For many travelers to Key West, getting to the beautiful beaches and party atmosphere the quickest way is the goal. You can fly into tiny Key West Airport, or drive south from Miami on US 1 in about 4 hours.
But you may want to linger for a couple of days. The Keys, small islands connected by frequent bridges, have such charms that speeding through them, whether by air or road, is missing a great part of the vacation.
To wit, on a recent trip, we stopped in Key Largo, where the original wooden boat from The African Queen offers 90 minute cruises by steam power. There are also glass bottom boat cruises of the coral reef.
Further south, Robbie’s Marina has a casual restaurant, guided kayak tours and rentals, and fishing trips where the guides will help neophyte anglers. I’m such an inexperienced fisher – woman? person? that I don’t even know if ocean fishing can be referred to as angling, but it’s nice to know that you can get someone to help you learn how to cast your line and bait your hook, and even fillet any fish you happen to catch (local restaurants cook your catch for a fee).
Robbie’s offers boat rides to Indian Key, an uninhabited island that once boasted a hotel, post office and busy port. It was attacked and burned in 1840 in the Second Seminole War. Trips to the island are best planned in winter, when the mosquitoes aren’t biting.
At Robbie’s, you can also feed large tarpons, huge fish that swim near the dock waiting for a meal. Robbie’s has guided snorkeling tours, with discounted pricing for kids.
From Marathon, take a ferry to the uninhabited island Pigeon Key, where workers who built the now-defunct Overseas Railroad lived. You can also walk a long bridge, or ride a bike to the island. Take a self-guided walking tour, see the historic buildings and bring a picnic.
The World Wide Sportsman/Bass Pro Shop is another worthy stop. Shop here for wildly expensive fiberglass fishing rods, or just pick up a sun hat or sandals. The store has a replica of Ernest Hemingway’s boat, “Pilar,” and kids can climb aboard and pretend to drive.
The store has a row of rocking chairs out front, and if a band is playing at the marina, you can relax and listen to the music.
Crane Point Hammock Museum & Nature Preserve has a small museum with dioramas and a video about the history of the site. The best thing to do is spend a half a day exploring the 63 acres of nature trails and the variety of wildlife and trees that thrive there. The center also has a wild bird center, where sick and injured birds are rehabilitated for release back into the wild.
A hammock, by the way, means a wooded area; you may want to explain this to kids who might expect to swing between trees in a hanging bed.
But soon you should be able to fly above the trees. Planning has started for a zipline canopy tour. The preserve offers a trolley ride along the trails, free with entry, for those who don’t want to walk.
We stayed at the retro Islander Resort, in Islamorada, an upgraded motel with a gorgeous oceanfront setting. The family- and pet-friendly hotel has a wide expanse of white sand, a couple of pools and on-site rentals of bicycles, kayaks and sailboats.
The Islander provides free a hearty continental breakfast, and has mini-kitchens in rooms. The hotel is upgrading (the fitness room is a sad remnant of the unrenovated past) and has a new chef who offers inventive seafood. The outdoor restaurant and bar, with ceviche and deep fried balls of shrimp and grits, provides of glimpse of improvements under way.
If you want to spend a few more dollars, the Cheeca Lodge & Spa, literally a 5-minute walk down the road, has a full-service spa, tennis courts, a 9-hole golf course, and a great fitness center with beach yoga and other classes.
Parents will love the supervised camp program for kids ages 5-12.
And who knows? If the kids are tired out enough, they might sleep on the drive into Key West.
Disclosure: I was a guest of The Monroe Tourist Development Council. Opinions are my own.