Kick off your shoes and jump into your favorite shorts and flip-flops. Leave your makeup behind—a natural glow from the sun is all you need to look your best. Blow dryer? I don’t think so. Wash-and-wear hair is just fine down here in the Florida Keys.
Anything goes in these tropical islands—an enchanting place where seeking pleasure becomes the number-one priority. It’s why I escape to the Keys as often as I can: to spoil myself with the good life. Here I let the island breezes wash over me as I relax under a palm tree. Rustling fronds whisper in the breeze, and a soothing fountain splashes nearby.
A fishing boat passes through the channel in the distance, its engine chugging as it glides through turquoise waters. Beyond, the Atlantic spreads southward from horizon to horizon, a smooth, glassy mirror that reflects the soft hues of a velvety blue sky.
Everywhere I turn a painting meets my gaze, like a canvas unveiled by a confident artist. Even inches from where I lie, brilliant tropical plants in fiery shades of red and gold against a lush green backdrop create yet another still life for me to savor. I sip my frosty beverage, close my eyes, and doze as the tinkling sounds of steel drums playing by the lagoon carry my thoughts far away.
I dream of island hopping on a gleaming catamaran with my husband and sons. We fish for dinner and listen to mellow Jack Johnson tunes as the lapping waves provide back-up rhythm. In my fantasy my family and I sail into a colorful sunset every evening, thankful for the chance to explore the wondrous world together.
Seeking an Escape: Hawks Cay Resort
I snap back to the present, but keep my fantasy close at hand. I plan to do lots of daydreaming during my four-day visit to the Keys. I’m staying at Hawks Cay, a sixty-acre resort about halfway between Key Largo and Key West. The vibe in the Middle Keys is different from the hectic pace of Key West. It’s slower, calmer: a waltz instead of hip-hop.
While Key West has its own charms, folks around here seek to escape from the faster currents, to slow way down to a leisurely paddle. Everyone I meet is on island time. Don’t worry, be happy is the mantra for visitors to Hawks Cay, where you’ll find whatever you need to enjoy a vacation in paradise.
Opt for a few days of laid-back attitude adjustment and lounge around the lagoon or hang out poolside. Or visit Calm Waters Spa, named one of the top 100 Resort Spas by Travel + Leisure. If you prefer a more active vacation, choose from a variety of wet-and-wild water sports or resort activities.
On my visit I decide to do a little of everything: some serious downtime complimented by snorkeling, sailing, and the highlight of my visit, a hands-on encounter with dolphins at the resort’s on-site dolphin facility.
First things first: where’s the pool? Actually, there are five pools at Hawks Cay. I like the adult pool next to the Atlantic, where cool breezes offer an antidote to the ninety-degree temps. For families the resort’s main pool offers plenty of room for swimming and sunning.
Beyond is the shallow saltwater lagoon that lets cool water from the ocean in but keeps larger fish out. Ringed by sandy beaches, it’s the perfect place for kids to build sandcastles and romp in the water.
Hawks Cay is an awesome destination for families. Besides water sports, the resort features special activities, like glow-in-the-dark volleyball, dive-in movies, and kids-night out. Parents can also sign children up for the Camp Hawk (ages 5-12), and teen activities are also part of the fun. There’s also a playground and an interactive pool by the kids’ clubhouse with a pirate ship and cannons that spout water.
Accommodations at Hawks Cay are perfect for families, couples, or groups of friends. Villas with one-, two-, and three-bedrooms feature a balcony or porch and a fully equipped kitchen. Most have stunning views. You can also stay at the Inn at Hawks Cay in a spacious room overlooking the pool or tropical gardens.
On-site restaurants include Sixty-One Prime, featuring perfectly grilled steaks, and Angler and Ale, which specializes in fish sandwiches, tacos, and casual fare.
Snorkeling in Marathon, Florida
One morning I join a snorkeling excursion aboard Island Time with Captain Dave. We cruise out to a reef five miles south of Hawks Cay called Coffin Patch. Legend has it that a boat carrying coffins sank here, but Capt. Dave says all we’ll see are the remains of an old lighthouse.
Jason, the first mate, passes out snorkel gear, and after donning my fins and mask, I dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic and suddenly find myself surrounded by dozens of Little Nemo look-alikes.
As my eyes focus underwater, I see they’re actually not clownfish, but a type of damselfish called sergeant majors, cute little fellows with black and yellow stripes. I’m mesmerized as they swim inches from my face. They seem to be as curious about me as I am about them.
That’s what I love about snorkeling: the experience of entering another dimension, one that’s inhabited by creatures we never see, yet they’re right under our noses. I could spend hours here, swimming through the crystal-clear water, watching the fish, like sparkling jewels, dart in every direction.
Below a coral reef offers hiding places for these colorful creatures. It’s dotted with clumps of brain coral and purple sea fans that wave at me as I swim by.
Too soon two blasts of the ship’s horn signal it’s time to go. As we head back to the marina, a flying fish splashes across the ocean’s surface in a joyous dance, glittering in the afternoon sun.
It’s as if he’s reminding us to celebrate life, especially here in this magical setting, where the sea and the sky blend into an intoxicating cocktail, a recipe that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
The magic continues the next evening when I board Horizon, a 40-foot catamaran, for a sunset cruise with Captain Dale and his first mate, Jessica. The breeze beckons as we motor through the channel, and cumulus clouds to the west promise an extraordinary show.
But first we sail southward, zipping along at about ten knots, the sun warm and the breeze refreshing. Jessica offers wine, beer, soda, and champagne to guests, and soon we’re all becoming acquainted, sharing a sense of adventure on the high seas.
Dolphin Connection Program
The following day I meet six bottle-nosed dolphins, residents of a beautiful lagoon at Hawks Cay and participants in the Dolphin Connection program.
It’s a program that lets visitors interact with dolphins both from dockside and in the water. I’m signed up for Dolphin Discovery and can’t wait to enjoy an up-close encounter with these giant, gentle creatures.
First Stacy, one of the trainers, goes over a few safety rules. She explains that while these dolphins are used to humans, they are wild animals and need to be treated with care and respect.
Next she shares a few points about the Florida Keys ecosystem, and then we’re finally allowed to put on our life jackets and meet the dolphins.
I’m joined by Bobby and Emily Lyerly, a brother and sister from Destin. Big smiles fill their faces as we line up in the water to meet April, who’s actually the mother of some of the other dolphins.
The trainer invites us to pet April, and I’m surprised at how much she feels like hard rubber—and by how immense she is. Stretching to a length of eight feet or so, April dwarfs us humans, but she acts like a big puppy, playful and happy to be the center of attention.
I hoped that swimming with the dolphins would be part of the program, but Stacy explains that it’s not good for the dolphins to tow humans holding onto their dorsal fins.
Luckily, lots of other activities are included in Dolphin Discovery. I get to pet, hug, kiss, tickle, feed, scratch, splash, and dance with the dolphins.
The experience is exhilarating, although tightly scripted. No time for mystical interactions with these sweet beasts. The only unscripted event is when one of the little sergeant majors takes a liking to a freckle on my leg and decides to give it a nibble. Ouch!
Finding Peace at Calm Waters Spa
On the morning of my last day at Hawks Cay, I find a mystical encounter of another kind: a warm sea stone massage in the peaceful environs of Calm Waters Spa. Under the capable hands of my therapist, I drift into another daydream and find myself wandering through a hot desert. In the distance an oasis with palm trees and cool shade calls my name. Once there I lie down on a cushioned bed and feel the magic of the stones smoothing my cares away.
Too soon the stones stop, and the daydream ends. I don’t mind, though, because I head to the sparkling pool, where I’m spending my final afternoon. I melt into a comfortable lounge chair in a shady spot overlooking the ocean.
As I look southward over the Atlantic, I see white sails way off in the distance. I recall my island-hopping fantasy and consider the possibility of making it come true.
This happens to me whenever I come to the Keys. Something gets into my soul, my wires cross—or maybe they become uncrossed, and all of a sudden, I’m ready to run away from the real world.
I don’t. I return to my responsible life, where I own a business, make dinner, keep house, and do all those things expected of me. But look out! One day the urge will become too strong to ignore. Then that will be me under the white sails slowly disappearing over the edge of the horizon.
Plan Your Visit to Marathon
Florida Keys Information
Find out everything you need to know to visit the beautiful Florida Keys at fla-keys.com.
Hawks Cay Resort
(MM 61) There's so much to do at Hawks Cay! Plan your family getaway at www.hawkscay.com or call 800-432-2242. Hawks Cay Resort also welcomes groups for meetings, family reunions, and weddings.
Crane Point Museum and Nature Center
(MM 50) Learn about natural history, explore a historic home, walk on nature trails, and enjoy an interactive children’s museum. For hours, visit www.cranepoint.org or call 305-743-9100.
(MM 47) Enjoy a tour of this historic site and learn about Henry Flagler and his efforts to build a railway to Key West. Bring your snorkeling gear. Get details for your visit at www.pigeonkey.net or call 305-289-0225.
Curry Hammock State Park
(MM 56) Enjoy a secluded beach, nature trails, camping, and picnic facilities. Make reservations at www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/curry-hammock-state-park or call 305-289-2690.
The Island Fish Co.
(MM 54) This picturesque restaurant features the largest tiki bar I’ve ever seen and is one of the best spots for watching the sunset. Try the grilled shrimp tacos for a tasty treat. Check out the menu at www.islandfishco.com or call 305-743-4191.