ready to play with you and their knowledgeable trainers. The 30-minute experience will teach you more about these amazing creatures as you swim alongside them and learn what it takes to be trainer. If you’re lucky, you might even receive a big dolphin kiss on the lips!
Learn more about sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital
The Turtle Hospital is a small non-profit medical and education center dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles. When a local sea turtle is in trouble, this important area hospital sends out its sea turtle ambulance to the rescue. At the hospital, sea turtles receive lifesaving care and rehabilitation. Visitors can see sea turtles recovering from injuries and illnesses in the many pools that dot this property (a former motel). You’ll also enjoy the interactive welcoming presentation, which is both informative and interesting, giving kids the chance to touch various sea turtle shells and learn ways in which they, too, can save sea turtles.
Because The Turtle Hospital a working hospital, you must be part of one of the guided educational programs in order to visit with the turtles, so remember to reserve your tickets in advance.
Snorkel or set sail on a glass bottom boat
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is an underwater Florida State Park. The coral reefs teem with marine life and are nothing short of amazing. If you’ve got older kids, you’ll want to take a guided snorkeling tour. It lasts about two-and-a-half hours with about one-and-a-half hours of water time, and you’ll have to rent or bring your own mask, snorkel and fins.
If you have little ones in your crew, sail away on a glass bottom boat tour. This high-speed catamaran will take you on a two-and-a-half hour tour over shallow reefs where you can see all the action through the glass bottom. You can also rent kayaks and paddleboards and explore on your own. Guided tours fill up quickly so be sure to book online in advance.
Meet the birds
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is a conservation organization that rescues, rehabilitates and releases native and migratory wild birds that have been harmed or displaced. The permanent residents here are all wild bird species that can’t survive without a little human help. A short trail leads visitors through the oceanside, wooded grounds and past the sanctuary homes of birds including owls, hawks, herons, gulls, pelicans, pigeons and parrots. The Wild Bird Explore education center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and offers self-guided and pre-scheduled docent-led tours.
Feed the tarpon
Tarpons are large fish–they can grow to about 4-8 ft. long and weigh 60-280 lbs.–that love to leap. Their shiny, silvery scales, big eyes and broad mouths with prominent lower jaws make them quite a spectacle when they try to catch a bite to eat. At Robbie’s Marina, more than 100 tarpon visit the docks daily hoping to snack on the baitfish that visitors can feed them from a bucket. Admission to the pier costs $1 and a bucket of baitfish costs $3. Beware of hungry pelicans!
Taste the local flavors
Fresh flavors and a relaxed ambiance are the two cornerstones of the dining scene in the Florida Keys. Meet the iconic mermaid that greets patrons at the entrance of Lorelei Restaurant, a casual, beachside hangout where you can dine on the fresh catch of the day with sand in your toes. Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is another casual family favorite featuring crowd-pleasers such as biscuits and gravy and fresh fish straight off the dock, both best washed down with their amazing key lime milkshakes. Harriette’s Restaurant is a great pick for breakfast thanks to down home favorites and always-fresh-from-the-oven muffins (give the key lime flavor a try!).
Swim. Relax. Catch some rays. Repeat
The Florida Keys are all about relaxation, so make this the focus of your vacation. Sip sweet tea poolside, build sandcastles on the beach and dive into the crystal clear waters.
Where to stay
The Hilton Key Largo is set on 12.5 acres of tropical forest and private beach, giving it the feel of an eco-lodge. Kids will enjoy taking part in the ScoutAbout adventure program, a scavenger hunt that will have them searching high and low for the hidden 12 designated Points of Discovery.
Centrally located Key Largo Cottages works well for larger families thanks to cozy beachside cottages with mini-kitchens and bunk beds for the kids. There’s also plenty to do right outside your cottage door, including sailing and snorkeling, as well as visits with the manatees that often visit the dock.
Follow Chicago Parent on Instagram.
This article originally published in 2016.