Favorite Weekend Cruise: Biscayne Bay

There are two types of sailors: those who live for turquoise waters, sandy beaches and great sailing, and those who live for fabulous restaurants, trendy neighborhoods, convenient marinas…and great sailing. Of course, both types often sail together, and Biscayne Bay, Florida, is one of those rare places that manages to suit both fancies. In Biscayne Bay you can overnight in solitude off a sandy beach, wake up and go lobstering, spend a vigorous day sailing in a large protected bay, then tie up your boat with multimillion-dollar megayachts and go celebrity-watching at the trendiest of restaurants.

Biscayne Bay is a good 40 miles long, but only 8 miles wide. Bordered by the city of Miami to the west, its ocean side is protected by Miami Beach, Virginia Key, Key Biscayne and a series of smaller keys ending with the six-mile-long Elliot Key. Much of the ocean-side land is part of the Biscayne National Park and is thus protected from development.

Because it’s in south Florida, you can expect warm winter weather with great winds and little rain. The keys and reef to the east keep the wave action down while letting the breeze in, so you get fast flat-water sailing. It’s no wonder so many racing teams do their winter training here.

Photo by JH PetersonLast winter, I anchored near South Beach (SoBe), at the eastern end of the Venetian Causeway. This popular spot offers easy shore access where I found excellent public transportation. Close by, there were dozens of great pubs and restaurants, two large grocery stores, a hardware store, numerous parks, a public golf course, a theater and primo access to the Miami Boat Show. The people-watching was always first class, and you never know—maybe that was Madonna.

When I tired of the SoBe scene, I’d sail to No Name Harbor at the south end of Key Biscayne. This man-made harbor, a favorite with Bahama-bound cruisers, had a beach-side Laundromat, a pub that served el Presidente beer, great walking trails and yet more entertaining people-watching.

If I wanted something more rustic, I would sail to Boca Chita Key. There was no anchoring permitted inside this basin, so I’d tie up to the concrete wall and pay the fee at the honor boxes. There were excellent walking trails and an incredible view from the lighthouse. On the north side, there was superb snorkeling in about 20 feet of water with plenty of reef fish, lobsters and the occasional six-foot-wide spotted ray leaping from the water.

If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, flee Boca Chita on the weekends (it becomes party central) and sail to Elliot Key. There is nothing here but mangroves, palm trees and long, lovely beaches. You can anchor out, close your eyes, and before you know it, be on island time without the customs fees.

This season, I discovered the Dinner Key anchorage in Miami, which was vibrant and active, but without the SoBe glitz. The anchorage can get crowded, but is well protected from most directions and again, you’ll meet a cast of characters ranging from Tristan Jones look-alikes in ragtag scows to the most respectable of snowbirds in spiffy new yachts. It’s tough to get ashore here, so you can opt instead for a visit to Dinner Key Picnic Island Park. This little island is just a short row from the anchorage, and you’ll often find fellow cruisers enjoying its small beach, trails and dock.  

Sadly, 2012 marked the end of Jimbos, long a Biscayne Bay landmark. Hidden in Lamar Lake on Virginia Key, this low-rent hideaway made Key West look normal. The bar was inside a corrugated steel container, and there were no seats—just communal picnic tables where you could find everything from travelers to transvestites, pretenders to poseurs, and a few others I couldn’t identify. The Friday night I discovered Jimbos, two other groups were there too: middle-age swingers and frat boys with their pledges. Jimbos was the stuff of legends.

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