Spring break is a week I look forward to all winter long. In Kentucky we don’t have particularly harsh winters but I still feel like we are cooped up inside more often than not. By the end of winter I’m always feeling the pull of warmth and sunshine, and a trip to the Florida Keys is the perfect antidote for cold weather blues. With the pandemic still not quite under control, we decided to drive the seventeen hours down to the Florida Keys instead of flying, though you could easily fly into Miami or Key West and grab a rental car. Just FYI: When we went in April 2021, we were able to pay tolls with cash throughout Florida until around Miami and the Keys. There, they took a picture of our license plate and mailed us the toll bill.
The Florida Keys are a string of tropical islands that are off the coast of Florida. Connected by miles of bridges, many of which are one-lane, this area is best known for its beautiful reefs, fishing and abundant ocean life. Palm trees dot the islands and beautiful clear water surrounds you. Whatever you do, make sure you get out on the water in some way: boat rental, kayaks, snorkeling expedition, etc so you can enjoy the beauty of the ocean around you.
If you are planning to visit many different Keys, a rental car or driving yourself is the way to go. We loved having our own car to visit many of the different beaches, take a day trip to Key West and to pick up takeout from a variety of restaurants. If you are driving from the Miami area, you will pay a toll for the fastest route to the Keys (you can buy a Sunpass, use toll-by-plate where you will receive your toll in the mail a few weeks later or pay through your rental car agency). If you fly into the Keys there are no tolls on the overseas highway. Plan on some traffic once you are in the Keys, especially on weekends. The highway is often one lane, sometimes two and can become congested.
We stayed in two rentals on our trip, one in Marathon and one just outside of Marathon. Both had kitchens (a big plus when traveling with kids). I would recommend both of these places to stay with a few reservations (I’ll come back to that later). We used VRBO and Booking.com to book these and were overall very happy with them. Wherever you book for your trip, try to find a place that includes kayaks and paddle boards. This will save you in the long run!
This resort was absolutely beautiful. The space was large for our family. The kitchen was old and not in the best condition. This resort seemed to cater to couples as opposed to families, and though it had the space for us, we felt like we had to “hush” our kids a bit more than we like to while on vacation. The pool was a highlight and the beach area included the use of kayaks and stand up paddle boards, which we loved.
Our second rental was at Little Conch Key. It was a small rental house on a private island. The location was beautiful and we enjoyed the semi-private pool every day. This location is where the TV show Flipper was filmed and the island used to be owned by Walt Disney! This location also had stand up paddle boards and kayaks for us to use and during low tide we could kayak out and see hundreds of conch in the ocean (make sure you put them back!). That will forever be a highlight.
Warning: Our only drawback of this place was the Cassiopoea Jellyfish. They were all over this area which made the beach difficult to use for swimming. We didn’t experience them in other areas of the Keys, but they could be there. Cassiopoea are small jellyfish and their “sting” is really just an irritant in the water. It doesn’t bug many people but one of our children has very sensitive skin, so this was difficult for him. If you plan to use the beach area for boating and no swimming, then we 100% recommend it. Just be aware in advance that it’s not really a swimming beach.
Favorite Beaches near Marathon
The Keys are surprisingly not known for their beaches. They are known for the snorkeling, reefs and beauty in the water. With that said, we were able to find some awesome beaches to enjoy during our time in the Keys. As you drive down the overseas highway, you can pull off at different parks and beaches. Check the time of the tides and make sure you experience at least one low tide and walking way out in the ocean at a beach stop. This was a highlight for our family.
- Sombrero Beach: A local beach in Marathon with free parking and free access. The kids loved the giant covered playground, some sand volleyball courts and the soft sand. This beach can become crowded later in the day and especially on weekends.
- Bahia Honda State Park: A state park which requires an entrance fee. You can set up on the bay side or the Atlantic side depending on the weather. The bay side was great for kids with calm water. The walk up to the old bridge is also fun and has beautiful views. Bring beach chairs, snorkel masks and water shoes (if you are sensitive to rocks and sea grass).
- Veterans Memorial Park Beach: A free beach off the side of the highway. The water was clear and beautiful. Wait until low tide and you can walk far out into the ocean with the water only coming up to your knees. It’s a great spot for kids to learn to snorkel and has some nice sand and sea critters to find.
Purchasing these snorkel masks before our trip was one of the best investments we made! They are full-face snorkels and are so easy for kids to wear, put on and have almost no learning curve. The kids used their masks every day and our four year old could even figure it out in about three seconds. If you have a beach trip or are headed somewhere with snorkeling, check these out! This is the adult style that fit our 9 and 11 year old as well as adults. This option was better for our four year old (affiliate link).
Things to do in and around Marathon
We spent our days swimming, snorkeling and kayaking, but we also added in some fun day trips and excursions. Here are a few of our favorites in the Marathon area:
- Turtle Hospital: This was the most fascinating tour. We learned all about sea turtles, how to help protect them and the work that is being done for rescued turtles at the turtle hospital. We saw many of the injured turtles in different tanks and fed them at the end of the tour. It was very informative, and we loved supporting this cause with our dollars. It was a little long for our four-year-old, but our nine-year-olds loved it.
- Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters: If you had to pick only one aquarium to visit in the Keys this one is worth it. For a small fee you can feed many different sea creatures in their habitats. They also offer aquarium encounters. My boys snorkeled in an aquarium tank and fed stingrays and sharks. It was a highlight of our trip!
- Robbie’s to feed Tarpon: Feeding the Tarpon at Robbie’s is a fun activity. You can buy a bucket of fish and feed the giant tarpon in the water. Be careful of the Pelicans who will try and snatch the fish out of your hands! Robbie’s also offers water sports, kayaks, dining and other island fun.
- Day trip to Key West: Take a day trip down to Key West to enjoy more of a small city feel and see the southernmost point in the U.S.! You can check out my post all about our day in Key West here.
Next Time: We’d love to check out the Dolphin Research Center and I have kids already saving their pennies so they can swim with dolphins. The Crane Point Hammock in Marathon looked like a fun nature walk and you can get a fish foot pedicure!
Typically when we go on vacation, we bring food for two meals and eat out our third meal (could be breakfast, lunch or dinner). Groceries in the Keys were more expensive than those in our hometown. We planned ahead and brought groceries with us but there were ample grocery stores to pick up a few things we needed. We loved all the outdoor dining in the Keys and enjoyed eating outside or picking up takeout to eat on the beach. Here are some of our favorite place we ate on our trip:
- Key Fisheries: We ate here a couple of times which is saying a lot for us! We usually like trying new places but we absolutely loved this spot. Fresh seafood, grilled or made to order (the mixed seafood plate was our favorite), tasty fish tacos and a yummy lobster reuben. We loved the ambiance with the boats, and if you want to see the sunset, get there a bit early. It is worth it.
- Irie Island Eats: This food truck serves fresh, delicious food. The fruit salad, poke bowl and tacos were amazing, and the cute little setup has a laid-back feel that is perfect to bring kids to or enjoy lunch. They are open during lunch hours, so plan accordingly.
- Meze Morada: Outstanding Mediterranean food with house-made pita. This was a highlight lunch for our crew. The dips were delicious. The za’atar seasoned fries were out of this world good (wish I could go back just for those!). The food was fresh and the pita bread was amazing. If you need a break from seafood…or even if you don’t and just want a delicious meal, add this to your list.
- Lazy Days: This was a fun restaurant in Islamorada. We loved the ambiance and the kids loved feeding the pelicans and watching a shark swim in the water below. We ate on the beach and enjoyed yummy seafood. The crab cakes were especially good here.
Where to Get the Best Key Lime Pie
We tried so much key lime pie and it was all super delicious! Key Lime Pie originates in the Florida Keys where key limes are plentiful. Traditionally, meringue topped the key lime pie, but many replace that with fresh whipped cream. Both are delicious! The chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick was our favorite variety. Here are some of our “not to miss” places to grab some key lime pie when you’re in the Keys.
- Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory: Located in Tavernier, Florida, this was our favorite key lime pie on a stick that we sampled. Rich chocolate, creamy key lime pie. It is definitely worth a stop on your drive down to the Keys.
- The Trading Post: This small grocery store sells Key Lime Pie from the Key Lime Pie Lady. It can be found in the refrigerated/frozen section and is absolutely delicious. If you’re looking for a key lime pie to feed a crowd (or even a smaller one to snack on throughout the week), stop here and pick up an insanely delicious key lime pie.
- Key West Key Lime Pie Company: Their flagship store is in Key West, but many places around the Keys carry their frozen key lime pie on a stick. It is delicious and worth grabbing one if you’re at the aquarium, a convenience store or make it to their shop in Key West.
- Island Fish Company: If you want to try a unique type of key lime pie, order the deep fried key lime pie from Island Fish Company. It’s a more mild flavor coated in cinnamon sugar and tastes like a key lime pie donut. Yummy.
More Activities: We could have spent a lot longer than a week in the Keys and we put many things on our “to do” list for next time we make it back. Here are a few that we have on our bucket list:
- Rent a boat for a half day or day: We made such good use out of the free kayaks at our accommodations that we didn’t do this, but we would have loved to rent a boat for a day or half day to go fishing, snorkeling out in the reef or to just enjoy a day on the water.
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: We heard so many great things about this state park. It is located in Key Largo. You can take a snorkel excursion from the park to view the coral reef. This is on our bucket list for next time!
- Dry Tortugas National Park: Another bucket list national park. Take a boat out to this 19th century historic fort surrounded by crystal clear water. This is a full day excursion or you can camp on the island (make sure to reserve EARLY).
On our drive home we spent a few hours in the Everglades National Park. Be sure to use your “Every 4th Grader in a Park” pass if you have a 4th grader for free entry to a National Park. The Everglades definitely deserves more than a couple hours of a visit and it definitely left us wanting. But it was back to school and back to real life after a perfect week in the Keys. We will return again some day!
If you like reading about our travel adventures you can find other write ups about recent trips we’ve taken to Perdido Key, Florida and our fall getaway to Brown County, Indiana.
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