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Family/Kids Travel

Exotic Family Experiences For Tighter Budgets & Timelines

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Swap the Great Barrier Reef for…Key West

tortugas

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest natural coral reef system on the planet. Found off the coast of Queensland in Australia, it can be seen from space and is bigger than the Great Wall of China—and a heck of a long way from America.

Thirty species of whales live there along with 1,500 species of fish, so what could be more awesome than snorkeling through water stuffed full of incredible marine life? Key West could—and specifically the Dry Tortuga Park, which is an amazing destination for all the wannabe Jacques Cousteaus in your family.

The Dry Tortugas is a largely undisturbed tropical eco-system, found about 100 miles west of Key West. Ponce de Leon discovered it in 1513 when he caught over 100 sea turtles there. After that, the islands were referred to as the “Tortugas” (turtles). During the 1600s and 1700s, the area around these islands was used by pirates as a base for attacking merchant shipping in the Gulf.

At its heart is the massive coastal fortress, Fort Jefferson, the third largest coastal defensive fort constructed by the United States. Here, kids can learn about the marine life, the fort’s history, and become Junior Rangers. To get to Fort Jefferson, you need to take the The Yankee Freedom III ferry, which runs daily. You may even spot turtles or dolphins as you sail.

The Park offers some of the best snorkeling and diving in North America. The waters are shallow, which means that beginners can have just as much fun as the experts. Head for the white sandy beach at Fort Jefferson and search for corals, tropical fish, starfish, conchs, and amazing marine plants as you glide through the clear waters. Complimentary fins, mask, and snorkel are provided.

For the ultimate family memory, don’t miss sleeping under the stars. Camping is popular, so be sure to book well in advance.

Top Tips

Request a copy of the Junior Ranger’s Handbook at the Fort Jefferson visitor center. When your kid completes the activities, they’ll get a Dry Tortugas Junior Ranger badge, which shows they have promised to keep the turtles safe.

Ferry passengers are offered 40-minute guided tours of the Fort, which is made from 16 million bricks, and once housed 1,000 soldiers. It’s worth joining if you want to educate as well as entertain between all the swimming and snorkeling.

Bird watchers should visit the park in spring, the optimal time to spot migrating birds. Nearly 300 species have been seen in this area—look out for the ruby-throated hummingbird, the peregrine falcon, and yellow billed cuckoo.

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