INTRO - The Florida Keys, a flat water paradise littered with sandbars, waist deep waters, luxury living and more non-wind activities than you could possibly fit into one trip. And we're not talking the boring museum variety. Jim Gaunt samples the action holiday heaven, Islamorada, a six hour drive but feels like a world away from Disneyland.
I drove down from Orlando to Islamorada in September for a few days after the Surf Expo trade show with Kiteworld US rep, Brian, to unwind and check out an area that has long demanded a big pin on the kitesurfing map. Loaded with kiting toys and a thirst for getting wet after three long days in a trade show hall, we had looked at the map for an idea of how to best fill the four day window before I had to be in the UK. The Keys was the top option, with a quick drive-through Miami's famous South Beach along the way to tick that box off the must-see list.
Once you start to leave the mainland on Highway 1, you'll make your way through the series of dotted islands linked in a chain by huge, arcing bridges. Fishing and diving country, the highway is flanked by bait and dive essentials outlets as well as charter companies and schools. Everything is right on the side of the highway and now and again you get a glimpse through the trees of the water close-by on either side. It soon dawns on you that is seems like you haven't actually seen another road joining the highway for ages, which seems strange; turn off the highway and you're at your destination, which is also why bars and shops line the highway between the shady palm trees alongside a great many resort entrances. Turn through their gates and down the driveways and luxurious ocean front properties as well as more budget accommodation appear. This place is set up for the holidaymaker, but as everything is in a straight line and spread out, it feels quiet and peaceful without a 'town centre' cluttering it up as such.
That is until you get to Key West right at the end of the immense Highway 1. Just 90 miles north of America's most controversial neighbour, Cuba, Key West is a wonderful mix of Cuban influence, peppered with a vibrant mix of laid back Floridians, rebel biker culture, free-spirited party animals and tourists from all over the world, here to sample this unique feel as well as the incredible daily sunset.
Our main focus was on the island of Islamorada, where most kitesurfing has developed. Brad Lang, owner of Seven Sports and life long resident, was involved in kitesurfing right back in 1999 and has been instrumental in developing an early instructional set-up in the area. A warm and enthusiastic character, he proudly remembers his early days in the sport, working with Best and explains why Islamorada quickly became recognised as one of the best kiting playgrounds in the country.
'I was already involved in microlight instruction in '99 and was looking at ways to keep that business going. Around the same time I had some friends in the waterski team at college saying, 'Hey, you've got to see what these guys are doing out in the Gorge.' Of course it was Corey Roeseler and his dad flying delta kites and riding on water skis. It wasn't long after that that we got hold of some foil kites, got our old wakeboards out and were instantly hooked. Soon a few more guys started to get involved and we quickly converted our curriculum from the microlight lessons into a kiteboarding programme. The pre-flight set-up, safety, weather systems etc. are all very similar for both activities, so it was pretty easy to implement and we quickly developed a school as we had all the necessary water craft on hand and a great location.'
Brad reels off a lot of vivid, fun stories involving 'months learning to stay upwind, doing six mile downwinders and getting washed up on the shoreline.' They didn't really care about staying upwind as they were having so much fun and had a boat to tow them back anyway. Pretty quickly, Brad tied up with Best in the early days who came on the scene as Shannon Best would spend a lot of time wakeboarding in Florida.
Brad says, 'The first few years were a blast. The industry was small, everyone knew everyone and companies were popping up. Shannon was riding with us a lot down here, Best was born and we did a lot of travelling for good riding and experimenting with new kites. We've watched the progression of the sport and every year kept wondering if it would get bigger the following year. Of course it did and still does.'
However Brad goes about setting up his school these days can only be helped with 'great new products', but also the fact that he's based in a sublime learning environment. Having grown up here, Brad knows the waters inside out.
'This is a learning paradise. People come here from all over the world to learn because you can be a mile offshore and still be able to pick your depth. Being able to learn and stand in waist-deep water really is the best way to the fastest progression in the sport.'
The main kiting seasons in The Keys are fall (autumn, if you're struggling), winter and spring, from October to May. Look out for what's known as a Bermuda High, where a high pressure will sit north of the area and then drop down rotating clockwise, initially producing north winds before clocking nicely round to give the prevailing easterlies. You can find wind all year in The Keys, but in summer time it's much more sporadic and you might only get one day a week to get out and ride. Winter and spring are best.
In terms of kite sizes to pack, as usual, just bring as much as you can, but your mid-range kite is a must. The wind isn't extremely strong, but it is steady. Tens and 12s are used a lot, but of course there will be light days where you'll want to bring out the big kite to get a session in, but you'll use your sevens and nines too, especially right when the front moves in. Once it parks itself in the east you can expect five or six days straight, blowing a steady 15 ? 20 from that direction. We haven't yet mentioned that you'll be kiting in just your boardies. The Keys has a tropical climate and is lovely and hot!
SPOTS AND SANDBARS
Given the nature of the land down here and the numerous islands, you can find a spot to ride in any direction. As the most dominant direction are easterlies, most of the beaches are on the south and southeast of the islands. Most of the main kite spots face southeast, but there are also sandbar options round the back of the island that are great on north or northwest days, too.
There are huge sandbars dotted offshore on both sides of Islamorada and indeed most other islands in the chain, but there are also the odd rocky clusters under the water. The Keys have long been a divers' and snorkelling heaven, so it's advised to wear booties if you're new to the area and unsure of where the sandy sections are, but that's really the only advisory you need to worry about here.
Whale Harbour is the first public access beach you'll come to as you head south, working from north-northeast winds round to southwesterlies. Brad runs 90% of lessons offshore out of Whale Harbour Marina on the huge sandbar opposite. Hundreds of yards long it's sandy and anywhere from ankle to chest deep, depending on the tide and exactly where you are.
Ten miles south of Whale Harbour is Anne's beach, another popular public spot. Safely policed by Otherside kiteboarding school, Anne's is made up mainly of lovely soft sand underfoot (although again it's advised to wear booties if you're not certain you won't have to walk during your session), it's an easy launch, but Otherside then recommended that you head straight out and upwind and within a couple of tacks the riding area will expand hugely. On a busy day you'll see 15 or 20 kites that have made their way out and are happily playing on a huge sandbar in the distance.
Head upwind and round the corner from Anne's and you'll reach an excellent private spot. As much of the Key's waterfront is mainly made up of resorts and houses, you won't be able to launch or land on these spots, but they are all fair riding grounds and, as most areas are no more than chest deep, there's no real need to stop on these properties before you're ready to call an end to your session and head back to the public launch. Of which there are many more, such as Cocoa Plum Beach, Sombrero and Currie Hammock to name just a few. In fact there are five excellent spots in a 22 mile run. Currie Hammock must be one of the sweetest spots around, featuring a grass rigging area, a decent sized beach for launching and landing, on-site bathrooms, refreshments and a playground for kids. The water is butter smooth and the only thing to remember is to stay 100 feet offshore, and you should observe this at all spots in the Keys. Nowhere has huge open beaches for you to bust all your tricks next to, but as it's shallow a long way out, and there are sunbathers on the beaches, there's no reason for you to be that guy who lands his kite in a tree or on a toddler's head. Get out, find space and enjoy yourself.
CAMPING AND KITING
Head a little further south and you'll get to Bahia Honda State Park, another prime kiting spot. The difference here (and with Long Key State Park) is that you have the option of camping right at the kite spot. Wake up and ride, or come in and snooze!
There are some epic downwinders here, the only sections to ride with a bit more caution are the choppy waters when you're crossing the big bridge sections. Other than that, you're game on. Rent a boat with Seven or get them or Otherside to take you on a guided trip with boat support. If you're keen, you can also enjoy night kiting sessions. The moon is so bright here and the water so clear that these sessions kiting over the glowing phosphorescence are really popular. Join an organised group session for safety though. It is still night time, guys!
While showing us the sights from the water on an evening fishing and snorkelling trip, Otherside guide Noel filled us in on some of the rules for kiting. 'You'll be surprised here in Florida!' he began. 'As there are no rules (apart from trying to kite 100 feet offshore at most spots) people seem to have no problem launching their kite directly under power lines. I've even seen a guy wait for cars to pass on the road before running out into the road to launch his kite!' Use your nugget guys; launch in the public kiting zones and then ride to wherever you want to. Kiting is still free in this area, hopefully we can all keep it that way.
YOU'LL NEVER GET SKUNKED IN THE KEYS
Although it's not windy every single day in The Keys, this isn't a bad thing with so much more on offer here. If it's watersports you still crave, then the SUPing here is incredible in the crystal clear waters. Take a board and paddle out to an offshore sandbar with some snorkelling gear and a picnic and you'll never want to come back. Take a jet-ski rental and do a 25 mile tour around the islands. Like fish? Go offshore fishing or, if you're more into looking at them, as we've mentioned, the diving around here is incredible with a host of reefs to choose from. Rent your own boat instead, from centre console offshore fishing vessells to smaller skiffs that you can fill with your friends and head out to a sandbar for your own party. Don't forget to head the 80 miles or so south to mile marker one and Key West, even just for a night. It's quite an experience.
Otherwise, if you're in need of a chill out, then the resorts and rental accommodation options here are as wide ranging as you can imagine. So grab a drink, pull up a beach lounger and just watch the watery world go by.
We flew into Orlando International airport (MCO) and from there it's a six hour drive south. Stopping in at Miami along the way is a fun, visual journey break up. Alternatively, fly into Miami International (MIA), which is just over an hour from Islamorada. You should hire a car in Florida as it's good to be mobile.
It would probably be quicker to list what Seven Sports don't offer! If it's fun on the water you want, they teach it, rent it out or guide you to it, from boats, skis, paddle boards, wakeboarding, fishing trips or kite lessons and of course retail. Operating everything out of Whale Harbour, hit them up for anything in this area.
A smaller, intimate operation, Otherside offer everything from kiteboarding, wakeboarding, wakeskating, fishing and SUPing lessons and retail and do most of their teaching at Anne's Beach. For guidance or help with anything, check them out at:
THE HAMPTON INN
Conveniently located between Whale Harbour and Anne's Beach, the Hampton Inn features clean, comfortable and spacious rooms as well as luxury suites for groups. Facilities include a gym, pool, poolside bar, ocean front loungers and a place to park your boat! Best of all, it's super kite friendly as the manager's actively encourage kiters to stay, making for a great atmosphere.
+1 (305) 664 0073
+1 (305) 664 0073
ISLAMORADA AND FLORIDA KEYS GALLERY
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You Never Get Skunked In The Keys appeared in Kiteworld issue #54.
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