When talking Florida Keys with kids, it's best to point straight at the dolphin in the room. Swimming with dolphins is without question one of the biggest draws in the Keys for families, and while the experience is not cheap, it is the stuff that bucket lists are made of. I confess that I grew up watching Flipper (I say "confess" because a few of you just worked out how old I am), and I've harbored a secret desire to catch a ride from a dolphin ever since. My kid got to live that dream a whole lot younger than I did when I discovered that Key Largo is barely an hour's drive from Miami and an easy add-on to a Florida vacation. Continuing to Key West adds another three hours along the Overseas Highway, a drive touted as one of the most beautiful in the country, stretching over water for seven straight miles at one point.
Our dolphin encounter was without question the highlight of our trip; we participated in both a structured swim (in which dolphins performed tricks around us) and an unstructured one (just the two of us and the dolphins). The second was our favorite, as it followed the whims of the dolphins. We were given tips by trainers on what sort of behavior would attract our finned hosts to us, and my son's deep dives drew our adolescent dolphin pair to swim along with him on either side, making him—as he said—a part of their pod. (He was also lucky that they were curious about his disposable camera.) The Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn't allow for human interaction with dolphins in the wild, so commercial dolphin encounters, like the one we did at Dolphins Plus, take place with dolphins born in captivity, or with rescued ones. More than just a tourist operation, though, these facilities also conduct research and educate the public; we learned some fascinating things about dolphin language, in between grinning from ear to ear.
And when our dolphin day was done, we found plenty more to keep us busy. In fact, we barely put a dent in the list that follows:
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo
- Hang with the dolphins and sea lions at Dolphins Plus.
- Go swimming and check out sunken surprises at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
- Take a glass bottom boat tour of the coral reefs.
- Go on a snorkeling tour.
- Dive down to Key Largo's Christ of the Abyss.
- Swim the protected tidal pool and romp in the playground at Harry Harris Park.
- Visit the injured local birds (and their many healthy friends) at the free Wild Bird Sanctuary.
- Take a canal cruise on the African Queen, the original boat from the Humphrey Bogart film.
- Dive down to stay overnight—or just order a pizza—at Jules' Undersea Lodge.
- Indulge in Key Lime Pie and more at Key Largo Chocolates.
Night Paddle on Key West - Photo by Bay Paddle Sports
- Enjoy shows and encounters with the sea mammals of Theater of the Sea.
- Get away from it all at Indian Key.
- Dive the shallow, 300-year-old shipwreck of Spanish treasure at San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve.
- Explore the fossils, quarries, and trails of Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park.
- Hand feed the tarpon off the docks at Robbie's Marina.
- Check out one of the Keys' best beaches: Anne's Beach of Islamorada.
- See the heroes at work rescuing injured turtles at Marathon Key's Turtle Hospital.
- Learn before you dive at the History of Diving Museum.
- Pitch a tent with a view at Long Key State Park.
- Canoe, kayak, hike, snorkel, or swim from your cabin in Bahia Honda State Park.
Photo by Laurence Norah/Florida Keys News Bureau
- Go Nightboarding: paddle on a lit SUP board or kayak for a peek at nocturnal sea life.
- Visit the Key West Lighthouse.
- Tour the world's only underwater ocean laboratory at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
- Take a family photo at the southernmost point in the continental US.
- See where the sun also rises on the Ernest Hemingway Museum.
- Take a ghost tour of Key West.
- Get up close with the sharks and 'gators at Key West Aquarium.
- Ride through town on the Conch Train.
- Check out Truman's Little White House—the only presidential museum in Florida.
- Sail on a charter tour to the dolphin playground with Wild About Dolphins.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.