Swimming with manatees/Key West & the dry tortugas/Boca raton
swimming with the sea cows!
We took a 4 day weekend getaway to Florida to swim with manatees- and it was better than I expected. I have vacationed in Florida countless times – and I thought I had accomplished everything. When I heard about swimming with Manatees in the springs, I had to go!
We flew into Tampa and then drove up to Crystal River (1.5 hours north). We stayed over night at a very cheap hotel, and headed to River Ventures store at 6am. They provided us with wet suites & snorkels/masks, educated us on manatees and then we took a short bus ride to the dock. We took a 10 minute ride on a pontoon type boat to the edge of Seven Sisters Spring.
Here we were able to hop out of the boat and swim among the manatees. Manatees are endangered and Seven Sisters Spring is a protected area for Manatees to swim, sleep, etc (no boats are allowed in this area, and they close it off when it is too crowded with manatees or other various reasons). However, manatees can still swim around the outside of the spring when it is closed off. These animals are truly gentle giants – nicknamed the sea cow, as they are very large mammals and graze on plants all day. They are such peaceful creatures and happily float around. Since manatees are under protected acts, interaction needs to be initiated by the manatee. I personally had 2 interactions with two babies- and it was amazing. The adult manatees seemed to mind their own business, where the babies are much more curious. They prefer those who are floating very still, and will sometimes approach you and nibble on your hand/hair (they do not have teeth) and even give you kisses!!! It is incredible how large these beautiful creatures are! Also, we swam with manatees on February 15th, 2015– the colder months are the best time to go because 1- the manatees congregate in these springs because they have to live in waters warmer than 68 degrees and the springs are much warmer than larger bodies of water AND 2- the water is much clearer in the colder months, providing better visibility. Oh, and- let’s not forget, their closest cousin is the elephant!
Top Tips: swim during the colder months and do the 6:15 am tour– as more people start coming into the area later on in the morning, the manatees start to disperse.
* manatees can easily get caught in boat propellers; please be cautious if ever boating near them. Turn off your engine and let them pass! Also be cautious of fishing nets.
** if snorkeling is not your thing, there are stand up paddle board and kayak rentals available. The water is chilly, but you’ll have a wet suit on and it’s soo worth it!!!!
***you will have plenty of time to snorkel and most likely at least pet a manatee as it swims by you. River ventures was great on making sure we had the experience we wanted and not making us feel rushed- we had 3 hours, which was plenty!
The rest of the trip…. After our 3 hour manatee tour, we drove back down to Tampa. We met one of our good friends and went out in the Soho area, where you will find most of the bars catered to those in their young-late 20’s. We stayed at the Tahitian Inn & Spa, which did have a heated pool. The next morning we drove 30 minutes to St. Pete beach to see my grandparents. I grew up traveling here for many winters, so it brought back many memories! The beaches are wonderful- filled with lots of smooth white sand and of course, lots of water 🙂 there are tons of resorts and rentals around here and this is a Fantastic spot for families. Don’t forget to have drinks/lunch at the Don CeSar pink hotel!
* This was our first time renting a car and we were kind of clueless. 2 things we did find: filling up gas ourselves verse letting them do it was about $7 cheaper AND if you rent a car and drive north to Crystal River, take the toll pass (our company provided it for $6.99 a day). We originally did not add it on, until we realized the highway to get there has “toll by plate” tolls that are impossible to pay unless you own the car (a light flashes on your license plate and bills the address of the plate). You can not pay these online without the invoice number and our rental company charged $25 a toll that they received a bill/invoice for. Luckily they let us add the toll package on the second day. If you are only going to St. Pete/Tampa, you will only encounter regular tolls that you can pay along the road.
key west/ dry tortugas
I grew up going to the Florida Keys every March/April. There is so much to do- it’s a romantic spot for couples, there’s adventure for the soul seeker, and lots of child friendly activities. While the summer months are known for having more rain, the prices do drop significantly. Typically the rain is heaviest in June/July/August and August technically begins hurricane season (I would not let this stop you from going- instead, appreciate the price drops!), BUT I would aim for this spot between Early March-Late May if possible.
We typically stayed on Marathon or Islamorada because my father went on daily fishing charters. Islamorada is known for the historic Bud n’ Mary’s Fishing Marina. The Dolphin Research Center – Make reservations in advance – is located on Marathon. You will drive across the 7 mile bridge to get to Key West, but if you are staying on Marathon or Islamorada I suggest walking on it at night when locals are out fishing…(you may get a close up of a shark!)
SCHEDULE IN …
There are plenty of state parks down the coast of the islands with wonderful snorkeling and easy beach access to reefs. I began snorkeling when I was around 5, so it’s fit for all ages- you just decide how far out you want to go.
** Many hotels also rent small motor boats to snorkel or fish from near the hotel.
While the snorkeling is great here, most of the beaches are smaller – it’s very different than southern Cali / Miami with the wide sandy beach that typically contain a bike path. The majority of the hotels in the Florida Keys will have pools which is convenient.
The deep sea fishing is some of the best- look into what is in season during the month you’ll be vacationing and there are plenty of boats to charter — book in advance if traveling during spring break season!
Take a day trip to the Dry Tortugas – a 19th century fort surrounded by Crystal blue water about 70 miles west of Key West. There are tour companies that will take you there and back for the day, giving you the leisure to do as you please while you are on the island. Explore the grounds of the fort (your children can not escape 🙂 ), snorkel the clear blue waters and relax at the beach. This is an awesome spot for children and adults. The boat trip can be a bit rough, especially after being in the sun all day, so bring medication if you are prone to sea sickness. ** I spent Easter here when I was 9 – they set up a giant Easter Egg Hunt all over the fort, and I had a blast
My family always took day trips to Key West (I personally would stay on Key West if I head back on my own and recommend staying there as well). There is SO much to do- I never wanted to head back to the northern islands! Rent bikes or scooters to explore the island or hop on the Conch Tour Train if walking around all day is not your thing (or if you prefer to hear the island’s history), sign up for a day/half day water activity- enjoy banana boating, parasailing, jet skiing and more; visit the Hemmingway house or grab a bite to eat/drink at Sloppy joes; visit the southern most point-after all, you are 90 miles from Cuba! Dine at Sloppy Joes, shop at the outdoor markets, have your hair braided or wrapped & enjoy some Conch fritters. Remember to allow time to just sit back and relax/swim at your hotel or the beach!
Nighttime? There are plenty of bars to grab drinks at and check out Mallory Square for some outdoor fire breathing night time entertainment.
** Pack Sunscreen! Out of all my travels around the world, this is the ONLY spot I continue to get sun poisoning – every. single. time. (while wearing a minimum of 30spf)
Make sure to visit the Kinos Sandal factory- their address can be found on their website at this link : http://www.kinosandals.com/
boca raton / deerfield beach
Boca Raton / Deerfield is a great weekend getaway for couples and families. The beach is beautiful, there are fun beach side restaurants, board rentals, nearby shopping and more. We stayed at the Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort, which had great beach access. This is a perfect 3-4 day February I can’t take the snow anymore, does sunshine still exist spot.