Beyond the Sea: Port Mini-Breaks
Families | Couples | Seniors
Since winter's worst coincides both with some of Florida's best weather and with Christmas vacation, South Florida has been a family vacation destination from the beginning, hence, the wealth of child-pleasing infrastructure. Long before the original Disneyland opened its gates, vacationing kids were flocking to Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle and the Miami Seaquarium, and there are still enough things to keep even the shortest attention span focused on each day of our recommended three-day visit.
Of course, not every family craves three days straight of dawn-till-dark activities, so you may want to pick your favorite two out of our three planned days and substitute a low-key day at your hotel for the third.
Home Away From Home: Miami Beach is the ideal spot to ensconce your family. Less grittily urban and more resortlike than mainland Miami, it appeals to a range of ages and demographics. Our top choice is the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, whose list of amenities is enough to make you want to revert to childhood yourself. Loews' program was developed in partnership with Parenting Magazine. The keystone of the program is the Family Concierge, who contacts each family prior to arrival with a list of local and in-hotel family activities concurrent with its stay. There are also supervised programs for the kids, a lending library of games, special menus, kid-friendly tours, welcome gifts for children younger than 10, cribs, rollaway beds and child-proofing kits (all free of charge). It's not cheap, but kids stay free.
Another option is the Doubletree Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay, which, though it lacks a beach, has a beautiful view of Biscayne Bay and is only about a 15- or 20-minute cab ride from South Beach. Doubletree's family assets include children's menus, rental cribs, a kids' splash pool and an on-site playground.
Day One: Education, Culture and Fun
This first day will acquaint you and your kids with some of Miami's rich, cultural heritage, as well as a bit of science and history. But, like most of Florida's tourist attractions, there's enough sugar to help the medicine go down and keep kids' eyelids in the open position.
We've given you more museums and attractions here than you'll probably want to visit in a single day, so you can either pick and choose based on what has appeal, or add a second day of attractions from this list (in conjunction with some serious sun, sand and swim time at your hotel) as a substitute for one of the other days listed below.
Start your day at Bayside Marketplace. There are plenty of shops and souvenir stands for all members of the family. (Kids will particularly enjoy Art By God, a shop devoted to artifacts of natural stone, or Glowstar, which specializes in glow-in-the-dark merchandise). Continue to Miamarina at Bayside for a boat tour around Biscayne Bay. (For information on boat tours around Biscayne Bay, see day one of our senior mini-break.)
From Bayside Marketplace, walk two blocks north to visit what is perhaps Miami's most famous historical landmark, Freedom Tower. It is a great place to expose your kids to the Cuban heritage, which is so much a part of life in Miami. (For information on Freedom Tower, see day three of our senior mini-break.)
This makes a great segue into taking the family to visit Miami's Little Havana, and since it's probably getting close to lunchtime, drive yourself to Versailles Bakery in the heart of little Havana. Then take some time to simply stroll the streets of this bit of the Latin Caribbean, superimposed on a major American city. Take in the scents, the music, the art and the personality of the people and their neighborhood before returning to your car. (For information on Little Havana and Versailles Restaurant see day three of our senior mini-break.)
On your way back to the hotel, visit the Miami Science Museum, where there are complete science and natural history museums, a museum devoted entirely to local birds of prey and a terrific planetarium and laser show (where Mom and Pop can sit in the dark and secretly snooze off their Versailles lunch).
If you're looking for dinner at a family-friendly restaurant, a great choice in the Miami Beach area is The Big Pink. It offers great burgers and pizzas, served in fun surroundings at affordable prices.
The following are alternative choices in the theme-park and museum modes, which can be substituted for any stop on our Day One schedule or combined with some laid-back time at your hotel as an alternate for our Day Two or Day Three.
Jungle Island: Start with a 22-acre rainforest filled with streams, waterfalls and more than a thousand different species of exotic tropical birds, plants and animals. Add to that a petting zoo, trained-bird show and wildlife habitat.
Miami Seaquarium: Though there are many aquatic theme parks more modern and in better shape than this 1955 pioneer, it's still worth a visit for their dolphin, sea lion and killer whale shows. Kids can also get face to face with endangered manatees or watch as specialists feed 200-pound sharks.
Miami Children's Museum: With exhibits targeted to children from toddlers on up, this relatively recent addition (1983) has interactive experiences -- cultural, technological, artistic and natural -- meant to enrich kids without denying them the fun factor.
Day Two: The Everglades
It will take you about an hour and a quarter to make the approximately 50-mile drive to the main entrance of Everglades National Park, the third largest U. S. national park outside Alaska. Take Florida's Turnpike south to its end in Florida City. Then turn right at the first traffic light (Palm Drive/State Route 9336).
The Everglades are the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles live side-by-side, which is certain to intrigue your family's Animal Planet fans. Of course, wildlife sightings are not guaranteed, so you may want to include an airboat ride and a visit to an alligator farm in your Everglades experience. If so, stop at the Everglades Alligator Farm on your way to the national park main entrance.
You can explore the national park a number of ways substantially slower than by airboat. First, there are plenty of wildlife sighting opportunities from your car as you slowly wend your way through the park, either southward toward Flamingo (at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula) or westward to Everglades City (on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico on the park's west boundary). Along the way -- on either route -- you can experience some of the park's many walking trails, either on your own or with ranger guides. Many of the trails are either paved or on raised wooden boardwalks, and they're even wheelchair accessible. Popular trails on the way to Flamingo are the Anhinga Trail (near the park main entrance), considered the park's best trail for wildlife viewing, and the Mahogany Hammock and Pahayokee Overlook Boardwalks. Along the western route, there are two favored trails midway at Shark Valley. One is the Bobcat Boardwalk, which like all the other boardwalk trails, is a half-mile or less in length. Much longer is the 15-mile-roundtrip Tram Road, for which there is a guided tram tour. There are also bicycles available for rental from the Shark Valley Tram Tour Company. At the midpoint of the road is a 60-foot tower offering spectacular views and photo ops. Finally, if your family is partial to active pursuits, consider renting a canoe and following the park's clearly charted canoeing trails. Rentals are available at both the Flamingo and Everglades City visitor centers.
If you have the time, inclination and energy left at the end of your Everglades visit, stop on your way back to Miami at the venerable Monkey Jungle, where the primates live in an open, 30-acre natural habitat and the trails for visitors are screened in. There are also scheduled events, such as an orangutan-training session and show and periodic feeding times. On your drive back to Miami, consider dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in the Dadeland Mall. With kid- and teen-friendly items on the main menu and a separate kids' menu to boot, this popular chain eatery is a real family-pleaser.
Day Three: A Trip to the Keys
The long drive all the way to Key West from Miami would tax the attention spans of even the most patient kids, so we recommend taking the family only as far as Bahia Honda State Park, 37 miles short of Key West. (If you should decide to go all the way to Key West, check out our Key West port profile for suggestions on things to do.)
Your first potential point of interest comes up at MM 102.5-O*, where you will find the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first park in America to be situated almost entirely under water. At park headquarters -- located on the 5 percent that is on dry land -- there are nature trails, a small museum, and canoe, dinghy, motorboat and snorkel or dive gear rentals. You can also book snorkel and dive trips or take one of the regular glass-bottom boat excursions to the park's centerpiece and primary focus -- the lush, living coral reefs, located three miles offshore.
* For information on navigating addresses in the Keys, see day three of our couples mini-break.
At MM 84.5-O on Windley Key, don't miss the Theater of the Sea. Founded in the 1940's, it's one of the country's oldest open-air aquariums and mammal shows, built around what was a major quarry for the bridges that linked the Keys. Besides sea lion and dolphin shows, there is a narrated walking tour with fish feedings and touching tanks. Theater of the Sea also has a number of programs allowing visitors to swim with, interact with or train the dolphins or sea lions. (Be sure to book in advance.)
Other Dolphin Programs: Dolphin Cove (MM 101.9-B) is primarily an education and research facility that offers two in-water interactive programs: a structured swim with dolphins, where they perform trained behaviors with the swimmers, and "Free and Natural," an unstructured experience where swimmers simply get to snorkel alongside dolphins. Their sister facility, Dolphins Plus (MM 99.5-O), offers much the same but also includes sea lion programs. Dolphins Plus also conducts a dolphin-breeding program, so visitors may get a gander at baby dolphins. Similar experiences are available at Dolphin Research Center (MM 59-B).
Continuing south from Theater of the Sea, you'll reach the heart of Islamorada, a village spanning three islands and marking the halfway point between Miami and Key West -- so it's a perfect choice for a lunch stop. Islamorada Fish Company (MM 81.5-B) is a casual waterfront cafe (outdoor dining only), which has oodles of stuff that kids will love, but the seafood choices are best. (Adults and children alike will enjoy the terrifically fresh fried fish or shrimp baskets.) There's a resident school of tarpon (large -- up to 200 pounds -- game fish) that hangs around for handouts of fishy trash from the kitchen staff, and watching them aggressively feed is a hoot. For a more hands-on tarpon-feeding experience, Robbie's Marina (MM 77.5-B) also has a school of tarpon that has learned to live on the largesse of tourists. Robbie's will sell you a bucket of bait, and your kids can feed them right from the dock.
As you continue your drive south, the character of the Keys gradually changes. The islands become smaller, and the bridges spanning the gaps between them grow longer. The most dramatic and recognizable (from being used as filming locations) are the Seven Mile Bridge (MM 45) and Bahia Honda Bridge (MM 37). In the shadow of the Bahia Honda Bridge is Bahia Honda State Park, your turnaround point. Spend some time enjoying the beach at Bahia Honda State Park before heading back. (For more information on the park see day three of our couples mini-break.)
--By Steve Faber, Cruise Critic contributor.
Image provided by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
For more details, go to our mini-break toolbox