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Taking the Kids: Three Days in Miami

Day Two: The Everglades
It will take you about an hour and a quarter to make the approximately 50-mile drive to the main entrance of Everglades National Park, the third largest U. S. national park outside Alaska. Take Florida's Turnpike south to its end in Florida City, then turn right at the first traffic light (Palm Drive/state route 9336).

The Everglades are the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles live side by side, which is certain to intrigue your family's fans of Animal Planet. Of course, wildlife sightings are not guaranteed, so you may want to include an airboat ride and a visit to an alligator farm in your Everglades experience. If so, stop at the Everglades Alligator Farm on your way to the national park main entrance.

You can explore the national park a number of ways substantially slower than by airboat. First, there are plenty of wildlife sighting opportunities from your car as you slowly wend your way through the park, either southward toward Flamingo (at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula) or westward to Everglades City (on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico on the park's west boundary). Along the way -- on either route -- you can experience some of the park's many walking trails, either on your own or with ranger guides. Many of the trails are either paved or on raised wooden boardwalks and are even wheelchair accessible.

Popular trails on the way to Flamingo are the Anhinga Trail (near the park's main entrance), considered the park's best trail for wildlife viewing, and the Mahogany Hammock and Pahayokee Overlook Boardwalks. Along the western route, there are two favored trails midway at Shark Valley. One is the Bobcat Boardwalk, which like all the other boardwalk trails is a half-mile or less in length. Much longer is the 15-mile-roundtrip Tram Road, for which there is a guided tram tour. There are also bicycles available for rental from the Shark Valley Tram Tour Company. At the midpoint of the road is a 60-foot tower offering spectacular views and photo ops. Lastly, if your family is partial to active pursuits, consider renting a canoe and following the park's clearly charted canoeing trails. Rentals are available at both the Flamingo and Everglades City visitor centers.

If you have the time, inclination and energy left at the end of your Everglades visit, stop on your way back to Miami at the venerable Monkey Jungle, where the primates live in an open 30-acre natural habitat and the trails for visitors are screened in. On your drive back to Miami, consider dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in the Dadeland Mall. With kid- and teen-friendly items on the main menu and a separate kids' menu to boot, this popular chain eatery is a real family pleaser.

Day Three: A Trip to the Keys
The long drive all the way to Key West from Miami would tax the attention spans of even the most patient kids, so we recommend taking the family only as far as Bahia Honda State Park 37 miles short of Key West. (If you should decide to go all the way to Key West, learn more here.)

Your first potential point of interest comes up at MM 102.5-O (For information on navigating addresses in the Keys, see day three of Love Is in the Air: Three Days in Miami), where you will find the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country's first park to be situated nearly entirely underwater. At park headquarters -- located on the 5 percent that is on dry land -- there are nature trails, a small museum, and rentals of canoes, dinghies, motorboats, and snorkel or dive gear. You can also book snorkel and dive trips or take one of the regular glass-bottom boat excursions to the park's centerpiece and primary focus, the lush living coral reefs located three miles offshore.

At MM 84.5-O, on Windley Key, don't miss the Theater of the Sea. Founded in the 1940's, it's one of the country's oldest open-air aquariums and mammal shows, built around what was a major quarry for the bridges that linked the Keys. Besides sea lion and dolphin shows, there is a narrated walking tour with fish feedings and touching tanks. Theater of the Sea also has a number of programs allowing visitors to swim with, interact with, or train the dolphins or sea lions (be sure to book in advance).

Other dolphin programs also cater to visitors. Dolphin Cove (MM 101.9-B) is primarily an education and research facility that has several in-water interactive programs, including a structured swim with dolphins where they perform trained behaviors with the swimmers, and an unstructured experience where swimmers simply get to snorkel alongside dolphins without specific behaviors being imposed. Its sister facility, Dolphins Plus (MM 99.5-O), offers much the same, but also includes sea lion programs. Dolphins Plus also conducts a dolphin-breeding program, so visitors may get a gander at baby dolphins. Similar experiences are available at Dolphin Research Center (MM 59-B).

Continuing south from Theater of the Sea will take you to the heart of Islamorada, a village spanning three islands which marks the halfway point between Miami and Key West -- so it's a perfect choice for a lunch stop. Islamorada Fish Company (MM 81.5-B) is a casual waterfront cafe that has oodles of stuff that kids will wolf down, but the seafood choices are best (adults and children alike will enjoy the terrifically fresh fried fish or shrimp baskets). There's a resident school of tarpon (a large -- up to 200-pound -- game fish) that hangs around for handouts of fishy trash from the kitchen staff, and watching them aggressively feed is a hoot.

For a more hands-on tarpon-feeding experience, Robbie's Marina (MM 77.5-B) also has a school of tarpon that have learned to live on the largesse of tourists. Robbie's will sell you a bucket of bait, and your kids can feed them right from the dock.

As you continue your drive south, the character of the Keys gradually changes, the islands becoming smaller and the bridges spanning the gaps between them longer. The most dramatic and recognizable bridges (from being used as filming locations) are the Seven Mile Bridge (MM 45) and Bahia Honda Bridge (MM 37). In the shadow of the Bahia Honda Bridge is Bahia Honda State Park, your turnaround point. Spend some time enjoying the beach at Bahia Honda State Park before heading back (For more information on the park, see day three of Love Is in the Air: Three Days in Miami.)

Visit our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, for more information about Miami family vacations.

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    --written by Steve Faber
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