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Vacation with kids in the Florida keys

By Cynthia Johnson MacKay
 
I have always wanted to visit the Florida Keys. I wondered why these islands,that run south in a 120 mile chain from the tip of Florida, are all relatively small; why they lie insuch a perfect curve; and why they have inspired such loyalty in people like Ernest Hemmingway. I had no idea why they are called “Keys” (or “Cays”), instead of “Islands.”
 
I learned why people fall in love with the Keys in April, when I visited with my daughter-in-law Sharmeela and my granddaughters, Asha and Sarika. We stayed at Hawks Cay Resort, on Duck Key. Duck Key lies halfway down the chain, midway  between the northernmost Key, Key Largo (made famous by the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and the southernmost Key, Key West (made famous by Hemmingway).
 
We flew to Miami and rented a car. For the last hour of our two-hour drive we were driving down the Keys, on the Overseas Highway, enjoying views of mangrove swamps, parasails, boats, seabirds, and turquoise water. I booked through GetARoom.com, and got a great deal, almost half price, but at a cost: my reservation could not be altered or refunded. If you book directly through the resort itself, you will pay more, but you will be able to cancel without penalty up to a week ahead of time. 
 
Luckily, I reserved early. Hawks Cay is popular. All 177 rooms in the main hotel, and all 110 villas, were sold out the week we were there. 
 
Our guest rooms were spacious, attractively decorated in a “Caribbean Plantation” style. They had ample terraces, where we ate several meals. They had an “island view,” so they were quiet. The rooms that look out over the Atlantic Ocean face the resort pool and the saltwater lagoon. These teem with happy kids all day long, kayaking, paddle boarding, jumping off the raft, and playing Frisbee, all to the beat of Calypso and Beach Boys music.
 
Kid Friendly
 
Hawks Cay was a big hit for my grandchildren. This is a kid-friendly place. There are four pools open to kids (a fifth pool, Tranquility, is reserved for adults). My granddaughters visited every one. Their activity center, called the Indies Club, provides games galore, ranging from table hockey, to miniature golf, to volleyball. My granddaughters loved zooming down the slides of a replica of a pirate ship, which sits in the middle of a pool with many cannon fountains squirting water at them. 
 
Every day the Indies Club offers a dizzying variety of kid activities, including making a shark’s tooth necklace (my granddaughters enjoyed this so much that they made several); tie-dying T-shirts; ping pong tournaments; water bucket games; water polo; hula hoop contests; and paddleboard and kayak races.
 
My daughter-in-law and the girls rented bikes and enjoyed exploring the sixty acres of the resort itself, plus the neighboring private area, which has large, attractive houses lining a network of small canals, crossed by charming small white bridges. Ignore the big fishing boats tied up in front and you could imagine you were in Venice. 
 
A unique activity offered by Hawks Cay is the opportunity to get up close and personal with the five dolphins that swim in a large saltwater pool next to the lagoon. Asha said: “This was really special.” Be sure to book this activity before you arrive, well ahead of time, because it fills up fast.
 
Playing with Dolphins
 
Dolphin trainers take the younger kids out on the dock and let the kids pet the dolphins (Asha said: “Dolphin skin feels like soft rubber”). They teach the kids hand signals that make the dolphins do astonishing tricks: clap their flippers; “talk” (a wide variety of cries, squeaks, and clicks, which they produce through their blow holes); roll over for a tummy scratch; leap in the air; “walk” all the way across the pool on their tails; and stick their tails up in the air and waggle them. Older children can actually get into the water and swim with the dolphins.
 
These dolphins seem to enjoy what they do. They were bred in captivity, so they would die if they were let free. These domesticated dolphins will live twice as long as wild dolphins.
A big plus at Hawks Cay is the perky, friendly staff. They are eager to help you with anything you need. Another is the landscaping. Asha wants you to know that this place is very green, with lots of flowers and birds and fish. Sarika loved seeing the ibis and herons and pelicans and gulls.
 
We especially enjoyed the Sunset Cruise. A catamaran took us out into the Atlantic, where we saw porpoises and watched the sun go down over the Keys.
 
Manmade Beaches
 
There are no natural sandy beaches in the Florida Keys, except for a few at Key West, but there are several attractive man-made beaches,indistinguishable from the real McCoy, constructed from imported sand. Several are within an easy drive of the resort. Sombrero Beach, in Marathon, is only 15 minutes south on US 1. It has well-maintained showers, bathrooms and picnic tables, and palm trees for shade, if you get there early enough to grab one. There is some snorkeling (scattered pillars of red coral and a few reef fish) in the shallow water, which was 8-year-old Sarika’s favorite activity of all. 
 
The best beach in the Keys is at Bahia Honda State Park. It is only 15 minutes south of Sombrero, over Seven Mile Bridge. This park has excellent off-beach snorkeling. For some of the best snorkeling in the world, take a charter boat out to the barrier reef that runs 2 to 3 miles out, all along the Atlantic coast. Visiting the reef involves jumping off a boat into deep water, so it is only appropriate for older kids.
 
Fresh Fish
 
There are several dining places at the resort, all offering decent, but unexceptional, food. My favorite was Tom’s Harbor House, located at the marina. Our fish dinner was truly fresh, and it was easy to see why. A fishing boat docked as we were eating on the deck, and out came five huge mahi-mahi destined to become the catch of the day. They were filleted before our very eyes. Monster tarpon who were bigger than my granddaughters circled eagerly under the boat, waiting for scraps of the carcass. 
 
I loved the informal, unhurried, unspoiled Keys, with their pure sea water and salt-scented sea air. Warm weather is guaranteed in the Keys, which are the only place in Florida with a tropical climate, so they are completely frost free. 
 
If I came back without kids, I would be tempted to rent one of the villas. These have two rooms with double beds upstairs, and pull-out couches, a kitchen, and a dining area downstairs. The Sunset Villas are the quietest and most remote. A trolley runs around the grounds every 15 minutes. 
 
Now I know why the Florida Keys have their unusual configuration: they were formed by the tip of a giant coral reef. This reef was originally under water, when the sea level was high, and is now exposed, because the sea level is low. If you look carefully at the rocks that surround the lagoon, you will see that each rock is in fact a chunk of ancient fossilized coral. I also learned that the word “Cay” comes from “Cayo,” which is Spanish for “Island.”
 
Dr. Cynthia Johnson MacKay Keegan, an opthalmologist, is a longtime Brooklyn Heights resident.
May 3, 2012 - 2:49pm


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