School’s out for summer and now your children can enjoy a full schedule of eco-tours, dive-snorkel charters, fishing trips and visits to area attractions, such as the Museums and Nature Center of Crane Point Hammock or the Dolphin Research Center. You’ll also find plenty of free activities to keep your kids entertained between excursions, and at Tranquility Bay. Several waterfront restaurants, such as The Island (Mile Marker 54.5 gulf side) and Keys Fisheries (Mile Marker 50 gulf side) thoughtfully provide docks where children can feed tropical fish or see huge tarpon.
Here are a few of our favorite family activities:
At the Dolphin Research Center, visitors age 15-17 can enroll in a seven-day Teen Dolphin Lab or Dolphin Camps for ages 10-12 and 13-14, where students meet the resident dolphin population and observe their behavioral and physical characteristics as a way of learning respect for each individual. Here, you can also swim with dolphins this summer for an unforgettable experience.
“Meet” rescued sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, where dedicated staff members focus on the care and rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles. The world’s only licensed veterinary hospital that specializes in sea turtles, the hospital even has its own turtle ambulance. Kids in the Keys can take guided tours of the facility to learn about sea turtles, get a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital and rehabilitation facility, and even feed some of the permanent residents. It’s also possible, if you’re lucky, to witness the release of a turtle that has been returned to health. Releases take place at beaches throughout the Keys, and since 1986 the hospital has released more than 1,000 sea turtles back into the ocean. The unique facility is located at MM 48.5 with daily tours at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Discover shells, fish tanks and pirate costumes at Crane Point Hammock in Marathon. Crane Point Hammock is a 63-acre environmental and archaeological preserve that features fun for families with all types of interests. The historically curious can visit Adderley House, a historic home built in 1906 by a Bahamian immigrant who was a sponge fisherman, boatman and charcoal maker. Adventure seekers can get up close and personal with the museum’s touch tank that features sea urchins and starfish or explore the large lagoon filled with nurse sharks and tropical fish. Nature lovers can hike along one of the nature trails or visit the Marathon Wild Bird Center, a bird rehabilitation center for injured or orphaned birds. Located at MM 50.5, Crane Point Hammock is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
The sport of paddle boarding has exploded in popularity and is attracting enthusiasts and newbies alike to the Florida Keys to try it. Standing on the board, typically 12 to 14 feet in length, not only allows for a better view of the surroundings, but also enables practitioners to paddle longer and more easily while standing, versus sitting as in a kayak. Standup paddling appeals to many different people because it is a relatively simple, straightforward yet diverse activity. Enjoy touring through the mangrove trees, along the beaches or in the backcountry flats in a noninvasive way.
Just down the road in Tavernier, you can become friends with herons, owls, pelicans and egrets at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. This wild bird rescue, rehabilitation and educational facility, is also a sanctuary and visitor center located at mile marker (MM) 93.6. The FKWBC is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) that relies entirely on the generosity of both public and private donations. Visitors can drop in seven days a week, sunrise to sunset, and walk through the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary to the open water of Florida Bay where you’ll see many of the permanent residents along with free-flying birds of many species. Donations and volunteerism are gratefully accepted.
Families can get underway and hoist the sails during sailing lessons targeted to novice sailors who want to experience on-the-water training. Basic through advanced cruising, live-aboard cruises and charters are offered in the waters off the Keys.
Florida Keys Sailing, located in Marathon, offers training for a sailing license to charter or rent a sailboat. Classes range from day sailing trips (with lessons but no tests!) to three-day soup-to-nuts learning courses, after which sailors should be skilled enough to skipper a 24- to 30-foot boat. Five- and seven-day bareboat cruising classes offer serious candidates the skills to captain and charter a 40- or 50-foot sailboat anywhere in the world, and be able to take the family out for a cruise.
Search for Key deer on Big Pine Key. Key deer are an endangered species that live only in the Lower Keys. These shy, appealing creatures are about the size of a large dog and can be found grazing all around Big Pine Key, especially in the early morning hours and around dusk. Spotting these “Bambi-like” creatures isn’t always easy, but it’s an adventure. To learn more about Key deer and other native species, visit the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center, located one-quarter mile north of the traffic light on Key Deer Boulevard in the Big Pine Key Shopping Plaza. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Rotary Field of Dreams
Mile Marker 52, oceanside (75th Street and U.S. 1) Your children will be talking about this large playground for a long time to come. It offers a wooden replica of Thomas the Train, plus plenty of tunnels, swings, and a sandbox with a toothy, make-believe shark. There is plenty for toddlers and older kids.
Mile Marker 50, oceanside (Turn off U.S. 1 at Sombrero Beach Blvd., and drive to the end). This 12.6-acre beach is one of the most popular stops in Marathon for good reason. The beach was renovated in 2003 with creative landscaping and other amenities. It offers walkways, picnic areas and a roped off swimming area.
Coco Plum Beach
Mile Marker 54.5 oceanside (Turn off U.S. 1 at Coco Plum Drive). This small, natural beach is an enjoyable stop, but one with few amenities. It is a quiet, dog-friendly beach with clean-up baggies provided.
Marathon Community Park
This park is located directly on US1 at 200 36th Street Ocean (MM 49). There are four tennis courts, a tennis wall, a combination hockey/basketball court (3 courts), two little league fields, and two soccer fields. There is also an X-treme skating park, two shuffleboard courts, two bocce ball courts, a batting cage, concession stand, amphitheater, picnic areas, and restrooms. This facility is handicap accessible. The park hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, is an All-American Road, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the U.S. Congress in 1991. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious title.
The Overseas Highway has been named one of America’s most scenic drives and among the top 10 greatest drives in the United States by several prestigious publications, including Reader’s Digest and more.
On the next family trip to these drive-to islands, play a game to see who can count each of the 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico!