Here's a great vacation idea, and you can actually drive it if you have the time and don't want to mess with airfare. Hop on I-95 South and keep going until you run out of highway, and eventually out of road. Key West is the last of the Florida Keys, and the southernmost point in the United States outside of Hawaii (latitude 24 versus 21). For most people, this final drivable U.S. island is little more than the place we weathercasters always talk about whenever there's a hurricane brewing down Cuba way. It also has a reputation as a loose and wild town where partying is practically an occupation.
While these two points may seem less than conducive to a family vacation, the truth is that hurricanes rarely hit this part of the world before the end of August (the locals state proudly that the island has never been submerged, thanks to the protective coral reef off-shore), and the business interests in Key West are fully aware of the dollars to be made from families. As a result, the island's west end is teeming with museums, shops and activities that cater to kids and parents, assuming you're willing to part with some cash.
More Than Just a Shore
But let's back-up. Any trip from Philadelphia to Key West has more going for it than just the island at land's end. There are cool places to stop for a breather along the way, including Charleston and Savannah (two very quaint and picturesque towns many never get to see), Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp (where you can kayak, canoe or stroll boardwalks through one of the most unspoiled areas of the southeastern U.S., which happens to be loaded with snakes and alligators), and Stone Mountain, Georgia, home to an enormous relief depicting figures from the Confederate States of America including Robert E. Lee. Fort Lauderdale and Miami are also along the way, not to mention Everglades National Park (to be covered separately in a future blog).
The drive through the Keys themselves only takes a few hours and is also exciting for kids, especially as you begin crossing the azure blue waters between the islands. Whoever's doing the driving should be forewarned that the going is slow at times, and the locals take great delight in clogging-up the one-lane portion of the roadway by driving anywhere between 5 and 10 miles per hour below the speed limit. Just put yourself on island time and go with the flow!
Keys To Success
Once in Key West, there are a variety of overnight options, all of which should be booked in advance: everything from economy hotels to bed and breakfasts and a few pricey resorts. The Conch Train (a pseudo "locomotive with cars" that uses the local roads) runs circuits around the island, giving tours of all the sights, and can be used as transportation in case you're staying on the east end of the Key away from the "action". The west end is where most of the tourist sights are located. Staying down in this area will put you in more crowded surroundings, but perhaps a better location in case the family wants to crash in the middle of the day.
There is no shortage of things to do. Some are free or at least inexpensive. A fascinating and breezy tour is offered at the old home of author Ernest Hemingway for a modest fee, the highlight of which is the many descendants of Hemingway's cats that still roam the property (others are buried in a cemetery on site). Nearby, President Truman's Southern White House is free to see. On Duval Street, you'll find shops, restaurants, ice cream stands, bars, bars, and a few more bars, along with several museums. The atmosphere is festive, but not off-putting to parents and kids, especially during daylight hours. Among the subjects covered by the museums are pirate treasure and shipwrecks.
The farther north along Duval you go, the closer you are to activities. There are tour boats that can be booked at road's end. I didn't much care for the glass bottom boat as it was a little stuffy inside and crowded, but your kids may prefer this to snorkeling. The only way to find decent snorkeling in Key West is to grab a boat ride out to the off-shore reef. The tours are safe, but can be scary because you're in deep water. There is an option to just ride along and not actually get into the water, if some in the family are up for getting wet and others aren't. These tours aren't cheap, and chew-up a good portion of the day, which means you're stuck on a rocking boat for a while---something to keep in mind. For those with lots of time and hearty appetites for the sea, an extended trip is available to Dry Tortugas National Park, sight of Fort Jefferson, begun in the 1800s but never finished as it became impractical as a defense post. There is great snorkeling here as well, which is part of what you get for your money, along with a brochure proving that you are actually among the very few to visit possibly the most isolated National Park Service locale in existence.
Luck For Land-lubbers
Back on land, an alternative to the expensive snorkeling trip is Zachary Taylor State Park which is not far from Duval, and car-friendly. The beach is rocky, so rubber beach shoes aren't a bad idea. But there are tropical fish swimming in the shallows near the rocky outcrops at either end of the main beach area, and sizable crabs inhabit the rocky crevices. They charge about thirty bucks for an umbrella and a couple of beach chairs, but the beach is nice enough to make it a good investment, since you may want to stay a while. My family is not the biggest beach group in the world, but we spent a good six hours here relaxing and poking around for cool fish.
The southern end of Duval Street is more residential, although there are some nice bed and breakfasts and small hotels located here. Nearby, you'll also find a big concrete bulkhead marking the "southernmost point of the United States", which is a little misleading since Hawaii is actually farther south in latitude, but no one's usually in much of a mood to argue about it. You can hoof it from one end of Duval to the other, but it's a long walk and it gets hot, so a stop at a water ice stand should probably be part of the plan.
There are tons of dining options, many along noisy Duvall and some along the side streets. But here's a local nugget: walk a few blocks off the beaten path and take the kids to Blue Heaven on Thomas Street. Arrive at 4:30pm and the adults can cool down with some great tropical drinks, before the tables open at 5pm. The food is only a little pricey, and first class. Best of all, your companions during dinner in this outdoor, backyard setting are chickens which have free range of the mulch "floor" beneath the tables. Cats are lurking here and there, too, but the chickens don't mind because they basically run the place. It won't look like much from the outside, but trust me on this one. Blue Heaven absolutely makes your visit to this quirky, off-center town complete.
Finally, plan to spend one evening on the public dock where the locals celebrate the arrival of sunset nightly with jugglers and other carnival acts. I found this a little ho-hum, but it's kid-friendly and something that must be done at least once while on vacation here.
---David MurphyRead more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on 6abc.com.