So you’ve decided to visit an island on your next getaway, and now you need to decide which one and what to do when you arrive there. You can luxuriate in a chic resort, or you can spend several nights on a yacht. You can sunbathe on crystalline beaches, sip frozen drinks, dance to steel-drum music and buy trinkets at bazaars, or you can explore the best of what nature has to offer.
This is your lucky day. City & Shore has assembled a list of suggestions where you can do a little of all the above while seeking a lot of land and water adventures in South Florida’s island backyard.
By David Raterman and Mark Gauert
To the end of the road, and back, in Key West
Follow U.S. 1 south, past the crocodile crossings, glass-bottom boat rides, lobster traps, Key deer sanctuaries, overseas highways and dwarf mangroves, and you will eventually come to a fork in the road in Key West.
Either way – left or right – ends up at One Duval Street. It’s as far as you can go here, at least without a boat.
Boats arrived here first, of course. A cistern at the Pier House Resort & Spa watered and refreshed Spanish galleons long ago. The comfortable Pier House today offers far more than just water to guests overlooking the beach and harbor from suites, bars and restaurants. The elegant Spa at the Pier House offers far more than just refreshment now, too, with Milk & Honey Re-Hydrating Treatments, Sea Foam Envelopments and Deep-Tissue massages on the veranda.
“This is home for me,’’ says Lee DeForrest, the Pier House Concierge, a Pittsburgh native who moved to Key West from Phoenix in 2008.
He’s happy to share his home with anyone else who’s followed the road to its end.
Looking for a good restaurant within walking distance?
Try the Roof Top Café on Front Street for the view; or the high-end Pisces on Simonton Street, for the food and service; or Latitudes over on Sunset Key for the sunsets; or Grunts Island Grill, a new one on Caroline Street that’s getting a lot of buzz. He can also recommend a few places that locals like, he says, picking his words carefully, “if you don’t mind some unpredictable service.”
Something to do before dinner?
He recommends the Wind & Wine Sunset Sail, operated by Danger Charters at the Westin marina. In soft light, sea breeze in the sails and David Gray singing on Pandora – not to mention eight wines to sip with hors d’oeuvres – this cruise isn’t really about the sunset. It’s about the afterglow.
Back on land, we walk up Duval to Caroline Street and the buzz-worthy Grunts Island Grill. There is, indeed, a wait for a table here, but so worth it later on the outdoor patio under the stars, over plates of Lobster Mac & Cheese and Key lime pie.
All well remembered, long after the drive back from the end of the road.
— Mark Gauert
Pier House Resort & Spa, 1 Duval St., Key West, 305-296-4600, pierhouse.com.
Danger Charters, all boats docked at The Westin Key West Resort & Marina, at the corner of Whitehead and Greene Streets in Key West, 305-304-7999, dangercharters.com.
Grunts Island Grill, 409 Caroline St., Key West, open for dinner, closed Mondays. Reservations, 443-534-4021.
Horseback Riding in Turks and Caicos
Riding a horse in the tranquil, translucent water off the island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos might be the most fantastic adventure of your life.
“It’s total euphoria,” Marilyn Roberson says. “My first time we were riding to the beach where everything was so beautiful, and suddenly our horses went in the ocean, saddles and all!”
Roberson, an accountant who flies directly to Providenciales from Miami, books beach excursions with Provo Ponies.
“When you’re sitting on the horse, water goes up to your mid-thigh, so it’s not too deep,” she says. “The water is crystal clear, and you can see straight down to the bottom.”
Provo Ponies, owned by an American expat, leads groups of up to 12 riders. The horses carry them from quiet paved roads to Providenciales’ Long Bay Beach, awash with conch and other shells, which is designated for horseback riding. At low tide, riders can gallop down its four-mile stretch.
— David Raterman
Ocean Club Resorts
Provo Ponies: 800-457-8787, provoponies.com
Scuba diving off St. Croix
Scuba diving is perhaps the Caribbean’s most iconic adventure thanks to the gin-clear waters, myriad wrecks and reefs and a fantastic variety of fish and sea mammals.
Fort Lauderdale’s Sean de Vosjoli recently island-hopped from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where he has lived the past year and a half, so he and his buddies could embark on a unique, depth-defying dive.
“I flew in a seaplane to St. Croix, and then we went on an excursion to dive the wall where the north shore drop-off is 13,000 feet just a few hundred yards offshore,” De Vosjoli says. “It’s a reef wall all the way past where the sun stops. It’s really intense.”
De Vosjoli is an open-water (basic) recreational diver. He says this dive is not necessarily for advanced divers. “But you have to go with some experienced divers who know the wall, because it gets very disorienting. It’s peaceful but nerve-wracking, like skydiving.”
The deeper he and his instructor descended the less sure De Vosjoli was of being “upside down or right side up. Once the wall starts fading, you don’t know what direction you’re going. There was the psychological fear of going down and down and down.”
Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa
Getting scuba certified on Aruba
If you’re not yet scuba certified – dive operators require that you show your certification before boarding their boats – then set aside the first days of your getaway so you can earn it. Or embark on a “discover” scuba adventure in which an instructor almost literally holds your hand. And sometimes your fin.
Many dive shops in the Caribbean Basin offer these two options. One is JADS Dive Center on Aruba, a Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela.
“The hard way takes three full days and includes theory, confined exercise and open-water dives,” owner Rudolf Ulloa says.
If you don’t have the time or patience for that, you can take the “discover” trip.
“You do not get certified, but you do a dive all the way to 40 feet, if you are comfortable and have gone through a series of exercises in shallow water,” Ulloa says. “It’s one of the most satisfying programs. You take people who have never dived and show them the most alien world for us humans.”
For newbie divers off Aruba, the Attilla is popular. The German 400-foot merchant ship, scuttled in wartime 1940, lies 50 feet below the surface.
“This is a shallow dive with almost year-round calm waters and lots of life,” Ulloa says. “Other than the sheer size of the boat, the fact that she has been under water for almost 75 years has given nature time to grow a huge amount of corals on her, from little brain corals to massive fans.”
Ulloa has come across schools of goatfish, sea turtles, giant dog snappers, moray eels and tiny spotted drum fish and more at the site.
For information about scuba certification and dive trips, call the JADS Dive Center at 011-297-584-6070 or visit jadsaruba.com.
Swimming in a cenote near the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya isn’t an island, technically, but it feels as exotic as one.
Located on the edge of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the region is dotted with cenotes, which are deep sinkholes with water at the bottom. In some, the water sculpted caves over millions of years, forming rivers. One is Rio Secreto, which is about 20 minutes inland by car.
“Rio Secreto is pristine, enchanting and a bit scary,” says Holly Zawyer, a Miami resident who recently visited the cenote. “It’s not touristy – no lights in there, just on your helmets – so it feels like you and your group are exploring it for the first time.
“Swimming through it is one of the top things I’ve ever done in my life.”
With a handful of friends and a guide, she was driven over a dirt road to a staging area and then hiked a forest to reach Rio Secreto.
“To incorporate Mayan culture, we visited with a shaman for an ancient ritual,” Zawyer says. “Your guide tells you about the pieces you use and they bless you before you go into the cenote.”
At the hole, she says, they hiked down a deep slope to an immense room filled will stalactites and stalagmites, and the floor was largely dry, she says. After gazing around, they began hiking. Minutes later the water was at their ankles before inching up to their knees. Eventually they were swimming.
“It was kind of crazy swimming and spelunking at the same time,” Zawyer says. “I was a bit nervous.”
Grand Sirenis Resort & Spa
paddleboarding off Aruba
If you visit Aruba, try a cool, relatively new outdoor sport. The region’s flat water makes an ideal surface for stand-up paddleboarding, where you balance on a slightly altered surfboard and paddle to move.
On the south side of the island is Spanish Lagoon, where Aruba Surf & Paddle Board School leads waterway tours.
“Paddleboarding looks really easy, but once you hop on a board, you’ll find you need instruction,” instructor Dennis Martinez says. “People start paddling with a proper stroke within 30 to 40 minutes.”
Martinez has taught paddleboarders ranging in age from 5 to 78.
His favorite tour lasts 80 minutes and takes people into the ocean. After shoving off the sand, they paddle down the beach and along rocks, gliding over fish and sea grasses.
Part of the route includes gliding through a canal where paddleboarders can see blue herons, white storks, pelicans, Aruban eagles known as wara-waras – and iguanas.
“When you hear a big splash at the edges of the mangrove it’s often an iguana jumping in the water,” Martinez says. “Pretty cool. They swim fast.”
During the ride Martinez explains to the paddleboarders how this area teems with ancient artifacts, many still hidden.
“Forty-five hundred years ago,” he says, “Aruba’s first immigrants came here, Indians from South America. Archaeologists have found skeletons, village sites and tools.”
Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa, 888-673-8036, Manchebo.com