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Cruise On Down To The Florida Keys

Thinking about combining a cruise from Miami with a relaxing pre- or post-cruise getaway? Head to the nearby Florida Keys. This lovely chain of islands is known for its tropical kitsch, nature-oriented attractions and ecotours, expansive coral reef for snorkeling and diving, soft adventure opportunities, and historic sites. The Keys also have a wide array of accommodations perfectly suited for any kind of escape, but itís important to pick the right one to maximize your fun.

If youíre planning to vacation in the Florida Keys before or after your cruise, here are five great things to do:

1. Sail Away on a Catamaran. Catamaran cruises are a relaxing way to spend the day and get a close-up view of the Keysí spectacular nearby reef and crystal blue waters. These ultra-stable, roomy boats take guests out to North America's only living coral reef. Here, you'll have the opportunity to go snorkeling with tropical fish or lazing on the deck soaking up the sun. Operators such as Sundance Watersports at Hawks Cay Resort offer sunset sails as well.

2. Take A Hike. Those who love nature should plan to spend a few hours hiking the many nature trails at Crane Point Hammock in Marathon. Spanning sixty-three acres and owned by the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust, Crane Point features the Museum of Natural History and Nature Center, a gift shop, miles of hiking trails, a Butterfly Garden, Adderley House Ė the oldest abode outside of Key West, and the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Since its founding, this organization has rehabilitated and released over 6,000 sick or injured wild birds including hawks, ospreys, pelicans and cormorants.

3. Swim With the Dolphins. Dolphin encounters are incredibly popular with cruise passengers and land-based vacationers alike. The Florida Keys have a number of facilities where guests can swim and interact with dolphins. These include Dolphins Plus and Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, and Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay Resort. Each place offers slightly different programs and approaches, ranging from dock or shallow water encounters all the way to Trainer or Researcher for a Day experiences. Programs book quickly, so make your reservations as far in advance as possible.

4. Visit the Sea Turtles. Located at Mile Marker 48.5, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon rescues, rehabilitates and releases sea turtles. In conjunction with the University of Florida, the Turtle Hospital also conducts turtle disease-related research as well. Ninety-minute guided tours of this fascinating facility are available several times each day. At the end of the educational tours, guests are invited to feed the Turtle Hospitalís residents. These tours are very popular and advance reservations are strongly advised.

5. Paddle Through the Mangroves. Kayaking around the Keysí mangrove islands and shallow flats is a popular backcountry adventure. Participants can kayak at a relaxed, comfortable pace and learn more about the wildlife inhabiting this area. Tour operators provide information on this unique environment as you kayak through the Keysí tranquil waters. Companies such as Sundance Watersports and Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures offers a variety of outings that work well for just about any age group. Make sure to bring a waterproof camera for taking pictures.

In addition, vacationers can't leave the Conch Republic without tasting a few of its mouthwatering delicacies. Key Lime Pie is Florida's official dessert, so make sure to try some while youíre here. Maís Fish Camp in Islamorada serves some of the best key lime pie with meringue in the Florida Keys. Their fresh fish tacos and Mahi-Mahi sandwiches are superb, too. If youíd prefer your key lime pie without any meringue, make sure to stop at Mrs. Macís Kitchen in Key Largo. Lobster lovers should plan to drop by Keys Fisheries in Marathon to sample their delicious lobster reuben Ė itís scrumptious and truly unique.

Planning Your Escape

Finding the right place to stay is critical for a relaxing pre- or post-cruise escape. Itís important to travel far enough down the island chain far enough to capture the true feeling of the Keys, but cruisers donít want to spend too much of their limited time driving. Thatís why a stay in the Middle Keys can work so well.

Cruises offer a wide variety of activities all in one convenient location, so itís nice to find a land-based resort that does the same thing. Hawks Cay Resort fits the bill perfectly. Guests can use their room key to charge just about anything they'd want to do on their Florida Keys getaway. Set on 60 waterfront acres in Marathon, located in the middle of the Keys chain, Hawks Cay is a AAA Four-Diamond Award-winning resort with plenty of room to spread out. This property features over 400 2- and 3-bedroom villas as well as spacious hotel rooms, along with five restaurants, tennis facilities under the direction of Cliff Drysdale, and the award-winning 7,000 square foot Calm Waters Spa. In addition, Hawks Cay is a Preferred Family Certified Resort, offering great childrenís programs like Camp Hawk for kids ages 5-12 and seasonal Teens Night Out activities for 13-17 year-olds. Teens can also hang out at The Cove at Hawks Cay's family-oriented Indies Club. Babysitting is available for little ones. Families also enjoy biking around the resortís property and Segway tours are offered as well.

Hawks Cay is a paradise for nature and watersports lovers. The property features a massive saltwater lagoon and five swimming pools Ė the Pirate Ship Pool at the Indies Club is a big hit with kids. The resortís full-service marina offers diving, SNUBA, snorkeling and fishing excursions as well as a full array of watersports including kayaking, jetskiing, paddleboarding and kiteboarding. Thrill-seekers looking for a James Bond-type of experience should try out the resortís JetLev adventure. This new jet pack flying program allows adventurers to soar up to 30 feet above the water like a superhero Ė truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Another Hawks Cay feature offering peak experiences for guests is its Dolphin Connection Program. Hawks Cay is the only resort within the mainland United States that houses an onsite dolphin research facility. Guests, including young children, can take part in the Dolphin Connectionís programs which range from Dockside Dolphins (where interactions take place from training docks) and shallow water Dolphin Discovery interactions Ė all the way up to the in-depth Dolphin Trainer for a Day. These programs are very popular and reservations are strongly recommended. Book your program as far in advance as possible to ensure your date and time of choice. Money-saving packages combining resort stays with Dolphin Connection programs are also available.

For more information on planning a visit to Hawks Cay Resort, visit their website at www.hawkscay.com.

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