Families planning a stateside sunshine getaway should consider the Florida Keys, a subtropical island chain off the southern tip of Florida that offers summer temperatures of around 30 degrees celsius and a wide range of holiday experiences unlike anywhere else in America.
From nature- and wildlife-themed activities to after-dark paddle-boarding, here are 10 of the best family-friendly activities available in the Keys.
Go wild dolphin watching: Go in search of wild dolphins in their natural playground off the Key West coast with Captain Victoria Impallomeni of Dancing Dolphin Spirits Charters. Trips are for up to six people with half-day excursions costing $500 (around £350).
Journey to America’s most southerly national park: As the United States National Parks Service celebrates its centennial this year, enjoy a day trip to one of the Florida Keys’ best hidden gems, Dry Tortugas National Park. Located some 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, the remote national park is made up of seven coral-and-sand islands surrounded by turquoise waters and coral reefs. Journey to Garden Key in the national park aboard the Yankee Freedom III ferry for $175 (around £120) per adult and $125 (around £87) per child. It’s also possible to travel to the park via Key West Seaplane Adventures. On arrival, explore Fort Jefferson, a remote Civil War-era fortress, and enjoy swimming and snorkelling in tropical waters. Entry to the national park costs $10 (around £7) per person for those age 16 and older, and is included in the adult ferry ticket price.
Explore the Turtle Hospital: Celebrating its 30th birthday this year, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon is believed to be the world’s first state-licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to treating injured sea turtles. Guided tours of the facility teach families about sea turtles and offer a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital and rehabilitation facility. Lucky visitors may even witness the release of a turtle that has been returned to health – since 1986, the hospital has released over 1,500 endangered turtles back into their ocean home. Entry costs $22 (around £15) for adults and $11 (around £7.50) for children (4-12). Tour reservations are recommended.
Swim with and feed the stingrays: Feeding the fish is not permitted in the open waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, but at Marathon’s Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters families can swim with and feed the fishes while learning about the region’s marine habitats. A highlight is interacting with debarbed spotted eagle and cownose stingrays and holidaymakers can safely feed sharks and other predators through small holes in a thick acrylic barrier. General admission starts from $20 (around £14) for adults and $15 (around £10) for kids (ages 4-12). Additional interactive encounters start from $25 (around £17) per person.
Discover an underwater jungle: At Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, families can explore America’s first underwater preserve where the indigenous population comprises countless species of fish and coral varieties. Snorkelling and diving excursions are offered daily and one of the park’s most popular dive sites is the nine-foot bronze ‘Christ of the Deep’ statue that sits in 20 feet of water. For families who prefer to view the underwater paradise without getting wet, glass-bottomed boat tours depart three times each day. Entry costs $8.50 (around £6) per vehicle.
Seek shipwreck bounty: Salvaging goods from ships wrecked on Florida Keys reefs made Key West the richest U.S. city per capita in the mid-1800s. On a visit to the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, kids can embrace their inner pirate as the museum re-creates the salvage or wrecking era through live actors, film and artefacts from the wreck of the Isaac Allerton that sank off the Keys in 1856. Wrecking master ‘Asa Tift’ guides families through the museum, explaining the unique industry, and allows them to climb a 65-foot lookout tower to ring a bell signalling that a wreck has been spotted. Entry costs $15.04 (around £10) for adults and $8.59 (around £6) for kids age four and over.
Play palaeontologist: At Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park in Islamorada, kids can explore a former quarry made up of Key Largo limestone and fossilised coral by navigating eight-foot-high quarry walls. The site also features five nature trails and inviting picnic spots. Entry costs $2.50 (less than £2) per person.
Feed the ‘Silver Kings’: At Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, families will discover one of the Keys’ most cost-effective attractions – hand feeding the 100-plus tarpon (‘Silver Kings’) that gather at the dock at Robbie’s – an experience that has been attracting visitors for 40 years. Admission to the dock is just $1 (around 70p) and each bucket of fish costs $3 (around £2). While at Robbie’s, keep your eyes peeled for pelicans too!
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 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 the perfect family adventure — though please note that it’s not permitted to feet the deer. To learn more about Key deer and other native species, visit the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center. Entry is free.
Walk amongst living butterflies: The state-of-the-art solarium and nature exhibit at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory houses thousands of tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies. Visiting families can explore its conservatory-style tropical habitat and be surrounded by butterflies from 50 to 60 species, together with exotic colourful birds like flamingos. For an educational pit-stop, kids can watch a short film that explains the life cycle of butterflies and their role in the natural world and also watch butterflies hatch in a special metamorphosis chamber. Entry costs $12 (around £8) for adults and $8.50 (around £6) for children (4-12 years).
Save up to £864 off a family holiday to the Florida Keys this summer:
Hayes and Jarvis (01293 762 456, www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) is offering a seven-night summer holiday to the Florida Keys from £4,499 for a family of four – saving £864. The offer includes four nights at the four-star Hilton Key Largo followed by three nights at the five-star The Reach Resort in Key West. Car hire and return international flights from London Heathrow to Miami with Virgin Atlantic are also included and all accommodation is room only. Based on a 2 August 2016 departure.
For further information on the Florida Keys & Key West, visit www.fla-keys.co.uk.