A tropical paradise you can visit without leaving the US mainland, this 195-kilometre fishhook running southwesterly from Key Largo (at the top of the chain) to Key West is divided into three general areas: Upper Keys, Middle Keys and Lower Keys. It's a place where you can marvel at multi-coloured fish and coral in crystal-clear waters, kayak amid mangroves, visit historic sites, sample fresh-caught seafood, picnic on palm-fringed beaches and doze off to the lullaby of rustling fronds and peepers (tree frogs). The temperature rarely dips below 18°C, making it perfect for family holidays at any time of year.
The Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic vary in hue from teal to turquoise to sea-foam, and other mouthwatering colours that haven’t yet been named. Owing to offshore reefs, the wave action is minimal and the water is almost always calm, so even toddlers can splash safely. Family-friendly accommodation abounds, food prices are reasonable and restaurant fare is diverse. And the natives are friendly – and speak English. What more do you need?
Things to do with kids in Florida Keys
With Mother Nature the big attraction here for families, try activities including swimming and snorkelling at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo; visiting sick turtles recuperating at the Turtle Hospital (formerly a motel!) on Marathon, which hosts three guided tours a day; and feeding the wild silver tarpon fish at Robbie’s of Islamorada.
Trade sandals for real shoes and walk the trails traversing Crane Point, then tour its Children’s Museum and Museum of Natural History. View tropical fish without getting your feet wet on a daily glass-bottom boat tour to Looe Key Reef run by Strike Zone Charters on Big Pine Key. With older kids, you might also snorkel or dive. (Note: the water is clearest and viewing is best between spring and autumn.)
Pack a picnic and head for Sombrero Beach in Marathon (MM50) or Bahia Honda State Park (MM37). Both have picnic tables, loos and stunning views; palm trees provide shade.
Head out early morning or at dusk to see the region's unique key deer on Big Pine Key, and the alligators, iguana and various species of shorebirds that live in in Blue Hole (an abandoned rock quarry) there.
If you do nothing else in Key West, spend a couple of hours at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center (3500 East Quay Rd, next to the entrance of Fort Zachary Taylor), part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Watch a film, interact with the exhibits, talk to naturalists, and learn a thing or two or a hundred about the unique Keys ecosystem. Key West is also the departure point for fishing trips, sunset sailing cruises, and day-trips aboard the Yankee Freedom III ferry to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson.
Fall under the spell of the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, a climate-controlled environment where you can glimpse up to 60 exotic varieties of winged beauties. Don’t be afraid if one lands on you – it’s supposed to bring good luck.
Celebrate the Florida Keys' famous sunsets at Mallory Square in Key West, arriving half an hour before the nightly celebration – as the sun dips below the horizon, jugglers, fire-eaters, high-wire artists, musicians and others do their thing. It’s the best show in town, and it’s free.
Glass-bottom boat tour on Big Pine Key.
Fish is king – and queen – in the Florida Keys. The ‘pinks’ (local shrimp) are in a class of their own, but depending on season and availability, you might also sample crab, conch (usually brought in), dolphin (mahi mahi or dorado, not the mammal), grouper, snapper, tuna, wahoo, yellowtail and redfish.
Make sure to chow down by the water. Our favourite seaside joints are: in Islamorada, Lazy Days (MM79.9/bayside) and Lorelei (MM82/oceanside); on Marathon, Burdine’s (1200 Oceanview Ave/oceanside) and Key Fisheries (MM49/bayside); on Stock Island near Key West, Hogfish Bar & Grill (6810 Front St/oceanside).
If you don’t like fish, not to worry – there are tons of restaurants, most very good. Check guidebooks, see the Florida Keys official website (fla-keys.com) or ask your hotel concierge or a local for recommendations. Parents shouldn’t miss Key West Sunset Ale.
A turtle at the Turtle Hospital, Marathon.
When to go to Florida Keys
The average year-round temperature in the Florida Keys is 24°C (owing to the Gulf Stream and southeasterly trade winds, temperatures rarely vary by much). A constant breeze keeps things comfortable.
For the best weather and fewest bad hair days, come Dec–April. If you tolerate heat and humidity, cut costs by visiting in summer or autumn. (A caveat: most hurricanes occur in August and September.)
Kids on Dry Tortugas.
With flight prices reasonable given the distance involved, and budget accommodation such as campsites readily available, the Florida Keys may be a more affordable family holiday destination than you'd imagine.
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Flying time10hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint8.02 CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
An underwater statue in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
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Manatees at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.
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