Key West, the southernmost point of the United States, is an amazing place full of historical streets lined with bars and surrounded by beaches. Unfortunately, it takes around three to four hours to get there from Miami, which just isn't a feasible amount of time for a day trip. Luckily, the remainder of the Florida Keys, which are situated further north, provide excellent activities for the whole family. For this day trip, we have focused mainly on Key Largo and Islamorada, which are one hour and one and a half hours away from Miami, respectively. US-1, a main arterial in Miami, provides a straight shot all the way down.
While there are several shuttles and buses that will take visitors down through the keys, we recommend renting a car to maximize time and pleasure - so long as you leave early (we recommend leaving by 6 a.m.). The drive down is half the fun, as it takes you through a portion of the Everglades National Park. The roadway is flanked by the Everglades' famous "river of grass," which is actually a massive expanse of swamp land covered by a lush, golden saw-grass prairie. Local birds, like the heron, osprey and anhinga, can be seen drying their wings atop the miles of mangrove trees, and you might even see an alligator or two.
Everglades — Photo courtesy of Bogeskov
The narrow roadway winds through residential neighborhoods and over small bridges that hop from key to key, providing expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean. Key Largo will likely pop up before you know it, and your first stop should be the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Here, you can choose from a variety of activities that include sunbathing, having a picnic, or canoeing; but the most amazing of all options is snorkeling or scuba diving through the country's first underwater nature preserve. The expanse of live coral reefs is teeming with hundreds of fish and a variety of eels, conch and starfish. The snorkeling trip will take about two hours and all equipment can be rented onsite.
Turtle sighting during scuba at John Pennekamp Park — Photo courtesy of mattk1979
For those against full immersion, there are several hotels in Key Largo offering jet ski rentals by the hour and half hour. Once you've gotten back on land and dried off, it's time to head down to Islamorada. One of the greatest aspects of the keys is that you can go anywhere in a bathing suit and light cover-up. That being said, the next stop is the home of the original rum runner at the World Famous Tiki Bar & Rumrunners Island Bar on Holiday Isle. Giant thatched-roof tiki bars line the beach and serve up outdoor frozen cocktails and fun food like lobster grilled cheese sandwiches. This is the perfect place to relax in the sun and just enjoy the ocean breeze. It's that simple.
Holiday Isle Tiki Bar — Photo courtesy of Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina
When you finally decide to leave (which will be extremely difficult), travel less than a mile back north towards Miami to Theater of the Sea. This marine animal state park, also the second oldest marine animal facility in the world, is over 17 acres of lagoons and aquariums featuring everything from sea turtles to sharks. This is the only place in South Florida where you can actually swim with dolphins, sea lions and stingrays after witnessing their feats and talents throughout several interactive shows. Finish off with a light snorkel off the lagoon beach or a glass-bottom boat ride.
Dolphins at Theater of the Sea — Photo courtesy of msscacti
Theater of the Sea closes at 5 p.m., and if you can get out a little earlier than that (say 4 p.m.), you will undoubtedly have worked up an appetite for your drive back to the mainland. Further north, US-1 (the main road you took to get down to the keys) splits off to the east at Card Sound Road. This is a two-lane roadway through a back-woodsy (or back-beachy) area of the upper keys. Literally the only thing on this road is a tiny toll booth and Alabama Jacks, a dive bar/restaurant known for bike clubs, live country bands, two older women tap dancing in poodle skirts on the concrete slab dance floor and the best fish dip and elephant-ear-sized conch fritters in Florida. Don't be fooled by the shanty town appearance! Everyone who works here is as nice as your Florida Keys day has been.