For the majority of visitors to Key West, beach-going is not at the top of their list. And if it is, Bahia Honda State Park, north on the Overseas Highway at MM 37 is where they should go. Around Key West the waters are shallow, and the beaches are small and narrow and usually crowded. But none of that takes away from the beauty of the water, or the feel of the sun's warmth on your skin after a swim. In the summer, an occasional dip in the water is a good way to pass a hot afternoon, but don't forget your sunscreen.
There's also an endless number of water sport opportunities available. Jet Skis, parasailing, water skiing, tubing, boating, windsurfing, and sailing concessions are easy enough to find by simply driving around the perimeter of the island. There's even something called a Banana Boat, which looks for all the world like a great big banana that you sit on while another boat tows it around.
[Fig. 8(10)] This park is the consensus choice for the town's best beach. You'll want to wear some old sneakers, sandals, or some other type of footwear as protection against the rough coral sand. When the sun gets too scorching, you can take respite under a group of trees. It's a good place to watch the sunset and pleasure boats skimming by on the gentle surf.
Fishing for snapper and other bottom species is good on the west side of the park because of a deep ship channel near shore.
[Fig. 8] This small, clean beach is popular with families and just about everybody else. There is a playground and free tennis courts across the street. The adjacent White Street Pier is a popular fishing spot and a good bird-watching spot for gulls, terns, and other shorebirds.
[Fig. 8] This is the city's longest stretch of sand. It's where the action is. You can join beach volleyball games, rent Jet Skis, and sign up for a parasailing ride over the beach. There are plenty of places to buy snacks, drinks, and suntan lotion.
With all the places to see and things to do on the island of Key West, it's easy to forget that it's really the surrounding waters that define its qualities. The life-rich, blue-green Caribbean waters brought the first Indians, the first Europeans, the pirates and wreckers. It's the water that defines the available space on the island, that creates the eclectic jumble of buildings, and crowds the people together that squeeze onto the island. And its the water that will allow you to escape the island when all of this becomes too much.
For the stay-dry crowd, there's a vast choice of boating and sailing opportunities. Great tall-masted schooners will carry you on a leisurely voyage around the island. Or you can choose a sleeker, faster catamaran for a trip to the reef or just a spray-filled ride through the waves. Glass bottom boat rides will give you a clear, close-up view of the coral reef in its full splendor. Large ferries and high-speed catamarans make full day runs to the Dry Tortugas.
Some of the finest snorkeling and diving opportunities in the world are available in Key West. This far from the mainland, the waters are always crystal clear, and the selection of reef and wreck diving in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is unsurpassed.
Sand Key, just 2.5 miles away from Key West, is one of the most popular dive sites. The small island and adjacent reef are marked by a lighthouse built in 1853. Perfect for snorkelers, the reef's fingerlike rock outcroppings in less than 20 feet of water support staghorn and elkhorn coral, a variety of sponges, and anemones. A place called Western Dry Rocks has caves and crevices teeming with life; crabs, lobsters, stingrays, and sea turtles roam the natural structure. Or you can spend an entire vacation exploring sunken ships like the Alexander's Wreck, a former Navy destroyer escort sunk in 30 feet of water, or the Aquanaut, a wooden salvage tug in 75 feet of water.
Any of the many Key West dive shops offer trips to the best sites. They'll also provide equipment, advice, directions, and lessons. Many of the dive sites are susceptible to strong currents and winds. Using a professional dive operation is the safest choice for first-time visitors. (See Appendix D for a list of dive operations).
Deep-sea fishing in the waters around Key West is another can't-miss adventure. The best way to find out what your choices are is to stop by Charter Boat Row near the intersection of Palm Avenue and North Roosevelt Avenue (US Highway 1). The entrance is off Palm Avenue, a short distance north of the intersection.
A stroll along the dock past dozens of charter boats and party boats will give you a quick lesson in the fishing experiences available. Go in the late afternoon and you can check out the boats, see the day's catches, talk to the captains or the first mates, and decide what kind of fishing challenge strikes your fancy.
Charter boats venture into the Gulf Stream where they troll for trophy sailfish and marlin, wahoo, dolphin, king mackerel, bonita, yellowfin tuna, and blackfin tuna. Most species are around all year, but sailfish, wahoo, and the tunas are more abundant in the fall and winter.
Cobia, amberjack, snapper, and grouper are available all year, gathered at the wrecks and reefs where they occupy a lofty place on the food chain and provide targets for the big and small party boats and bottom fishing charters. Many of the boats offer one-, two-, or three-day trips to the Dry Tortugas and back. On the way they fish for all the great saltwater speciesmarlin, tarpon, sailfish, and wahooand they provide their clients with a chance to see the last keys in the string.
Backcountry fishing here is as fine as anywhere in the Keys. Shallow-water flats guides will lead the way to a world of permit, bonefish, and barracuda. In the spring and summer, the dark shapes of tarpon cruise the flats and can be a challenge on flyrod or conventional tackle. Most guides will cater a trip to your level of experience and the fish you hope to catch.