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The Key to the Keys

With the twins out of our hair, Dad heads off with his cameras, and Mom and I relax in hammocks on the beach. Teenagers need their sleep, so I manage to work in a few naps a day. Some afternoons we all join a Cheeca motorboat outing to the local lighthouse, five miles offshore, for snorkeling. It's often a wild and bumpy ride because of the wind, and I won't mention what happened to May's stomach thanks to a particular bump. But when we finally anchor, the snorkeling is more than worth the trip. As soon as the water closes over our heads, we're in another world, with fish of every color and shape gathered in a mass, rocking in sync with the waves. There are so many fish, it feels almost as if we're staring at one huge creature, 20, maybe 30, times my size. May once spotted a baby nurse shark and decided it was time to get out. She likes it better in Cheeca's stocked lagoon. You can also take a three-hour family excursion to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an amazing undersea preserve on Key Largo. If you're too scared or too young to snorkel there, you can sit safe and sound in a glass-bottomed boat and see the same beautiful fish and coral without getting wet.

Cheeca is known for luxuries, but it's also big on environmental programs—and so is my mother, who loves the resort's emphasis on protecting the Keys' ecosystem. The golf course, kept lush with recycled shower water, is a sanctuary for the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. Jet Skis are banned because they destroy sea grass and fish breeding grounds. During sea turtle nesting season, May through August, the lights are dimmed on the resort's beach. Kids learn all about the natural habitat of the Keys through Camp Cheeca. They go on guided walks. And—I'm not sure how environmentally friendly this is—they race Cheeca's pet hermit crabs. Last time we were there, our own Hermie won.

Hawk's Cay Resort Okay, time to bump up the energy quotient, and to travel farther down the Keys, to the cluster of five islands called Duck Key. Here, you'll find Hawk's Cay, a resort with 269 clapboard villas (plus 177 rooms and 85 boat slips), a swimming lagoon, five pools, a dolphin center—in other words, tons of things for families to do. Almost all of the guest quarters are on the water. They have two or three bedrooms and baths, a full kitchen, a lounge area: enough room for me to invite my best friend, Ben, to come along! Even teens can't help enjoy being at Hawk's Cay with their families.

The twins join the kids' club for select activities, such as pottery painting and beading, leaving time for Dad to take them to the mini-golf course and the pirate-ship waterslide. And while Ben reads, Mom and I go to the spa. There's a section for 8- to 16-year-olds that offers manicures, massages, and facials. I opt for the latter because I love the head massage that comes with it.

On exciting afternoons, we all go out in the resort's parasailing boat. Its captains, Moose and J.P., have us in stitches even before we leave the dock. Ivy and I get to go first. The sail is let out from the back of the boat. We begin to glide upward, kicking our feet furiously, nervously. My teeth chatter through a huge grin. When we rise to about 550 feet, the peace is incredible. Cushioned in a cocoon of wind, we sway gently. Straight ahead is nothing but blue. Below, we can see the shadows of the reef, as a few spasms of laughter float up from the boat.

I'd be hard-pressed to say which is more thrilling: parasailing or going to see the bottlenose dolphins at Hawk's Cay's lagoon, run by the Dolphin Connection. You start in a prep room, where a trainer talks about the history of the animals, their behavior, and how to handle them. Then you're divided into small groups to enter the water on platforms and watch a training session. That part is amazing—the dolphins swim right up to you, and you get to hug and stroke them, and the trainers have them do tricks. The twins are too young to be in the lagoon, but they can feed and "hold hands" with dolphins from the dock. These animals, by the way, seem to be treated with great care. Each spends only two hours a day interacting with people, and never more than four at a time. You really ought to bring your whole crew here. And if you see someone with blond hair and pesky twin sisters who looks as if she wished she owned the place, that'll be me.

His Name Is Always Hermie

Whenever we're in the Keys we get pets from the Keys Shell Shop (Mile Marker 82 Oceanside; 305/664-4784), on Islamorada. We pick the smallest, liveliest creatures in the store. Can you guess what they are?Hermit crabs! You can find them at every shell shop in the Keys. These critters drink fresh water (give them a shallow dish so they don't drown) and eat scraps (lettuce, apples, cooked meat, bread). They're sociable and will crawl over your hands and stomach. If they attach themselves to something, don't pull them off by the shell; you might break their legs, which should be gently released one by one. We always set our pets free before we leave, but you can keep them. They live an average of three years. One more thing—try not to put them in your hair; trust me!

For more tips, see www.hermitcrabs.com.

We Love This Shack!

Robbie's Rent-a-Boat (MM 77.5 Bayside, Lower Matecumbe Key; 877/664-8498 or 305/664-9814; www.robbies.com) is a rickety hut and pier where fishermen come to rent motorboats. Robbie's also offers fishing trips just for kids. But the fun right here is tossing bait—thread herring, $2 a bucket—to the prehistoric-looking tarpon that gather around the dock in a feeding frenzy. Try throwing the bait as far as you can, and watch the big fish race for it, or dangle a herring above the water—sure enough, a tarpon will jump out and snap at it. Be careful, though: there have been stories of tarpon eating more than just fish.

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