The beaches on Key West can be somewhat rocky. The only living coral barrier reef in North America protects the coast from the pounding waves of the ocean, thereby preventing natural sand formation. But if the beach scene is a must, there are a few options to choose from. Smathers Beach is good for the little ones and has food concessions, restrooms, and chair, umbrella, and snorkel rentals. To avoid the crowds, opt for Rest Beach, near the White Street Pier. Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is one of the rare places where beach combing mixes with a little culture and history. Guests can take a tour of the fort to see Civil War cannons.
Whereas the reef interferes with swimming, it makes Key West a fishing and diving mecca. Chock-full of exotic fish, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900-square nautical miles of water surrounding the Florida Keys. Within the area are the world’s third-largest barrier reef, extensive seagrass beds, and more than 6,000 species of marine life. The estimated 1,000 shipwrecks scattered along the reef add to the allure.
To experience the depths of the waters, guests can choose from numerous wreck and reef dives, as well as the “honey holes that teem with mahimahi, tarpon, bonefish, and marlin. Just about anyone can take part in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. During a Snuba excursion, guests are taken out to sea on a comfortable catamaran, where adventure-seekers breathe easy underwater thanks to a long tube. It’s a convenient way to explore the underwater wonders: There’s no heavy gear, and no dive certification is necessary.
Guests can also partake in plenty of water activities above the surface, such as kayaking, paddleboarding, kitesurfing, parasailing, wave running, or even sailing a historic schooner. Popular excursions include a sail on a huge glass-bottomed catamaran and the “White Knuckle Thrill Boat Ride”—quite an exhilarating outing. The White Knuckle rips through as few as four inches of water at speeds up to 50 MPH. The vessel is U.S. Coast Guard-certified to perform incredible sideways slides, sashays, and crazy 260-degree spins.
Key West’s seafaring legacy lives on at the revitalized Historic Seaport district and the Key West Bight Marina, known to locals simply as the Bight. Scores of shrimp boats used to call this marina home, and now it’s the only dry-storage marina in Key West where boats can be rented for the day. If that’s not on your tour agenda, still consider visiting the Bight just to stroll along the harbor and dine at one of the many waterfront restaurants.
To observe marine life without getting wet, stop by the Key West Aquarium. When it opened in 1934, it was the world’s first open-air aquarium—a novel concept at the time. Today, it showcases local species including tropical angelfish and parrot fish; game fish such as tarpon and jack; green sea turtles; and several bonnethead sharks. There is also a touch tank where kids of all ages can get hands-on with some of the friendliest critters.