By Susan & Simon Veness
The delicate string of islands that arc down into the Gulf of Mexico from just south of Miami are rightfully known for their beauty, sealife and active adventures, but not many people consider them primarily as a beach destination.
The Florida Keys line up for 125 miles in a pendulum-like swing of green-and-white pearls through the azure-blue waters of the Gulf, reaching their zenith in the lively city of Key West, just 94 miles from Cuba, and look exactly like the ultimate getaway destination that they are.
This is one of the world’s great locations for deep-sea fishing, scuba-diving and snorkelling, and the waters surrounding the entire chain are designated as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the continental United States’ only living barrier coral reef.
You would think that would also make them the ideal beach destination, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. Many of the islands and islets are quite rocky, or have been stripped of their sands by the steady erosion of storms, which have left an indelible mark over the centuries.
Yet, among the fishing marinas and mangroves that are part and parcel of the Keys scene, there are genuinely some blissful beaches, several of which are known only by the locals but offer just as rewarding a visit as any of the other attractions hereabouts.
This is also a great place for active families, as the opportunities for wildlife watching, kayaking, paddle-boarding and other watery pursuits are immense.
With that in mind, we thought we’d offer our own list of the best beach locations in the Keys, highlighting those that either have children directly in mind or that feature more facilities and options than the rest. So, with no further ado, here are our Delightful Dozen:
Harry Harris Park, Key Largo
Key Largo is the first major landmark as you head south along Highway 1, the historic Overseas Highway, and it’s the largest of the islands that make up this glittering archipelago. It stands to reason it should have some good beaches, and Harry Harris Park definitely fits that bill, offering a gentle curve of white sand flanked by a long stone breakwater. The beach is largely man-made, with the sand imported periodically, but it still provides plenty of seaside fun, with the thoughtful addition of 11 pavilions, 12 free-to-use barbecue grills, 34 picnic tables, a basketball court and children’s playground. Note that there is a $5/person fee for non-Florida residents on public holidays and weekends, but we’d strongly recommend visiting in midweek when it is much quieter.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
While there are many reasons to stay for a while in Key Largo, the magnificent extent of John Pennekamp is reason one, two and three. Stretching for 25 miles along the coast and three miles out to sea, this is the USA’s largest expanse of coral reef, and its most diverse. Here, you can enjoy some of the best diving and snorkelling in Florida, as well as glass-bottom boat rides that provide a fascinating ‘window’ on to the underwater world. Also here is Far Beach, with its soft, warm sands, fringed by the iconic Keys palm trees and offering a shallow stretch of sea that is ideal for young ones who just like to paddle. Bring a mask and snorkel and you can also conduct your own family undersea exploration without having to take one of the offshore trips.
Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort
While there are certainly plenty of public options through the Keys, picking a resort that has it all on tap is a great choice for families, putting the whole beach vibe within just a short stroll of your hotel room. The ideal resort in the upper Keys is the Marriott Beach Resort, right on Highway 1 in Key Largo but also backing on to its own blissful seafront with Florida Bay. This action-packed hideaway is set among 17 tropical acres and features a terrific variety of watersports – including diving, boating, fishing and parasailing – as well as its own private beach AND a heated outdoor pool. The west-facing rooms have stunning sea views, too.
Library Beach, Islamorada
When you just need a small, uncrowded beach to give the kiddies a paddle, this is one known mainly to the locals as it is tucked away, fittingly enough, behind the Monroe County Public Library right on Highway 1. It is set on one of the mangrove channels hereabouts, hence it isn’t a classic beach in the usual sense, but it does offer a short stretch of shallow, bath-warm water for toddlers to splash in, plus there is a small playground with some swings and the all-important provision of public restrooms!
Curry Hammock State Park, Marathon
Active families will adore this fabulous nature park between Duck Key and Marathon as it offers some lovely beachfront but also a series of excellent eco-adventures that should thrill older children and teens. With 1,000 acres to explore, this untarnished sanctuary features large areas of mangrove swamp, rockland hammocks and seagrass beds that are ideal to explore by kayak and paddleboard. Crucially, it also boasts a beautiful 350-yard beach expanse that is ideal for younger children with its clear, shallow waters, while there is also a playground, nature trail, picnic pavilion and restrooms.
Coco Plum Beach, Marathon
If you’re looking for the totally natural seaside experience, as opposed to a beach with a man-made quotient, head for the island of Marathon and Coco Plum Beach. As well as being one of the larger beaches in the Keys, Coco Plum has free parking and its own restrooms, plus a little general store nearby if you want to create your own picnic. It is also a popular stretch of the coast for kite-boarders, and it is dog-friendly, which means you may well meet some of the locals and their pets.
Sombrero Beach, Marathon
Another locals’ ‘secret’, Sombrero Beach is as good a stretch of seaside territory as there is in the Keys, and is ideal for a family day out, located just a few minutes off Highway 1 in downtown Marathon. The wide stretch of sand is again supported by relatively shallow water, and it is rarely crowded (although try to avoid public holidays). There are also showers, restrooms and pavilions, plus a children’s playground and free parking. Be aware this is a significant area for nesting sea turtles from April to November, and some parts of the beach may be closed off to protect active nests, but that will still leave plenty of space for all concerned. You are also close to 63-acre Crane Point, an excellent family facility featuring nature trails, bird rescue centre and natural history museum.
Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort, Marathon
For a family-friendly resort that ticks all the boxes – including, most importantly, its own stretch of private beach – Tranquility Bay is a genuinely peaceful option with lots of features to thrill children and adults alike. There are three sparkling pools, notably a lagoon-style version for families, and fully 2.5 acres of beachfront, with a gently-sloped sheltered ocean access that is ideal for smaller children. The ultra-spacious beach house accommodations feature two and three bedrooms and comfortably suit a family of four to six, as well as boasting a fully-equipped kitchen that make longer stars a breeze. The tropical gardens also offer a putting green and lawn games, while the award-winning Butterfly Café is rated the best in Marathon and there are plenty of watersports available onsite.
Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key
Another natural gem, just across the magnificent engineering immensity of Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Upper Keys to the Lower Keys, Bahia Honda State Park is a great stopping point. Although it suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017, the Park is largely restored once more and offers a lovely hideaway, with more than 500 acres of pristine Florida nature and a series of small, all-natural beaches, of which Calusa Beach is probably the best. It is shallow enough for young children but with good snorkelling right at hand, and there is a gift shop, restrooms and picnic pavilions. Park activities include snorkel boat tours to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, kayaking and guided tours seasonally.
Smathers Beach, Key West
This is no secret, to the locals or anyone else, but Smathers is simply the best beach in the city of Key West. At almost a mile long, it is a lively and popular hangout for all-comers, with kayaks and parasailing for the active and plenty of beach space for those who just want to lie in the sun and enjoy the seaside vibe. The coral reef just offshore helps keeps waves to a minimum, hence it is highly suitable for younger children. All the usual amenities – showers, restrooms, etc – are provided, and there are volleyball courts for those who enjoy the sport. Food trucks and other vendors usually hang out here to provide plenty of meal options and, while parking is $4/hour, it is plentiful and rarely over-subscribed (apart from weekends in peak season, which tends to be Feb-Apr).
Higgs Beach, Key West
If big isn’t your idea of fun, nearby Higgs Beach might be the perfect choice. With palm trees fringing this truly tranquil location, you can enjoy a more laid-back and personal experience, albeit there is still plenty here to keep families amused and busy all day, while there is even a section dedicated to dogs. In addition to the beach, there are kayaks and paddleboards for rent, two piers to explore (and watch the local fishermen), a children’s playground, beachside café and free parking. For the historically minded, West Martello is a Civil War era fort with self-guided tours and two acres of beautiful gardens.
Casa Marina, Key West
For the ultimate beach retreat in eclectic Key West, Casa Marina – a beautiful 1920s resort built as the terminus of the historic Overseas Railway – is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and seaside fun. Set on 1,100ft of private beachfront, it has all the bucket-and-spade amenity that children demand, plus all the creature comforts for mum and dad, too! There are two outdoor pools, a superb Spa, excellent restaurants and plenty of watersports right at hand, including scuba-diving, deep-sea fishing and parasailing. To complete a Keys adventure in style, you definitely need a night or three at Casa Marina.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.