Key West with Kids: A Perfect Family Day

Key West with Kids: A Family Vacation


Key West, a fabled palm-fringed 2-by-4-mile island town in the Florida Keys, is a magically scenic, exotic destination for families. Just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is closer to that island nation than to Miami.

Poised at the end of the Florida Keys chain -- first discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 -- Key West has long been a destination for artists and adventurers. A town that's easy to get around on foot and on bike, Key West has plenty to offer to families who love the sea. The island, rich with pirate history, is surrounded by both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, framing it with poetic natural beauty. Just getting there can be an adventure, driving south from Miami on the Overseas Highway, or flying over clear azure waters.

I've had the incredible gift of living in Key West for six years. We moved there with an 18-month-old daughter and go back as often as we can. Here are some of my tips for the perfect family vacation day with kids in Key West, Fla.:


For breakfast, there's really nowhere like Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St.; 305-296-8666), a funky outdoor dirt-floor restaurant boasting "breakfast with the roosters." It's located in colorful Bahama Village, a neighborhood first populated by Bahamian settlers. Through its history, Blue Heaven's now-blue building has hosted Friday night boxing matches, with famed writer Ernest Hemingway a participant; gambling, bordello-style prostitution and cock-fighting. Today, it's fun and kid-friendly, with a rope swing, an occasional strutting free-range rooster and souvenir shop with T-shirts and local artisan crafts. Seating is at painted picnic tables, where patrons enjoy creative vegetarian, fresh seafood and Caribbean cuisine specials. Children are free to run around the fenced-in venue while mom and dad enjoy an 8AM eye-opener to greet a typically sunny morning.

On the menu: Made-from-scratch pancakes with banana, pecan and pineapple varieties; eggs Benedict with lime Hollandaise, homemade banana bread, fresh omelets with bakery-style toast; shrimp and grits and breakfast tortillas. Yum!

Insider tip: Neighborhood parking is scarce, so walk, taxi or bike to Blue Heaven.

If you don't feel like sitting down to a full meal, stroll over to Croissants de France (816 Duval St.; 305-294-2624) for a key lime beignet. Different from a typically New Orleans-style beignet, these are dusted with sparkling sugar and filled with a tangy lime filling.

With your kids now energy-fueled, an Old Town Trolley (305-296-6688) ride -- a 1.5-hour, open-air tour -- through Key West's history and Victorian architecture, may be just the fun ticket for everyone. Purchase tickets ($14-$29; free for children under 4) at the Mallory Square booth (303 Front Street). An attraction in itself, the trolley tour offers tickets that are good 9AM-4:30PM, with "hop on" and "hop off" stops, ideal for young children.

To beat the heat, kids love the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St.; 800-839-4647, 305-296-2988; $8.50-$12, under 4 free). Its Learning Center has a 15-minute film and showcases close-up views of live caterpillars feeding on host plants. Its garden delights with colorful tropical butterflies, fluttering around exotic plants.


Hungry for lunch? Stroll on over to the air-conditioning of Camille's Restaurant (1202 Simonton St.; 305-296-4811), a locals' favorite. Kids can color to their hearts' content, while parent can savor a grilled mahi (fish) wrap with jalapeno salsa, Key West jumbo pink shrimp or stone crab claws with honey Dijon.

After lunch, it may be time for a nap, a swim at your hotel pool or best of all, a couple hours at the sandy beach of the 54-acre Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (end of Southard Street at Truman Annex, open until sunset; admission $2.50-$7 per vehicle, plus passenger fees; 305-292-6713).

Florida's southernmost state park is a National Historic Landmark, with guided tours of Fort Zachary Taylor, completed in 1866 and rich with Civil War and Spanish-American war history. Young children and parents enjoy the shallow, warm aquamarine waters of this recreational park that's frequented by locals as Key West's best and most scenic beach. Although popular, the beach is rarely overcrowded. The park's Cayo Heuso Café sells snacks and light fare if you've skipped lunch to savor this peaceful, special respite on the shore.

Insider tip: Bring swim booties or flip flops, as some sections are a bit rocky.

After an afternoon of swimming and sunning on your vacation day, head over to Key West Aquarium (1 Whitehead St., 305-296-2051; $6-$12) for a tour of this kitschy but educational attraction, built in 1934 as the world's first open-air aquarium. Kids can pet a shark and dip into a touch tank to pet indigenous sea creatures. Arrive by 4PM to tour the aquarium and get a close-up view of the last shark feed.


Whew! It's been a hectic vacation day; now may be a good time for quick showers back at your hotel. There's still one absolutely-don't-miss-with-children attraction in Key West: Sunset Celebration, one of the nation's most famous nightly street festivals, at the waterfront Mallory Square. The free nightly sunset celebration begins an hour before sunset, with street performers, artisan stands, quirky, colorful entertainers and refreshments such as popcorn and cocktails.

Insider tip: Bring a few dollars to drop in buckets as tips for performers; they're earning a living from this whimsical event.

If a late dinner's on your agenda, Turtle Kraals (231 Margaret St., 305-294-2640) offers open-air casual seating for seafood and burgers. It's located on the site of the first turtle soup cannery that opened in Key West in 1849. Kids will enjoy checking out an adjacent museum-type exhibit on the dock, where they can purchase fish food, bubble-gum style, to toss into the water.

There is so much to see and do in Key West that you may end up dreaming of how to move here to enjoy paradise. If you're lucky, you might experience a dream-inspiring sunset, punctuated with a "green flash," a glimpse of a flash that can occur just before the sun drops over the horizon and sinks into the sea. What a perfect ending to a perfect family vacation day!

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