Florida: Key Largo and the Upper Keys, Pelicans, Dolphins and Waves Galore.
Pack up and head south from Miami along US #1 (a.k.a. The Overseas Highway). Distance is measured by mile markers, the closer to Key West the smaller the number. The “wows” and “cools” start as Homestead fades in the rear view mirror. From Key Largo and Tavenier to Islamorada and Marathon the views are awesome and the opportunities for mini adventures endless. Count down to the end.
It’s not the beaches that make the Keys terrific, although there are a few. It is the carefree island attitude and the quirky sometimes just plain odd mix of residents and visitors. In the Keys—it really is no shoes, no problem. While it is possible to fly to almost any of the Keys, the drive is worth every mile. There is no better way to make the map connection of distance in miles. Seven-mile Bridge cannot be explained with a picture or visualized from a map. It is simply too cool. Swim with dolphins.
Dolphin Cove in Key Largo offers several ways to enjoy being with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. The natural dolphin swims include a freestyle snorkel program making the outing as natural as possible. The more structured dolphin swims take place in a natural lagoon and include trainer directed interaction with dolphins. For those wishing for more time, the “Trainer for a Day” program offers a behind-the scenes look at the marine mammal facility and first-hand experience of what an animal handler’s day is like at Dolphin Cove. Participants will learn the basics of dolphin behavior and training, food preparation and feeding, and swim with the dolphins. Need to know:
They have created a Junior Dolphin Encounter for children 4 – 6 years of age. (Dolphin Cove Research & Education Center, Mile Marker 102, bayside. Key Largo, FL 33037. 1(305) 451-4060, 1-877-DOL-COVE (1-877-365-2683) or www.dolphincove.com
) Swim with dolphins plus.
Dolphins Plus is a dolphin research and education facility that is home to 14 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and two California sea lions. The focus of their programs is educational. The dolphin swims both natural and structured provide an opportunity to interact with resident dolphins up close and personal. Bonus points:
They also offer a Sea Lion Encounter program which enables participants to interact with California Sea Lions. The experience includes a 20-30 minute educational briefing about habitat, feeding habits, predation, behavior and the results of human impact. Need to know:
In addition to bottlenose dolphin swims and encounters it is also possible to arrange dive excursions, crocodile eco-tours or take a kayak/canoe excursion. (Dolphins Plus, Ocean Bay Drive, Mile Marker 100, oceanside. Key Largo 33037. 1(305) 451-1993. Toll free 1-866-860-7946 or www.dolphinsplus.com
) See our first underwater park.
Whether viewed from a glass bottom-boat or a diving mask, the dramatic underwater terrain and its inhabitants is awesome. Ever changing, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is a premier wild aquarium. The park plus the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, cover approximately 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps with 500 species of fish and 55 varieties of coral. (Meaning big, really big!) The park itself extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and is approximately 25 miles in length. Throughout the year, programs are offered to park visitors on a wide range of natural and cultural history subjects. Need to know: The best place to start is the visitor center which provides nature videos as a means of introduction to the habitat. Bonus points:
No matter the age combination of your family, the reef may be enjoyed by glass-bottom boat as well as snorkeling, sailing, SCUBA, canoe, kayak, or motorboat. (John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Mile Marker 102, Oceanside. Key Largo. 1(305) 451-9570, 1(305) 451-1202 or 1-800 326-3521 or 1(305) 451-1621 or www.pennekamppark.com
) Love old movies?
Key Largo is the location where in 1947 film classic "Key Largo," was shot starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The spirit of the the vintage classic still prevails in the area. Bonus points:
The steamship used in another Humphrey Bogart American film classic, "The African Queen" is moored at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Marina, 99701 Overseas Highway. (The African Queen, Mile Marker 100 oceanside, Holiday InnSunspree Resort, Key Largo. 1(305) 451-4655) See bird life in close quarters.
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Centre in Tavenier is the only place in Florida Keys where visitors may see indigenous bird life in close quarters. The feathered residents include ospreys, hawks, pelicans, cormorants, terns, and herons. The primary goals of the facility include rescue, rehabilitation, and release of ill, injured, and orphaned wild birds. The dedicated staff provides feathered visitors safe habitat and everyone else a unique opportunity to learn about the birds of the Keys while enjoying the beautiful tropical setting. Bonus points:
Check out the website for lesson plans and family activities. Need to know:
Call in advance to arrange for a tour. (The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Centre. 93600 Overseas Hwy, Tavernier. 1(305) 305-852-4486 or www.fkwbc.org
) Applaud for sea life.
Theater of the Sea in Islamorada is a marine animal park with salt-water lagoons, tropical gardens and many shows and programs designed to that entertain and inform. Visitors will see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, sea turtles, tropical and game fish, sharks, stingrays, crocodiles, alligators, marine invertebrates, and birds-of-prey. Interactive programs include encounters with sea lions and dolphins. Discovery:
It is also possible to feed and touch gentle rays in shallow water on a sandy beach or snorkel with the rays and a variety of tropical fish in a natural lagoon setting. (Theater of the Sea. 84721 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, 33036. (305) 664-2431 or www.theaterofthesea.com
) Feed the fish.
Where else but the Keys do giant tarpon lurk at the end of a pier waiting for silly tourists to bring lunch. (It’s just wrong, but people do it daily.) At Robbie's Marina visitors may purchase a cup of baitfish, no questions asked. The silvery tarpon wait, watch act disinterested and go crazy each time the baitfish are dropped. Need to know:
Stop for lunch at the Hungary Tarpon and feed the fish after lunch. (Robbie's Marina, at Mile Marker 77.5, bayside, Islamorada. (305) 664-9814, toll-free 1-877-664-8498 or www.robbies.com
) Go for the kids and birds.
Marathon is the home of a delightful 63-acre family friendly site that includes the Museum of Natural History, Children's Museum at Crane Point, Adderley Town Historic Site, Marathon Wild Bird Center and an extensive nature trail that weaves through a tropical forest to Florida Bay. The Children's Museum is hands-on museum and pure fun. Kids may decide to try on a costume and play pretend on a pirate ship or a Cuban "freedom raft". Bonus points:
The touch tank encourages tactile discoveries about seal life. The Museum of Natural History presents the Keys from early inhabitants to the first explorers and showcases the story about the "Railroad that Died at Sea." Also onsite is the The Florida Bay Marathon Wild Bird Center, a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned birds. (Florida Keys Crane Point Nature Center and Children's Museum. 5550 Overseas Hwy. Marathon, Mile Marker 50.5 bayside. (305) 743-9100 or www.cranepoint.org
) Visit the Keys Hospital for Turtles.
The world's only state-certified veterinary hospital for sea turtles is now open to the public for tours. During the tour, visitors learn how the hospital opened and explore the unique facility, seeing equipment used in the care of the turtles. A veterinarian technician's description of the different sea turtles — hawksbill, leatherback, green loggerhead and Kemps Ridley — is followed by a question-and-answer period. Visitors view the preparation room where turtles needing care are cleaned, weighed, photographed and measured. They also learn how blood tests can help determine the relative health of a turtle. Bonus points:
The tour continues outdoors, where turtles in holding pens are fed shrimp, squid and food pellets each afternoon. (Keys Hospital for Turtles. 2693 Overseas Highway, Marathon 33050. On the Gulf side at mile marker 48. (305)743-2552.) Text and images provided by Amanda Nelson-Duac. Content updated 2012. Additional images provided by Visit Florida.