Since Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys in 2017, the popular tourist destination has made a major turnaround. All 10 state parks are open and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (in Key Largo) is operating daily snorkeling tours. But what about the Middle Keys? We visited Marathon and Duck Key at the end of 2018, and though there were still some residences and businesses waiting on funding in order to return to their former glory, it's clear that the tourist economy is up and running. Read on for what's open and what to do in the Middle Keys, just in time to plan a family-friendly spring break vacation.
The Turtle Hospital
The Turtle Hospital is a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles, and it is a must-visit. A sign on the front window provides an emergency number to call if you find an injured turtle after hours, and there are two dedicated turtle ambulances for emergency pickups. At the hospital, visitors can learn about sea turtles and see them in various forms of recuperation. Many have been rescued from the wild after they’ve been hit by boats or spotted swimming with tumors that require removal through surgery. The hospital focuses on rescue, rehabilitation, and release for sea turtles in the Florida Keys.
Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar
If you’re looking for a fun and quirky dining experience with local seafood, look no further than Marathon’s Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar. Basically built over an inlet (you can arrive by boat), the local favorite has seen its fair share of calamities over the years, including an unfortunate incident where the floor broke open, so it’s no surprise that the owner has bounced back quickly from Hurricane Irma. The decor features mounted fishing trophies and nautical paraphernalia, and the kitchen cranks out a lengthy and creative sushi menu that includes everything from lionfish to tuna to octopus. More traditional offerings are also available, like Key lime pie, crab cakes, and conch. Fisherman, take note: The kitchen will grill your catch for a fee.
Hawks Cay is the resort in the Middle Keys and it closed down for complete renovations after Hurricane Irma. Re-opened in 2018, the facelift brought an approachable upscale vibe. There’s also a seemingly never-ending list of amenities and activities, from a dolphin experience to a full spa to five swimming pools to paddleboarding on the man-made lagoon. Seven restaurant options are equally varied and high-quality. The 177 rooms and suites are contemporary coastal with upscale amenities and glossy bathrooms. There’s also a selection of privately owned villas with full kitchens and laundry facilities to rent. It’s a two-hour drive to Miami International Airport, though many guests arrive via boat to the resort’s 85-slip marina.
Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters
If the idea of an aquarium makes you feel a little bit depressed, that’s because you haven’t visited the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon. The mostly outdoor facility is dedicated to eco-education and fun, with a mission to introduce kids and adults of all ages to the ocean and its inhabitants. Visitors can buy a day pass that allows for close-up (and ethical) encounters with stingrays, turtles, groupers, sharks, and coral reef. Or, go for a scuba encounter and swim with a variety of aquatic creatures. Thanks to a cute cafe and games, it’s possible to spend the entire day here.
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