AFTER A DELIGHTFULLY MILD WINTER and temperamental spring marked cold snaps and torrential downpours, summer has crash-landed in Key West and it is hot. Ice cream melting all over your hands hot. Fry an egg on the sidewalk hot. How can I get away with wearing a bikini for the next three months? When the sun’s intensity becomes unbearable, do as the locals do — Get out on the water. And fast.
While most of the world views our tropical island as a year-round playground for all things aquatic, many who call Key West home readily admit to steering clear of the ocean during the “cold” months — we’ll take our ocean water closer to bath temperature, please and thank you.
But along comes June and suddenly it’s all-hands-on-deck for daily trips out to Boca Grande, Snipes Key or even a quick jaunt around the backcountry. As far as fishing forecasts go, summertime in the Keys equals storybook conditions out on the flats and drastically lower crowds in the Marquesas (but take care to ensure your charter of choice offers AC if you’re looking to get some deepwater action — it gets real toasty out there in the middle of the ocean). Ask any local commercial fisherman what to expect in June and rhapsodize about epic mahi-mahi hauls, the mutton snapper spawn in June and droves of mangrove snapper that begin to congregate around the reefs once the month begins (pro tip: head out around the full moon for your best chance at filling your cooler in record time).
Below, you’ll find our guide to Key West water activities.
But no matter what you choose — fancy catamaran, salty paddleboard, or drugstore-brand inner tube — the important thing is to find time in your visit to Key West to take advantage of the vast wilderness that exists offshore. Sure, eating your weight in conch fritters and getting a regrettable tattoo on Duval Street after too many rum runners are hallmarks of any great Key West vacation, but treat yourself to a little nature-based therapy as well. Your body (particularly your liver) will thank you.
Thanks to its unique location at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the waters off Key West offer some of the country’s best snorkeling, fishing, sailing, swimming, diving and a myriad of other aquatic adventures.
Whether you’re a seasoned diver looking to explore a coral-covered shipwreck or you’re more comfortable in the shallow end buoyed up with water-wings, Key West has something to get you out exploring the magnificent underwater ecosystem that makes our tiny island so special.
If you’re looking for adventure…
Adrenaline junkies listen up: there’s plenty to get your heart pounding around Key West. And for those looking to cram as much as possible into one trip, there’s no better option than Fury’s Ultimate Adventure. From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., enjoy snorkeling, jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, and sunbathing aboard Fury’s 65-foot catamaran as you’re ferried between various spots on the reef and out to Fury’s own floating island platform — inflatable waterslide and climbing walls included.
Two fresh meals created with sustainable ingredients, unlimited refreshments, and all snorkel gear included; just bring sunscreen, a towel, and an unquenchable thirst for water-based activities. (Pro tip: book online and chances are you’ll find yourself the lucky recipient of a 10% discount. You can thank us later.) www.furycat.com or 888-976-0899
If climbing a giant balloon shaped like an iceberg in the middle of a tropical ocean isn’t wild enough for you, go jump out of a plane — literally. Plummet toward the crystalline waters off Key West at 120 mph, then (after the trained expert strapped to your back deploys the parachute) enjoy views of the reef, the Seven Mile Bridge, and occasional appearances by dolphins and tropical birds as you float gently down to Earth. Sky Dive Key West technically departs from Sugarloaf Key, a 25-minute drive north of Key West, but for those insatiable thrill-seekers looking to experience Key West’s ocean views from a vantage point normally dominated by gulls, the experience is well worth the short commute. www.skydivekeywest.com or 305-396-8806
After you’ve viewed Key West’s ocean paradise from above, immerse yourself in it from below by diving the Vandenberg Wreck, the second-largest artificial reef in the world. This enormous ship — purposefully sunk in 2009 after over a decade of planning and fundraising totaling almost $9 million — originally served as a missile tracking and military transport vessel before its retirement in 1983.
In its new underwater life, the Vandenberg serves as a home and breeding ground for all manner of coral, invertebrates, fish, and ocean mammals. While the exterior of the wreck offers excellent wildlife viewing, more advanced divers will enjoy weaving their way through the cargo holds, bunkrooms, stairways, and elevator shafts of the ship’s interior. Divers can hope to spot hundreds of species of native marine life, including sharks, moray eels, sponges, goliath grouper, sea fans, barracuda, and more. Staggeringly high towers, copious swim-throughs, coral-encrusted radar dishes, and well-placed cutouts make this wreck a must-see for divers of all certification levels.
Dive tours vary based on season, time of day, and certification level, but you can’t go wrong with any of these options:
¦ Captain’s Corner 305-296-8865 www.captainscorner.com
¦ South Point Divers 305-292-9778 www.southpointdivers.com
¦ Lost Reef Adventures 305-296-9737 www.lostreefadventures.com
If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck…
Years ago, Lara Fox, co-owner of Danger Charters, got an unexpected phone call from the captain of one of her company’s half-day sailing trips, with the news that a customer had started exhibiting strange behavior.
“The gentleman had become very agitated and upset because there was nothing ‘dangerous’ about our trip,” Fox recalls. “He had signed up through his hotel expecting our name to be indicative of our activities, I suppose, and was very disappointed that we were just enjoying nature and the islands, sailing, kayaking and snorkeling. In fact, he was so upset, we actually had to bring our skiff out and take him off the boat midtrip because he was starting to upset the other guests.”
In truth, Danger Charters takes its name not from a schedule of unsafe activities, but from a particularly fast wrecking schooner from the 1800s. The company’s entire fleet of ships has been specially designed to replicate the schooners used in the wrecking business that ruled Key West’s economy in the 19th century.
The vessels’ shallow-draft bodies and large sails are excellent for exploring Key West’s backcountry waters and paired with the company’s reputation for superior customer service and top-of-the-line equipment, Danger is one of the charter companies locals recommend most to visiting guests (or anyone within earshot at the bar). Its half-day and full-day sails combine the best of Key West’s water activities into one well-paced, relaxing journey out into some of the lesser-visited mangroves and deserted islands that surround Key West.
And while some big-boat charters might consider deep-fried chicken fingers a “gourmet” lunch, Danger sets itself apart from the pack with its painstakingly curated selection of onboard beers, wines, hors d’oeuvres, and lunches. In one half-day trip, expect to snorkel patch reefs and wrecks and paddle through mangroves in sea kayaks stable enough for both kids and grandparents, and everyone in between. www.dangercharters.com or 305-304-7999.
The Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed ferry that departs Key West at 8 a.m. each morning, will get you out to the staggeringly beautiful Dry Tortugas National Park in a breezy two hours and 15 minutes — that is if the ocean is calm. On stormy days, expect to add another hour each way, and those possessing less-than-strong stomachs should probably stay home.
This high-tech catamaran is the fastest vessel of its size out of Key West, and a $190 ticket ($135 for kids, with other discounts available to active military, seniors, and students) will buy you round trip travel, breakfast, lunch, snorkel equipment and a guided tour of the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson.
Enjoy the incomparable snorkeling that surrounds the fort or relax on the powdery white sand beach while you scan the water for dolphins. But during high-demand months, the ferry may deposit over a hundred people onto shore alongside you, making the park feel a bit overcrowded.
If you’re willing to spend the extra cash, head out on either the first or last trip of the day with Key West Seaplane Charters and you’ll beat the ferry — and the crowds — and have the island almost completely to yourself (the plane seats only 10 customers). Indulgent? Maybe. But it’s arguable that the spectacular 40-minute flight alone, never mind the Gilligan’s Island-esque experience at the end of it, justifies the higher price tag. Tickets start at $361 for adults for a once-in-a-lifetime trip where every seat is a window seat equipped with a headset; you’ll get a fully narrated tour as you zoom 500 feet above underwater sand flats, shipwrecks, sea turtles, sharks rays, and a breathtaking gradient of crystal-clear blues and greens. And that’s just the commute to the adventures that await you at your final destination. www.drytortugas.com or 800-634-0939 to book boat tickets, or www.keywestseaplanecharters.com or 305-293-9300 to book plane tickets. No matter how you get there, you’ll enjoy the beauty of the Dry Tortugas National Park (but you’ll certainly enjoy it best on a clear day).
If you’re looking to get back to nature…
There are hundreds of options for fishing charters in Key West, and with good reason: it’s some of the best fishing in the world, with a plethora of guides who have dedicated their lives to mastering the waters off the Keys. Some people dream of flashy yachts with a great sound system and a cooler stocked with Bud. For others, it’s a deep-sea excursion led by a laconic captain with an enviable beard.
Unfortunately, with so many to choose from, there’s a chance you might find yourself on a trip with the worst option of all: a snarky, inexperienced guide who can’t seem to get you to where the fish are biting, and who blames the weather (or your lack of skills) for a disappointing haul.
For a top-notch trip without any of the attitude, Key West Pro Guides continues to earn its spot at the top of a very long list of fishing charter options for Key West visitors who are looking to get out onto the ocean and maybe bring something tasty back with them. Renowned for its action-packed shark challenge trips, relentless tarpon quests, and expert guides determined to help you hook a monster no matter what your experience level, Key West Pro Guides has built up a clientele of devotees who sing its praises from the tops of the tuna tower.
While all its captains are extremely qualified, those specifically interested in backcountry angling would do well to request Capt. Eric Ryan.
Ryan, who has been fishing the Keys since 2001, is known for offering customers a special kind of charter, one more akin to fishing with a good friend rather than a hired guide. www.keywestproguides.com or 866-259-4205
If you want to go nose-to-nose with wildlife amongst the mangroves, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than renting a kayak or a paddleboard from the wonderful folks at Lazy Dog out at Hurricane Hole Marina and taking a spin around Cow Key Channel. Worried that your sense of direction will malfunction and you’ll end up stranded in the middle of the Atlantic? Opt for an Eco Tour — you can kayak or paddle to your heart’s content while a knowledgeable guide teaches you everything there is to know about the geological structure of the Keys and its marine inhabitants. And (bonus!) your four-legged friends are more than welcome to join you on your aquatic adventures, so slap a life vest on Sparky and get to paddling. www.lazydog.com or 305-295-9898
And finally, if money’s no option…
Key West residents and visitors know sunsets are spectacular, with hues of red, yellow, and orange reflecting off the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. They are enchanting, especially from the deck of the sailing vessel Argo Navis.
At 75 feet long and with a 36-foot beam, this luxuriously appointed catamaran allows for stretching out and truly experiencing yacht life. The two-hour nightly All-Inclusive Sunset Sail includes a selection of premium wines, craft beers, and delicious charcuterie-style passed appetizers. Once away from the dock, guests enjoy watching the crew raise the sails and the sensation of leaving the sounds of bustling Key West behind. Underway guests are treated to the symphonic sounds of nature with wind whipping through the sails and waves lapping against the sleek hull as they are pampered by an attentive crew.
Summer season in Key West is a great time to get out on the water, and the Argo offers day sails to nearby sandbars affording the opportunity to snorkel, paddleboard and lounge on the floating lily pad. The Sangria and Sandbar sails are 4.5 hours of relaxing bliss. The crew swims out drinks to keep the guests hydrated and serves up iced towels and fresh chunks of pineapple when they climb back on board. The staterooms with ensuite bathrooms allow for showers, so guests can re-dress prior to enjoying lunch served in the climate-controlled spacious salon.
The Best of Key West Brunch Sails are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday and feature award-winning Bloody Marys from The Saint Hotel, cheesy lobster quiche made from a Louie’s Back Yard recipe, fresh fruits and veggies sourced from the Key West Farmers Market, Glazed Donuts and Red Buoy Coffee and bottomless mimosas. The Argo team sources brunch fare from the top Key West restaurants to bring you an amazing al fresco noshing experience with a lovely two-hour sail.
Private Charters and Events Hosting Opportunities are also available, as well as monthly Doggie Day Sails, Full Moon Sails, and other special events.
Call 305-509-1771 or book directly at www.sailargonavis.com. ¦