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Diana Nyad Honored in Key West for Epic Swim

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

On Labor Day 2013, Diana Nyad walked weakly but determinedly ashore onto Key West’s Smathers Beach — becoming the first person EVER to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Never, ever give up,” said the then-64-year-old Diana, her face swollen and salt-encrusted from the nearly 111-mile swim that she had attempted four times before her Labor Day triumph. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

Diana first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old, swimming with a shark cage. After more than 41 hours of fighting strong currents and huge waves, driven far off course in a physically and mentally debilitating battle, she was lifted into a support boat.

In 2010, after being inspired by her 60th birthday, she tried again. But by the time she had the necessary Cuban government paperwork, her weather window had expired.

In 2011, Diana twice attempted the swim, estimated to take approximately 60 hours, with heartbreaking results both times. She was foiled by shoulder pain and a devastating in-water asthma attack in August 2011, and severe jellyfish stings in September.

During a 2012 attempt, she suffered multiple painful and debilitating stings from box jellyfish despite wearing a protective full-body suit each night.

Diana makes the victory sign after completing  her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana makes the victory sign after completing her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West.

At that point, many people said swimming the grueling distance just wasn’t possible — particularly for a woman in her 60s. But that didn’t stop Diana Nyad.

“All my life I believed in dreaming big — I guess it doesn’t satisfy me to have small dreams,” she said with magnificent understatement.

Just before Labor Day 2013, she tried it again. Buoyed by lessons learned during her previous attempts, supported by a team whose dedication was nearly as strong as her own, she began swimming in Havana at 8:59 a.m. Aug. 31.

“I have had this Cuba swim under my skin since I was a child,” Diana admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. And so you want to be the first.”

At night in the water, she donned the full-body suit, gloves and a specially crafted silicone face mask to protect her from jellyfish. She was accompanied by kayakers with electronic shark repelling devices.

And finally, after swimming continuously for 52 hours and 54 minutes, fighting bouts of nausea and exhaustion, Diana Nyad made it to the welcoming shore of Key West.

Diana hoists a bronze plaque Sept. 1 at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana hoists a bronze plaque at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. The plaque will be installed at Smathers Beach where she came ashore.

Nearly 2,000 people greeted her with cheers and applause as she reached the beach, hugged her best friend and business partner Bonnie Stoll, and lay down on a stretcher so medics could check her physical condition.

“I wanted this swim, this endeavor, not to just be the athletic record,” she said the next day, her face radiating peace and gratitude. “I wanted it to be a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged. Be awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day’.”

On Labor Day 2014, Diana and her team were back in Key West for the unveiling of a bronze plaque recognizing her achievement. It will be installed by the City of Key West on the promenade wall in front of Smathers Beach, close to the spot where she came ashore.

As well as honoring Diana for her amazing physical feat, the plaque honors the mental strength and perseverance that kept her focused on achieving her goal — and will forever be an example for those seeking to fulfill their dreams.

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Savoring the Southernmost Spas

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

Chances are, you need a break. You might be winding up a summer full of too many houseguests and outdoor activities, feeling drained by personal or professional challenges, or simply seeking a rejuvenating breather from real life in the “real world.” But no matter what you need to escape FROM, it makes sense to escape TO the Florida Keys.

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

That’s because the 125-mile island chain offers a rare blend of luxury and easygoing informality, inducing an air of tranquility and relaxation that’s one of the greatest luxuries of all. On your Keys escape, you might choose to stay in a restored Victorian inn behind a white picket fence, or a rustically elegant bed-and-breakfast surrounded by a nature sanctuary. But for the ultimate getaway, there’s nothing like a waterfront spa resort. Let’s face it: a truly relaxing vacation just doesn’t seem complete without a soothing, sinfully sybaritic spa treatment or two. Luckily, you’ll find spa facilities from Key Largo to Key West — many of them housed in tropically elegant full-service resorts with top-level restaurants and beaches lapped by blue water.

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Among them is the Spa at Cheeca Lodge, located at the historic luxury property in Islamorada. Cheeca’s truly amazing spa features a variety of skin care treatments like the luscious Golden Veil facial incorporating passion flower oil (yummy!), massage therapies including the signature Hot Lava Shell offering, a heated lap pool with butler service and private personal fitness sessions. At Hawks Cay Resort, located on a lush 60-acre island just outside Marathon, the pampering possibilities at the 7,000-square-foot Calm Waters Spa include body treatments such as the signature Key Lime Mojito scrub and warm sea stone massage (trust me — it’s guaranteed to make you relax). You’ll also find hydrating facials and salon services, and even a menu of teen services featuring massage, facial and salon treatments.

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay's Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Off the Lower Keys, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a private island offering tropically elegant suites in thatched-roof villas, features the SpaTerre experience. Among the health and beauty treatments are ancient Javanese and Thai rituals, flower-petal bath experiences in a traditional Japanese soaking tub (how could you NOT love that?), facial indulgences and massages including one surrounded by the ocean. (FYI, Little Palm Island is so exotic that movie producers used it as a set for the filming of “PT-109,” portraying Lt. John F. Kennedy’s naval heroics in the South Pacific.) Key West offers a number of spas, both in resorts and independent facilities. Among the absolute standouts is the boutique spa at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, A Westin Resort, located on the 27-acre island of Sunset Key — just across the harbor from Key West’s historic downtown.

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

The spa menu includes traditional and tropical body treatments, facials with hydrating rose products and plant extracts, scrubs and wraps, touch therapy and a blending station where you can create a custom scent for your treatment. And if you’re visiting with that special someone, consider the Sunset Romance package for couples, featuring massages and a champagne dinner in a private beachside cabana. Ready to plan the ultimate indulgent getaway? Then click here for more information on Florida Keys spa and wellness offerings, and prepare to be pampered.

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Dog Days Mean Late-Summer Leisure

Steve Smith | August 2014

As the dog days of summer wind down, here’s a trivia tidbit: this time of year was once believed to be an evil one. According to a book titled “Clavis Calendaria,” published in the early 1800s, the dog days meant “the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid.”

Official "Blog Dog" Giulio shows off his extraordinary jumping skills.

Official “Blog Dog” Giulio is ready to leap into the dog days of summer.

That’s not true here in the Florida Keys, where we find late summer and early fall a great time to take advantage of our sun and sea.

Among the most enjoyable daytime experiences on the water is the Fury Ultimate Express, which is one of the best deals on the island. Jet skiing, parasailing, swimming, playing on giant “water toys” and a ride on the banana boat are part of the fun — and complimentary breakfast and snacks round out the half-day trip.

Sebago Key West offers similar tours that include parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking and paddleboarding — along with breakfast, lunch and beverages.

If you’re not in the mood for the water, the dog days are also great for taking tours of our museums and galleries. The Florida Keys & Key West’s website has sections listing Key West galleries and theaters as well as other attractions ranging from sightseeing excursions to museums such as the historic Custom House Museum.

Parasailing is a perfect late-summer pastime. (Photo courtesy of Fury Catamarans)

Parasailing is a perfect late-summer pastime. (Photo courtesy of Fury Catamarans)

Travel writer Troy Petenbrink recently penned an article highlighting his 12 favorite things to do in Key West. He also put to rest the rumor that we don’t have worthwhile beaches by mentioning Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Smathers and Higgs beaches.

An enjoyable afternoon for Troy included a tour of the Hemingway House, located on Whitehead Street across from the Key West Lighthouse. Hemingway lived there with his wife Pauline for most of the 1930s while writing some of his most notable books. Their home included Key West’s first swimming pool and a basement (a rarity for the island).

Many people forget that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams also called Key West his home — for 30 years. His former residence is located in the Meadows neighborhood on Duncan and Florida streets. Though it’s not open to the public, many visitors take a short bike ride from Old Town to photograph the exterior of the picturesque red-shuttered house.

Key West welcomes couples, singles and groups of women for the lively annual Womenfest festival. (All photos courtesy of Womenfest)

Key West welcomes couples, singles and groups of women for the lively annual Womenfest festival. (Photo courtesy of Womenfest)

On another note, Womenfest 2014 is just around the corner. Scheduled Sept. 4-7, the well-known festival brings several thousand women to Key West each year to experience its magic.

Renowned recording artists Hunter Valentine will be in concert at the historic San Carlos Institute Thursday, Sept. 4, with a meet-the-artists soiree at Aqua nightclub prior to the concert. Comedy shows, pool parties, beach parties, and sunset dinner cruises with Sister Funk round out the schedule.

Whether or not you’ve attended Womenfest in the past, make plans now to be in Key West for the 2014 festivities. And check out the Womenfest website for airfare values from both American and Delta Airlines, as well as values on travel aboard the high-speed Key West Express Ferry operating between Fort Myers Beach and the island city’s Historic Seaport.

See you soon!

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Rick Worth: Painting the Town

Briana Ciraulo | August 2014

It’s hard to imagine Key West without its colorful art scene — without its larger-than-life outdoor murals, charming local galleries and, most important, quirky artists whose creativity enhances the island every day.

Beloved Key West artist Rick Worth paints everything from outdoor murals to fine-art pieces and "art-o-mobiles."  (Photo by Bryan Buckley, courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Beloved Key West artist Rick Worth paints everything from outdoor murals to fine-art pieces and “art-o-mobiles.” (Photo by Bryan Buckley, courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Rick Worth is one of those artists, enthusiastically sharing his love of art with everyone who crosses his path.

Rick moved to America’s southernmost island in the mid 1980s to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist, but it didn’t happen right away. An incredibly handy man, he took a multitude of “odd jobs” — doing maintenance and landscaping for resorts, working at museums and eventually becoming a vocational trainer with the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens.

Eventually, the Key West Art & Historical Society gave him his first studio and the chance to put his artistic skills to use. And those skills produced some of the most enticing, unique art Key West has ever seen.

It all started with his “art-o-mobiles,” imaginatively painted cars whose designs displayed aspects of their owners’ personalities. Rick has adorned cars with depictions of everything from sharks and toucans to lifelike reefs and elaborate nature scenes.

“Before I knew it I had painted over 100 cars in a few years,” he said. “The cars really helped to change the personality of the town.”

What's Rick Worth's advice for his art students? "Just shut up and paint!" (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

What’s Rick’s advice for his art students? “Just shut up and paint!” (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

In addition to attention-grabbing cars, Rick has made his fair share of floats for Fantasy Fest, Key West’s wildly popular October costuming and masking festival. Today he paints from home and shows his work at the island’s Lucky Street Gallery.

About 15 years ago, he started what he calls his most rewarding experience yet: teaching. Over the years, Rick taught art classes in many churches and galleries all over town. Most recently, he’s been teaching “Painting Boot Camp” at The Studios of Key West, a class open to creative spirits of all ages and all experience levels.

“People always think they can’t do this or that, and you know what I say? Shut up and paint!” he advised with a grin.

As well as teaching, Rick is widely credited with helping expand the Key West art scene. Visitors can see many of his large-scale murals on the exteriors of buildings throughout town.

“I did my best to open up the walls in this town to public art,” he said. “I really try to get businesses to donate their walls, spaces — anything.”

His works include a fascinating rooftop vista outside Key West International Airport and a takeoff on a famous portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware on a building at the corner of Olivia and Simonton streets.

Rick's paintings are upbeat, whimsical representations of Key West's culture, diversity, and even canine companions. (Photo courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Rick’s paintings are upbeat, whimsical representations of Key West’s culture, diversity, and even canine companions. (Photo courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Characteristically, Rick put a “Keys twist” on the classic 1851 painting. Titled “Wilhelmina Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge,” it depicts a “Washington” who looks much like the late Florida Keys Mayor Wilhelmina Harvey navigating past the Middle Keys’ landmark bridge.

Iconic Keys elements in the mural include a rainbow United States flag, a boat featuring a multicultural and multiethnic crew, and even a small white dog that resembles Rick’s late canine companion Kido. Overall, the piece is an upbeat, whimsical representation of the island chain’s culture and diversity.

Rick’s sincere personality and care for Key West’s arts community set him apart from many of his creative contemporaries. Passionate about his work and about sharing his knowledge, he would rather provide the town with art than charge high prices for it — and he’s extremely happy with his location and his life at this point.

“I’m just thankful to still be here and alive,” he said simply. “I don’t want to go anywhere; I’m in helpful and loving hands here. My friends have become my family and with them, you can weather just about anything that comes down the road.”

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Who Needs Mutant Ninjas? Keys ‘Hatch’ Turtle Stars

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

Cyberspace may be buzzing over the release of the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, but turtles far younger recently made news in the Florida Keys — and they weren’t mutants OR ninjas.

Baby loggerhead sea turtles emerge from a nest on the Florida Keys beach and are captured by an live streaming webcam, illuminated by infrared lighting. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

Baby loggerhead sea turtles emerge from a nest on a Florida Keys beach and are captured by a live streaming webcam, illuminated by infrared lighting. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

In fact, they were newly-hatched baby loggerhead sea turtles just moments old, and their instinctive rush to the Atlantic Ocean was captured by a live-streaming, high-definition “turtle webcam” set up on an unnamed Keys beach.

The webcam was focused on the nest in the Lower Keys for almost two weeks before about 100 of the 3-inch-long babies erupted from a hole, becoming instant “film stars” like Donatello and his cohorts.

Emerging en masse under dim moonlight, they immediately headed for the Atlantic — scrambling on top of each other, tumbling over and righting themselves, but never losing sight of their objective — in a display of inborn programming that was truly breathtaking.

The camera used infrared lighting so the hatchlings wouldn’t be confused by artificial light and move landward, but instead would be guided by the moonlight reflecting on the water and make a beeline for the ocean.

According to Harry Appel, the president of the Keys-based Save-A-Turtle organization, this was the first time such a webcam was ever used to record a sea turtle hatch.

“This webcam is high-definition, and also an infrared IR-emitting light that is so important because it does not disturb any of the activities of the turtle trying to find the ambient light of the moon,” Harry explained.

Save-A-Turtle helped coordinate the webcam project in partnership with the Florida Keys tourism council, which funded the camera. Naturally, it was approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The location of the camera and the nest were kept secret so curious humans couldn’t interfere with the turtles’ safe hatching and migration to the ocean. The project is part of ongoing efforts in the Keys to raise awareness of sea turtles and the need to protect them.

Marine life artist Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel show off the artwork Wyland created for Save-A-Turtle.

Marine life artist Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle’s Harry Appel show off the artwork Wyland created for the Keys’ Save-A-Turtle.

“It’s so important here in the Keys to protect these nests and these turtles,” Harry stressed. “They’ve been around for millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of years.”

Loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nest on beaches in the Keys and other parts of Florida, and inhabit Florida and Keys waters. All five species are considered either threatened or endangered — and can benefit from the ongoing protection of Save-A-Turtle.

Founded in 1985, the all-volunteer Save-A-Turtle is dedicated to the preservation and protection of rare and endangered marine turtles, and to the enhancement of their habitats in the Keys. Its volunteers patrol turtle nesting habitats, protect nests when needed, and provide guidance on issues that affect the turtles and their territory.

In fact, Save-A-Turtle volunteers just might be considered “ninjas” who use their powers to ensure that sea turtles (whether hatchlings, teenage or grown-up) can live their lives in peace and safety.

If you’re interested in supporting their efforts and becoming a warrior for sea turtle protection, click here.

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Lighthearted Frolic, Heartfelt Farewell

Steve Smith | August 2014

The dog days of summer are upon us and so is Tropical Heat Key West, produced by the Key West Business Guild. Beginning Thursday, Aug. 14, it’s a long weekend of all-male, all-adult fun — four days of sizzling happenings in the island city whose openness and respect for diversity have made it a world-renowned gay vacation destination.

Revelerrs enjoy a toga party during a past year's Tropical Heat festival. (Photo by Peter Arnow)

Revelers enjoy a toga party during a past year’s Tropical Heat festival. (Photo by Peter Arnow)

The festival’s intriguingly decadent events range from drag shows to pool parties to late-night gatherings at island clubs. The heat wave’s first event is a kick-off party with Manhunt, a noted online gay dating service, at Island House at 1129 Fleming St.

If you want to be connected with nature and experience paddleboarding during the festival, meet Cody White and his eco-tour company, Nomadic SUP. Cody offers natural, private clothing-optional tours as well as mixed group tours. He takes time to teach new paddlers how to enjoy the sport safely in the pristine environment surrounding Key West, and experienced paddlers will have great time with his tours.

A professional paddleboard racer and coach, he has achieved podium places in competitions during 2012 and 2013. The three-hour tours include instruction, snacks, water and a million dollars’ worth of memories!

A group of friends prepares to embark on a Blu Q cruise in Key West waters. (Photo courtesy of Blu Q)

A group of friends prepares to embark on a Blu Q cruise in Key West waters. (Photo courtesy of Blu Q)

Other water activities are in full swing as well. Late summer is ideal for snorkeling, kayaking and other adventures — and the Blu Q will be in full sail during Tropical Heat Key West. Daily snorkel and kayak trips and sunset excursions provide a great way to see the clear, calm waters that surround our island.

Speaking of water activities, one of the island’s most exciting tours features clear kayaks that enable you to observe the Key West National Wildlife Refuge both above and below the waterline. Then you hop into shallow waters and snorkel through the underwater world. Clearly Unique Charters operates a 33-foot power catamaran that can quickly reach the best locations for a fascinating tour.

August’s dog days also brought the loss of one of Key West’s shining stars and multi-titled queens. L. A. Meyers, best known as La La Belle, now joins the cast of late but never forgotten characters who called our magical island home. L. A. and his diva alter ego, La La Belle, became the first and only person(s) to be elected both king and queen of the island’s lavish Fantasy Fest celebration.

L.A. Meyers (center), a.k.a. La La Belle, is shown here with fellow Fantasy Fest royals Scott Fuhriman and Kelly Summers. (Photo by Peter Arnow, courtesy of AIDS Help Inc.)

L.A. Meyers (center), a.k.a. La La Belle, is shown here with fellow Fantasy Fest royals Scott Fuhriman and Kelly Summers. (Photo by Peter Arnow, courtesy of AIDS Help Inc.)

Also a Stonewall veteran, L. A. was at the now famous Stonewall in Greenwich Village on the early morning of June 28, 1969, when the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights began in the United States.

One of 31 former holders of the title of Queen Mother, La La Belle hosted the first locally produced live gay talk show, “The Southernmost Queen of Talk,” complete with weekly entertainment and a loyal following.

It was an honor to be an invited guest on the show, and I have fond memories of my many times under the lights sharing laughs and memories with its irrepressible hostess/queen. Rest well, La La Belle.

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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New ‘Papa’ Lives by Pizza Philosophy

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

There’s a new “Papa” on the scene — and it’s no surprise that he looks a whole lot like Ernest Hemingway.

Wally Collins (front) celebrates after being named the winner of the 2014 "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wally Collins (front) celebrates after being named the winner of the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wally Collins, a 68-year-old white-bearded restaurateur from Phoenix, won the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest on his sixth try — beating even his son Matt Collins, who competed as the young Hemingway.

The contest is a highlight of Key West’s Hemingway Days, which takes place in July each year and celebrates the work and exuberant lifestyle of the legendary writer who spent the 1930s on the island. Each year, it draws about 125 stocky, bearded middle-aged men vying for the title of “Papa.”

They parade across the stage at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where Ernest enjoyed cocktails with local and literary cohorts, during two preliminary rounds and a hard-fought final battle. They dress in khaki safari garb or wool fishermen’s sweaters, copying the author’s signature look in his later years. Many, like Wally Collins, come back year after year to compete.

“I never imagined that this event would mean this much to me when I first started,” Wally admitted after his victory.

Wally Collins is congratulated just after his victory by past contest winners (from left) Stephen Terry, Greg Fawcett and Charlie Bicht.

Wally Collins is congratulated just after his victory by past contest winners (from left) Stephen Terry and Greg Fawcett.

The 2014 competition was tough, however — especially in the final round. Finalists marched onstage and took turns pleading their case, while crowds of spectators roared applause for their favorites.

One competitor even performed a song parody trying to convince the judges (all of them past contest winners) that he was the best possible choice for “Papa.” Semi-finalists, by the way, included four-time entrant Michael Groover — the husband of celebrity chef Paula Deen.

But when the voting was over, Wally was the clear winner. Afterwards, standing outside Sloppy Joe’s as scores of strangers rushed up to shake his hand, Wally appeared slightly dazed but clearly triumphant. And as it turned out, his resemblance to Hemingway goes far deeper than simple appearance.

He’s tried writing short stories — and twice entered the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition directed by Ernest’s author granddaughter. He once delivered a research paper on the man himself at a Hemingway conference.

“I didn’t have as many wives as he had, and I have a lot more children and grandchildren, but there are a lot of things that he stood for that I really like,” said the new “Papa.”

Wally poses with "Hemingway cats" at the Key West home of the author he resembles.

Wally poses with “Hemingway cats” at the Key West home of the author he resembles.

Wally particularly admires Hemingway’s ideals and spirit.

“Ernest Hemingway was adventurous,” he stated. “And in our family, we have a family motto: Life is a pizza. Order the one with everything on it.”

During his Key West years, Ernest Hemingway wrote classics including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Death in the Afternoon” and the Key West-based “To Have and Have Not” — his only novel set in the United States. Many experts say his writing style changed the face of American literature.

While doing so, he embraced Key West’s renegade lifestyle. He fished for marlin and other “big game” in the waters surrounding the island, occasionally refereed local boxing matches in the Bahama Village neighborhood, and drew inspiration for his work from the tough Depression-era residents that were his friends.

Hemingway’s legacy of “living large” helped shape the adventurous, offbeat atmosphere that draws visitors — like those who filled Sloppy Joe’s for the 2014 look-alike contest — to Key West today.

In fact, if new “Papa” Wally Collins and the author he resembles could ever sit down to share a pizza, it’s virtually certain that they’d order the one with everything on it.

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Peter Anderson: Driving Force Behind the Conch Republic

Briana Ciraulo | July 2014

(Editor’s Note: The Florida Keys & Key West lost a very good friend in July 2014 with the passing of Peter Anderson after a courageous battle with cancer. In recognition of his dedicated efforts to make the Keys and the Conch Republic a better place, and promote their offbeat spirit and character, we share this profile written four months before his death.) 

Peter Anderson helped keep the spirit of the Florida Keys' Conch Republic alive and thriving.

Peter Anderson played a pivotal role in keeping the spirit of the Florida Keys’ Conch Republic alive and thriving.

“I came down to Key West on a Tuesday night in early April 1984 in my old Cadillac El Dorado with red leather seats, my clothes packed away and a couple grand in my pocket,” said Peter Anderson.

While this may sound like a relatively ordinary “moving to the Florida Keys” story, in reality there’s nothing ordinary about Peter OR his story.

Secretary General of the Keys’ Conch Republic, Peter has worked tirelessly over the past 25 years to spread the republic’s unique and heartwarming philosophy.

“As the world’s first ‘fifth world’ country, we exist as a ‘state of mind’ and aspire only to bring more warmth, humor and respect to a planet we find in sore need of all three,” he explained.

The Conch Republic, the Keys’ quirky alter ego, was established in 1982 to protest the installation of a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint that stopped traffic at the top of the Overseas Highway — the only road in and out of the Keys.

Peter and Keys musician Howard Livingston (right) share an on-camera moment and a smile.

Peter and Keys musician Howard Livingston (right) share an on-camera moment and a smile.

Because the federal government was treating the island chain like a foreign country, local leaders decided it would become one.

They staged a ceremony seceding from the United States, raised a quickly-constructed Conch Republic flag, declared “war” on the mother country, carried it out by pelting federal agents with stale Cuban bread, and surrendered after 60 seconds.

Not surprisingly, the action attracted international attention. The first Conch Republic Independence Celebration, commemorating the gutsy secession, was organized in 1983.

“We celebrate our independence annually in a public and notorious manner,” said Peter.

The 10-day festival is held in April every year and consists of events including a “drag race” for drag queens, a naval parade and battle, and a bed race (yes, really!) along Key West’s Duval Street.

Peter, shown here in his "conchsulate" office in 2003, was an untiring Keys ambassador. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Peter, shown here in his “conchsulate” office in 2003, was an untiring Keys ambassador. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

Peter himself was the driving force that ensured the Keys would continue to hold the fun-filled independence celebration.

In 1990, there was talk of the event’s eighth year being the last. Peter believed the Keys’ independence deserved annual commemoration, and came together with Key West movers and shakers to continue the wacky festival.

After the success of the 1990 celebration, Captain Tony Tarracino, then the prime minister of the Conch Republic and mayor of Key West, appointed Peter the republic’s first secretary general.

“I actually decided to take the job seriously, and now we’re here 25 years later,” Peter stated.

It’s safe to say that being secretary general of the Conch Republic is a one-of-a-kind job. Peter has far exceeded people’s expectations, working to have the republic recognized as its own nation and respected by members of the world community.

With a reminiscent chuckle, he said one of his favorite memories was “crashing” the Summit of the Americas in 1994. He fought to have the Conch Republic represented as an actual country of the Americas — and succeeded, gaining global attention and respect.

Before his illness, Peter was a welcome part of ceremonial welcomes for special visitors. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Before his illness, Peter often appeared at events welcoming special visitors to the Keys and the Conch Republic. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Peter has received praise from many world leaders for his diligence in advancing the “islands nation” over the years. The Conch Republic even issues citizen and diplomat passports, giving people the chance to gain “dual citizenship” as residents of their own country and honorary inhabitants of the republic.

More than his dedication and hard work, however, his undying love and admiration for the Conch Republic is what makes Peter Anderson so extraordinary.

“Every single day as secretary general is special, whether it’s greeting foreign ships or meeting the everyday people that want to join our tiny nation,” he said. “I love my job, I love this community, and I love the spirit that formed the Conch Republic, which is alive and well today.”

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Key West Couple Leads Fight for Marriage Equality

Steve Smith | July 2014

The wheels of change sometimes seem to move slowly, but in the last few months we have seen rapid progress regarding marriage equality. I recently attended a hearing challenging Florida’s amendment defining marriage. A large crowd was present as attorneys for both sides argued their positions and the plaintiffs, Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, patiently observed.

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones embrace during a media interview following Judge Garcia's ruling. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones embrace during a media interview following Judge Garcia’s ruling. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Last week, as I was traveling to San Diego to represent the Florida Keys in that city’s Pride festival, Keys Circuit Judge Luis Garcia issued his ruling. Judge Garcia ruled that Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage was discriminatory and unconstitutional after Huntsman and Jones, a couple for 11 years, filed their lawsuit protesting it.

“I actually dropped my phone when I got the call,” said Jones during a celebration at Key West’s Aqua nightclub. “I was so excited, so proud and happy, so glad that we made it this far so far.”

“We did this to change the laws for everybody in the state of Florida — not just for us, but for all the people that have been hurting over this undue law that is not right,” said Huntsman. “We thought that just two average guys could be able to maybe make a difference, especially here in Monroe County.”

An immediate appeal of the ruling was issued by Florida’s attorney general. But that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of those celebrating in Key West, recognized for decades for its openness and accepting gay-friendly attitude.

Aaron Huntsman,  attorneys Bernadette Restivo and Jessica Reilly, and William Lee Jones share a post-ruling smile. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman, attorneys Bernadette Restivo and Jessica Reilly, and William Lee Jones share a post-ruling smile. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Judge Garcia, whose ruling applies only to Monroe County, initially said same-sex couples in the Keys could get marriage licenses as early as this week. However, the appeal has delayed their issuance for an undetermined time.

For those of you who are not familiar with our welcoming islands, Key West elected an openly gay mayor in 1983, and many other high-profile elected and appointed civic positions have been and are currently held by gay men and women. The city and surrounding Monroe County (encompassing the entire Keys) adopted the motto One Human Family more than a dozen years ago, proclaiming equality and acceptance for everyone.

Nineteen states and Washington DC now enjoy marriage equality. In an additional 14 states, judges have issued rulings in favor of the freedom to marry, with many of these rulings now stayed as they proceed to appellate courts.

Blogger Steve Smith (left) and Joey Schroeder of the Bourbon St. Complex represented the Keys at San Diego Pride.

Blogger Steve Smith (left) and Joey Schroeder of the Bourbon St. Complex represent the Keys at San Diego Pride.

While the Florida battle continues, spend some time with us starting Aug. 14 when we celebrate Tropical Heat, produced by the Key West Business Guild. Revelers will enjoy pool parties at local guesthouses, late-night parties at our nightclubs, and even Silver Key Lingerie’s underwear auction.

Interested in traveling to the event? Travel values are being offered by Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and the Key West Express high-speed ferry from Fort Myers Beach. Information is available on the Tropical Heat website.

Next on the Keys schedule is Womenfest Key West, kicking off Sept. 4. Headlining the festivities is a concert with Hunter Valentine at the historic San Carlos Institute. Other entertainment highlights include a comedy show with Gloria Bigelow, Julie Goldman, and Sandra Valls. Travel values are available on the Womenfest website.

Look for updates on both marriage equality and upcoming festival fun in future blogs. Meanwhile, I hope to see you in the Keys!

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Underwater Music Festival Rocks the Keys Reef

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

Almost 500 divers and snorkelers explored part of the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef last weekend, while rocking to a sub-sea concert during the 30th annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

Costumed divers pretend to play "musical instruments" while enjoying the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Costumed divers pretend to play “musical instruments” while enjoying the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Yes, an underwater concert. The quirky songfest took place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at Looe Key Reef, some six miles south of Big Pine Key. For the past three decades, the event has drawn several hundred divers and snorkelers each year to immerse themselves in the Keys’ colorful marine environment.

Lower Keys resident Bill Becker and a buddy started the offbeat festival as an arts and cultural offering, but they didn’t really expect it to last.

“Originally this was just supposed to be a one-time event,” said Bill. “People loved it. They said, ‘What a great idea. It’s normally a silent world down there, but with music now it just enhances the whole diving experience. Let’s do it every year.’ That was 30 years ago.”

This year as in the past, the four-hour marine musical event was staged by Keys radio station US1 Radio 104.1 FM — where Bill Becker is the longtime news director — in partnership with the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. He programmed an ocean-themed playlist of selections that were broadcast underwater via speakers suspended beneath boats above the reef.

During the Underwater Music Festival, some divers spotted "mermaid" Samantha Langsdale frolicking beneath the waves.

During the Underwater Music Festival, some divers spotted “mermaid” Samantha Langsdale frolicking beneath the waves.

“We play a lot of the usual stuff — the theme from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Octopus’s Garden, Yellow Submarine, a lot of Jimmy Buffett,” Bill explained. “New Age music sounds terrific underwater. We do the theme from ‘Jaws’ to keep the divers on their toes.”

Participants described the music as sounding clear and ethereal, and the underwater visibility as about 50 feet. And while Bill also included some whale songs, the broadcast didn’t attract any whales. (Smaller fish, though, actually seemed to like the underwater music — divers reported seeing them apparently swaying to the beat.)

“It’s the only place we know where music is put underwater for the divers, snorkelers, and marine life,” advised Bill.

But fish weren’t the only creatures to be spotted underwater. Some divers wore costumes (in fact, several were dressed as characters from the classic television show “Gilligan’s Island”) and pretended to play underwater musical instruments sculpted by Keys artist August Powers.

The talented artist creates a new piece for the festival every year, and each one blends elements of an actual instrument and an underwater denizen. Standouts have included his trom-bonefish and clambourine, and this year’s “Belushi Blues Fish,” a guitar-like fish sporting a “Blues Brothers” hat and shades.

Mike Limerick "plays" a riff on August Powers' sculpted "Belushi Blues Fish" instrument.

Mike Limerick “plays” a riff on August Powers’ sculpted “Belushi Blues Fish” instrument.

Snorkeler Uli Clef from Munich, Germany, said he was particularly impressed with the vivid colors and tropical fish he saw underwater.

“Music underwater — I’ve never heard of that before, so that’s really a unique thing,” he said when he surfaced. “All these colorful fishes … that’s perfect.”

As well as offering enjoyment for dive enthusiasts, the broadcast featured diver awareness announcements promoting reef preservation.

“We try to get divers to be aware of their impact on the coral reef so that they lessen that impact and this reef can be here for generations to come,” said Bill Becker.

And that should be music to every ocean-lover’s ears.

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