WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE thinking — summer has crash landed in
Key West and it is hot.
Ice cream melting all over your hands hot.
Poach eggs in your pool hot. How can I get away with not leaving the house for the next three months hot. And when the Key West sun’s intensity becomes unbearable, we suggest you 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 smaller crowds in the Marquesas (but take care to ensure your charter of choice has a shady cover if you’re looking to get some deep-water action — it gets real toasty out there in the middle of the ocean). Ask any local commercial fisherman what to expect in June and he’ll 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 fourth annual official guide to Key West water activities, with a few updates to include new favorites that have stolen our hearts since then. But no matter what you choose — fancy catamaran, salty paddle board 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 10:30 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, water trampoline 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.) Book at 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 — with Skydive Key West. See the crystalline waters off Key West as you plummet towards them 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.
Skydive 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. Learn more at skydivekeywest.com or call 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, coralencrusted 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:
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 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’ shallowdraft 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 is one of the charter companies locals recommend most to visiting guests (or anyone within earshot at the bar).
Their 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 healthy 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. Book at dangercharters.com or 305-304-7999.
The Yankee Freedom III, a highspeed 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 her size out of Key West, and a $180 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 over a hundred people onto shore alongside you, making the park feel a bit over crowded.
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 ten 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 $356 for a half-day trip 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. Evaluate your options at drytortugas.com or 800-634-0939 to book boat tickets, or 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 deepsea excursion lead 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 their 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 their 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. Ryan, who has been fishing the Keys since 2001and is known for offering customers a special kind of charter, one more akin to fishing with a good friend rather than a hired guide. Book at 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. Check Lazy Dog’s schedule at lazydog.com or call the shack at 305-295-9898.
And finally, if money is no obstacle …
The Argo Navis looks like the kind of boat a Bond villain might host a poker game aboard, with a sleek, snowy white exterior and exotic wood-covered interior set up for lounging in style, with two dining areas able to seat 12 comfortably and three king-size climate-controlled cabins below (each with its own en suite bath, of course). The 75-foot custom catamaran, which rents for about $6,000 per day all-inclusive, is both classically luxurious and crazily fast.
Your hard-earned dollars buy the kind of service one expects from a private yacht charter: catered meals, top choice wine and beer, fishing and water sports equipment, a floating bar, entertainment center and a staff to bustle around and take care of everything while you lounge at the front of the boat on a double hammock stretched between the boat’s twin hulls. The boat’s geometry-stabled beam means those normally at risk for seasickness can enjoy a much smoother ride than that offered by single hull ships.
Since it draws a meager 3.5 feet, you’ll have access to the famed shallows surrounding Key West, home to the best sandbar hopping and flats fishing in the continental U.S. And for those spots still too shallow to reach, the Argo Navis comes with her own inflatable zephyr and six paddle boards.
The ship is great for tooling around the lower Keys, but she and the crew really excel at customized longer rides — think overnights to the Dry Tortugas National Park or the Bahamas or 7-to-10 day trips to Cuba (which, until its hotel development catches up with the rest of the first world, means sleeping aboard the Argo Navis may very well be your only option for truly luxury accommodations available along much of the Cuban coast). All trips can be tailormade to your particular preferences and limitations, of course. For more information, visit sailargonavis.com or call 305- 509-1771. ¦