Unlike the rest of the Keys, Key West actually has a few small beaches, although they don't compare with the state's wide natural wonders up the coast; the Keys' beaches are typically narrow and rocky. Here are your options: Smathers Beach, off South Roosevelt Boulevard, west of the airport; Higgs Beach, along Atlantic Boulevard, between White Street and Reynolds Road; and Fort Zachary Beach, located off the western end of Southard Boulevard.
A magnet for partying teenagers, Smathers Beach is Key West's largest and most overpopulated. Despite the number of rowdy teens, the beach is actually quite clean and looks lovely since its renovation in the spring of 2000. If you go early enough in the morning, you may notice people sleeping on the beach from the night before.
Higgs Beach is a favorite among Key West's gay crowds, but what many people don't know is that beneath the sand is an unmarked cemetery of African slaves who died while waiting for freedom. Higgs has a playground and tennis courts, and is near the minute Rest Beach, which is actually hidden by the White Street pier. The sand here is coarse and rocky and the water tends to be a bit mucky but if you can bear it, Higgs is known as a great snorkeling beach. If it's sunbathing you want, skip Higgs and go to Smathers.
Although there is an entrance fee ($6 per car of 2-8, $4 single-occupant vehicle, $2 pedestrians and bicyclists plus 50¢ per person for Monroe County surcharge), I recommend Fort Zachary Beach, as it has a great historic fort, a Civil War museum, and a large picnic area with tables, barbecue grills, restrooms, and showers. Large trees scattered across 87 acres provide shade for those who are reluctant to bake in the sun.
Biking & Mopeding
A popular mode of transportation for locals and visitors, bikes and mopeds are available at many rental outlets in the city. Escape the hectic downtown scene and explore the island's scenic side streets by heading away from Duval Street toward South Roosevelt Boulevard and the beachside enclaves along the way.
One of the area's largest scuba schools, Dive Key West, Inc., 3128 N. Roosevelt Blvd. (tel. 800/426-0707 or 305/296-3823; www.divekeywest.com), offers instruction at all levels; its dive boats take participants to scuba and snorkel sites on nearby reefs.
Key West Marine Park (tel. 305/294-3100), the newest dive park along the island's Atlantic shore, incorporates no-motor "swim-only" lanes marked by buoys, providing swimmers and snorkelers with a safe way to explore the waters around Key West. The park's boundaries stretch from the foot of Duval Street to Higgs Beach.
Wreck dives and night dives are two of the special offerings of Lost Reef Adventures, 261 Margaret St. (tel. 800/952-2749 or 305/296-9737; www.lostreefadventures.com). Regularly scheduled runs and private charters can be arranged. Phone for departure information.
Big news for divers in 2009: The General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 524-foot former U.S. Air Force missile tracking ship, was sunk 6 miles south of Key West to create an artificial reef. For a map of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Heritage Trail, an entire network of wrecks from Key Largo to Key West, go to http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/sanctuary_resources/shipwreck_trail/welcome.html
As any angler will tell you, there's no fishing like Keys fishing. Key West has it all: bonefish, tarpon, dolphin, tuna, grouper, cobia, and more -- sharks, too.
Step aboard a small exposed skiff for an incredibly diverse day of fishing. In the morning, you can head offshore for sailfish or dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), and then by afternoon get closer to land for a shot at tarpon, permit, grouper, or snapper. Here in Key West, you can probably pick up more cobia -- one of the best fighting and eating fish around -- than anywhere else in the world. For a real fight, ask your skipper to go for the tarpon -- the greatest fighting fish there is, famous for its dramatic "tail walk" on the water after it's hooked. Shark fishing is also popular.
You'll find plenty of competition among the charter-fishing boats in and around Mallory Square. You can negotiate a good deal at Charter Boat Row, 1801 N. Roosevelt Ave. (across from the Shell station), home to more than 30 charter-fishing and party boats. Just show up to arrange your outing, or call Garrison Bight Marina (tel. 305/292-8167) for details.
The advantage of the smaller, more expensive charter boats is that you can call the shots. They'll take you where you want to go, to fish for what you want to catch. These "light tackles" are also easier to maneuver, which means you can go to backcountry spots for tarpon and bonefish, as well as out to the open ocean for tuna and dolphinfish. You'll really be able to feel the fish, and you'll get some good fights, too. Larger boats, for up to six or seven people, are cheaper and are best for kingfish, billfish, and sailfish. For every kind of fishing charter you can imagine, from flats and offshore to backcountry and wreck fishing, call Almost There Sportfishing Charters (tel. 800/795-9448; www.almostthere.net).
The huge commercial party boats are more for sightseeing than serious angling, though you can be lucky enough to get a few bites at one of the fishing holes. One especially good deal is the Gulfstream III (tel. 305/296-8494; www.keywestpartyboat.com), an all-day charter that goes out daily from 11am to 4:30pm. You'll pay $55 for adults, $52 for seniors, $35 for kids 11 and under, and the price includes rod, bait, tackle, and license. This 65-foot party boat usually has at least 30 other anglers. Bring your own cooler or buy snacks onboard. Beer and wine are allowed.
Serious anglers should consider the light-tackle boats that leave from Oceanside Marina, on Stock Island at 5950 Peninsula Ave., 1 1/2 miles off U.S. 1 (tel. 305/294-4676). It's a 20-minute drive from Old Town on the Atlantic side. There are more than 30 light-tackle guides, which range from flatbed, backcountry skiffs to 28-foot open boats. There are also a few larger charters and a party boat that goes to the Dry Tortugas. Call for details.
For a light-tackle outing with a very colorful Key West flair, call Captain Bruce Cronin (tel. 305/294-4929; www.fishbruce.com) or Captain Ken Harris (tel. 305/731-4907; www.kwextremeadventures.com), two of the more famous (and pricey) captains working these docks for more than 20 years. You'll pay from $750 for a full day, usually about 8am to 4pm, and from $500 for a half-day. For a comprehensive list of Florida Keys fishing guides go to www.ccaflorida.org/guides/keys_guides.html.
Reel Deals -- When looking for the best deals on fishing excursions, know that the bookers from the kiosks in town generally take 20% of a captain's fee in addition to an extra monthly fee. You can usually save yourself money by booking directly with a captain or by going straight to one of the docks.
A relative newcomer in terms of local recreation, golf is gaining in popularity here, as it is in many visitor destinations. The area's only public golf club is Key West Golf Club (tel. 305/294-5232; www.keywestgolf.com), an 18-hole course at the entrance to the island of Key West at MM 4.5 (turn onto College Rd. to the course entrance). Designed by Rees Jones, the course, which was renovated in 2008, has plenty of mangroves and water hazards on its 6,526 yards. It's open to the public and has a new pro shop. Call ahead for tee-time reservations. Rates are $95 per player during off-season and $165 in season, or $70 off-season and $95 in season after 2:30pm, including cart.
Housed in a woodsy wine bar, Mosquito Coast Outfitters, 1017 Duval St. (tel. 305/294-7178; www.mosquitocoast.net), operates a first-rate kayaking and snorkeling tour every day as long as the weather is mild. The tours depart at 9am sharp and return around 3pm. Included in the $60 price are snacks, soft drinks, and a guided tour of the mangrove-studded islands of Sugar Key or Geiger Key, just north of Key West. The tour is primarily for kayaking, but you'll have the opportunity to get in the water for snorkeling, if you're interested. A new 2-hour tour called the Doggie Paddle Tour allows you to bring your furry friend along.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.