Splash Down in Key West
There's no excuse for staying indoors when visiting the sun-drenched island dangling at the southernmost tip of the continental United States. Although Key West encompasses only 4.2 square miles of land, the surrounding waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean create limitless opportunities for adventure just offshore. It's an aquatic world teeming with marine life that's ideal for fishing, diving, snorkeling and boating.
Before lifting anchor, stop by the free, 6,000-square-foot Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center for an informative preview of the local marine environment. The family-friendly space contains interactive displays of the Keys' diverse ecosystems and a 2,400-gallon tank with living corals and tropical fish.
Drop a Line and Stay Awhile
Offshore charters troll the deep waters of the Florida Straits for marlin, sailfish, shark and swordfish, the tough-fighting fish Ernest Hemingway loved to pursue when he lived in Key West in the 1930s. Other boat captains specialize in tracking snapper and grouper on the local reefs and backcountry channels, while fly fishing for tarpon and bonefish is popular in the knee-deep water of the area flats. The Key West Fishing Tournament runs March through November, and visitors are encouraged to register their catches (at no charge) for prizes. For recommended fishing guides and charters, visit www.fla-keys.com/keywest/fishing.cfm
Kick Back on the High Seas
Motor yachts, sailboats and catamarans offer cruises by day and evening, perfect for when you want to relax and watch the waves roll past or take in one of Key West's famous sunsets. For added twists, Discovery Undersea Tours and Fury Water Adventures provide a fish-eye view of the living coral reef, and Dream Catcher Charters, Sea Bear Aquatic Adventures and Catamaran Echo run tours to watch bottlenose dolphins frolic in the wild. Want to shake things up? The White Knuckle Thrill Boat Ride whips around the island, executing crazy turns and 360-degree spins.
Explore Undersea Treasures
North America's most extensive coral barrier reef system – and the third-largest in the world – runs alongside the Florida Keys, making Key West a haven for underwater exploration. Professional charters whisk divers and snorkelers to the top reefs, ledges and shipwrecks to meet green moray eels, barracudas, lobsters and too many tropical fish to count.
Snorkeling is also available a few fin kicks off the island's south side in Key West Marine Park. The nonprofit group Artificial Reefs of the Keys is preparing to bring the 520-foot military ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg to Key West to sink as a new marine habitat; it will be the largest wreck in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. For a list of recommended dive/snorkel operators, visit www.fla-keys.com/keywest/diving.cfm.
Tour the Island at Sea Level
Island Water Sports and Barefoot Billy's conduct two-hour WaveRunner tours around Key West's tropical waterways and several surrounding isles for close-up views of the southernmost point, a WWII submarine base and local wildlife. For a quiet take on the island's marine ecosystems, paddle the shallow, blue-green backcountry waters and mangroves with Lazy Dog or Blue Planet Kayak.
Visit the Dry Tortugas
Floating serenely in the Gulf of Mexico about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas forms one of the most remote sites in the national park system. The seven-island cluster is home to Fort Jefferson, an 1846 fortress that encompasses half a mile and has 50-foot walls, making it one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere. The park also contains spectacular coral reefs and a large bird population.
Two speedy catamarans, the Yankee Freedom II and Sunny Days' Fast Cat, make it a day trip, which includes a tour of the fort, snorkeling gear, breakfast and lunch. With advance planning, it's possible to stay overnight in the park campground; it requires packing all essentials, including drinking water, but the reward is a balmy, crowd-free night under the stars.
This article is brought to you by the Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council. To plan your own outdoor getaway to Key West, call 800-LAST-KEY or visit www.fla-keys.com/keywest.