By Sam Klitenick
Though summertime in Key West is our tourism off-season, there is no shortage of engaging activities for the whole family. But if there's one thing any local would recommend you do in Key West, especially in the summer, it's get on the water.
Summertime in particular makes for the best boat weather. The lack of wind permits the crystal-clear waters to be glass calm, stretching miles out to our barrier reef. The water's temperature is perfect, offering a nice break from the high humidity heat. No matter your interests, experience, or skill level, there are watersport activities for everyone.
The best part about these no-prior-knowledge-or-skills-required activities is that they're great for the whole family. As long as your kids can swim, they should be fine participating in any of these activities.
Have all the fun of parachuting without having to jump out of an airplane! Charter companies in town such as Fury and Sebago will take you out on their specially designed boats so that you can get a true bird's eye view of Key West and the surrounding waters. After harnessing you in appropriately (usually in pairs) they launch you off the back of the boat, keeping you attached by a tow line. As the boat gains some speed and they let out some line, you'll find yourself hundreds of feet in the air gently cruising behind the boat. Often, the captain will slow the boat allowing you to gently freefall and dip your toes in the water for a bit of extra fun. Generally children under 6 are not permitted to go and those under 18 must have a parent sign their liability waiver. I loved parasailing as a kid and even got to take a bunch of friends out for my birthday one year!
All smiles as Joey Wright, me, and Kyle Campbell (left to right) launch off at my 11th birthday parasailing party.
Snorkel the Reef
The reef is a must see when you visit Key West. You may have noticed that the beaches in Key West are small and, frankly, not great. That is all attributed to our reef. One of the largest in the world, the Florida Keys Barrier Reef stops waves from coming in and crashing on our island. Hence, we get no surf and no waves to form natural beaches on our tiny limestone home. Our sand is imported so that we can enjoy what we know as our beaches today.
Many people who visit Key West wonder which beach is the best to snorkel at or where they can go to snorkel from shore, but the simple answer is that none of the snorkeling from shore is very great. The reef begins about 6 miles off the south side of the island, so you generally need a boat to get there. There are several charter companies that will take you out, provide gear, and show you how to snorkel and get a firsthand look at some amazing sea life. On your way out you will often see dolphins and depending on the day you can see all kinds of creatures like sea turtles, sting rays, hundreds of types of fish, and more. Check out Floridays
for a great day of sailing and exploring one of the coolest ecosystems on the planet.
Floridays charter sailboat stopped for a snorkel at the Eastern Dry Rocks
People know Key West all over the world for its fantastic fishing. If you're not experienced water-people, though, I would definitely recommend a half-day fishing charter as opposed to the full day. Only about five degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun down here, especially in summer, is very strong. I see tourists every day who don't believe it, or think that they're used to the sun because they have a beach house in Long Beach, and they end up looking like a freshly boiled lobster before the end of their first day here. Apply lots of sunscreen and reapply throughout the day and you will be fine. Also if you have them, wear a long sleeve sun shirt and a hat and even a buff to cover your face. A half day charter will give you plenty of time to catch your dinner for the night but still leave you with some energy to do things once you get back to land. Plus, it's a little easier on the kids.
My dad and I with his Jack Crevalle on a half day fishing charter together.
Paddle Board/Kayak eco-tour
Paddle boards and kayaks are some of the most relaxing ways to spend some time out on the water. Head out to Lazy Dog
on Stock Island (the next island up) and take a 2-hour kayak or paddle board eco-tour. The guides will show you hands-on and teach you about the wildlife and plants right in our back yard. Plus, after the tour, you can say you've paddled from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and back! It only amounts to about a 2-mile excursion, but your friends don't have to know that. When you get back you'll be in prime position to have a real seafood lunch at the famous Hogfish Bar and Grill
on Stock Island.
A kayaker paddles through one of many mangrove tidal creeks explored on Lazy Dog's eco-tours.
Novice to intermediate:
I'd recommend these activities to adults and families who are not strangers to the water. One of the most important things for safety when in the water is the ability to be relaxed and comfortable, so having some prior time spent in the ocean, especially, is a good idea for these activities, but not an absolute requirement.
For an even greater experience at the reef, stay submerged on scuba or snuba (no individual tanks) and really extend the experience. There are dive boats all over the island that do day trips including Dive Key West, Lost Reef, and several others. I got PADI certified down here to dive when I was 13 and had a great time checking out the Western Dry Rocks and Sambo Reef. No certification is necessary to go on a chartered trip and they'll have all the gear. All you need to do is show up and keep channeling positive energy to attract some awesome critters.
Up-close and personal with a sea turtle at the reef off of Key West.
If you're more comfortable on the water or don't want to be in the whole group setting that comes with a tour, Lazy Dog
and many other businesses around town offer kayak and paddleboard rentals where you can go off on your own. My favorite, is to rent a kayak out of Lazy Dog and head into the Riviera Canal. There you can paddle through the man-made canal and check out all the houses on the edge and on your left when you enter there are hidden little entraces into the mangroves. Once you find one, you can pull yourself through the tidal creeks (which feels like going through natural tunnels) until it opens up into the Key West Salt Ponds. There's lots of wildlife back there and you can have an awesome day of exploring and peacefulness.
The Lazy Dog shack at Hurricane Hole Marina has plenty of paddle boards and kayaks for rent.
For those of you who have some experience scuba diving, Key West is known to be a great diving destination. We have a number of shipwrecks in our surrounding waters that have become extraordinary artificial reefs. One of the biggest, best, and most famous is the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg located about 7 miles south of Key West. After a 10-year, 75,000 man hour, $8.6 million project, the ship was finally sunk to be used as an artificial reef and dive destination. I remember playing hooky from school that day to go out and watch them perfectly sink the boat so that it sits upright on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The bottom of the ship sits at 150' below the surface, with the deck at about 90', and the tops of the satellites and antennas peaking at about 50'. You're sure to see some bigger fish, including goliath grouper, black grouper, schools of jack, and even bull sharks.
Divers explore the USNS Vandenberg
For those of you who like to dive, free dive, and fish, spearfishing is the ultimate watersport. To me, there's something so much more satisfying about getting a fish by holding your breath and swimming into its element and spearing it so that you can have some fresh dinner. Even only a mile off of Key West you can find small patch reefs with hogfish waiting for you. My favorite was to go out in the early afternoon, take a couple of short dives in only about 15' water, and come back to filet the catch for some fresh fried hogfish tacos. To be sure you find spots that meet your skill level and aren't looking for fish all day, take a half or full day charter and I can almost guarantee you'll set a personal best or two. Captain AJ Hally from Into the Blue Charters
will take good care of you.
If you have some experience boating, particularly in the keys, there are plenty of boat rentals available. I do not recommend renting your own boat if you are not very comfortable navigating the waters. Boating in the keys is especially difficult, because of the number of boaters, divers, and snorkelers, as well as the nature of the Gulf of Mexico. The back country, as we conchs like to call it, is very shallow and full of sandbars. You have to know where you're going and how to drive a boat properly (such as when to get up on a plane etc.) or you will be sure to run aground or destroy some wildlife. Tearing up the sea grass by running where you're not supposed to, which we see from Miami visitors frequently, leads to fines upwards of $300 per square foot damaged.
That being said, getting out on the boat on your own is a great time and will really give you the experience of feeling like a local. Check the tide chart and try to make it out to Snipes Point, where you'll find entire families, including their pets, and groups of friends of all ages enjoying the sandbar and playing games in the sun until it goes down. Run over to the west side of the island before the sun goes down to catch your own private sunset cruise before heading in.
Pontoon boat for rent with an upper party deck and Lily Pad
Our concierge would be happy to help you book any and all of these trips, excursions, and adventures.