The arctic winds blowing through Chicago are making most of us long for a little sunshine on our shoulders. St. Bart's or Aruba might be calling, but our own Caribbean, the Florida Keys, is a more affordable way to escape the cold, with no passport required.
Hit the road
Fly into Miami or Fort Lauderdale, rent a car and head for the Overseas Highway. This one road connects the 113-mile-long string of islands, an engineering marvel that makes for a scenic family road trip. Since everything lies along the Overseas Highway, addresses in the Keys are all by the mile marker. So look for the MM signs throughout your drive.
The Florida Keys, particularly Key West, are known for their wild side. You'll still find plenty of dive bars like Ernest Hemingway's favorite, Sloppy Joe's. Unless you want your kids to see a bunch of sloppy drunk patrons, you should probably take a pass.
Instead, let your kids experience the Keys' other wild side, the natural treasures in which the dives involve snorkeling among colorful reefs and the party animals are dolphins.
It's just over an hour from Miami International Airport to Key Largo, the northernmost of the Florida Keys. If you're only able to come for a long weekend, spending a few days in Key Largo and the Upper Keys is the way to go.
John Pennekamp State Park (www.pennekamppark.com) is a great place to spend a day kayaking and snorkeling.
Make the Hilton Key Largo (www.keylargoresort.com) your home base. It's a family-friendly resort with a beautiful stretch of white sand beach, something that can be tough to find in the Keys. There's a kid-friendly pool, as well as an adults-only pool. While there isn't a drop-off kids club, there are plenty of activities, including daily arts and crafts, nightly bonfires with s'mores, plus a basketball and tennis court, along with a beachfront bean bag toss and Ping-Pong. While the kids are busy playing in the sand, parents can kick back at the resort's classic tiki bar.
The Keys are known as the sport fishing capital of the U.S. and the Hilton Key Largo lets kids in on the action by providing complimentary fishing poles. Relax on the dock with your favorite fishing buddy and wait for a glimpse of the manatee that often stop by to visit.
To learn more about the local marine life, head to the Dolphin Research Center (www.dolphins.org) at MM 58 where you can watch trainers at work or pay an additional fee to have a close encounter with these lovable animals. The Turtle Hospital (www.turtlehospital.org) at MM 48.5 provides another great opportunity to learn about the local wildlife. Best for kids over 8 years old, it involves a detailed opening presentation in a classroom setting, followed by a tour of the rehabilitation tanks.
Next door to the Turtle Hospital is another kid-friendly lodging option. You'll completely forget you're on the mainland when you stay at the aptly named Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort, (www.tranquilitybay.com) opened in 2005.
These Gulf-side beachfront townhouses are decorated in upscale island décor. Each comes with a full kitchen and washer/dryer. There are two large landscaped pools, one for families and one for adults. The pristine beach area is waves of fun with its volleyball net and laid-back patio bar and restaurant.
From Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon, it's just over an hour drive to Key West. Once there, hop on the Conch Train (www.conchtourtrain.com) for an introductory tour of Keys kitsch and history.
Want to live like a pirate in the Caribbean? Ride like the wind aboard a schooner with Danger Charters (www.dangercharters.com). Despite the name, this is a kid-friendly opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the surrounding islands. Best suited for kids 7 and older, the half-day eco trip takes guests on a snorkeling adventure (equipment included) as well as a kayak tour through the surrounding mangroves.
After snorkeling and kayaking, the bar is opened for mom and dad to have a glass of wine or beer. It's not a booze cruise, but a glass or two is a fun way to end the journey!
The most memorable way to end a day in Key West is at the nightly sunset celebration, one of the best free things to do in Key West. You know you're on island time when people host a nightly party to celebrate the day's end! Head down to the pier and marvel at the street performers and artists at this unique sunset spectacle.
Don't leave the Keys without bringing back a warm keepsake. The area's namesake treat, key lime pie, is a favorite, but I prefer wearing home my souvenir. Those in the know never leave Key West without stopping at Kino Sandal Factory. You'll find a wide variety of quality leather sandals, made on site, for only $13. At that price, if the shoe fits, get it in every color! It's a great reminder of the laid-back sunny attitude you'll find in the Florida Keys.
• Andrea Guthmann is a longtime Chicago journalist who writes the Midwest TravelingMom blog for TravelingMom.com. Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by the Florida Keys & Key West Tourism Development Council (www.fla-keys.com).