Thinking of visiting the Florida Keys? Read on for 6 essential tips for an awesome Keys trip!

What’s so great about the Florida Keys?  Well, first of all, everything!  Even if you are not a fishing enthusiast, anyone can appreciate the majestic beauty of natural Florida.  From the picture-perfect sunsets, to the historical sites, to the variety of outdoor activities, the culture and the amazing seafood(!), there is something for everyone in the Florida Keys.

But before you go, here are 6 ESSENTIAL tips to help you plan an amazing Keys trip!

1. Research the area; the Keys span over 113 miles, and are broken into three parts.  There are truly hundreds of islands you can explore in the upper, middle and lower keys.  The upper keys, from Key Largo to Marathon are closer to Miami if you wanted to take a day trip there. If you’re planning on staying in the keys, Marathon is a good mid-way point.  The lower keys are closer to Key West, Cuba & the Gulf Stream.  Key West is of course a popular tourist destination, and an easy day trip if you’re staying in the lower keys.  Either way, research what each area has to offer to see if aligns to your expectations and what types of experiences you want to have. Some great websites are:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sidonie-sawyer/should-you-visit-the-flor_b_9452424.html

http://www.whats-at-florida-keys.com/About_The_Florida_Keys.html

http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-of-the-florida-keys

 

2. Pre-plan your agenda…somewhat. The Keys offer a plethora of activities and sites to see, so knowing what YOU want to do will keep you from missing out. For example, when we went to the Keys, we knew we wanted to go to Bahia Honda State Park one day as well as spend one day in Key West. So having that in mind, we marked 2 days off mentally for those experiences. We didn’t have to know the exact day we were going, but just that those were on our must-see, must-do list. If you know ahead of time that certain adventures/ experiences will be non-negotiable for you and your group, then you can better plan out and utilize your time. It also allows you to pre-book any experiences that require a reservation such as jet ski rentals, fishing charters or diving expeditions.

3. Prioritize your toys. Knowing what you’re going to do also helps decide what you’re going to pack. If you don’t think you’ll use kayaks more than once, then it’s not worth the hassle packing them-rent them for a day! Likewise if you know that you want to go fishing and there are multiple times of day to go fishing, it’s worth it to pack the tacklebox and rods. My point is don’t pack everything because you “might” use it. Really ask yourself what am I absolutely going to use while in the keys? Some examples of for my group are: aqua socks, bathing suits, rash guards, sunblock, bug spray, fishing gear and snorkeling gear. Everyone packed these items because we all used them nearly every single day.

4. Research the gear needed for the season and the rules of the sea. Know the tides, the wind and the weather as well as the fishing seasons for different species. For example, lobster season starts in August and the keys are packed with fisherman trying to score. But this is not a free-for-all, there are size limits, bag limits and rules for how you can catch lobster. Just as an example. They’re also rules for all different species of fish that are prevalent during certain times of year. Know which species of fish are available during certain times of year.  Research before you go, otherwise you could lose your fishing license and your boat.  Similarly the weather, believe it or not, changes in Florida and each season brings a different challenge.  The summer doldrums bring beautiful water views but sweltering heat. The water is glassy and beautiful to look at but it’s because there is no wind and with no wind comes bugs and no relief from the heat. The winter months bring strong wind which stirs up the surface of the water and cuts your visibility drastically. All of these conditions can affect both what you can and can’t do well in the keys and the planning of your activities. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.

5. First timer? Hire a professional. If you are going down to the Keys and would like to do something new that you’ve never done before, hire a guide and rent the equipment.  Or, go with friends who are experienced. For example, inshore fishing guides take you to certain strategic locations so that you will have success.  Additionally, Dive masters will take you to safe, popular dive sites as opposed to off-the-beaten-path secluded places.  Spending the extra money on local knowledge is worth it.  You’ll have more success and more fun.

6.  Have a good attitude and remember that not everything will go as planned. Leave some space for the unexpected.  There’s always the chance that you’re gonna have bad weather or end up not catching anything. But each experience teaches you something new.

Whatever length of stay you chose, or where precisely you stay, I hope you enjoy the amazing-ness that is the Florida Keys.  And when you return, let me know how your trip was by commenting below!

Key West, FL in a day.

If time is limited and you only have one day to spend in Key West, here are the must see places to visit.

Once you’ve parked your car, try to orient yourself by north and south as all the main thorough fare streets run north and south. As you are walking, look for the Key West Trolley stops or the Conch Train stops. Any of those locations will tell you how to get to the main booths to purchase a ticket. Buying a train or trolley ticket is so worth it in Key West! The amount of history, information and the number of sites you will get to see on the tour outweigh your frustration of trying to navigate the streets on either foot or in your own car. The train and trolleys are a great way to learn about Key West’s unique history. Whether you take the Conch Train or the Key West Trolley you can get off at select stops, eat lunch, shop, have a drink, and make it back to Mallory Square in time for a beautiful sunset!

We purchased tickets for the Conch Train ride, so the route laid out here after is based on their stops. The first 45 minutes of the Conch Train tour are nonstop so be prepared that you cannot hop on and off for the first 45 minutes. Once that part of the tour is finished, get off at the Hemingway House and take a tour of the grounds and preserved home of the larger-than-life, romanticized famous author. Uniquely built and full of history, the Hemingway House is worth the price of admission, even if you’re not a fan of his writing. My nine-year-old thought it was cool and especially loved seeing the six-toed cats!

Next, walk right across the street and visit the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. At only 88 steps this lighthouse is totally climbable. Personally I am a lighthouse connoisseur, having climbed over 20 lighthouses, and I must say this one is pretty tame-not too steep and not too narrow.  The rich maritime history, the lifestyle of lighthouse keepers and interesting facts make it enjoyable for all ages. Not to mention the views at the top of the lighthouse are unparalleled.

Get back on the train and get off at the Southern Most House and Southern Most Point. The Southern Most House while not all that exciting is still beautiful to look at.  The historic Victorian style house is now an Inn that has accommodated presidents and dignitaries alike. Less than one block away is the famous southernmost point landmark. A great place to get a picture and say that you have now stood at the end of the continental United States. Standing there you are actually closer to Cuba then you are to Miami.
Finally, get back on the train to finish the loop and you will be able to hear about other historic landmarks and stop for a picture op at mile marker zero- which marks the end of US Rt.1
The end of the tour will take you back to Duval and Front Street where you can get off and have lunch (if you haven’t yet) or something to cool you off.  Stroll Duval Street and see the famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Hemingway frequented and Irish Kevin’s (both have live music all day and night) as well as any number of places to eat, drink and shop.
After lunch, go shopping or stop at the Shipwreck Historeum. This museum/ historical performance explains the salvage and wrecking industry that helped make Key West the richest city in the U.S. for a time. Three floors full of real and reproduction items that were typically salvaged from shipwrecks and auctioned off, as well as short films on the history of shipwrecks and the salvage industry. The bonus with this museum is the look-out tower. The open-air 65 foot tower provides another opportunity to take some amazing panoramic photos of Key West.
Finally, sunset at Mallory Square. Mallory Square hosts dozens of performance artist and vendors selling unique items each night while the sun goddess performs her most exquisite dance- the sunset. In the western sky, of the southern most Key in the continental United States, it is hard to resist the photo op of golden skies and aquamarine ocean as far as the eye can see.

Before you go, a few things to know ahead of time.
• About parking: Take cash! Street parking is very limited and is by the hour. There are meters and they are strictly enforced. There are several public parking lots around but they only charge for the full day. We were able to find a lot right near Duval Street and paid $20 (cash) for the whole day. We simply used our phone GPS and typed in “nearest parking lot.”
•Make sure you lock your cars and hide any valuables.
•Wear comfortable shoes!
• Regarding Duval Street: There are several shops that sell T-shirts and souvenirs that some may find offensive.

How to camp with a large group of kids. Thinking of going camping with a group of friends, but the kids outnumber the adults? Read on for tips and suggestions from my real life experiences.

Camping is a wonderful activity for the whole family to enjoy and in my opinion, the more the merrier!  I LOVE camping but camping with a large group can present problems if ideas, rules and yes even agendas aren’t discussed prior to leaving.  Dissatisfaction happens when someone’s expectation wasn’t met.  The same thing can happen during a camping trip.  It could have gone perfectly well in one person’s view, but another person felt let down.  This happens when an expectation or wish was not fulfilled.  Therefore, the biggest piece of advice I can give you when camping with a large group, is to communicate and do it often.

Prior to leaving, have a meeting of the minds.  Share what your hopes are for the trip and include the kids!  This is a great opportunity to dispel any myths the kids might have of what they will be doing on the trip.  A great example is when my son told us, prior to leaving for the Keys, he couldn’t wait to go out deep sea fishing.  Uhhhh…. Nope, sorry we’re not doing that.  He had visions in his head of chartering a boat and getting some BIG TUNA!  Lol.  I love him for his sense of adventure, but we had to let him down and explain, no buddy, not this trip.  That activity is quite expensive and one day we would love to do that, but it’s not gonna happen on this trip.  He handled it like a champ, but all I thought was, holy cow, what if we hadn’t asked him what he was most looking forward to?!  He had this grandiose idea in his head and would have inevitably been let down and quite possibly could have ruined his whole trip!  So ask the kids, what are you most looking forward to?  Talk about what possible activities everyone can enjoy: lawn darts, hillbilly golf, bean bag toss, riding bikes, hiking, scavenger hunt, roasting marshmallows, etc.

Once everyone has shared their wishes and expectations of the trip, it’s time to establish rules.  Camping with your family is one thing, you know your kids, the kids know the rules and so forth.  But throw in another family or several other families and suddenly the lines are blurred.  What you allow your child to do, may be off limits for another child.  Similarly, rules at home are different than rules while camping.  Establishing common rules and expectations for the kids lets them ALL know where the line is drawn.

During one memorable camping trip, a rule the whole group all agreed on was that no child was allowed to go anywhere (not even the bathroom which was just a short walk away) without telling an adult where they were going. No kid, no matter how old, was allowed to walk off by themselves without telling an adult. We also had a rule that the little kids had to go to the bathroom with a buddy. Having the same rules isn’t just about safety, although that is paramount in traveling with a large group where the kids outnumber the adults, but this can also help set some expectations for the trip. For example, if one family allows their kids to play electronics but yours doesn’t, then there needs to be a discussion prior to leaving. Aligning your values of what the camping trip should entail, allows for a more cohesive experience for everyone. If there are multiple campsites being utilized by multiple families, one expectation could be that there is one central meeting space. When we camped with a church group, we learned that they purposely reserved an additional campsite that was just for the chairs and the campfire. This central location became meeting point number one, and no matter where the kids were at, if we called out to them to come in for lunch, that was where we all met.

Next, plan out your menu and meals ahead of time.  Find out if there are any allergies and/or major food dislikes before you go so that no one is left eating chips for dinner because they are allergic to the main dish.  Then plan your meals to do double (or triple) duty.  For example, the same sliced cheese used on the hamburgers for dinner can be used for the sandwiches for lunch as well as for the egg burritos for breakfast. Likewise, the tortillas used for the egg burritos can be used for tacos the next night at dinner.

Divide and conquer with food. In one memorable camping trip in which there were over 30 people, including 7 families, we actually divided the meals up amongst families. For example, on Saturday morning the breakfast was provided by the Smith family. Saturday lunch was provided by the Johnson family and Saturday night dinner was provided by the Peterson family and so forth. Another family provided all the cooking gear including a huge grill we all used, the pots, pans, sink, paper plates and utensils. This worked out very well with our large group of church friends because each family was only responsible for one meal yet everybody contributed to the whole of the group.
For a smaller group such as two or three families going camping, you could divide the food out by type instead.  One family is in charge of all the drinks and cutlery and plates while another person is in charge of all snacks and fruit, and possibly another is in charge of the cold items like meat or milk or eggs and cheese. This not only divides the cost of food and essentials, but helps with packing, and helps avoid any duplication or missed items.

On our most recent camping trip with only one other family, I was entrusted with creating the menu.  This was to be the longest camping trip any of us had ever taken, so naturally my friend said, you do the menu!  To start, I simply made a menu for the five days that we would be camping, factoring in that day one, we would be driving quite a distance and would only eat dinner at the campsite.  Then based off that menu, I made one large shopping list.  Next I took that shopping list and divided it out between the two families.  My family was in charge of all of the cold items (since we have numerous coolers). I had to get the eggs, lunch meat, cheese, hamburgers, creamer and milk. Our friends were responsible for all the cutlery, the plates, the utensils, paper towels, snacks, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, basically all dry goods. We both brought drinks; water, beer, Gatorade, and more water. We also both packed our own first aid kits (just in case). *A note about some commonly overlooked food items: don’t forget about the condiments! Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and any other seasonings for your cooking. Think ahead, who is responsible for those items? I can tell you from personal experience, nobody is happy with a bland cheeseburger.

Once the menu is planned, then you can begin to focus on common interests or common goals for the trip. This helps you plan out what to bring and what to do. For example, on one trip, both families all enjoy the water and like to snorkel, so we all brought our snorkel gear and aqua socks with the understanding we would use them as much as possible. On another trip, the entire group understood that biking and hiking would be a part of our daily activities, therefore we all brought our bikes and sneakers. Have this conversation with your group before you leave so that the whole group can plan group activities to enjoy together.

Once an agenda of sorts is worked out, plan for the unexpected.  What if it rains?  What if they don’t like the activity?  What if, god forbid, someone gets injured?  What if, they just want some down time?  Bring plenty of games and outdoor toys!  Bring a plethora of outdoor and tabletop games so that there are choices amongst the kids. We regularly pack lawn darts, hillbilly golf and horse shoes. But also think of games!  A regular deck of playing cards, an UNO deck, checkers, tic tac toe, etc. can allow kids to decompress as well as bond.  Other suggestions include bingo, giant tumbling blocks, an outdoor scavenger hunt game, baseball and gloves, soccer ball, bikes, skateboards, and Frisbee. These toys allow kids to interact meaningfully and enjoy the outdoors as well without it having to be a planned “activity.”

Finally, utilize the resources within your group. If someone in your group loves bird watching, then ask them if they would be willing to do a bird watching expedition with the kids and help them identify certain species. Or is someone in your group an experienced fisherman?  Could they handle taking a few kids at a time to teach them how to fish? On one trip a parent volunteered to teach the kids geocaching with the one request that we all provide compasses to the kids. So we combined two activities in one: we all went for a hike and along the way this parent pulled the kids aside and show them how to do the geocache and use their compasses. It was a simple activity but taught a real-world skill too! Ask the adults in your group who is willing to do an activity with the kids? It might be slightly more responsibility but it’s only for a short period of time. Trust me, the kids love it when they have learned something new and got a firsthand tutorial.

Camping with a large groups takes a bit more planning and a lot more communication, but the rewards are exponential.  If you are contemplating a large group camping trip, or are already planning one,  go with like minded people, even if everyone doesn’t know each other all that well (that’s part of the point!).  Start out small, with just a weekend and stay closer to home.  Then as you find those you love to camp with, and as you get more experience in planning the trips, venture further out and grow your group.  Some of my favorite memories camping were when we were with a large group and my kids still talk about it.

Happy Camping!