Looking for a Family Vacay in the Florida Keys? 8 Reasons to Choose Hawks Cay

aerial view of Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key in Florida Keys Hawks Cay Resort

There’s a reason this resort has been rated one of the most family-friendly destinations in all of the Florida Keys: it has something for everyone at every age (plus, of course, dolphins!)

When picking a spot in the Florida Keys for your next family vacation, it can feel a bit like pulling equally enviable straws. The chain of coral islands stretching 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida all share a laid-back vibe (locals will confirm that you should never be in a hurry to do anything here) and a similarly stunning backdrop of near 360-degree oceanfront views. But each island does maintain its own distinct personality. From the snorkeler’s dream that surrounds Key Largo to the fishing adventures that await in Islamorada to the unapologetically quirky carnival ride that is Key West, repeat visitors to the Keys often find their comfort zones quickly. And for families with young children, there’s no better spot than on the quiet island of Duck Key—and, more specifically, at Hawks Cay Resort.


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Covering 60 acres of Duck Key—a 500-acre islet located at Mile Marker 61 that gets its name because the island’s shape resembles a duck’s head when viewed from above—Hawks Cay is a little slice of paradise for those who want to explore all the Keys have to offer but also don’t really want to have to leave the comforts of their resort to do so.

From on-site dolphin encounters and manatee sightings along the weather-worn marina to kid-friendly standup paddles and conservation classes to a Hemingway-inspired cocktail lineup and near-24-hour key lime pie access, there’s truly something for everyone at Hawks Cay. And although it’s just one of a 120-mile lineup of amazing spots along the Keys, one visit here will convince even the most adventurous parents to look no further.

8 Reasons to Stay at Hawks Cay Resort

1. It’s Easy Enough to Get There

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Hawks Cay is located in the middle of the Florida Keys, only 90 miles (or roughly two hours) by car from Miami, or 130 miles if coming from Fort Lauderdale. By comparison, getting all the way down to Key West can take closer to five hours, a bit less or much more depending on traffic. (Again, remember it’s best to never be in a hurry!)

And although flying to an airport hub only to have to rent a car may feel like a lot of moving parts, this is one of those times when the journey truly is the destination, or at the very least a memorable experience on its own. The Overseas Highway has been consistently awarded one of America’s most scenic roads, and passengers will want to set their phones and tablets aside to gape out the window at the blue and green water of the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay.

If you prefer not to drive (it’s entirely possible to enjoy the resort without a car), there is a Florida Keys Express Shuttle service that offers daily door-to-door trips to and from the major airports. And, of course, there are various cab and Uber options available to visitors as well.

2. It’s the Only Resort With Free On-Site Dolphin Viewing

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By far, the biggest Hawks Cay highlight is visiting their on-site dolphin center and meeting the pod of bottlenose dolphins that live in its ocean-fed saltwater lagoon. The resort is the only one in the mainland US that offers free on-site dolphin viewing. That’s right: you can sip your morning coffee on the deck as you watch them swim!

Want a closer look? Reserve a spot with its Dolphin Connection program, in which visitors—following a quick course highlighting dolphin speed, strength, tenacity, and intelligence as well as a bit about Florida’s marine ecosystem—can choose from up to seven different unique experiences in which they get to interact directly with the dolphins. The experiences range in price from $120 to $460 and all come with professional photos that you can download to keep.

Dockside Dolphin Encounters
The “Dockside Dolphins” program is ideal for families with young children who aren’t ready to be in the water. Consider this a 15-minute dolphin meet-and-greet where your little ones can snag a hand shake and play a few games. Fair warning: it’s best if you don’t mind getting splashed!

In-Water Dolphin Encounters
Dolphin Connection offers three similar, 45-minute small-group programs for those eager to get in the water with these amazing mammals. “Dolphin Encounter” is perhaps the most popular of the experiences for families. At $200, participants can survey the notches on their flukes (a dolphin thumbprint!) and test out a series of hand signals that result in getting a dolphin kiss, hug, and handshake as well as a song or dance. The other two experiences offer additional deep-water swim adventures. In “Dolphin Discovery,” which costs $250, you can take part in a belly ride, in which a dolphin appears upside down beneath you while carrying you along the surface of the water with their pectoral flippers. For $280, the “Royal Swim” features two deep-water opportunities, including a foot push and the epic double-dorsal ride.

Trainer For a Day Encounters
This three-hour program is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look into the daily activities of the Dolphin Connection training team. Limited to a maximum of two participants per day (and only ages 10 and up), this experience includes all the opportunities of dockside and in-water encounters as well as a hands-on private training session with the dolphins.

No matter which experience you choose, they all end with a key reminder: “Allow the way you feel right now to inspire you to do great things on behalf of the planet and animals who call it home.”

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3. It Has an Amazing Kids Club

Hawks Cay is consistently rated one of the nation's most family-friendly resorts, and that's thanks, in no small part, to Coral Cay, the official activities center for younger guests. Whether you’ve taken advantage of resort kids clubs in the past or not, you’ll want to consider this one. In addition to the epic slides and tunnels at the Pirate Ship Pool splash pad area, which is perfect for babies and toddlers (and younger kiddos who want to helm the ship—and operate the water cannons!), there’s also a soccer field, basketball courts, and even putting greens.

When in season, Coral Cay offers Camp Hawk, a drop-off childcare service unlike typical resort offerings. Instead of having to book half- or full-day sessions far in advance, this one has recently been redesigned with a flexible schedule to allow families to come and go when it works best for them, whether it’s for as little as 30 minutes to a full day of age-appropriate, camp-style games and activities. Whatever the duration, it's $15 per child per half-hour. What's more, around celebrations and special holidays, Coral Cay even offers dinnertime drop-offs and bedtime tuck-ins.

Because of Hawks Cay’s commitment to conservation, Coral Cay has also added a daily Environmental Education Program that gives kids the opportunity to learn about the local ecosystem, with classes—offered daily at no extra charge—covering the Florida Everglades, native flora and fauna, and unique creatures of the sea.

Insider Tip: In the field house, they’ve even got a “touch tank” with sea urchins, sea stars, and shrimp. Be sure to take your little ones over to see if they're brave enough to hold them!

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4. It’s Got Adults-Only Options, Too!

It’s worth taking advantage of Coral Cay’s services for the spa treatments alone! Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa prides itself on its unpretentious atmosphere such that relaxation can actually feel, well, relaxing. Its menu of services includes a range of massages and salon services, but after a day in the sun, nothing quite beats its anti-aging facial ($170 for 50 minutes or $240 for 80 minutes) featuring Elemis products or one of its exfoliating body scrubs, not least of which because you get to experience the spa’s Vichy Room, complete with tropical rain showers.

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Another adults-only option worth checking out is the resort’s brand-new Pilar Bar, which serves up Papa’s Pilar Rum. Like the distillery, which is owned and operated by Ernest Hemingway’s family in Key West, this bar’s aesthetic is a tribute to the late writer’s beloved boat, also named Pilar. Although Pilar Bar offers a full menu of drinks and cocktails, be sure to ask the bartender to whip up a minty mojito, a dark and stormy, or a Hemingway colada.

5. It Has So. Many. Pools.

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The resort was clearly designed to meet the needs of all its guests, and the placement of its pools is no exception. The main pool area, which looks out over the bay and features a nearby fire pit and Tiki Grill, is a crowd-pleaser for all guests, but tucked around the corner is an adults-only pool (hilariously, the sign notes that although you must be 21 and over to swim, “maturity is optional”) for those traveling without kids or those simply wanting a break from their slightly younger travel mates. And, the kid-friendly Pirate Ship Pool is actually set aside by a short walk from the main resort area. Having it slightly off the beaten path means families don’t have to worry about kids splashing too much or squealing too loud.

Of course, one of the most unique swimming experiences at the resort isn’t one of their pools at all. It’s the saltwater lagoon, which is fed straight from the ocean (it rises and lowers with the tides!) and provides a calm place for kids to snorkel, paddle board, or peep over the fence to watch the dolphins swim by.

6. It Offers the Most Accessible Standup Paddles Ever Made

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Speaking of paddle boarding, whether you’re a standup paddling pro or can’t seem to get on one without being knocked right back off, Hawks Cay has you covered. The resort has partnered with LIVE Watersports—a Florida-based company whose mission is to make paddle boarding more accessible to everyone, no matter their age, size, or skill level—and has procured a handful of its first-ever catamaran-style boards for guests to use free of charge.

Insider Tip: Be sure to test-drive one during your stay. You’ll be able to spot them thanks to the patented dual hulls that create dramatically more stability, so that, try as you might, you—or your kids!—won’t be able to tip or flip this rig.

7. It Has All the Key Lime Pie You’ll Ever Need

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Sweet toothed families will likely show up to the Florida Keys in desperate search of a delicious slice of key lime pie. Not only do the resort’s restaurants—the casual Angler & Ale and upscale Sixty-One Prime—offer both classic and unique spins of it on their dessert menu, but the Hawks Cay Marketplace keeps a freezer stocked with grab-and-go full-size and mini key lime pies. (And parents needing a nightcap can certainly pop by Sixty-One Prime’s lobby bar for a graham-cracker rimmed Key Lime Pie Martini, made with Keke key lime liqueur, Bacardi, and sour mix.)

8. It Truly Has Something For Everyone

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Whatever you are looking to do, you can find it without leaving the resort. From the full-service marina, Sole Watersports—the official provider of the resort—provides snorkeling excursions, sunset cruises, and island tours. You can even charter a private boat with a captain! The friendly crew farther down the dock at Better Than Most provides slightly more adventurous options: from scuba diving trips to lobster spearing excursions.

For those preferring to stay on land, the marina is still a must-see. From manatees lapping up fresh water as fishers hose down their boats to nurse shark sightings, there's plenty to keep families entertained for hours. Otherwise, guests will also find lighted tennis courts and pickle ball courts within the sprawling resort as well as a fleet of bicycles (you can rent them using an app, and the first hour of every ride is free!) to explore Duck Key.

Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Hawks Cay Resort, but all opinions belong to the writer.

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