Dolphin dive

Islamorada – Get Away to the Florida Keys – Part 2

Islamorada Part 2!  It’s such a glorious place that I just couldn’t bring myself to squeeze all of my tips into one post.  So, now that you’ve read my last post about Islamorada and where to stay, you can get into the business of planning things to do and where to eat.  And the kind of eating I’m talking about is the kind where you don’t have to prepare anything or even clean up – I know, it’s crazy!

Theater of the Sea

The Florida Keys have some of the best fishing and snorkeling in the world.  See my last Florida Keys post about snorkeling.  If you are more of a land-lubber then go explore some of the marine life that can be found in its waters.

Theater of the Sea
Theater of the Sea!

We reserved an afternoon to check out the Theater of the Sea, just a short drive north of our hotel. The Theater bills itself as a safe place for marine animals and an educational opportunity for us humans to learn more about conservation and environmentalism to protect the animals.  What it boils down to is a really fun way to interact with dolphins, sea lions and see some fish and reptiles closer than you would ever get, or want to get, in the wild.   We saw parrot fish, barracuda, green turtles, parrots, nurse sharks, tarpon, alligators and crocodiles.  My favorite feature of the Theater is they have 3 rotations of continuous animal shows throughout the day.  So, no matter what time you show up you won’t miss seeing anything.  They give you plenty of time to walk between the lush waterways and even stop and admire the orchids before the next showtime.  And, you don’t have to feel guilty about having to duck out with a child who just can’t sit still.  Our favorites were the dolphin and sea lion show because the animals were so entertaining and the trainers did a great job interacting with the guests.

All in all, it was super-educational and a fun way to take a break from the sun for an afternoon.  The admission price wasn’t too high either.  They have more personal interaction opportunities with mammals like the dolphin, but we thought it was a little steep – a 30 min swim was $195/pp.  Maybe a special birthday gift for your future marine biologist perhaps?  The biggest takeaways for us:

Parrot
Parrots – Look pretty, are annoying
  • Alligators and crocodiles have huge jaws and have really big teeth.  Never get close to them.
  • Parrots do not make good pets, even though they are pretty.  It’s like owning a toddler who never grows up and will probably outlive you.
  • Dolphins are adorable and super smart!
  • Sea lions can be really funny if you feed them lots of fish.
  • Take care of the environment by not leaving trash at the beach and eat sustainable seafood.

    Nurse Sharks
    This is not an up close picture of tadpoles they are Nurse sharks and they are HUGE.
Dolphin pose
The dolphin show was our favorite by far! Lots of fun and minimal splashing.
Dolphin jump
The dolphin trainers took the show to new heights!

Tips for Theater of the Seas:

  1. Any of the local coupon books have a few dollars off the entrance fee to Theater of the Seas.  Grab one!
  2. Bring a bathing suit and towel if you want to check out the “beach” or swim with the dolphins, sea lions, rays or sharks.
  3. They have snack food, ice cream and hot dogs at Nicky’s Grille for a fair price.  You cannot bring in food or drinks so plan on bringing some money for beverages, especially if it is a hot day.
  4. The gift shop is large and has some cute beachy merchandise in addition to local crafts and artwork.
  5. Don’t forget the sunscreen!

Dining Out in Islamorada

There are so many delicious places to eat in Islamorada and many are kid friendly because of the laid-back vibe in the Keys.  These are our favorites:

Green Turtle Inn
Get a side of grits with those eggs

Green Turtle Inn – They serve meals all day, but we really loved their breakfast.  And take it from a Southern girl, their grits are legit.  They have a sticky bun that is so sweet and sticky that you’ll have to (and want to) lick your fingers.

Hungry Tarpon – Located at Robbie’s marina, it’s a “must do” stop with the kids.  And, bonus if you eat at the Hungry Tarpon you don’t have to pay the $1 fee to go on the

Tarpon feeding
Grab some bait for the Tarpon and watch those fingers at Robbie’s Marina.

dock to look at the hundreds of hungry tarpon just waiting to be fed.  If you want to start your day by slowing it way down, go for the Trailer Trash Bloody Mary and enjoy a liquid breakfast with beef jerky and candied bacon.  The restaurant gets busy throughout the day so it may be best to go with kids earlier so you don’t have to explain why the clientele is so rowdy.

OO-Tray Restaurant – Sit outside and enjoy the music and sip a cocktail from the whisky bar.  Look over the farm to table menu, but promise me you will order the eggplant fries with honey rosemary.  And enjoy any of their local seafood dishes.  You will be smiling and tapping your toe in no time.

Lazy Days – If views of the water is what you’re after, head on over to Lazy Days for a dizzing aray of seafood options.  It ain’t fancy but it’s good and the beer is cold.

 

Helpful web sites

Cheeca Lodge

Theater of the Sea

Green Turtle Inn

Hungry Tarpon

OO-Tray Restaurant

Lazy Days

Islamorada “The Scoop”

Sustainable/responsible seafood

Islamorada sunset

Islamorada – Get Away to the Florida Keys – Part 1

If you don’t know by now, I just love the Florida Keys!  Oh, let me count the ways.  The Keys are not too far from Miami, about an hour, depending on which Key you stop on.  The vibe is so different from other places in Florida.  It’s a “grab a cold one, come as you are” sort of vibe.  And, in my opinion there’s no better invitation for relaxation than that.  Just ask Jimmy Buffet and the Beach Boys.  We recently traveled to Islamorada, the second major Key south of Miami for my mother-in-law’s big birthday celebration.  And we returned with a suitcase full of wet bathing suits, beautiful pictures and full bellies.  I think I can speak for my whole family when I say that we are ready to plan our next trip to paradise.

Cheeca Lodge

We stayed at the luxurious Cheeca Lodge (Gigi loves luxurious things) and they have the perfect set up for families or extended families, in our case.  My in-laws had a suite with a mini kitchen and living room and we had an adjoining room with two double beds.  The living room couch pulled out to a bed so we could have crammed a few more kids in too.  The resort is top-notch and frankly we were pleasantly surprised at all of the amenities that were included in our stay.

Cheeka Lodge
Ocean front rooms at the Cheeca Lodge in the morning light

 

Cheeka pier
Grab a rod and head to the fishing pier and watch for shark fins.

As you walk out to the private beach you can’t help but notice the huge fishing pier.  Rods are included so you can just grab one and see what you catch.  But be careful, the local pelican are nearby just waiting for you to drop your treasures.

Cheeka family pool
Some nice shady spots to park while your kids splash around in the pool.

If you want to head off shore, the Lodge will happily schedule a family fishing or snorkeling trip.  All sorts of water sports are included in your stay like paddle boards and kayaks.  For a small fee you can rent a paddle boat, sailboat or even go parasailing. If you are water lovers like my children, you’ll spend 90% of the time in the awesome, kid-friendly pool.  The Tiki Bar is conveniently only steps away.  They also have an adult-only pool with a fitness room if you need to escape to recharge.

Cheeka adult pool
Ahh, the serenity of the adult pool. Don’t you just want to do a giant cannonball?

We didn’t get to the 9 hole, par 3 golf course, but clubs are available to borrow and it looked like a great way to spend some time with the kids.  They also have tennis courts, bikes to borrow, and a spa.

The grounds are pristine and lush so walking to our room was a nice respite from the sun on a hot day. Watching the lizards scatter as we strolled was a treat.  Overnight, the resort fairies freshly rake the sand on the beach and wash the pool deck so each day is just as beautiful as the last.

We highly recommend the Sunset Cruise, a little extra cost but a beautiful way to end a day at the beach.  The friendly boat captains also provided fun commentary about the area while sipping on cold adult drinks.   If you like being a nosy neighbor, just ask about some of the prices of the houses and boats you ride by.

We also enjoyed several of the restaurants on the grounds of Cheeca, but I think it’s more fun to explore a bit and check out the local restaurants and boy are there a ton to choose from!

Part 2 of our adventures in Islamorada is coming!  Stay tuned for our pics for activities with the kids (if you can peel yourself away from Cheeca) and our favorite places to grab a bite.

Tips for Cheeca Lodge:

  1.  Check Cheeca Lodge’s web site for any discounts or coupon codes.
  2. They have a kids club so if you need an afternoon away to read a book or take a fishing trip, take advantage.  And, they have an evening option as well.  Date night!
  3. Pack your own snorkel gear or pick some up at a nearby store.  They don’t have any masks or fins at Cheeca for guests.
  4. You don’t need to bring tennis rackets or golf clubs.  They have them on site for your use for free.
  5. If you want to take professional photos of your family, choose a photographer that is approved by the resort and has insurance.  If you have a big crowd you’ll need to coordinate with the events staff on site.
  6. Service at the resort was hit or miss when we were there.  Sometimes they were on top of things but a few times we had to call twice for things like extra towels.  Hopefully it will improve by the time you go.
  7. When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!

 

 

Christmas at Gaylord Palms – Orlando

When you think Orlando, you probably think Disney World, right?  We used to do the same until we stumbled upon the Gaylord Palms hotel, thanks to my son’s preschool teacher.  Even if you only have a one-track mind and must visit Disney while in Orlando, the Gaylord is an excellent choice for a hotel because it’s about 4 miles from the entrance to the parks and typically a lot less expensive than the resort hotels, but just as grand and impressive, maybe even more so. Yes, the Gaylord caters to the Disney crowd and offers free transportation to the parks and can help with tickets and reservations.   But, don’t overlook all the hotel has to offer…

Rooms overlooking the waterfall and plants

The hotel itself is impressive with the commanding lobby which leads you into the huge glassed atrium with rooms surrounding a lush landscape of plants and animals native to Florida.  Yes, I said animals -well, really reptiles.  They have baby alligators and turtles living in the atrium.  You can walk up and watch them swim or just enjoy the metal railing that separates you from their little jaws.  In another water feature they have fish and other marine life native to Florida and every afternoon there’s a fish feeding that you can watch.

Alligators enjoying sunning on the rocks and swimming

The pool (also known as the Cypress Springs Family Fun Water Park) lives up to its name.  We could have easily spent all day poolside because the kids were entertained, which means the adults could take a break from everything, really.  The fort/tree-house-type water feature has slides, water guns and one of those giant buckets that dumps water on unsuspecting sliders every few minutes.  It’s hilarious to watch, especially if you are sitting in a lounge chair clear from the spray.  The pool has a zero-entry side, great for little people and floating basketball hoops for some one-on-one.  They also have a giant screen that plays movies nightly.  The Sand Bar is a few steps away with adult beverages and a great lunch menu.  Not to worry, if you just can’t get out of your chair, they will come to you.  If only the little elves at my house did the same at mealtime.  You can also rent pool cabanas if you need some privacy and like to roll like that.  If you happen to be at the Gaylord without children, they have an adult-only pool that offers peace and quiet, not something we know anything about these days.

About as family-friendly as they get and hours of fun
Nightly movie showings and a screen large enough to impress any dad

The Gaylord Palms goes all out at Christmastime and we think it’s a great way to kick off the holidays, Florida style.

Think it doesn’t get cold in Florida?  Well, you may think otherwise if you head to Gaylord’s Alpine Village.  You could spend most of the day here soaking up the chilly fun.  For an adrenaline rush and giggles, head to the Alpine Rush Snow Tubing.  The hotel built an 8-lane snow hill so you can tube to your heart’s content.  They even have a double tube for families with little ones.  If your kids have never been sledding before, this is a must-do!

Possibly the most impressive feature in Alpine Village is “ICE! featuring ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”.  The magic of Christmas comes alive in this frozen treat.  Two million pounds of hand-carved and colored ice sculptures decorate the ICE! exhibit.  They tell the story of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and even show you how they put the while thing together with illustrations and an ice carver who may be working on a hands-on creation.  They do warn you about putting your tongue on the ice.  No Christmas Story repeats here.  They’ve even built an ice slide so you can remind yourself how hard and slippery ice is.  We loved that they ended the exhibit with a beautiful nativity scene.  The whole exhibit is truly impressive and F…F…Freezing!  The exhibit is kept at 9 degrees to keep the sculptures in tact, so you’ll want to layer up and bring a hat and gloves if you want to spend any time inside (of course we didn’t have any because we live in Florida).  They have giant parkas to help keep you warmer but, it’s amazing how cold you get so quickly in 9 degrees.  Don’t worry, you can buy hot chocolate to warm up after you exit.

…were all cozied in for their long winter’s nap  (this is all ice!)

 

Ice sledding a little hard if you don’t have padding on your tush.

 

A stunning and moving nativity display

Santa’s available for consultation at the Alpine Village and he took the time to have a memorable chat with our kids.  He even let us walk through his workshop to see what he was working on for Christmas.  We could order a packet of pictures or just chat for free, which was a nice touch.

They also have opportunities to make a gingerbread house, have breakfast with Mrs. Claus and do a little shopping, including a Build-A-Bear workshop.  You really could spend some time here so if you plan on going, so give yourself a few hours.

In addition to the Alpine Village, the hotel has an Elf on the Shelf® (gosh I wish I thought of the Elf on the Shelf) scavenger hunt!  They give you a guide book and you read clues to find 10 elves hidden all around the hotel.  Let me tell you, those elves are sneaky and you never know where they will be.  It’s actually pretty difficult, but a great way to explore the hotel and learn your way around.  Disco, our elf, forgot to make the trip with us that weekend so it was nice to have his friends there to keep an eye on us.

If you do nothing else at the Gaylord, try to go by for a visit to see the Cirque Dreams Unwrapped show.  It is a free show in the atrium with Cirque du Soliel performers doing what they do best: awe-inspiring feats of contortion and acrobatics.  We heard mumblings of “how did they do that?” throughout the 30 min performance.  After the show they light the grand tree in the atrium and all is right with the world.  They do performances daily and sometimes twice a day.

Cirque show with the tree lit and wide-eyed viewers as far as the eye can see

Now you don’t have to stay at the Gaylord to experience the holiday splendor but, if you do, you can purchase a package deal that gives you access to all of the holiday events and allows you to avoid a few lines.  We heard some of the lines got long so it was worth it to us to stay there.

Quick tips for busy moms:
1.  Book ahead of time to book rooms and ask for packages with ICE! tickets or snow tubing.  If you can swing it, get a room overlooking the atrium.
2.  Pack hats, gloves, layers for the ICE! show.  And, also pack your bathing suit.  I know, crazy!
3.  To see the Cirque show, get a seat or a spot on the stairs early because it is popular and crowded.  We recommend grabbing a drink or dessert and sitting down about 45 min to an hour before showtime.
4.  You are not far from Disney.  If you don’t want to drive over and pay for parking, take the shuttle but, check for times before you commit.
5.  The food at the hotel is really good but, a little pricey.  If you don’t want a pricey brunch in the morning grab something at the coffee shop or pack food to enjoy in your room.
6.  The Gaylord is a convention center so don’t be surprised if rooms are booked up or you see people walking around with laniards on in business suits and sensible shoes.
7.  When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!

Merry Christmas to all of my blog readers!  Here’s to a healthy and happy holiday filled with a little wonder and a lot of thankfulness.  xoxo Katy

ICE
Merry Christmas from our crazy family to yours!

 

Marathon - Sunset Grille

Weekend in the Florida Keys – Marathon

Living in South Florida has its perks, we are driving distance to the Florida Keys!  If you haven’t been, the Keys are like going to the Caribbean without the hassle of grabbing your passport and boarding a plane or a boat.  After you drive through Homestead, FL, basically the last stop on HWY 1, your pulse slows because you are on island time now!  This is the only road in or out of the long stretch of the Keys and at times you can see crystal clear blue water on either side – a sight that almost brings me to tears!  Just think of the drive in as an adventure in itself.  There are tons of shops selling brightly colored island ware, conch shells and yard art to entertain your eyes as you drive down.  Resist the urge to stop at the first bar you see with a thatched roof.  It was so entertaining that the kids put down the iPads to look out the window!  The drive is so scenic that Travel & Leisure Magazine voted it one of the most scenic drives in the US.  T&L Scenic drives  Don’t miss the Seven Mile Bridge, just past Marathon.

On the way down we stopped for lunch at Key Lime Cafe, an outdoor cafe with excellent fresh fish and the best conch fritters I’ve had (and I’m not a huge fan of conch fritters).  You can explore their outdoor shop of garden accessories while you wait for your food.  Grab a key lime pie on your way out.  They are frozen, ready for travel and are divine!  Check out their web site to order key lime products.

Key Lime Cafe
Laid back fare at reasonable prices

After lunch we drove from Key Largo through several small Keys and Islamorada to our destination at Marathon.  Marathon is one of the more developed areas of the Florida Keys and has several resorts, grocery stores, gas stations and all of the basic needs for harmonious travel with kids.  We thought it would make a great home-base for exploring.  Key West is about 50 miles south from Marathon – another stop on our “to do list” for a future trip.

We stayed at Tranquility Bay, a resort with all of the comforts of home in a stunning backdrop.  It would make a great stop for a longer trip to the Keys because they have “beach houses” with full kitchens, equipped enough for simple dinners when you just don’t want to deal with corralling your kids at a restaurant.  Or maybe you’d like an early to bed night so you can enjoy some quiet time on the back porch with a cocktail.  Being near a grocery store comes in handy if you didn’t stock up before you arrive.  We found a few fish markets that sell fresh fish and seafood.  You can’t go wrong with any of the specials.  If you don’t enjoy cooking while on vacation, (is it really a vacation if you are cooking?) not to worry, there are plenty of restaurants nearby and several that deliver!

The hotel has a giant pool with lots of shade for a break from the sun and an area with zero entry, great for younger kids and moms who don’t want to get their hair wet.

Pool at Tranquility Bay
A relaxing day at the pool
Gecko
This one we named Sammy.
So, about the gecko/iguana situation…they are everywhere.  If you haven’t seen one up close, they are beautiful and entertaining to watch while swimming at the pool.  The kids were mesmerized!  Parent note, they can climb, but there are several cats on the property that help keep the population in check.

There’s also a beautiful beach area for swimming with water so clear you can wear goggles or practice snorkeling.  The beachfront tiki bar is a great stop for afternoon refreshments and the resort has all of your watersport needs covered, including sailboats, Waverunners, kayaks and paddle boards.  We rented a kayak and tried paddle boarding with the kids on the front of the board.  The boards are very forgiving so they are great for wiggly children.  If you are lucky, you may encounter a manatee or sea turtle while paddling.

Tranquility Bay
It’s hard not to relax here
I know you’ve seen a beautiful sunset but, there’s just something about the sunsets in the Keys that takes your breath away.  To catch the nightly sky entertainment we went to the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, just north of the Seven Mile Bridge.  The restaurant gets crowded so you may want to show up about 30 min before sunset to make sure you get a seat.  They have an extensive menu with plenty of seafood and bar fare but, it’s really not about the food here.  As you can see, the view is simply amazing and they have a pool!  If you sit on the lower level you can enjoy a drink while the kids swim happily in the light-filled pool.  Usually they have a band poolside and there is a bar as well.  The guys in our group enjoyed the cold beer and the gigantic TV by the pool that was showing football games.  Really, this restaurant has something for everyone and that sounds like paradise to me!  Parent tip – pack towels and come in your coverup.
Sunset views at Sunset Grille
Everyone wins at Sunset Grille!
Snorkel Sombrero Reef
Snorkel at Sombrero Reef and see fish you only read about in books!

There are plenty of opportunities to fish, snorkel or scuba in the Florida Keys.  Check out one of the several active coral reefs just minutes from Tranquility Bay. Although they have diminished over the years there are still spots to see active and colorful marine life.  We chose to take a snorkeling trip to Sombrero Reef with the Starfish Snorkeling crew.  They specialize in families and everyone in our group loved it!  It was some of the best snorkeling I’ve done and they really took the time to explain the safety rules but also, have a little fun too.  Ask my 5 yr old how many pirate jokes he picked up along the way.  Argh!  The ride on the catamaran was an experience in itself. They let the kids sit up front for maximum splash potential.  Before getting in, they showed us pictures of fish that we might see while snorkeling.  They have all the gear you need including life jackets and pool noodles which came in handy when swimming with the kids.  We buddied up and held on to the noodle together.  The crystal clear water was like swimming in a fish tank and you really didn’t have to go far to see fish.  We got up close and personal with all kinds of colorful marine life, and even saw an eel and a sea turtle.  Our favorite were the parrot fish and yellowtail snapper.  Not only did we learn about different kinds of fish, but also learned a lot about the coral reefs and how to take care of them.  

We will definitely be back for another trip to paradise so stay tuned for more adventures down south.  

Quick tips for busy moms:
1.  Hotel and resort prices go up dramatically in the winter.  It’s actually pretty affordable in the fall and late spring.  Price shop.
2.  Dress is very casual.  Bring bathing suits, cover ups and dry clothes for when you aren’t in your bathing suit.  90% of the restaurants don’t care if you come in in T-shirts and shorts.
3.  If you are flying, check flights into Key West and Miami.  If you fly into Miami, the first Key is about 60 miles away.
4.  Consider a rest stop in Homestead before you hit the main drag because you can get stuck in traffic and there aren’t many places to refuel or use the restroom.
5.  Try some key lime pie!
6.  When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!