About the Virginia Key Outdoor Center
Virginia Key Outdoor Center (VKOC) was a full service outdoor recreation center. We offered equipment rentals, lessons, private and group tours, corporate outings, private parties and the best kayak and paddleboard tours in town.
Virginia Key Outdoor Center was shut down by the City of Miami. For more details see our Protect Virginia Key page.
Virginia Key Outdoor Center (VKOC) is a social enterprise/family business. Our founder, Esther Alonso-Luft, started VKOC as what she calls a later in life revelation. What does this mean? Simple, Esther identified a in need our community and set forth to fill the void. Today, VKOC hosts the most sought after events and programs in South Florida.
Esther, a Cuban native, came to the US at the age of 5 with her mother, godparents and younger sister. Her parent were counterrevolutionaries forced to leave the island when her father was identified by the Cuban military as a threat to the revolution. He was able to enter the states through Mexico and received asylum. Others in his group were not as fortunate. Several were jailed and executed. Only he and his brother-in-law were able to be smuggled out of Cuba to the safety only the United States could provide.
Her mother was left with two young children in a hostile environment. Her uncle, a communist, secured papers for her mother to immigrate to Spain. As with many other ruptured relationships caused by political ideology; the day the family left Cuba was the last time they communicated with the communist uncle. Spain proved to be humbling but cathartic experience. When one stage of life ends another begins. Fast forward through a colorful life and we reach present day. Parents are now gone, sister is a successful and important member of our community, children came and grew into well rounded adults and for Esther, it was time to do something she felt passionate about. Nothing comes easy without a trust fund. Often even that is insufficient. Through the spirit or perseverance and rebirth passed on by her mother, a little bit of pirate spirit from her father, and today we can all enjoy what will be known as the epicenter of Miami. Because whether you know it yet or not, Virginia Key is the center of the universe.
Why Virginia Key?
Esther developed a great love for nature and the outdoors. As a child on a 4th grade field trip she discovered the Everglades. Atop an air boat, gliding over the sawgrass, her hair flying in the wind it was worth every tangled knot she took home that day. It was the start of a lifetime passion for nature. Life happens and responsibilities are addressed. Leisure and passion take a back seat to duties. Then, just like that, there's a moment in time that reconnects everything. For Esther it was a divorce. With three young children and a busy career in the legal field she found she had ignored herself. Trips to the beach with the children, fishing trips, and eventually SCUBA diving became part of life for her young family. A kickboxing accident left her with a ruptured eardrum which ultimately ended her SCUBA diving days. What do you do once you have identified what fulfills you in life but goes away? Well, you take the lessons your mother taught you and you redefine yourself. In 2006 Esther started kayaking. Joined by a friend, Wayne Albert, who would become her life partner and a fine and accomplished kayaker in his own right, Esther found watersports above the surface of the sea. Thanks to Miles McDermott and his Miami Kayak Club, great instructors from the old Kayak Jeff's in Dania (Lissette and Michael) the would be couple started their journey into paddlesports.
Trips were last minute, instruction was limited, available equipment was outdated and inadequate. Despite the best efforts of Kayak Jeff his small shop only lasted a few years before the economy tanked. But Esther and Wayne still loved to kayak. Paddle boards had just entered the scene back then too. Surfskis were making a comeback. It was a great time to help grow the sport they had come love. The amazing people they met along the way served to further ignite this passion. Wayne turned towards open water and long distance racing. Esther went back to the Everglades. With amazing new friends who shared their passions the couple went on to build a formidable following. In 2012 Esther opened The Paddle House. An unexpected visit from an entourage from Shake-A-Leg Miami opened opportunities to offer tours from a set location and help a worthwhile organization. This was the beginning of a social enterprise. In 2015, Virginia Key Outdoor Center opened its doors. With a mission to connect urban dwellers to the great Florida outdoors Virginia Key became the perfect location for this venture. An island in recovery, a gateway to the wilds of Florida, a place to engage with nature in very meaningful and approachable ways made Virginia Key Outdoor Center Miami's gateway to the outdoors.
She didn't want another rental concession with ill fitting kayaks and paddleboards or oversized life jackets. Esther didn't want to offer marginal instruction and a hap-hazardous experience. So off we go to build a legacy. Together with her now adult children, their friends and support of family; Esther bid farewell to the legal field and set out to build Miami's premier outdoor recreation center. "Life happens to us all.When we fall we stand up, dust it off and move on to a different path. When we do good we can take in the fruits of our labor. When we mess up we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. What we do with our failures is what sets us apart from the rest of the herd. With passion, commitment, perseverance, and good dose of crazy we can turn our passions into something great for all to enjoy." Today, Virginia Key Outdoor Center offers top quality rentals of kayaks, paddleboards, surfskis, and bicycles.
At VKOC you can learn to paddle in a beautiful sheltered lagoon. One of the few places where flatwater is available year round. With the ocean just a two-minute paddle away visitors can kayak and paddle in the Atlantic, visit white sand beaches, or explore mangroves and observe avian and marine life. A highly sought after summer program offers fishing instruction including identification and conservation. Manatees migrate to this primitive area every year from October through March allowing exceptional viewing and educational opportunities. Birds abound. Adventure awaits on the water and on the man-made mountain bike trails constructed and maintained by Bernard "Frenchy" Riviere the Virginia Key Bicycle Club. Family programs and monthly shoreline cleanups are available. This amazing place fulfills a mission to connect children to the outdoors, and adults too. An important resource for our tourism industry,
VKOC showcases the best of Miami. From thoughtful stewardship of our natural resources visitor to Miami are already extending their stays and making Virginia Key their go to destination for the outdoors in South Florida. This is only the beginning. As stewards of this environment we must all do our part to protect life around us. Whether its the native forest, habitat restoration, creating responsible public access or educating generations VKOC is committed to Miami, its residents and visitors to provide a place where nature and city meet. In harmony with consideration for this exceptional slice of history preserved in one park for all generation to enjoy.