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Key West can be a kid-friendy destination!

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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): Key West can be a kid-friendy destination!

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Key West can be a kid-friendy destination!

Chicken here, chicken there, chicken everywhere...that was my second impression in Key West after we drove into Key West Proper. But, I digress. Let me back up to the beginning. My family was looking for a low-cost but high value vacation, and my husband said "why don't we save $$ by staying in the Navy Lodge down there". So, after a little research, I found that we could stay in the Navy Lodge on Sigsbee Park for $65 a night (off season)! That was right up our alley when I saw that it also had a kitchenette.

We drove down from Tampa, which was about a 6-1/2 hour ride...not too bad a drive. The kids stayed entertained with books, snacks and a few movies. Mom and dad stayed entertained with XM radio, which did make the ride more enjoyable. Fast food gets boring we made sure to bring a cooler of sandwiches and goodies to keep us fueled.

We arrived in the late afternoon, which gave us enough time to do some commissary shopping to stock our little kitchen, as well as to stop by the PX to see what they had. They happened to have Crocs (I recommend bringing at least two pairs of shoes for everyone), so we got a few pairs. They also had some souveniers reasonably priced.

When you check in at the lodge, check with the front desk on the opening times of the tour office, right there on post. You can buy tickets at a greatly reduced rate for almost all of the tours, both land and shore, in the Key West area. I recommend the tours and places below:

  • Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum (just because the kids get a big kick out of all the exhibits)
  • Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (who doesn't like sunken treasure? Plus you get to lift up and handle a real gold bar)
  • Pirate Soul Museum (the exhibits are "Disney-like" and even though the museum is small, there are lots of interactive displays for the kids)
  • Key West Cemetery (if your kids are a bit older, they might enjoy this; come prepared with a few ghost stories; pick up a self-guided walking tour at the cemetery office and visit a few of the more interesting graves during cooler hours)
  • Mallory Square (hang out here right before sunset; beautiful harbor views and lots of free sidewalk entertainment)
  • Walking along Duval Street (not so much to buy anything, 'cause you will find cheaper places off Duval, but get a drink from a sidewalk vendor and enjoy the sights; our kids even enjoyed the transvestites that come out at dusk, but walking this street well after dark is not recommended with small children)
We didn't really have time to visit some of the other recommended attractions, but the few other attractions that someone was always telling us about included:

  • The Original Ghost Tours (this is at night and probably not a good idea for the wee ones, but the guides really get into character with fake accents and capes and such)
  • The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (it's just a darn pretty place we heard and to be surrounded by butterflies, is just something that doesn't happen every day)
  • Eco-Discovery Center (this is actually free; lots of fun nature exhibits)
  • Shipwreck Historeum (we heard that little ones can get bored, but this does have a nice tower overlook that gives a great view of the town)
  • Conch Tour Train (what kid doesn't like to ride around in a pseudo-train with a bell? This also reduces the walking that you have to do and gives a nice roundabout tour of the city)
Now, you know I'm not going to talk about Key West without talking about some things that can be done for free. Being in the military, gives you a unique advantage to not only save money, but to see some nice, uncrowded areas. Our first "beach day" was at the Navy's Truman Annex. This beach is right next to the Ft Taylor State Park Beach. Now, the beach itself was very rocky, so BRING WATERSHOES to wear! We were the only ones on the beach all morning! We looked over to the public side at Ft Taylor, and there were droves up people there that day, while our side remained quiet and peaceful. Now, the Navy does not do a very good job of keeping the Navy side looking as nice, but hey, we had it all to ourselves and once we were in the water, we actually had a nice time snorkeling and did see a few different kinds of fish. There is also a fairly new recreation center here with fussball tables, snacks, movies with nice comfy armchairs, internet (free for active duty, nominal fee for dependents) and best of all, ice cold air conditioning and clean restrooms! Other beaches that we enjoyed were Higgs Beach and Smathers Beach. Both had sand, which I think gets "trucked" in from the Bahamas every four years or so. Both have restrooms, showers and other amenities. The sand was so stirred up though when we went, so no real snorkeling. Smathers Beach is the more active one with jet-ski rentals, parasailing and other water sports.

We also spent a day out in the water in a boat we rented, up near mile marker 45 (about a 25 minute drive North). I could probably write a book on our experience that day, both good and bad, but let me just briefly say a few things:

  • Bring plenty of sunscreen, hats and shirts (get a boat with a covering)
  • Bring a cooler with plenty of food and drink, especially water
  • Make sure at least the kids wear life preservers as you move along
  • highly recommend having a portable GPS unit and a cell phone with you
We got a boat through The experience was satisfactory. They gave us a map with all the fishing and snorkeling sites annoted and loaded us up with plenty of ice, a cooler, and fishing gear to include the bait. We did have to make a short run to get our fishing licenses at a gas station up the road before we got into the boat, but they were inexpensive. If you want to prepare ahead, get your license earlier. We wasted two hours running back and forth and the owner accidently gave our boat away, so we had to wait a few hours for him to get one out of dry storage. He ended up giving us a larger boat (22') and had us pay just the half day rate and gave us free gas. As an added bonus, he told us to be back at least when the sun sets. So, we didn't complain. Just to give you an idea, a 21' center console boat will run you about $175 and the fuel another $100 or so, so keep that in mind. Of course, we did run aground on the way back, in the middle of a rain shower with thunder and lightening. And if that wasn't bad enough, we all had to get out of the boat and push, to include the two little ones. Let that be a lesson to make sure to stay well within the channel markers, although we were told later, EVERYONE runs aground...and often! Most of the water around Key West is anywhere from 1 to 4 feet deep and there is mostly no warning when the depth goes from let's say 5' to 1'!

If you really want to save money and convenience, you can rent a boat at the Navy Marina on Sigsbee Park, but you have to plan ahead. You will need your military ID and also a Sigsbee Marina Boat License. Call 305-293-4434 for more information. Their 21', 6 person boat costs $135 for a 1/2 day. You can also rent kayaks, snorkel sets, BBQ grills and fishing rods and reels from them.

As a sidenote, if you have older kids and plan to do some snorkeling, where you actually get to see a large variety and quantity of fish at a low cost, I recommend you do one of those all day or half trips for about $35 per person. Most of these old timers know where the pretty fish are and some also know where the dolphin pods hang out. This way, you don't waste time running around in a boat, not knowing where to go. I didn't get any tour company recommendations myself, but I would look online for tour operators that are constantly being mentioned. Stick with smaller companies that don't overload their boats and also companies that have been in operation for awhile. I have heard horror stories of being stuck on a boat, jampacked with people, with no chance for escape!

Now let me get back to the chickens. As you walk through Key West, you will see chickens and roosters everywhere! They run all over yards and sidewalks, through courtyards and yes even into the open air restaurants that you will find everywhere. The "Key West Chickens - Love 'em or Hate 'em" site does a good job of explaining things. I didn't have a problem with them myself, as I really didn't see chicken poop everywhere, and the restaurants do keep them off the tables!

Of course, I can't talk about Key West without talking about food. You will find typical fast food restaurants all around. There was even a Wendy's on Duvall Street. We tended to make our own lunches (and cooked a few dinners in our kitchenette) and just parked our car either at Truman Annex or the Navy's Trumbo Point and walked towards Duvall and the area around Mallory Square (this is where all the action is). This is the most economical way to do transportation and meals. We also used the parking meters a few times (bring lots and lots of change). You really have to be careful about the street parking, as there is lots of reserved and "resident only" parking, and you don't want to risk getting towed away! Down some of the sidestreets, you will see open street parking here and there...just read all the signs and markings on the roadway before you park!

We did eat at some more expensive places, just for the experience, but I must say, our favorite restaurant was the Blue Heaven. It was a few streets off Duval, and the kids loved the inner courtyard with the ping pong tables, rooster graveyard with the little headstones and just general happy atmosphere. I don't even know if they had any indoor seating, but we sat out in the courtyard by the old bar and listened to an old man in a ponytail strumming on his guitar. I had a wonderful sesame seed encrusted grouper with coconut sauce. I thought I would post a picture of the Key Lime Pie we ate, because you just wouldn't believe how light and fluffy it looked...and tasted. I think it was about 10" high at least! And yes, there were plenty of chickens around to keep us company! At the other end of the scale, we really liked the Sunset Grill which is down by the marina on Sigsbee Point. The grill is right there on the water, with an inexpensive menu of fried and grilled fish, shrimp and the like. Just be sure not to go on Sundays as the grill is closed then.

Last point, souveniers. Don't buy anything on Duval Street if you can help it. Check some of the sidestreets for souveniers and t-shirts. We found a t-shirt shop that does most of the printing for the local restaurants and businesses. These shirts have minor flaws, but most times, I had a hard time figuring out what the flaw was. We got a $20 famous restaurant shirt for only $3 at this place. They have a small selection, but it is worth a look. I forgot the name of the place, but the shop is in that first little strip mall on Kennedy Dr, right after you cross US 1, opposite from Sigsbee Rd. Since you now know ahead of time that there is a Ripley's and pirate related museums, you can buy trinkets NOW online and just take them with you...little kids don't know the difference. Plus, it pays to check eBay for t-shirts and souveniers from Sloppy Joe's Bar, Capt Tony's, Hogsbreath Saloon, Hemingway House, etc. I refuse to pay $20 for just a t-shirt!

All in all, Key West is a great family destination with lots to do! Plan ahead and get an idea of what you want to do beforehand to make the time even more enjoyable and relaxing. If you have any Key West ideas, please share them here!

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Blogger -lise said...

Don't go to smathers beach or anything on that side! It has constant warnings about the water and health. Ft Taylor is fine, due to the influx of water, but Smathers is stagnant (thats why the locals WILL NOT go there!)

August 19, 2011 at 2:30 AM  

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