Key West and snorkling
October 21, 2013 11:58 AM   Subscribe

Hi, all. My sister and I would like to take some time together for a trip this January. We need some help planning things out.

I'd be coming from the Midwest, she's on the East Coast. We were trying to reconcile "relatively cheap," "easy for both to get to," and "warm" together into one trip. Puerto Rico was the first idea but while it was easy for her to get to, I was bumping up against all sorts of crazy travel times. Places like the Bahamas and Jamaica seemed to expensive.

At this point we're looking at flying into Miami and then driving to Key West. We further thought about taking the ferry to the Dry Tortugas to snorkel, and in doing that research came up against this AskMe from a couple of years ago: What Happened To The Coral Reefs in the Dry Tortugas?. It painted a pretty sad picture despite, as the previous questioner noted, being much recommended on websites. Does anyone have any more recent information on what the situation there might be for snorkling? Is taking one of the day trip groups from Key West a better option? Are there other, better destinations in the area (or heck, just anywhere) we haven't thought of that you might propose?

Some details: I've never snorkeled but am a decent swimmer, she's snorkeled before. We're looking for a trip where we can do things, not just sit in a beach chair (although there will be some of that as well). If money were no object, we'd probably hit up a dude ranch, but that's well out of our price range.
posted by PussKillian to Travel & Transportation around Key West, FL (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was in Key West in May and went with a mega-charter, Fury. It was a cheap 1-4pm thing: fun, crowded but not obnoxiously so and the reef they went to is the same one every other half day charter seems to go to. The captain was a tanned shirtless 20 year old with guy dreads and the deckhands were all cute girls in bikinis. Open bar on the way back and it was a p.a.r.t.y. (they did, however, take safety very seriously)

We got friendly with a couple of avid snorkelers who have been everywhere and they said the reef we visited was 'meh, not very good'. It was more about the experience of the boat, a bit of easy snorkeling, and then a boozy return. If you are making snorkeling the focus of your vacation, the Keys will disappoint.

We also explored looking in to a day trip to the Tortugas, but it was prohibitively expensive for almost the exact same fish. Also, an hour of snorkeling was more than enough for us.

They Keys are a relatively cheap trip if you drive from Miami and stay in a B&B or smaller hotel off of Duval (as we did) However, there isn't much more to do other than bike around to the Hemingway House/Southern Tip, eat salty food and drink drink drink. I can't imagine spending more than 3 days in the Keys, it all gets a little redundant.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:12 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Keys are fun for a weekend, but staying a full week may make you nutso. Also it's pretty expensive down there.

If you can go mid-week, it may be cheaper. Then spend the rest of your time in Miami!

We stayed at the Hyatt House near the Airport. We got a deal the first week of September (Labor Day weekend) for $106 per night. This was for a 1 bedroom apartment. There was a fully stocked kitchen, a living room, and a separate bedroom with two beds in it. Full, hot breakfast was included.

To help economize you can take your rental down the street and stock up at Publix for lunch stuff, or have your main meals out at lunch and have nibblies for dinner (on Tuesdays they do a dinner/happy hour at the hotel.)

Here are restaurants that I like in Miami. Very authentic, but everyone speaks English if you look lost.

Don Cameron

El Palacio de Jugos I like the one off of 27th Ave (close to the hotel) go for lunch. Bring cash. Save the leftovers!

If you like things a bit more upscale:

Van Dyke Cafe--on Lincoln Road

Perricones Italian--Downtown off of Brickell near Mary Brickell shopping district. Go for lunch, eat on the patio

The hotel is about 15 minutes (not in traffic) to Miami Beach so if you want to go there for nightlife, you can.

There are tons of cool things to see in Miami and further north in Broward County:

Lincoln Road-Open air pedestrian mall.



Miami Seaquarium

Butterfly World

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

Sawgrass Mills Outlet Mall (if that's your thing.) They have a Ron Jon for all your surf shop and souvenier needs!

Frankly, there's plenty to do in Miami, that I'd bag on Key West and just stay there.

Me mail me if you have any questions.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:36 PM on October 21, 2013

Was just (just) in Key West, and honestly, I'd go ahead and fly into Key West rather than drive down from Miami.

If you bring a car into Key West proper, you aren't really going to need it - you can walk pretty much anywhere you'd want to go - and it's going to be a total pain in the ass to park it.

I agree w BlerpityBloop that the best reason to go to Key West is if you're into the party/ bar/ wet t-shirt scene. There is practically nowhere on the island where you're out of earshot of one bar or another's thumping base output. (It even follows you out to sea if you try to flee! We took a sunset sailing cruise one evening, which was nice until we were chased down by a huge honking catamaran with a live band just as the sun was setting. Grr.)

There are beaches, but it's worth noting that there's only one natural beach, at the very southern tip of the island near Fort Zachary Taylor, and that's made of coral fragments that are very painful on bare feet. The other beaches on the east side of the island were made by barging in sand from the Bahamas. We were told the swimming isn't very great off those beaches.

There is good food - alongside a lot of really bad food - and a lot of cheesy shops selling t-shirts for frat boys (which was odd because the median age of people on the streets, at least last week, seemed to be in the mid-50s). Lots of guys on Harleys showing off how loud they can be.

Can't speak to the quality of the snorkeling, but you'll have to watch yourself if you want to stick to a budget as the Keys are very good at extracting money from tourists. It's what they do.
posted by Naberius at 12:43 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lived in the keys for a year, so here goes. As mentioned before, the reefs are probably the least interesting you'll ever snorkle on, if you've done it before. Mostly dead, and about the only fish are these striped "sergeant fish" that aren't very colorful.
Key west proper is VERY touristy, and sadly was rapidly becoming franchised out when we moved out about 8 years ago. Meaning that the neat local-flavor places were losing out to the Cheeseburgers in Paradise/TGIBENNIApplebees places. The beaches on Key West are...well, dreadful. The one mentioned above is very rocky and rough, and you'll need to wear shoes. The other non-natural ones (especially Smathers) is just gross stinky mud once you take about 2 steps into the water. Unless you like to sit on the beach about 20 feet from a busy highway and the local homeless hangout, skip it.

If you drive down from Miami (yeah, about 3 hours) there ARE some interesting places along the way. I'd HIGHLY recommend Bahai Honda beach, which is just on the south end of the 7-mile bridge and about 15 miles north of KW. It's natural, very fine sand, but no waves, like the rest of the Keys. You can just swim/snorkle out from the beach and once you get about 1/2 mile out (still only 3 feet deep) you'll start seeing interesting fish and such.

If you are "adventurous" there's a kinda locals-only swimming spot on sugarloaf key. (where we used to live) See that bridge? You'll have to park at the end of Sugarloaf Blvd (it's at mile marker 13) and walk because the road is closed off. I think it was a planned development that never came to be, and the canal under that bridge is used as a swimming/party area by locals. But it's not sketchy during the day. More along the lines of local teens just hanging out.

Make sure you stop at Mangrove Mama's for a blackened mahi sandwich. One of the few things I miss from that state.

On key west, stay at an independent B&B, not a chain place. "The Garden" is really nice, and even has a pool, and is walking distance from the main party street.
posted by Mr. Big Business at 1:14 PM on October 21, 2013

I was just in Key West this past Memorial Day weekend, and we went snorkeling with Danger Charters. I was a snorkeling newb, but had fun, and the sea kayaking part was really awesome. Our guides were GREAT. My best friend, who's done a lot more snorkeling and so on than I have, was very, very impressed w/ the guides and the way things were conducted. We also did the sunset wine cruise and it was awesome, too.

As a first-time snorkeler, doing it in the open water by myself . .it was way weirder than I was really prepared for. If you can do some snorkeling beforehand (like, take a class at the Y or something) I recommend that. I learned to swim really, really young, and snorkeling, for me, went right up against like, 100% of my instincts about swimming. The best advice I got about it was to "make like the Dalai Lama." So I pass that on to you.

Also, we stayed at a hotel, which was fine, but a little weird, and when we go back for another girls' weekend, we will do a B&B in Old Town. We did the Hemingway House (which is great especially if you are a cat person, clearly). We also ate a lot of extremely good food, but that is a thing for me on vacation - I don't eat cheaply. I am trying to remember the one teeny tiny fish joint we went to . . If I manage to remember I will come back and post again.

Oh, and totally fly into Key West. We drove in and that was the worst experience of my entire life getting back out.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:03 PM on October 21, 2013

If you're interested in snorkling, I think you should fly to Miami and drive to Key West as planned, because then you can stop on the way down and snorkel Looe Key, which is a national marine sanctuary with excellent marine life. It's also cheap; boat trips are $39 per person and you can stay locally for like $90 a night. Between Miami, Looe Key stay and snorkle and Key West, it would be a pretty varied and fun vacation.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:40 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everybody. A lot of really helpful answers that helped us shape our thoughts about this trip.
posted by PussKillian at 6:03 PM on October 26, 2013

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