Destination – the Florida Keys - Soundings Online

Destination – the Florida Keys

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The keys may be changing, but they remain some of the most distinctive cruising grounds you’ll find anywhere

The keys may be changing, but they remain some of the most distinctive cruising grounds you’ll find anywhere

The Florida Keys, strung as they are like a jeweled necklace trailing southwestward from mainland Florida, could arguably be called the precious stones of Florida yachting.

 

They are serenely tropical. Ubiquitous coconut palms dot the islands. The water is clear as gin. The weather picture is nearly always chamber-of-commerce perfect, with vistas that stretch away to the horizon. The fishing is just this side of a sure thing, every time. And the anchorages you find off the beaten path will make you want to linger until your holding tank is full and your water tank is empty. Dawdling can get to be a habit in the Keys. So much to see and do, so little time.

The Keys themselves are as diverse as opinions from the Supreme Court. However, the one aspect they share is that they are all low-lying islands. Some of the Keys have an exciting array of flora and fauna, while others aren’t much more than rock, marl and mangrove. Where facilities that yachtsmen need are plentiful — grocery stores, marine repair yards, restaurants and the like — it’s a sure sign that the islands have a long-held allure for human habitation. You will note this in particular from Key Biscayne (technically not part of the Keys) to Marathon.

From Marathon to Key West, the number of stopping-off places with amenities thins considerably. Going across the “top” of the Keys — the Florida Bay/ Gulf of Mexico side, that is — there are few, if any, places to stop for fuel or amenities the entire way. It is a function of landscape, not of economics. Key West, of course, has everything any cruiser might need … and a slew of things most cruisers have never thought of or seen before. The unexpected — some might say totally weird — is part of Key West’s particular charm.

The Keys, however, are a-changing. Not for the better, not for the worse, just different. The additive is “Big Money.” Some marinas, particularly in the Upper Keys, have been snapped up by real estate developers looking for a footprint by the water on which to place condos or townhouses. Waterfront property in Florida will always have allure. As a result, transient marine facilities are becoming an endangered species in the Upper Keys, as well as elsewhere in the Sunshine State.

To be truthful, though, not all the marinas slated for conversion catered to deep pockets, so some of the losses are minimal. One dockmaster in Key Largo, detailing the amenities his marina offered, said, “Don’t forget the deli meat corner; we have Slim Jims.” This was a marina wherein a northerly wind would make intercessory prayers mandatory. It will not be missed.

Skippers cruising the Keys have two primary routes to follow, with a reasonable crossover point, Moser Channel, at Marathon. The deep-water route inside the reefs is Hawk Channel, on the Atlantic side. On days of fair weather this route is straightforward. If the winds are southerly or southeasterly, Hawk Channel can get a bit lumpy, but the route is well-marked and used often.

The Florida Bay side, which includes the Intracoastal Waterway, is shallower and makes some interesting turns here and there. In fact, boats that draw more than 5-1/2 feet might just skip the Marathon-to-Jewfish Creek section. There are no guarantees here, even though there are a number of good marinas along this route. If you’re just cruising along and have access to shore with a dinghy, there are some fine stops on this passage. For example, Islamorada has a number of good restaurants, among them Bentley’s, the Islamorada Fish Company, Pierre’s and Cheeca Lodge.

There are two more universal crossover points between the ICW/Florida Bay side and Hawk Channel on the Atlantic side: Snake Creek and Channel 5. Both are “above” Marathon. Other avenues will allow small boats through, but there are some low bridges that are limiting to any vessel of appreciable size.

For marine repairs, Marathon is the place to go. There are four marinas there with the capacity to haul almost any size boat. I’d recommend Marathon Boat Yard because we know the people there and know they are committed to doing good work at a fair price. Oddly, Key West, for all that it offers, can’t compare to Marathon when it comes to repair facilities.

The damage in the Keys caused by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 is mostly repaired. For several months after Wilma, though, some sections of the Keys looked like a junkyard. Appliances — refrigerators, freezers, stoves, hot-water heaters — that were flooded by salt water were dead on the spot and ended up in disorderly heaps in vacant lots or by the roadside. Cars, particularly those in Key West, that got a good soaking were declared total losses and trucked out by the hundreds. You wouldn’t know that today, though, following an extensive cleanup.

As marinas that you can count on still being there when you need them assume more importance, Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina (24 57.896 north/080 34.165 west) is one that cruisers should be able to count on for a long time. That’s because it is municipally owned and won’t succumb to blandishments offered by real estate developers. The marina is an anchor in the Islamorada recreational complex, which offers tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a basketball court, swimming pool and even a swimming beach. And it is one of the few marinas that can cater to larger cruising boats on the entire ICW run from Miami to Marathon. It’s on the southeasterly banks of Cowpens Anchorage.

Thankfully, Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina is on the way back from slightly murky obscurity. A few years back there was less to recommend it. We noticed tacky showers and a “mañana” kind of attitude. Not anymore. It’s a happy occasion to see good strides in the right direction. The Village of Islamorada, which owns this operation, has invested serious money in renovations. The shower/bathroom facilities are first-rate now, as is the laundromat. It once appeared as if this marina would trend toward long-term slip rentals over time, freezing out the transients. That decision either has been countermanded or we just got it wrong. Transients are now part of the overall picture and will continue to be in the foreseeable future.

Depths in the harbor are about 5 feet at the shallowest but deeper elsewhere. What makes this marina unique is the riprap breakwater. If you are on the north side of the Keys and a “norther” comes down — this happens only in the winter — you will thank your lucky stars if you can pull in here and put behind you the rock ‘n’ roll of an anchorage. Some of the 88 slips available have some rebar showing, but we have been assured that it’s a temporary situation. Municipal money fixeth all.

This is a marina that has a lot going for it, particularly a good attitude and good protection from north winds. This place deserves your business, in my opinion, because they strive to earn it. Contact Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina at (305) 852-2381, www.pyh.com .

Farther toward Marathon, Hawk’s Cay Resort and Marina at Duck Key is a great stop on the Hawk Channel side, east of Marathon. The marina is large and has deep-water access to the Atlantic. The hotel there offers just about anything a body could want. This is a first-class resort with first-class prices, too, though deals can be had during the off-season.

Marathon has more plentiful facilities for transients on the Hawk Channel side than on the Florida Bay side. However, Keys Boat Works, a commercial full-service yard with a 50-ton Travelift on the north side of the island, can take care of most repairs. There are no frills here, though. Contact: (305) 743-5583, www.keysboatworks.com .

Faro Blanco, also on the Florida Bay side, has been reducing its services and amenities for several years now. On our last inspection tour the dockmaster’s office was closed and existing docks had been ravaged by Hurricane Wilma. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It’s now being demolished with plans to open a condo resort with a 150-slip marina.

For cruisers, Marathon has excellent marinas in Burdines Marina, (305) 743-5317, www.burdineswaterfront.com; Marathon Marina, (305) 743-5317; and the Marathon Boat Yard, (305) 743-6341, www.marathonboatyard.com. These are reached from the western approach to Boot Key Harbor, Marathon’s popular all-weather anchorage. You can also access Boot Key Harbor directly from the Atlantic and Hawk Channel via Sister Creek, but it requires finesse.

Boot Key Harbor is a marvelous place to stop. The City of Marathon has control of the anchorage, has put out at least 100 dandy moorings, has a pumpout boat, and runs Boot Key Harbor City Marina, where all the fees are collected and where dinghies can dock. Contact them at (305) 289-8877,

www.marathonflorida.org.

Between Marathon and Key West are several places to stop on the Hawk Channel side. Bahia Honda State Park is one. There’s a yacht basin and also lots of space between the old railroad bridge and highway bridge. The current here is strong, so a well-set anchor is mandatory. Ashore at the park, there is little in the way of amenities. It caters more to auto traffic, day trippers and campers than cruisers.

Farther on down the line toward Key West is Newfound Harbor Channel. It’s an open anchorage, and shelter from easterly and southeasterly winds is hard to come by. Also on the Hawk Channel side is Saddlebunch Harbor anchorage, about 1.3 miles north of unlighted daymark 55. There are no facilities here, but it’s pristine.

Before we get to Key West, let’s go back to Marathon and take the Florida Bay route (ICW) across the north side of the islands between Bahia Honda Key and Key West. There are channels too numerous to mention between the islands. Some are doable, others marginal, but most lead to some out-of-the-way anchorages where seeing another boat will be rare. Our guess is that the fishing in these spots is sensational. Some of the places that seem to demand a look are Harbor Channel, Mud Keys Channel, Jewfish Basin and Cudjoe Key Channel. If you get stuck out here and need to call for help, it will throw your budget out of whack for a year, so be careful.

Key West is where everything is over the top. Bars stay open far past any reasonable bedtime, restaurants are everywhere and most are interesting, and tasteless T-shirt shops line the streets. Walking is the best way to get around, and people-watching is world class. There is so much visual candy in Key West that sometimes the sights are just overpowering. This is a party kind of town. Grab the magic ring and let it all hang out.

The four marinas in the Key West Bight — A&B Marina, (305) 294-2535, www.aandbmarina.com; The Galleon, (305) 292-1292, www.galleonresort.com/marina.htm; Conch Harbor, (305) 294-2933, www.conchharbormarina.com ; and the City Marina, www.keywestcity.com — are handy to most of the downtown action, so choices are a matter of personal taste. The newest marina, Conch Harbor, has the most complete facilities, including prime restrooms, a lovely swimming pool, and a poolside bar. There’s another marina at the Hilton, close to Mallory Pier.

We cannot leave Key West without speaking of Michael’s Restaurant at 532 Margaret St. We had the best steak of our lives there one spring evening. Michael’s flies in prime beef daily from Chicago. Dining here is worth the time and the money. The service is elegant, the wine list perfect, the ambience unmatched. And the steak has to be tasted to be believed. Michael’s was recently voted one of the top five restaurants in the Florida Keys. That’s going some. Spending an evening here will indelibly lodge in your memory as it were carved there with a diamond-tipped drill. Enjoy.

If you don’t come back from Key West — or somewhere in the Keys, for that matter — with a story you can dine out on for a couple of years, you just weren’t trying.

For more information about the Florida Keys, contact the Keys tourism bureau at (800) 352-5397 or visit www.fla-keys.com .

Morgan Stinemetz is co-author, with Claiborne Young, of “Cruising the Florida Keys.” The book’s second edition is in bookstores now. Stinemetz also is the author of a series of stories about fictional, renegade sailor Bubba Whartz, who lives aboard the ferro-cement sloop Right Guard in the Sarasota, Fla., area and deals with the hands life deals him in myriad, challenging ways.