THOUGH ONE COULD ARGUE IT DOESN’T GET much wilder than naked dancing at Key West’s only clothing-optional bar, Garden of Eden, the true great wilderness of Key West lies offshore. 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 (ever heard of SNUBA? We hadn’t either.)
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. And for those who thought letting it all hang out at the Garden of Eden sounded particularly fetching, fear not: There’s even some sea-related stuff you can do naked. Just make sure to reapply that SPF everywhere — and we mean everywhere.
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 to and fro between various spots on the reef and Fury’s own floating island platform — inflatable waterslide and climbing walls included. Two meals, unlimited refreshments and all snorkel gear included; just bring sunscreen, a towel, and an unquenchable thirst for water-based activities. furycat.com or (888) 976-0882.
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. See the crystalline waters off Key West plummet toward you 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. 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:
Captain’s Corner (305) 296-8865, captainscorner.com; South Point Divers (800) 891-3483, southpointdivers.com; Lost Reef Adventures (305) 296-9737, lostreefadventures.com. If you want to get out the water on your own, contact HydroThunder of Key West for jet ski or boat rentals. They also offer escorted jet ski tours and when you are back on land they can rent you a scooter or electric car. Hydrothunderofkeywest.com or (305) 842-1880.
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,” Ms. 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 mid-trip 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 back-country waters, and paired with the company’s reputation for superior customer service and top-of-the-line equipment, Danger has quickly risen to a coveted No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor. 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. Dangercharters.com or (305) 304-7999.
The Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed ferry that departs Key West at 7 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 $175 ticket ($125 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 historic 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 more than 100 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 $317 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. drytortugas.com to book boat tickets, or keywestseaplanecharters.com to book plane tickets. Either way, 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 their praises from the tops of the tuna tower. While all their captains are extremely qualified, those specifically interested in back-country angling would do well to request Capt. Eric Ryan. Capt. Ryan, who has been fishing the Keys for 15 years, is known for offering customers a special kind of charter, one more akin to fishing with a good friend rather than a hired guide. Contact keywestproguides.com or (866) 259-4205 for more information.
Locals swear by Captain Jeremy Hackworth of Zia Charters. Captain Jeremy may be reached at ziacharters.com or by calling (305) 923-1446.
Owners Cody White and Ryan Saca started Nomadic SUP (that’s Stand-Up Paddleboarding for those not fluent in paddleboard) with a specific goal in mind: Get people out into the pristine ecosystem surrounding Key West, and make sure they’re all smiling while they’re out there. Big party catamaran-lovers look elsewhere; you can expect a laid-back, friendly tour when you go out with Nomadic SUP, with access to parts of Key West’s flats and mangroves not usually visited on larger tours. The nomadic part ensures that the company is constantly scouring the waters off Key West for the most remote and immaculate places their customers can explore. As for the SUP — well, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to balance once they’ve shown you the correct technique (though they certainly won’t judge you if you prefer to remain seated on your paddleboard throughout the trip. Or so we hear.) And, if you’ve made it this far only to find out where those people interested in naked sea activities can go for a good time, congratulations! Nomadic SUP is happy to offer Natural Tours, a three-hour clothing-optional trip designed to get you back to nature, fast. In an interview with Passport Magazine, they argued the tours aren’t actually as uncomfortable as you might think: “Once people get past the idea of, ‘oh, everybody’s going to see me naked,’ everybody’s natural, everybody’s comfortable, it’s really a serene experience. When the clothes come off, it just takes a whole other level of posturing and masks off of us, so that we can just relax and be there. We know that works for us, and we’ve seen some great changes in people — that true vacation experience that people can have. We’re just happy that we can be a part of that.” We’ll take your word for it, guys. Contact the Nomads at nomadicsup.com or (305) 395-9494. ¦