Need to thaw out? Leave the winter behind? We did. Our wants were simple: Our destination had to be warm and had to have salt water. What we didn’t want was simple, too: no passports required and no connecting flights.
With four boys 6 and under, we set out to find the perfect outdoor winter getaway. With the serendipitous guidance of a friend and some strategic timing,we found what we were looking for in the Florida Keys. We were sold on its consistent 75-80 degree temperatures, even in January; three-and-a-half hour plane ride from our home in St. Paul; and endless blue vistas. We shed our skis and snow pants for swimsuits and flip-flops, and we felt ten pounds lighter from the winter gear, and psychologically, too; like we could endure whatever the rest of winter might throw our way.
Where to Stay:
While you might associate the Keys with college-aged spring-breakers, Florida's outer islands have another side. Duck Key is a sweet spot in the middle of the Keys, two hours by car from the Miami airport at mile 61 on the Overseas Highway, that caters to families. Hawks Cay Resort occupies the majority of Duck Key and offers plenty of lodging options, from poolside hotel rooms to two-story villas with full kitchens and laundry. We scored a two-bedroom villa for a screaming deal, $150 night, because we traveled after MLK weekend and before President's Day, when prices are a fourth of the cost of peak winter season. (Prices drop again after Easter; check Resort Access Vacations for deals.)
Our villa was clean but in need of a touch-up, and from our balconies (yes, plural) could see the Atlantic and watch fishing boats coming up the canal from the marina. The last few nights of our stay, we tested out a hotel room, which was truly four-star. It opened to the stunning oceanfront pool and a lanai, so we could nap our baby in the shade and still not leave the pool. But the downside of the hotel room was no laundry or kitchen, two amenities we could not have survived a week without.
In truth, we were barely in our villa except to sleep. The resort has so much to offer: paddle boarding, kite boarding in it’s salt water lagoon, dolphins on site, a kids' club with sports courts, game room and daily activities—and even baby sitters for hire if you need a break, plus an onsite spa. There are five swimming pools, which we took full advantage of with the kids, a nightly bonfire that was our favorite after-dinner star-gazing spot, and good food. But as nice as it was, we knew we had to get outside the resort to appreciate the true flavor of the Keys.
What to Do
You can find some of the best diving and fishing in the country in the Keys, but with kids as young as ours, we weren’t about drop $1,000 on a Hemingway-esque marlin fishing odyssey or strap on the scuba gear. So we opted for sea kayaking. Freddie and Kat at Sundance Water Sports at Hawks Cay Marina, two blocks from our villa, recommended a day trip to nearby Tom’s Island, but the wind had picked up and the water was too rough. Instead, they loaded the kayaks on a 20-foot boat and toured us through the canals, stopping just offshore from Tom’s Island. There we unloaded the kayaks and paddled around, waded for shells, and explored the uninhabited island.
Since scuba diving was out of the question with kids our age, we went snorkeling instead. It was a little choppy, but the water temperatures were in the 70s, and Sundance Water Sports stocks even the smallest wetsuits to keep the little ones warm enough in the water. The kids loved wriggling into their neoprene and gearing up in their snorkel masks. We went via catamaran to Coffin's Patch Reef, three and a half miles offshore, with all the coral formations of the reefs farther out, but without the long boat ride. We let the kids get in and out of the waters at their own pace, which paid off because after a half hour we couldn’t get our older two out of the water, while the younger ones explored the boat. The kids swam with yellowtail snapper and watched jellyfish drift by. While we’d hoped to see more marine life, the kids were still thrilled, and we laid the foundation for further water adventures with them.
Fishing was harder for us to solve but peppering the locals for recommendations helped. None of the local boat captains wanted to take four young kids out for a day of fishing (who could blame them), so we decided to stick to the shore. Lucky for us, Kelly and Chris from the Pigeon’s Key Historical Society are avid fishermen, and they outfitted the boys and let them drop a few lines in the water right off their dock. Our boys were patient, but the fish waited them out. Sadly, no snapper nor grouper were caught, but we did snag some sage advice from Chris, who reminded us, “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.” True enough.
While the Keys aren't known for their sandy beaches, nearby Marathon Key has a nice, quiet one, Sombrero Beach, at mile marker 50, with a park, swings, and restrooms. Farther south at mile marker 36, Bahia Honda State Park also has beautiful sandy beaches on the ocean side, where you can snorkel, body surf, or hike for minimal cost.
The Dolphin Research Center is right next door to Duck Key in Grassy Key at mile marker 59, and was originally home to the dolphins that starred in the movie Flipper, but now exists to raise awareness of dolphins and sea lions and has a range of programs for families to meet and even swim with the dolphins.
Where to Eat
Every day, we found ourselves working up a massive appetite. Restaurants are plentiful in the Keys, and we certainly had a few good meals, but what we really wanted was great fish. We asked lots of locals, and they kept pointing us Castaway Restaurant and Sushi Bar. Owner John Mirabella greeted us and showed us a picture of the African Pompano he'd speared earlier that afternoon and then a plate of sashimi from the same fish. Our boys hit it like seagulls. After that, John whipped up some custom clam ceviche, and we were well on our way to one of the best meals we'd ever had.
For breakfast, we loved the Wooden Spoon, favored by the locals and good for eggs any style and burgers. Sparky’s is the place to go when you are fresh off the ocean for some good local fare, and Puglisi’s Pizza has consistently tasty pies that can be delivered to your room at Hawks Cay, which with tired kids after a long active day is a lifesaver.
With only a week, there was a lot we missed out on, like the Turtle Hospital, a small non-profit that helps sea turtles survive, but you need to go with patient kids as the first half of a visit is spent in a 45-minute education lecture before you see the turtles. We wished we'd had time for little lunch places like the Wreck, and Hurricane (home to the $5 burger lunch), and, of course, Key West, about an hour and a half south of Duck Key. Our week went too fast, and while we crammed in as much adventure as we could, I'm fairly certain we only unlocked a few of its many treasures.We'll be back.
Hawks Cay Resort, www.hawkscay.com
Elizabeth Sullivan is a writer in St. Paul.