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Key West is an island by definition, so you might think there'd be beaches with crashing waves. Not so. Key West , like the rest of the Florida Keys is not known as a 'beach destination' There is a good reason for this: America’s only living coral reef (and the world’s third longest barrier reef). The barrier reef does it’s job of protecting the Florida Keys from large ocean waves. There is no surfing in Key West because there is no surf. Without those big waves hitting the Keys, the mechanism required for creating sand naturally is missing. Most beaches in the Keys are man-made for this reason.It's best that first-timers have to know what to expect, so not to find themselves disappointed. It's better to enjoy Key West for what it is, and plan your beach time for another trip.
That said, check out Fort Zachary Taylor Beach. It's part of a state park, and you'll pay a nominal fee to enter. The beach is decent though not large, and the facilities are fine. On the other side of the island, over toward the airport, is Smather's Beach. This is a large beach right along the road. Many locals and tourists use the 2.5 mile sidewalk for their early morning run or walk or just to take in the sunrise. Smather's Beach is very crowded during spring break and Easter weekend. You'll find other small beaches around the island (Higgs Beach, Dog Beach, South Beach) and some attached to hotel properties. Emphasis on the word, "small." If you are military, Coast Guard, or Florida Law Enforcement, you can use the two beaches on the naval installations (Patio Beach located west of the Southernmost Point on Truman Annex and Boca Chica Beach located on the base at the 8 MM).
Another way to get to a beach when visiting Key West is to take a ferry out to Fort Jefferson; the beaches around the historic fort are lovely and the snorkeling is the best - be sure to circumnavigate the fort with mask and snorkel. You can get there by ferry, seaplane or private charter. Don't miss the tour of the fort if you are interested in history; this one is compelling.You can also camp overnight at Fort Jefferson - but you must bring everything you need including water.
There are plenty of other things to do in and around the water. There are plenty of boats available to take you snorkeling. Sebago is a large catamaran that will take you to the reef. Floridays is a 60 foot yacht that does snorkel trips to the reef with less people than the big catamarans. On a good day, the snorkeling is very pleasant. There's boating and fishing as well, and plenty of cruises that can take you out to enjoy those sunsets. Kayaking is also great in Key West, specifically because the islands are so sheltered and the waters are so calm and clear. Take an eco-tour of the mangroves and shallow backcountry "flats" and you will learn the reasons Key West is NOT a beach destination, but so much more!
If you find the Key West beaches a disappointment, travel back up the keys to Bahia Honda State Park. The beach there is quite good but still no waves.