Dry Feet, Warm Memories

By: Chelle Koster Walton

The Florida Keys offer adventures above sea, too.

Some think the Keys are all about underwater exploits, but if you stay topside you'll find plenty of intriguing places tied to nature, history and adventure. On one family trip, we learned about Keys marine life and heritage without getting our feet the least bit wet. We watched leaping dolphins, acted like pirates and explored what's underwater — all while keeping dry.

We were staying on Duck Key at Hawks Cay Resort, where kids love the pirate ship pool, putting green, saltwater lagoon and dolphin observation and interaction activities through Dolphin Connection.

Nearby, inside the natural history museum at Crane Point Hammock, there are culture artifacts and a butterfly garden. Nature trails lead to their own treasures, including a bird hospital and historic site. For another taste of history, Pigeon Key, an erstwhile workers' village during the circa-1905 building of Henry M. Flagler's Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, is reached either by foot or ferry service. Board the ferry at the Pigeon Key Visitor Center Gift Shop, located on Knights Key, Mile Marker 47 oceanside.

The Keys line up a string of landlubber fun from northern extreme to Southernmost Point. I've sort of started you out in the middle of the show here, so let's rerun and get back to Key Largo, the first community you reach from the mainland. It boasts John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Though famous for its snorkeling, the partially underwater park gives equal opportunity on land. Peer into a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, hike through mangroves or enjoy a picnic on the beach. Eat with the locals at Alabama Jack's on Card Sound at the island's hidden northern end, where there's live music on weekends.

At Islamorada, between Key Largo and Marathon, Theater of the Sea is the big attraction for marine animal shows, interaction and more. Enjoy a fresh seafood meal there at Islamorada Fish Company. For accommodations, Cheeca Lodge & Spa has lots of things for kids to do in and out of the water, including environmental programs.

South of Marathon, the drive over breathtaking Seven Mile Bridge to the Lower Keys is excitement enough for little ones. Stop at Bahia Honda State Park to play on the beach, bike or take a hike. Rent a cabin (reserve a year in advance) or pitch a tent for the night. Plan an early morning or early evening visit to National Key Deer Refuge if you want to spy the endearingly tiny key deer that seek shelter there. Drive through, stop at the Blue Hole to spy gators, and just up the road from Blue Hole, hit the nature trails on foot. Or rent a bike in Big Pine Key for exploring. Mangrove Mama's to the south on Sugarloaf Key makes a good filling station for appetites small and large. Leave room for key lime pie.

Key West ends this land-bound journey with a bang in Old Town. There's more about Key West's colorful (and sometimes off-color) past and the real treasures of Key West at Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

For calmer pursuits, visit the fish, turtles and sharks at Key West Aquarium and the glass-encased gardens at Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Near the Conservatory, witness the wet, seafaring world in action over lunch on terra firma at open-air Half Shell Raw Bar. Don't miss sunset at Mallory Square, where acrobats, tightrope walkers, human statues, musicians and others will impress the kids so much they'll forget to watch the sinking sun.

Several hotels are within walking distance of Mallory Square. Hyatt Key West is a good choice. Like most of what you discover in the Keys, it may be on dry land, but it has a strong link to the sea.

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