When it’s cold outside, and maybe there’s even snow on the ground, our thoughts turn to warm destinations like Florida. Our family had not spent much time here, and after this trip to the Florida Keys we are converts. Everyone raves about vacations in Florida, and now we see why people love visiting here so much! Spectacular weather, warm waters and plenty of interesting flora and fauna make this a really amazing place for vacation. With so much to see and do here, we made a list to share with you of our favorite fun family activities in the Florida Keys.
Honestly, there are so many things to see and do here we didn’t even scratch the surface. With the help of friends, advisors, experts and our own kids’ spidey senses, we found some really amazing things for our first visit here. We left so many other destinations on the table, we’ll just have to go back and tick more off the list. Until then, here are some of the highlights if you plan to visit the Florida Keys too.
*One fun factoid: Key West is the southernmost point of the United States, and there is a cool marker there to view when you visit.
Fun Family Activities in the Florida Keys
We made our home base at the waterfront Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key, and plotted our agenda of fun family activities in the Florida Keys. Tearing ourselves away from the hotel pool and lagoon was not easy, but it was really sweet to return here each day. More on the Hawks Cay Resort below.
Feed the Tarpons at Robbie’s
Probably one of the most fun things we did while visiting the Florida Keys (and most exciting) was feeding the tarpons at Robbie’s of Islamorada. First and foremost a restaurant and marine activities center, Robbie’s has become famous for the schools of giant tarpon that swarm their docks. Tarpons are saltwater game fish common to these waters, and can grow up to 350 pounds and 8 feet in length. Their mouths are enormous caverns of hungry darkness.
At some point years ago, Robbie himself started feeding these gargantuans of the sea. Now when you visit Robbie’s, you can buy a bucket of bait fish for a few bucks and feed the tarpons yourself. The fish seemed to sense our presence and start to get rambunctious in the water next to the pier. Holding a fish by the tail, we each took turns slowly lowering the fish towards the water. Suddenly a bold tarpon rose out of the water with its mouth open wide.
I don’t know what happens if you hold on to the fish while the tarpon closes its mouth around your hand. Instead, we all screamed like little girls and dropped the bait fish as the tarpon jumped up. Damn things look prehistoric when they are coming at you with that hungry look in their eyes!
Robbie’s also offers great food in a casual environment with full bar. Activities offered here include jet skis, parasailing, kayaks, snorkel cruises and plenty more. It was too windy the day we visited to embark on any of these activities. Just another reason to come back and see our tarpon buddies.
Check out the Robbie’s website for times, costs and details.
Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys
One of the only turtle rescue hospitals in the world dedicated to rehab and release programs, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon is exceptional. Dedicated to helping turtles injured by humans, other creatures and disease, the hospital staff comes to their rescue. Visitors are invited to come to the Hospital for educational tours, with proceeds from ticket sales supporting the organization’s non-profit mission.
For our animal-loving kids, this visit was an emotional highlight. Both Sophia and Ava fell in love with these sweet creatures, some very badly injured in boating accidents and shark attacks. With battered and broken shells, turtles are nursed back to health here. Ideally turtles recover fully and are released back into the wild. Unfortunately some do not fully recover, and are no longer able to care for themselves outside the hospital. Those creatures live here for the rest of their days, pampered and loved by staff and visitors alike.
It was fascinating to see the operating room, holding tanks, and dedicated staff caring for these turtles. Most are green sea turtles, some are loggerheads and others are Ridley’s. There were little baby turtles, teen turtles and all the way up to ancient old man turtles. Some live to be as old as 80 years, so caring for them 24/7 is a huge commitment!
Touring the facility, we were able to learn about, observe and even feed the turtles. Our girls were in heaven, and there was even talk of veterinary school in their futures. We’ll see about that, but their commitment to animals runs deep.
Advance reservations here are highly recommended. Tours run every hour, and admission cost is $30 per adult, kids 4-12 are $15, and children under 4 are free. For more information, view the Turtle Hospital website.
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
In the heart of Key West at the very southernmost point in the US, the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory holds court. Fun for all ages, this butterfly zoo is a menagerie of colorful winged creatures and plants. With more than 50 varieties of butterflies on site, there are also moths, tropical birds and two very friendly flamingos (more on them later). This is definitely one of the top fun family activities in the Florida Keys.
As we walked through the thick tropical jungle of plants and flowers, swarms of butterflies swirled around us. Bright blues, deep oranges, hot pinks and vibrant yellows were mixed in with pretty much every other color of the rainbow. It was so peaceful to just sit on a bench and watch them. Some even landed on us for a moment before floating away again. For kids, there is a great educational video and area with caterpillars munching away on their favorite plants. This place is just magical.
The staff is very knowledgeable about all the different species of butterflies, moths, birds and plants. With docents positioned throughout the enclosure, we had tour guides all around as we meandered through. Visitors exit through a very well themed gift shop, where our girls had a field day. We came home with so many butterfly themed gifts for family and friends!
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is open 365 days a year, 9-5 daily with the last admission at 4:30. Ticket prices are $13.98 for adults, kids 4-12 are $11.98, and children under 3 are free.
Flamingo Encounter in the Florida Keys
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory has a special event called Flamingle, offered only to a very small group of people a few times per week. After closing time when all the guests have departed, this small group is led into the enclosure to sit on benches inside the arbor. And then, the two resident flamingos are released from their pen to walk freely around the entire enclosure. Their names are Rhett and Scarlett.
The most fun part of this? Rhett and Scarlett love people and are very sociable, so they come running right up to check out their new guests. And by right up, I mean up close and personal. Instructed not to touch the flamingos, we sat with huge smiles while they sniffed, preened and tickled us with their gorgeous bills and bright pink features. Really, this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences we will be talking about forever.
Ava was a little freaked out at Rhett and Scarlett’s very friendly behavior, and sensing this they left her alone. The rest of us were showered in attention and love. Rhett did this weird thing with his bill, vibrating it on my legs, arms and neck in a way that tickled enormously. He took a liking to me, and kept trying to stretch his long legs and climb into my lap! Scarlett preferred to preen Sophia and Triton’s hair with her bill, separating each hair carefully in her effort to show attention and love. It was very sweet.
We can’t recommend this highly enough. In order to reserve your spot, you must contact the team at Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory far in advance. For rates and more information see here.
Ernest Hemingway’s Home & Cats
Right down the road from our butterfly experience, we walked on to the grounds of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. Hemingway is famous for his novels such as For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises and more. Many were turned into movies of great acclaim. Deceased since 1961, Hemingway’s estate is now a museum filled with his memorabilia and writings. Ever the man of the hour, Hemingway lived an outsized life while traveling the world. On his adventures he collected many things of beauty, and a few oddities as well. Quite a few are on display here.
One of these oddities was his pet cat, Snow White, who was polydactyl. This means she had six toes instead of the normal five or four. Now the Hemingway estate is teeming with her descendents, all with the unusual six toe signature. Over the years, this DNA has spread and there are at least 50 cats on the grounds. Our kids went wild trying to lure these cats into their arms, petting them madly and cooing. Honestly, I think they would have tried to smuggle one out in their backpacks were it not for the eagle eyes of a nearby docent.
By everywhere on the grounds, I mean these cats are all over – inside and out. Curled up asleep on Hemingway’s bed, a sweet long-haired tabby was dozing . Splayed out across the bathroom windowsill, his cousin napped nearby. In the garden, dozens of their family members roamed about. Definitely not a place for cat-haters or those that are allergic!
The house is open every day of the year (even holidays) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets include a guided tour, and cost $17 for adults and $7 for kids ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and younger are free.
Where to Stay in the Florida Keys
Hawks Cay Resort
During our visit to the Florida Keys, we stayed on the water’s edge at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key. Located at about the halfway point on the Keys, the resort is easy to get to from either Key Largo near the mainland or Key West at the very tip. Perfect jumping off point for visiting fun family activities in the Florida Keys.
Our suite was incredibly spacious, with a kitchen, dining area, living room with fold-out couch and large decks both downstairs and upstairs. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms each with ensuite bathrooms. But the views, oh the views! Our deck had stairs down to a grassy area and then the bay, right there in all its glory. We watched boats whizz by pulling waterskiers, jet skis and kayaks and all kinds of aquatic sports. Best of all, the sun set over this view each night and we witnessed a daily light show from our suite.
Hawks Cay Resort has everything a family would hope to find in a vacation spot. The pool was enormous and serpentine, with areas for play or relaxation. We loved the saltwater lagoon nearby, warm and calm with stand up paddleboards and canoes. Around this lagoon, chairs and umbrellas are positioned for extra lounge areas dedicated to guests who wanted more quiet solitude.
There is even a dolphin encounter on site, located in a private bay where guests can reserve the opportunity to swim with the dolphins. We opted for family time in the gym instead, and loved the fitness facilities connected to the spa.
Rooms at the Hawks Cay Resort start at around $230 per night and go up from there. Our two-story, 2-bedroom suite was approximately $380 per night.
More Fun Family Activities in the Florida Keys.
The list of things we share above is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many fun family activities in the Florida Keys, we think we need to go back for more experiences. Stay tuned for Chapter Two of this story!