I had always wanted to visit the Florida Keys. I wondered why these islands, which run south in a 120-mile chain from the tip of Florida, lie in such a perfect curve; and why they have inspired such loyalty in people like Ernest Hemingway.
By Cynthia MacKay Keegan
I had always wanted to visit the Florida Keys. I wondered why these islands, which run south in a 120-mile chain from the tip of Florida, lie in such a perfect curve; and why they have inspired such loyalty in people like Ernest Hemingway. I had no idea why they are called keys (or cays), instead of islands.
I learned why people fall in love with the Keys this spring when I traveled there with my daughter-in-law Sharmeela and granddaughters, Asha and Sarika.
We flew to Miami, and rented a car. For the last hour of our two-hour drive we enjoyed views of mangrove swamps, parasails, seabirds, and turquoise water from the Overseas Highway.
We stayed at Hawks Cay Resort, on Duck Key, midway between the northernmost Key, Key Largo (made famous by the movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and Key West (made famous by Hemingway), the southernmost.
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. 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 and had ample terraces, where we ate several meals. They had an island view, so they were quiet. The oceanfront rooms overlook the resort pool and the saltwater lagoon. These teem with happy children all day long, kayaking, paddleboarding, and jumping off the raft, all to the beat of Calypso and Beach Boys music.
Hawks Cay was a big hit with my grandchildren, where there are four pools open to children. (A fifth, Tranquility, is reserved for adults.) Asha and Sarika visited every one. The Indies Club, the children’s activity center, provides games galore, from table hockey to miniature golf to volleyball. My granddaughters loved zooming down the slides of a pirate ship replica, which sits in the middle of a pool with cannon fountains squirting water at them. They also enjoyed making shark’s tooth necklaces, tie-dying tee shirts, ping-pong tournaments, water bucket games, water polo, and hula-hoop contests.
My daughter-in-law and the girls rented bikes and explored the resort’s 60 acres plus the neighboring private residential area, with its 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.
We all 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.
One of the unique activities offered by Hawks Cay is the opportunity to get up- close and personal with five dolphins that swim in a large saltwater pool next to the lagoon. Be sure to book this activity before you arrive, well ahead of time, because it fills up fast.
Dolphin trainers take the younger children out on the dock and let them pet these marine mammals. They teach the children 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 get into the water and swim with the dolphins.
These dolphins seem to enjoy what they do. Bred in captivity, they wouldn’t survive long if released and will live twice as long as wild dolphins.
There are no natural sandy beaches in the Florida Keys, except for a few at Key West, but there are several attractive man-made ones, 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 perfect for my granddaughters.
The best beach in the Keys is Bahia Honda State Park, 15 minutes south of Sombrero. It 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 this reef involves jumping off a boat into deep water, so it is only appropriate for older children.
There are several dining places at the resort. 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 that were destined to become the Catch of the Day. They were filleted before our very eyes. Monster tarpon that 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 seawater and salt-scented sea air. Warm weather is guaranteed in the Keys, the only place in Florida that has a tropical climate, so it is completely frost-free.
If I went back without children, I would be tempted to rent one of the villas. 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 has an unusual configuration: it was 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.