The Keys have family-friendly water activities, gorgeous sunsets, year-round beach weather, a chill vibe, with lots to do in an easy driving distance. We spent a week on Duck Key near Marathon and really enjoyed the location. The place we picked was an easy drive from where we live in Miami and a nice change of pace during covid. We would highly recommend the trip to anyone looking for a relaxing family vacation with many fun water-related activities in close proximity.
Where Is It
The Keys are actually a 125-mile-long chain of connected tropical islands. The drive is a beautiful trip in its own right, there are many different interconnecting bridges all the way through the island chain and you are surrounded by sparkling blue-green water on either side. Each area in the Keys has its own personality and to-do list. We stayed on an island called Duck Key, which is about two hours driving from Miami and about 10-15 minutes driving from Marathon. Duck Key is occupied by the one resort we stayed at called Hawks Cay Resort as well as some private homes. The other hotels and activities in the area are primarily located in Marathon.
How To Get There
We drove from Miami and you definitely need a car to move around. There are not really practical flight options to fly to Marathon unless you use a charter service. Another idea is to combine this trip with a stop in Key West. In that case, you can fly into Key West International Airport (EYW), which is about an hour and a half away from Duck Key. Many major airlines (Delta, American, United, JetBlue) service EYW with several nonstops from big cities daily. Of course, you also can easily fly into Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and drive to the Keys – it is 2 hours from Miami and 2.5 hours from Fort Lauderdale.
Water activities! This is an easy and relaxing trip for everyone, with many great water-related activity options. We went swimming, snorkeling, sandbar hopping, playing with dolphins, sunset boat tripping, paddleboarding, kayaking, and sea-animal-visiting. The beach is calm, shallow, and has nice white sand. There are many great pool options for the little ones at all the hotel suggestions. The accommodation options are lovely and all have plenty of space with easy Instacart access for groceries. All the activities are within 5-20 minutes of each other, so you can do a lot of different things with relatively little effort.
There were several very memorable family activities in this part of the Keys. First, there is an incredible aquarium for kids in Marathon called Aquarium Encounters. It is small but really well-done, with several interactive exhibits where kids can feed turtles, stingrays, tarpons, and lobsters as well as touch tanks where kids can touch tide pool creatures like starfish. Children under three are free, kids 4-12 are $18, and adults are $25. You will also want to buy a $10 feeding card to make sure you can feed all the creatures. For older kids (and adults), there are also some opportunities to snorkel in their coral reef exhibit and swim with sharks, among other very cool options that the aquarium offers.
We visited initially because we had a rainy day during the trip, but we ended up buying an annual membership and visiting several times during the week because our son was thrilled with the sea animal interactions. Second, we met some super friendly retired dolphins through Dolphin Connection on Duck Key. Apparently, a couple of these dolphins were originally trained as US Navy dolphins on the West Coast and now they have retired to the Florida Keys. We did the dockside dolphin program ($89 pp with pictures) and our son really enjoyed it. They also have several more interactive, in-the-water options with dolphins.
Third, we joined several different water activities through Sole Watersports on Duck Key. There are several similar water sport shops in Marathon as well if not staying on Duck Key. Our favorite activity was the group sunset boat cruise listed on the website – it is a really enjoyable 1.5 hours boat cruise where you can view some beautiful waterfront homes, listen to reggae, drink from their open bar, and enjoy a gorgeous sunset ($60 adults, $40 kids, <3 free). Beyond that, we also went paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and sandbar hopping. The snorkeling and sandbar hopping excursion could be awesome but the water was a bit rough on the particular day we tried for it. Paddleboarding and kayaking were fun, but we would probably recommend doing only the hour with a toddler. We did not go fishing, but the Keys are a real fishing mecca.
When To Visit
The Keys have beach and pool weather year-round, so there is really no bad time to visit. Temperatures range from the mid-70s to the high-80s year-round. Hurricane season is typically strongest from August to October, so that is one thing to keep in mind.
For the adults, this trip was relaxing and easy. This was the best part by far. Everyone got to do an engaging mix of activities in a beautiful place. The food was fine, with a lot of burgers and fish sandwiches. We also Instacarted food to our accommodations, which helped a lot with making meals during the trip. We went with friends, so we did not really explore the nighttime scene at all.
Our favorite restaurant, while we were in town, was Sparky’s Landing. They had great seafood with fun tropical drinks and live music (entrees in the $14-$18 range).
The setting is consistently gorgeous around the shoreline, so the adults really enjoyed getting family photos done while we were in town. We used Folland Photography and we were super happy with the results, including our new favorite family photo on the left and several holiday-card-ready shots. It is $250 for ten well-edited pictures.
We also visited The Turtle Hospital. Adults are $27, kids are $13, and <4 free. This was an interesting experience for the adults, although a little long for our toddlers. We learned a lot about sea turtles and we are so impressed with the rescue and rehabilitation work that this organization is doing. We also got to meet and feed turtles at the end.
The most famous town in the Keys is Key West, which we did not visit on this trip. Key West is about four hours driving from Miami, so another two hours south of Duck Key. It is definitely worth a visit if you have time. The town is fun and charming with some interesting places to visit and great restaurants and bars. There is also excellent scuba diving nearby. We did not want to leave our little one, but this would be a fantastic day trip or great family activity with older kids. There are some really cool shipwrecks throughout the Keys.
Where To Stay
We mentioned Hawks Cay above – this hotel choice really enhanced the trip for the kids involved and made things very easy for the parents involved. The hotel is actually ranked #1 in the country by USA Today for best family resort. It’s an extremely family-friendly vibe with incredible amenities for kids. Our toddler delighted in it.
The two major advantages to this hotel are the kids’ area and the villas with kitchens plus separate bedrooms. First, on top of the area-standard (but very nice) beach/pool options, The Coral Cay Activities, and Adventure Club has a pirate splash pad, a game room, a daily craft activity, a playground, a mini-golf course, basketball and volleyball courts, and kids programming with things like a “swashbuckling pirate show.” There’s also a bar for adults in the kids’ club. During covid, the kids’ club is not operating so parents are with kids in the activity center at all times. We visited the activity center at least twice a day during the trip. It was a huge hit, particularly the pirate splash pad with a small waterslide.
The second awesome thing is that the hotel has villas as well as hotel rooms. The villas have a kitchen, a living room, a small outdoor deck, and two or three bedrooms upstairs. Note that the villas are privately owned and maintained, then put into hotel use when the owners are gone – we would highly recommend requesting a renovated unit when you book because the differences across renovated and non-renovated units can be substantial. Florida hotel prices are temporarily extremely high with travel demand almost entirely domestic right now, but the two-bedroom villas are typically around $350-$450/night and hotel rooms are around $200/night. Some of the hotel rooms are configured with one king bed and two bunk beds (one full/one twin), which we thought was a really smart way to accommodate families in one room.
We also got strong recommendations from locals to a couple more nearby hotels that prioritize the adult experience a bit more. Those two hotels are Tranquility Bay and Isla Bella Beach Resort. Both of these hotels are a bit more expensive than Hawks Cay, (~$400-$600/night) but also appear to be a much more luxurious experience.
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