Among Florida’s many beautiful islands, Virginia Key hardly earns a mention.
It’s the first island you reach heading across the Rickenbacker Causeway from downtown Miami to Key Biscayne, but Virginia Key was the sort of island where Miami put things it needed but wanted to hide. A beach here was reluctantly designated in the 1940s “for the exclusive use of Negroes” and a sewage treatment plant was built here in the 1950s.
Today, however, Virginia Key is being thoughtfully preserved as a recreational center with beaches and mountain-biking trails, and, as I discovered recently, it is a hidden treasure for those who like to explore by kayak.
Your Virginia Key kayak outing includes an amazing combination – the most stunning views possible of the Miami skyline rising out of the glassy waters of Biscayne Bay on one side and, in the other direction, quiet mangroves lagoons with water so clear you can see fish darting underneath and rays resting in the seagrass. Along the way, there are plenty of birds and a chance to spot dolphins, manatees and sharks.
My favorite thing: The old Miami Marine Stadium, an icon of Mid Century Modern architecture, now shuttered and looking like the graffiti-covered vestige of a lost civilization. (And – hurray! – the stadium will be saved. More on that later.)
It’s a surprising combo of natural and manmade beauty and it’s accessible to millions of urban dwellers.
Planning your Virginia Key kayak outing
You can make your kayak trip at Virginia Key a challenge or an easy day on the water. If you want to circumnavigate the island, it’s about six miles, and you are likely to face some wind and waves.
If you want a shorter experience – and I did — you want to concentrate on the northwest quadrant of the island, the side of the island that faces downtown Miami and the port. In a relaxed, three-hour trip, we paddled by the Miami Marine Stadium, had a picnic on a picturesque sand-fringed island and delved into Virginia Key’s beautiful interior mangrove lagoons.
We launched from Hobie Beach, which is on your right immediately after the causeway reaches Virginia Key. Parking is free here but spaces can get scarce. The downside to this launch site: Paddling under the busy fishing bridge that parallels the causeway, with hooks and lines flying, and the choppy conditions around the bridge.
We discovered what we think is a better launch site: The Miami Rowing Center, which is the second left once you reach Virginia Key. The rowing center makes use of the large basin constructed for power-boat racing when the stadium was built in 1963. It has a large parking lot and you must carry your kayak about 80 yards to launch. It is adjacent to the Mast Academy, but does not share a driveway with Mast. (Please note: I’ve called and emailed, but Miami Rowing Center has not responded to discuss kayak launching from here. It is a City of Miami public facility, however.)
A trip highlight: The Miami Marine Stadium
Whether you launch from the beach or the Miami Rowing Center, you’ll want to paddle past the Miami Marine Stadium, which ranks as “one of the world’s great places,” according to Don Worth, who helped co-found the save-the-stadium effort six years ago.
The long-shuttered 6,500-seat stadium is covered with a huge wavy origami-like concrete roof that, when built, was the longest span of cantilevered concrete in the world, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Look west and you see the skyline of Miami rising above the water.
That view of Miami is magic: “Do you remember in the Wizard of Oz, when you first see the Emerald City emerging from the fields?” Worth says. “It’s like that: It takes your breath away.”
Built in 1963 to house speed-boat racing at a time when America was in love with powerboats and water skiing, it once drew large crowds. At its heyday, it hosted mid-century icons such as President Richard Nixon (who owned a house on Key Biscayne), Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley, whose movie “Clambake” was filmed here.
Later Gloria Estefan performed here and the fact that the stage was on a floating platform seemed magical to “an island girl,” Estefan has said. At Jimmy Buffet’s 1985 concert here, the basin was filled with sailboats, rafts and swimmers, and Buffet famously joined them with a leap from the stage into the water at concert’s end.
But by the time Hurricane Andrew walloped Miami in 1992, the stadium had entered its “white elephant” phase, Worth said.
City leaders said the stadium was too damaged by Andrew to be repaired and it never re-opened. It sat empty for 20 years, attracting graffiti artists, trespassing skateboarders, lovers of architecture and photographers.
Finally, the grassroots effort to save the stadium determined the hurricane damage was not serious and supporters began a determined effort to save it.
That effort is achieving critical mass this year. Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Buffet and an expanding group of supporters are working to raise the $30 million needed to restore it. They’ve already raised $10 million, Worth said.
In the meantime, the best way to see the stadium is from the water and, if you ask me, by kayak.
Virginia Key’s natural assets
NOTE: Two years after paddling in this area I received an email from the Florida Wildlife Commission explaining that the mangrove area described below is off limit to all boats because it is a Critical Wildlife Area. Here’s a map showing those boundaries. There were no signs when I was here, but I was told there are buoys marking off the entrance.
Once you leave the Miami Marine Basin and follow the shore east, the water gets shallow and the sandy bottom is covered with a thick carpet of healthy sea grass. (It may be too shallow to kayak at extreme low tide.) Hundreds of tiny mangroves are trying to sprout here. The water is so clear we spotted and followed along with a ray with a remora attached to its back.
If you follow the shoreline, you’ll come to an inlet into the mangroves. At first, we expected it to be quite short, but it widened into a beautiful lagoon, where the water was deeper, very clear and where egrets, heron and osprey were enjoying the raw bar. This section of Virginia Key is a stopover for migrating shore birds and a bird rookery.
We paddled on through mangrove tunnels and lagoons into Virginia Key’s interior – a wild and natural world where only the distant sound of jet skis reminds you where you are. The trail reaches a dead end in about a third of a mile.
After the inlet, you can continue west along the mangrove-lined shore past more mangrove islands and reach an even larger lagoon.
Virginia Key Park
Once on land,if you choose to go to Virginia Key Park, admission is $6. The beach and adjacent shaded picnic area are obviously very popular. Mountain biking trails opened in 2013 and even at 5 p.m. on a weekend day, the parking lot for the trail had 50 cars. Yelp reviews are evidence of how much the fat-tire crowd loves Virginia Key.
- More background on Virginia Key and its redevelopment
- Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium
- Video featuring stadium architect Hilario Candela by the National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Instagram photographers capture Miami Marine Stadium
Miami Rowing Center
3601 Rickenbacker Causeway
Miami, FL 33149
Hobie Island Beach Park
3301 Rickenbacker Causeway
Miami, FL 33149