Miami is a choice family vacation destination once the winter doldrums settle in. Families traveling with kids are attracted by the sun that shines here year ’round, the shovel-ready beaches that stretch for miles, the palm trees that blow in the warm breezes and the tiny lizards that skitter about.

For my family of transplanted northerners, Miami remains a wonder of sun, sea and surf where we find great things to do all year long, even though we no longer see it as a family vacation destination.

Miami Beach, Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne are the best family vacation spots for families seeking a sun holiday. All three of these places offer intriguing tourist options for keeping kids busy plus the staples all kids need–public parks, playgrounds and libraries.

Miami Beach offers miles of sand and surf. Its Manhattan-like grid design and frequent bus schedules make it easy and affordable to get around. You do not need a car on Miami Beach unless you want to visit far-flung family vacation attractions such as the Metrozoo. Even then, arranging for a guide from a tour companies is less stressful than dealing with the often maniacal Miami drivers.

Coconut Grove offers a compact Greenwich Village-like feel. The Grove is closer to other interesting neighborhoods and attractions such as Coral Gables , Little Havana, boating and bike paths.

Key Biscayne is an island with beach resort ambience. The village streets are known for being bicycle-friendly.

The Miami Map company distributes free tourist-oriented maps in hotels.

Miami’s beaches

South Florida is best experienced out-of-doors. But be sure to lather on the sunscreen to protect against those strong Florida rays. My boys are beyond middle-of-the-day naps but we usually take a break from the sun around lunchtime when the rays are most intense.

Hardly anyone comes to Miami without planning at least one day at the beach. If you’re staying in Miami Beach just stumble out of your beachfront hotel onto the sand and set up shop. Bring or buy a few cheap shovels and buckets and settle in for hours of sand castle building fun.

We try to get to the beach at least once every month, usually when guests and family come to town. It’s amazing how clear and warm the ocean is here in the summer months, just like in the Caribbean. The winter sea is chillier with choppier waves. One of our favorite beaches is the public beach at 53rd Street and Collins Avenue on Miami Beach because there is a new shaded playground by the parking lot. It’s quieter than South Beach, though there are no restaurants or markets nearby. If you go, pack a picnic beforehand.

Matheson Hammock Park near Coral Gables on the mainland (9610 Old Cutler Road, Miami) is an off-the-beaten-path beach we like that is part of the county park system. The man-made atoll pool is flushed naturally with the tidal action of nearby Biscayne Bay . The tranquil beach is a haven for families because of the warm water and beautiful views. The park has picnic pavilions and nature trails.

If your kids are older and want some extreme action or activities with views, try taking the Island Queen tourboat or Blaster boat from Bayside, the downtown waterside mall. Or visit one of the kite sailing concessionaires situated in front of the bigger hotels.

Other Ways to Get Wet in Miami

The quirky Venetian Pool in Coral Gables is something I’m saving for a no-school day. It was formed from a coral rock quarry in 1923, and is in the National Registry of Historic Places. Surrounded by waterfalls, coral caves, and grottos in Venetian style, the pool holds 820,000 gallons of water and is fed with cool spring water daily. Adjacent to the pool is a small man-made beach, and a palm-fringed island accessed over a cobblestone bridge. This comes highly recommended by friends. It’s not your run-of-the-mill swimming pool.

Grapeland Water Park is right next to the airport. It’s run by the Miami Park District, so it’s an affordable $5 for kids ages 4-13, $10 for adults. The play area was designed by local artist Romero Britto, who specializes in bright, pop art. I’ve marked this activity on my calendar for when my kids have a gap between camps this summer since they got hooked on waterparks on a trip to the Wisconsin Dells. I know they’ll especially like the fast slides and the lazy river. The park was voted “Best Kids’ Thrill” by the Miami New Times newspaper.

Coral Castle probably wins the designation for “most offbeat” tourist attraction, built over the course of 20 years with homemade tools by one man in a seemingly impossible display of strength and obsession. These are on our to-do list. Combine that attraction with a stop at the Robert is Here farm stand on your way to the Everglades for tropical fruit flavored shakes and other exotic snacks. Or combine it with a stop to one of the many authentic Mexican restaurants in Homestead.
Dina Weinstein is a Miami transplant who was born in Boston and most recently lived in Chicago . She’s made Coral Gables home with her husband and two boys. They love exploring their adopted city.