TRAVEL: Island Hop Through the Florida Keys

Introduce your family to the sunshine state's unique ecosystem
Courtesy Of Fury
Photo courtesy of Fury

Fly to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, rent a car, and head south to the Florida Keys. Make these stops along the way or set up a home base and take a series of day trips with your family.

Book an 8-mile airboat ride with a professional guide through Coopertown Airboats, open since 1945. Glide through marshes and wide-open saw grass spaces and see mangrove trees, birds, and turtles. Guides point out alligator holes and slow down for photos of them swimming through the canal. Finish the adventure with breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Coopertown Restaurant, adjacent to the giftshop and office. Feast on true Florida fare like frog legs, gator tail, and catfish. For the less adventurous eaters, they also have hamburgers, hotdogs, sandwiches, and salads.

Key Largo

Photo courtesy Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau

Visit Theater of the Sea, a family-owned marine animal park, and one of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world. See crocodiles, dolphins, sea lions, and sharks in their natural habitats, and move from one show to the next along garden paths. Learn about the animals and the positive reinforcement training used on a voluntary basis.

Courtesy Of Theater Of The Sea

Photo courtesy of Theater of the Sea

Interact with starfish, giant isopods, and Queen Conch in multiple touch tanks throughout Aquarium Encounters. Take a guided tour with a marine biologist to learn about the manatee rescue, rehabilitation and release program, and the coral restoration project. Encounters with creatures of the coral reef, nurse sharks, and stingrays are an additional cost to the admission fee.

Pigeon Key
Hop on the ferry to Pigeon Key Foundation and Marine Science Center, a historic destination with a museum detailing Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Learn about the history of the island, which dates back to the 1500s, and how the key was essential to the 82 camps of men working on the railroad. Pigeon Key connects with the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which is a two-mile walk or bike ride with sweeping views of Florida Bay. Soon to come is a 60-passenger tram to transport visitors to and from Pigeon Key.

Big Pine Key
Spend a day at Bahia Honda State Park walking the shoreline and the Old Bahai Honda Bridge Trail. Wildlife is abundant in the water, on the ground, and in the sky. For close-up views, rent a kayak and snorkeling gear from the concessions building. Grab drinks, lunch, and snacks from the concessionaire or bring a picnic for the beach and swim in the bay.

Bahia Honda

Bahia Honda State Park

Wander through the Jack Watson Nature Trail, a 2/3-mile loop through the National Key Deer Refuge. Walk through the pine forest, the last in the Keys. Just six minutes down the road is the Blue Hole, where you can watch for Gary, the resident alligator, from the observation deck. Find birds and other wildlife as you stroll along these paths in the refuge.

Sugarloaf Key
Kayak in a clear boat with Get Up and Go Florida Keys. The guided tour leads guests through Florida Bay, which brims with coral, nurse sharks, and stingrays as well as white heron and osprey.

Courtesy Of Get Up And Go Kayaking

Courtesy of Get Up and Go Kayaking

Key West
Book an eco-tour, snorkel trip, or sunset cruise through Fury and Sunset Watersports. Adrenaline junkies can opt for jet skis, parasailing, banana boat rides, and more. Sunset rents a variety of boats with the option to hire a captain.

For the Judy Blume fans in the group, stop by her bookstore, Books & Books, in Key West. If you’re lucky, she might be there working in the shop.