Keys Districts

Diana Nyad’s Stage Show Makes Waves in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2015

What does the theme song from television’s “Beverly Hillbillies” have to do with world-class endurance swimmer Diana Nyad?

Diana Nyad swims onstage

Diana Nyad “swims” onstage during her one-woman play about her 111-mile Cuba-to-Key West swim. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

It’s one of the songs on the “mental playlist” that kept her going during her epic 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West — and it features prominently in the one-woman stage show she recently presented on the island where she completed her near-impossible athletic feat in 2013.

Picture Diana onstage, her strong muscular body prone on a platform in swimming position, arms and legs moving in time to those stirring lyrics, “Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed / A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed …”

The moment was a highlight of “Onward! The Diana Nyad Story” presented by the charismatic athlete, whose performance proved she’s almost as good a storyteller as she is a long-distance swimmer.

Diana Nyad telling stories of Cuba-to-Key-West swim

Diana told spellbinding tales of early influences, challenges and inspirations during her show. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On Labor Day 2013, an exhausted Diana walked ashore on 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. She was then age 64, and the grueling swim took her just under 53 hours.

“You don’t really get a better drama than that — a 35-year story, a 64-year-old chasing a dream that no one else ever accomplished,” Diana said after the opening night of her sold-out show at The Studios of Key West.

She first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old. More than three decades later, in 2011 and 2012, she tried three times but was foiled by shoulder pain, a debilitating in-water asthma attack and multiple severe jellyfish stings.

Written and performed live by Diana, “Onward” focuses on her athletic feat while showcasing her ability to spin tales often spiced with self-deprecating humor.

Diana Nyad victory sign Smathers Beach

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

In well-paced vignettes, she recalls childhood events that put her on the road to becoming a long-distance swimmer — including a pivotal moment when her French mother told her Cuba was close enough to her Fort Lauderdale home that “you could almost swim there.” She also chronicles triumphs and failures along the way, and sings snippets of the “mental playlist” that helped power her through the arduous Florida Straits crossing.

“Onward!” was directed and adapted for the stage by Josh Ravetch, the co-creator of actress/writer Carrie Fisher’s solo show “Wishful Drinking.” Employing audio and visual effects ranging from ocean sounds to eerie lighting, it even transports audiences to the Straits with Diana during a devastatingly painful jellyfish encounter.

But the play doesn’t just tell Diana’s story. In addition, the inspirational production points out how much can be accomplished with sheer tenacity and determination, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

“Whether you’re someone up against cancer, or a disabled child you’re raising — really tough circumstances — if you want to get through it, you’ll find a way to get through it,” Diana stated earnestly. “I think that is really the message of this play.”

Diana Nyad plaque Key West

Diana displays a bronze plaque that was recently installed by the city  on Smathers Beach to commemorate her epic swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

When it came time to pick the perfect venue for her show, Diana didn’t hesitate about choosing Key West. The theater in The Studios of Key West’s Armory building isn’t far from Smathers Beach, where she made athletic history in 2013.

“Key West is my special place and the place that will forever be associated with the swim,” she explained. “It’s fitting that I take the stage on the island that was my home training base to bring the story to life in theatrical form.”

The audience loved it, giving Diana an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night. And as she took her final bow, the applause washed over her … like the welcoming waves off Smathers Beach.

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Ithaca ‘Surrenders’ to Winter and Suggests Visiting the Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2015

It’s cold in Ithaca. In fact, winter has been so brutal in the upstate New York locale that the tourism office raised the white flag of surrender. For almost 48 hours in February, the office suggested that visitors to its website travel to the sunny Florida Keys instead of the freezing Ithaca region.

Visit Ithaca Keys website

Ithaca’s tourism board came up with the offbeat concept of directing winter-weary web surfers (at least temporarily) to the Florida Keys.

When web visitors went to VisitIthaca.com, they found a popup banner with the headline “That’s it. We surrender. Winter, you win. Key West anyone?”

The offbeat concept was dreamed up by Bruce Stoff, the director of the Ithaca/Tompkins Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“It was five degrees below zero this morning when I woke up,” said the cold-stunned Bruce on Feb. 16. “Everyone in the northeast is beaten by winter now, and we’re dreaming of being someplace that is warm.”

The popup banner went on: “Due to this ridiculously stupid winter, Ithaca invites you to visit The Florida Keys this week. Please come back when things thaw out. Really, it’s for the birds here now.” The graphic accompanying the banner showed the Florida Keys website’s Key West home page.

VisitIthaca.com site surfers did have an option to get details on Ithaca if they wanted them (and many places in New York state offer terrific skiing during the winter months). But many website visitors checked out the Keys site — and either made reservations to flee to continental America’s southernmost island chain or spent hours daydreaming about it.

girls on Keys beach

Sun and fun await winter visitors to the Florida Keys — and there’s no snow in sight. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Ithaca website’s message ended with a slightly wistful request: “P.S. Send us a postcard.”

The offbeat idea got so much attention that the VisitIthaca.com site crashed and Bruce had to end the wackiness several days early.

So, for those of you in Ithaca (or anywhere else battered by the absolutely miserable winter of 2015), here are some warm-weather activities to enjoy if you can wangle your way to the Keys in the near future.

Stroll the Open-Air Old Island Days Art Festival.
Discover creations by more than 100 fine artists from around the U.S. at the 50th annual Old Island Days Art Festival in historic Old Town Key West — set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-22. Colorful booths will line Whitehead Street from Greene to Eaton streets, and spill into the exclusive Truman Annex enclave at Caroline Street. The lively outdoor festival generally features artists in watercolor, oil paint, acrylics, decorative sculpture, collage and photography — plus wearable art, jewelry, pottery, woodwork and other fine craft items.

Rock for a Good Cause at the Island Grass Music Fest.
Rock to music by renowned regional bands and entertainers — and benefit Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Florida Keys — at the 16th annual Island Grass Music Fest. The event is set for 1-6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Boondocks Grille & Draft House at mile marker (MM) 27.5 on U.S. Highway 1. The entertainment roster features musicians and bands that play a leading role in the Keys’ flourishing live music scene. Among them are “trop rock” standouts Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band, and island folk music star Terry Cassidy. Other attractions include a huge silent auction.

Howard Livingston is passionate about his Lower Keys home and keeping his feet in the sand.

Howard Livingston is among the stars of the open-air Island Grass Music Fest.

Explore Gorgeous Gardens at the Upper Keys Garden Walk.
Some of the Upper Florida Keys’ most beautiful properties are showcased during the annual Garden Walk — presented from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, by the Garden Club of the Upper Keys. Themed “Private Edens,” the Garden Walk includes lush and unique properties between Upper Matecumbe and Key Largo (from MM 80 to MM 103). Landscapes have been lovingly restored and replanted with native and exotic species, hundreds of orchids and preserved remnants of tropical hardwood hammock. You can also enjoy an outdoor garden tea party at the Garden Club’s historic Francis Tracy Garden Center at MM 94 in Tavernier, featuring local artisans, live music and complimentary refreshments.

Want to know what else is happening in the Florida Keys island chain during the next few weeks? Simply click for a full calendar of events.

And for Bruce Stoff and everyone else in Ithaca (and other frozen areas), we salute your hardy spirit and wish you were here. But if you can’t dig your way out of the snowdrifts quite yet, just click this link for some Keys videos to warm your bones and make you smile.

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Key West Abuzz Over Art, Theater and ‘Oscar’ Nomination

Steve Smith | February 2015

Mother Nature continues to blanket large sections of the U.S. with snow and frigid arctic blasts. I hope this weather has not affected your travel plans to the Florida Keys — or, if it did, that the airlines will rebook you at a later date. (Be sure to call and cancel your flights and hotel reservations. Our properties understand that we have no control over weather and will certainly accommodate you when you’re able to travel again.)

Key West Art Center

The Key West Art Center, shown in this vivid painting, presents the Old Island Days Art Festival each year. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art Center)

When you arrive here, or if you’re already here, we’ll be sure to make your getaway special with events, water activities, and theater across Old Town Key West — as well as more great restaurants to choose from than ever!

Join us in celebrating the Old Island Days Art Festival’s 50th anniversary of artistry as you stroll lower Whitehead Street and into the historic Truman Annex amongst colorful tents displaying watercolors, oil paintings, acrylics, decorative sculpture, collage and photography. Begun in 1965 and originally called the “Clothesline Art Show,” it also includes wearable art, jewelry, pottery, and pieces crafted from wood and metals.

Now a nationally acclaimed event, this open-air festival takes place from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-22. The show is juried to guarantee the finest possible selection of art.

Diana Nyad's inspirational one-woman show runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West.

Diana Nyad’s inspirational one-woman show runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West.

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad is here on the island and will present a one-woman show about her 111-mile, nearly 53-hour swim from Cuba to Key West — not far from the spot where she completed the record-setting athletic feat in 2013. “Onward! The Diana Nyad Story” runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West’s historic Armory building. Written and performed live by Nyad, the inspirational show takes audiences to the Florida Straits with her as she endures a nighttime encounter with a swarm of dangerous jellyfish.

Fringe Theater Key West, an eclectic non-profit theater company, brings Noel Coward’s timeless farce “Private Lives” to the stage. Expect the unexpected when a formerly married couple, each on their honeymoon with a new spouse, wind up in adjacent suites. “Private Lives” takes the stage at the new Key West Theater just a block off Duval Street behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The Waterfront Playhouse presents “Next Fall,” one of the most celebrated plays in recent Broadway history. Examining the topics of faith and family, “Next Fall” introduces two very different gay men in a committed five-year relationship. Despite Luke being a conservative Christian and Adam an atheist, they make it all work — until an accident changes everything.

A Tony nominee for best play and winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for best play, “Next Fall” is a smart and sensitive evening of comedy. It plays through Feb. 28, so don’t miss it!

Key West harbor aerial

The island of Key West is a contender for “Best LGBT Travel Destination” in the British LGBT Awards. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On another note, Key West, our tiny subtropical island, has been nominated for “Best LGBT Travel Destination” in the British LGBT Awards. Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Royal Air Force, Barclays and Societe Generale, these awards have been dubbed “the British Oscars” by the U.K. media and are hosted by celebrities Charlie Condou and Sophie Ward.

Our island is vying against destinations including Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris and Canada’s Vancouver — and it’s immensely exciting that we are being recognized in this prestigious international competition. Voting is open now, so cast a ballot for your favorite subtropical island here.

Stay tuned for more information … and stay warm!

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

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Seven Reasons to Fall in Love With the Florida Keys

Jo Thomas | February 2015

The Florida Keys & Key West offer a rich tapestry of cultural experiences, culinary delights, colorful festivals, authentic and adventurous activities, inviting accommodations and natural wonders — all of them reasons to fall in love with the enticing island chain. Because February means Valentine’s Day (what better time to fall in love?), here are seven that top guest blogger Jo Thomas’s list.

Girl with Key Largo Chocolates

Guest blogger Jo Thomas shows off one of the things she loves about the Florida Keys: Key Largo Chocolates.

1) Keys Cuisine – Crab, Cuba and Chocolate
The warm Keys waters produce seafood delicacies including stone crab, clawless spiny lobster, yellowtail snapper, hogfish, grouper and mahi-mahi. In addition to offerings from the sea, Keys cuisine reflects a multitude of cultural influences — particularly Cuban.

And for sweets, seek out master chocolatier Kristie Thomas at Key Largo Chocolates, where she manufactures, produces and sells high-quality chocolates (including delicacies shaped like tiny crocodiles!). Speaking of sweets, no visit to Key West is complete without tasting Key lime pie at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.

2) Year-Round Warm Weather
Where else can you relax on the beach or enjoy outdoor activities on the water 365 days a year? The subtropical year-round climate of the Florida Keys means glorious warmth always welcomes visitors. In fact, wherever you are right now, chances are the weather is better in the Keys!

3) Underwater Wonders
The 125-mile-long island chain is home to the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef. The U.S. government established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to protect the breathtaking marine habitat, and preserving the reef is a top priority for a good reason.

Florida Keys underwater environment

The Keys’ shallow-water snorkeling sites allow for maximum viewing of the wonders along the reef line. (Photo by Pat Taylor)

There’s no more versatile marine destination in the world, with elements ranging from fascinating shipwreck sites to intricate natural coral formations. Both divers and snorkelers can find the perfect spots to immerse themselves in underwater beauty.

4) Luxurious Spas
In the Florida Keys, rejuvenation and wellness are a way of life. Throughout the island chain, you can find rejuvenating day spas and resort enclaves offering massage therapies, yoga classes or alternative healing treatments — whether you’re traveling solo, sharing a romantic couples’ getaway, seeking a pre-wedding bridal party treat or looking to reconnect mind, body and spirit. Among the most popular are Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada, Spa Terre at Little Palm Island in the Lower Keys, and Ocean Key Resort and Spa in Key West.

5) Stunning Sunsets
Florida Keys sunsets are so spectacular that crowds gather every night to enjoy the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square in Key West. An hour or two before sunset, residents and visitors flock to the water’s edge to experience a multicultural happening featuring artisans and performers — ranging from jugglers to acrobats — and to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset sail Key West

Sip a cool drink and watch tall ships and excursion vessels sail by as the sun goes down over Key West Harbor.

There’s always a sunset celebration at the Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant in Islamorada too. “The Pulse of Islamorada” puts on nightly music shows to complement its delicious seafood and lovely bayside sunset views.

6) Wild Watersports
An abundance of turquoise water and warm year-round temperatures make the Florida Keys the perfect vacation destination for watersports enthusiasts. Ways to get the adrenaline pumping include flyboarding, nightboarding, eco-kayaking, kite-boarding, sportfishing and more.

7) Astounding Arts
For many years, the Keys have been a source of inspiration for authors and artists. The quirky, laid-back creative community includes scores of galleries, art walks that promote local artists, live music, quality theatrical performances and cultural events such as Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival.

sand sculpture Key West beach

Beachside artistry is another reason to love the Florida Keys. (Photo courtesy of Sand Isle)

In Key West, the Casa Marina (a Waldorf Astoria Resort on the Atlantic Ocean) and Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting even offer beachside workshops where you can explore your own artistry — by crafting a sculpture in the sand!

Obviously, there are WAYYYY more than seven reasons to fall in love with the charismatic Florida Keys. Using the ones offered here as a start, why not plan a trip so you can compile a list of your own?

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A Tribute to Key West’s Conch Ambassador

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2015

For decades, Bishop Al Kee welcomed visitors to Key West’s Southernmost Point marker — acting as a smiling ambassador for the island while selling fluted, pink-lined conch shells beside the iconic landmark.

Key West Al Kee wave

Al Kee greeted visitors at Key West’s Southernmost Point marker, becoming a “conch ambassador” for the island. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

In fact, Al’s father spent much of his lifetime selling sponges, fish, coconuts and shells at the Southernmost Point. Al and his family carried on the tradition after his father died in 1993 — blowing an enthusiastic blast on a conch shell whenever the Conch Tour Train happened by, slicing open coconuts for those who wanted to drink the sweet coconut water inside, and posing for innumerable visitor photos.

A bishop of his church, Al took his religion as seriously as he did his work of brightening visitors’ days at the Southernmost Point. He was also a fixture at the annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest. To many longtime Key West residents and visitors, Al Kee — who died in 2003 — epitomized the authentic, historic, funky spirit of the island.

On March 7 people who remember Al, and appreciate the “old Key West heritage” he represented, are invited to gather at the Southernmost Point. There they can witness the unveiling of a life-size bronze sculpture of the “conch ambassador” in the spot where he worked for countless years.

Key West sculptor Al Kee piece

Key West sculptor Tom Joris creates a small “working model” of his Al Kee sculpture before beginning the life-size piece. (Poto by Rob O’Neal)

“Each day Bishop Kee, a preacher and a leader of Key West’s Bahama Village neighborhood, could be seen at the Southernmost Point greeting visitors with a cheerful wave and toot on a conch shell,” said Bruce Neff.

Bruce, an expert on the island’s past, is dedicated to preserving and honoring that past. His Historic Markers Inc. spearheaded community support for the sculpture of Al Kee.

“He and his father before him left a 50-year legacy of welcoming all who visited the Southernmost Point, popularized conch shell blowing, and were emissaries of the multicultural, multi-ethnic community that has made Key West unique since its inception,” Bruce emphasized.

The marker, a larger-than-life buoy that delineates the continental United States’ southernmost bit of land, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean at Whitehead and South streets. Its brightly-painted body bears lettering that proclaims it stands just 90 miles from Cuba, and it is seemingly a magnet for visitors.

Key West small Al Kee sculpture

The life-size bronze of Al Kee, based on the detailed small version here, will remain on permanent display at the Southernmost Point. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Neff)

According to Bruce, the marker’s waterfront location once was the place where the island’s Afro-Bahamian fishermen anchored their boats, sold their catch, and enjoyed a small slice of beachfront before 1969 when Florida beaches were desegregated.

“Over the years, Bishop Kee and his father watched the Southernmost Point evolve into a spot to which thousands of tourists flock for their photos,” explained Bruce.

The March 7 sculpture unveiling is the highlight of a celebration beginning at 2:30 p.m. Other planed attractions include street fair with food and beverage booths, a live radio broadcast, live music, and speakers including Kee family members, Key West dignitaries and artist Tom Joris — the sculpture’s creator. Listed on the roster of performers are Florida Keys favorites Howard Livingston, the Key West Comparsa Dancers and students from the Bahama Village Music Program.

Plans also call for a salute by conch shell “musicians” from the 53rd annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest, which also takes place March 7. Since Kee was a regular figure at the popular competition, the “conch honkers” are to blow blasts on their shells to honor him.

The unveiling is sure to be a don’t-miss occasion — but those who can’t make it down to Key West in March can still see the sculpture. The bronze of Al Kee, depicting him blowing a large conch shell and waving a greeting, will remain on permanent display at the Southernmost Point.

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Warm Up and Chill Out in Balmy Key West

Steve Smith | February 2015

While most of the country was focused on “Punxsutawney Phil,” the world’s most beloved and furry seasonal prognosticator and his long-awaited shadow, here in the Florida Keys we celebrated “the palm tree seeing its shadow” meaning several more weeks of sunshine and warm winter weather!

Key West sunrise

Beautiful sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean are characteristic of Key West’s balmy “winter” season.

Friends up north have had a very difficult couple of weeks, enduring snowstorm after snowstorm — while here we are chilled when the temperature drops below 70 degrees.

Being a fifth-generation Floridian, I have only experienced snow as a visitor (while curled up in front of a fireplace as I admired how beautiful the white stuff made the landscape). Honestly, I have never lived where I’ve had to deal with snow and work; my thoughts are with those of you who have to clear your walks and driveways daily to get to your jobs.

Have no worries, however — we’re ready for you to visit Key West and leave the snow behind! It’s so easy to bicycle across the island and visit the organic green market at Bayview Park (open every Thursday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m.), and then head to the Historic Seaport for a fresh seafood lunch.

Key West Kermit Key lime pie

Key West’s Kermit Carpenter awaits visitors to his shop with a fabulous Key lime pie.

The Half Shell Raw Bar is a great stop for a waterfront lunch. Start with fresh peel-and-eat Key West pink shrimp, or shucked-to-order oysters on the half shell or served Rockefeller or Andouille. Add a cup of conch chowder, and fresh fish and chips or skewered and grilled or butterfly fried Key West shrimp.

Stroll around the harbor and end up at Elizabeth and Greene streets for a slice of Kermit Carpenter’s famous Key lime pie. Kermit is usually there in his Key-lime-green chef’s coat welcoming visitors to his piece of paradise. Be sure to try the chocolate-dipped Key lime pie on a stick … it is totally over the top! And Kermit is a treasured icon here on our island.

On another (and very welcome!) note, gay weddings are now recognized throughout Florida, and are a part of our daily life in Key West. This week, I was a witness at the marriage of QMitch Jones and Terry “Otter” Muehler. QMitch has been the very visual caller for the weekly gay bingo games at the 801 Bourbon Bar, raising tens of thousands of dollars for local charities.

If Key West is your choice for your wedding or honeymoon, then you must attend our upcoming Gay Wedding Expo. Set for Wednesday, March 11, this is believed to be the first gay wedding exposition held since Florida became the 36th state in the USA where marriage equality is the law.

Key West drag man QMitch

Blog author Steve Smith (right) congratulates Key West’s beloved QMitch on his recent marriage.

The expo starts at 5:30 p.m. in the grand ballroom of the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel. More than 40 Florida Keys vendors will be there to answer your questions and showcase their venues and wedding services.

One of the nation’s top-rated LGBT destinations, Key West was the site of scores of commitment ceremonies before same-sex marriage became the law in Florida. It also was the first city in Florida to officially recognize same-sex domestic partnerships and to embrace and encourage marriage equality.

The Florida Keys’ first same-sex wedding took place just minutes after midnight Jan. 6, uniting Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones — whose lawsuit helped pave the way for marriage equality in the state.

Whether you’re heading to Key West for the Gay Wedding Expo or simply to escape the northern cold, we look forward to seeing you soon!

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

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Get Creative in the Keys!

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2015

If you’re a creative spirit visiting (or about to visit) the Florida Keys, a dilemma awaits you: choosing which experience to immerse yourself in first. That’s because opportunities abound around the island chain for those eager to explore their own potential — and discover others’ artistry.

Morada Way Clay is a center for classes and exploration of creative work in clay. (Photo courtesy of Morada Way Clay)

Morada Way Clay is a center for classes and exploration of creative work in clay. (Photo courtesy of Morada Way Clay)

A comprehensive listing of events, from gallery openings to concerts to classes, can be found on the cultural calendar at www.keysarts.com. But just to whet your appetite, a few highlight offerings are outlined here.

For example, are you an aspiring potter? Then consider learning (and practicing) your craft at Islamorada’s Morada Way Clay, located at mile marker (MM) 81.5 oceanside.

The fine art gallery and ceramics studio features multi-session clay classes, single-day workshops, open-studio experiences and individual instruction. And the facilities are excellent for artistic endeavors — you’ll find two electric kilns, a gas-fired raku kiln, four wheels, tools and molds.

If you’re simply seeking a fun-filled pottery-painting session, that’s on tap too. You can choose to paint ornamental items or functional bowls and cups, all designed and handcrafted by Morada Way Clay’s studio potters.

More interested in poetry than pottery? Check out the Key West Poetry Guild, an organization with a vibrant history that’s open to everyone intrigued by poetic expression. The guild meets at 7 p.m. the first Sunday of every month at Blue Heaven (described elsewhere in these entries as an amazing restaurant, and a site where Ernest Hemingway once refereed hometown boxing matches).

In the courtyard of Key West's funky and fabulous Blue Heaven, "breakfast with the roosters" is a favorite morning ritual. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Key West Poetry Guild holds monthly meetings at the funky and fabulous Blue Heaven. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

You’ll find Blue Heaven at 729 Thomas St. in Key West’s historic Bahama Village neighborhood. For information about the guild and its meetings, call Nance Boylan at 908-591-5566.

If you’re a writer in the Upper Keys, you can hone your craft at Key Largo’s Latitude 25 Writers Group. Meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. the last Wednesday of every month at the Key Largo Library, located in the Tradewinds Shopping Center at MM 101.4.

Attendees are encouraged to bring and share short pieces of writing. For more information, call Steve Gibbs at 305-451-4164.

In the Lower Keys, the Keys Writers Group meets the first and third Wednesday of every month at the Big Pine Library, 213 Key Deer Blvd. Everyone from budding writers to published authors can read their works aloud and receive constructive critiquing and suggestions from members of the group.

The group encourages everyone’s talent and desire to put their words on paper, so it’s a good place to build confidence in your own unique voice. For more information, email Joan@vestaastrology.com.

The Art Studio in Marathon offers classes and enjoyable creative events like Family Fun Night. (Photo courtesy of The Art Studio)

The Art Studio in Marathon offers classes and enjoyable creative events like Family Fun Night. (Photo courtesy of The Art Studio)

Are you visiting Marathon? Then you’ll find a wonderful haven for exploring a wide variety of media. It’s called, simply, The Art Studio and it’s located at MM 53.6 oceanside.

Among the offerings are workshops to learn painting in oil, watercolors and acrylic, as well as sculpting and painting pottery. Other subjects include throwing clay, fusing glass, creating jewelry and painting and glazing self-selected ceramics. In other words, it would be hard NOT to discover an intriguing aspect of artistry to delve into.

If viewing the work of other creative people is what inspires you most, then Key West has a perfect event for you. It’s the monthly Key West Artisan Market, a lively open-air showcase held outside the island city’s Restaurant Store at 1111 Eaton St.

Get inspired by the work of local artists and craft experts at the Key West Artisan Market.

Get inspired by the work of local artists and craft experts at the Key West Artisan Market.

Local artisans are on hand to show, sell and discuss their work — from delicate jewelry to made-in-the-Keys culinary treats. Authors, performers and purveyors of craft beer and wine add to the inviting vibe. The market typically takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first Sunday of each month during season through May.

Want to know more about the creative “palette” in the Florida Keys? Just click here for information on the island chain’s rich variety of opportunities and offerings in the visual, literary and performing arts.

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Fishing With Hemingway

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2015

The Hemingway name really matters in Key West. After all, Ernest Hemingway lived on this tiny coral rock for most of the 1930s — fishing for marlin and other gamefish, penning some of America’s most enduring literary masterpieces (including “To Have and Have Not,” his only novel set in the United States), and leaving a legacy that still draws writers to the island today.

Ernest Hemingway's grandson John Hemingway "greets" a life-size sculpture of his famous relative at Key West's Custom House Museum. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Ernest Hemingway’s grandson John Hemingway “greets” a life-size sculpture of his famous relative at Key West’s Custom House Museum. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

In addition there’s Pauline Hemingway, the author’s wife during his Key West years, who remained a resident and guiding force in island society even after her husband moved on.

There’s Lorian Hemingway, Ernest’s author granddaughter, who immerses herself in Key West during frequent visits and has directed a locally-based short story competition for more than 30 years.

And then there’s John Hemingway, grandson to Ernest, who was in Key West recently helping debut a remarkable new exhibit about his legendary relative. John Hemingway too is an author, whose book “Strange Tribe” paints a fascinating portrait of his complicated grandfather and equally complicated father.

But even more fascinating for those who visit the island Ernest Hemingway loved is the exhibit at the renowned Custom House Museum. Titled “Following the Fish: Hemingway in Key West,” it showcases Ernest’s love of Florida Keys fishing — a sport he did much to popularize among fellow writers, readers and anglers.

John Hemingway enjoys the Custom House exhibit with the museum's senior staff. From left are Michael Gieda (left), John, Gerri Sidoti and Cori Convertito. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

John Hemingway enjoys the Custom House exhibit with the museum’s senior staff. From left are Michael Gieda, John, Gerri Sidoti and Cori Convertito. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

It also spotlights a surprising aspect of the late author’s personality: conservation activities that are an intriguing counterpoint to his well-known passion for boating giant marlin, tuna and other prey (a pursuit sometimes compared to oceanic big game hunting).

“What the exhibit endeavors to do is show that, while Hemingway is perceived as an aggressive personality, he did have a vested interest in safeguarding the fish populations in the Florida Straits,” said Cori Convertito, curator at the Custom House. “By inviting scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences to visit this region with the intention to study marlin, tuna and other species, Hemingway demonstrated his true preservationist disposition.”

When he wasn’t writing literary classics, Hemingway plied the waters between Key West and Cuba on his 38-foot fishing boat, “Pilar.” Encounters with finned prey found their way into his books from “To Have and Have Not,” set in Depression-era Key West, to the Nobel Prize–winning “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The striking red-brick Custom House Museum overlooks Key West Harbor. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The striking red-brick Custom House Museum overlooks Key West Harbor. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Visitors to the Custom House will discover a model of “Pilar” on display — as well as Hemingway’s detailed fishing logs and field notes, which illustrate his quest to understand the science of fishing.

Particularly engaging is a 1937 letter to Ernest from the Belmar Fishing Club, informing him that he has been awarded a “Glory of the Sport Fraternity” pin recognizing his “outstanding catches and activities in promoting angling.”

Other exhibit elements focus on the Keys’ angling legacy and its environmental effects.

The author himself presides over the collection. A six-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Hemingway, created by internationally acclaimed artist Terry Jones, depicts him in casual garb, holding a fishing rod — as though he’s ready to step aboard “Pilar” and cast off to battle monsters of the deep.

Tackle to do just that has pride of place in the exhibit: antique fishing tackle utilized by big game fishermen during the 1930s and 40s.

John Hemingway tries the fishing simulator at the Custom House Museum's fascinating exhibit about his grandfather's passion for fishing. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

John Hemingway tries the fishing simulator at the Custom House Museum’s fascinating exhibit about his grandfather’s passion for fishing. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

Standouts include a Greenheart rod with a Pflueger Atlapac reel, South Bend marlin teasers designed by Western writer (and Keys fishing aficionado) Zane Grey, a Pompanette 6” flying gaff and much more.

“Following the Fish” is presented by the Key West Art & Historical Society with support and collaboration from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory.

It’s scheduled to run through July 2015, and those intrigued by angling and Hemingway’s work are invited to check it out. They can even attempt to emulate Ernest’s skill by trying a challenging fishing simulator — just as John Hemingway did when he helped launch the must-see exhibit.

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Grooms and Blooms — Weddings in Key West

Steve Smith | January 2015

What an exciting time in which we find ourselves! Many of us, and our friends, have recently married, now that marriage equality is spreading across our country. Since Florida joined the states with marriage equality, Key West has seen an uptick in same-sex weddings.

Blogger Steve Smith  is flanked by William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida's fight for marriage equality.

Blogger Steve Smith is flanked by William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida’s fight for marriage equality.

Most notable was that of Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones who were wed just after midnight Jan. 6. Other local couples “tying the knot” include Sam and Jerry of Sam’s Treasure Chest, who have been together for 54 years; and Mike Roth and Neil McMichael, who have been together 31 years. WOW — this journey to marriage equality has come a long way in the last year.

Some of you may remember Key West’s Atlantic Shores Resort, fondly known for its clothing-optional sunning deck and pool and its Sunday Tea Dance under the stars. Many of us knew where the property’s amazing live webcam was located and positioned ourselves in the middle by the Atlantic Shores sign, telling our friends when to go online so we could wave to them over this new thing called the world wide web.

In June 2000, the Shores was the location of the first live “gay wedding” webcast. Locals Chip Clark and Dale Redford celebrated their union accompanied by several hundred of their local friends, and shared the moment over the Shores’ webcam.

The Harry S. Truman Little White House is one of Key West's unique historic wedding venues. (Photo courtesy of the Little White House Museum)

The Harry S. Truman Little White House is one of Key West’s unique historic venues for weddings. (Photo courtesy of the Little White House Museum)

Key West being such a tiny island, it has embraced equality for decades. It’s exciting to select from our many wedding venues that offer a perfect setting where you can legally marry and formalize your life commitment. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of the great historic venues to consider for your upcoming wedding, or legalization of your prior commitment ceremony.

Unique among our wedding venues is the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum, a property built in 1890 — which actually was the winter White House during 11 island getaways by President Truman. The house has also welcomed former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Imagine holding your ceremony in the president’s living room and a dinner or your reception in the president’s dining room!

The classic Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, located in historic Old Town, takes you back to mid-19th-century Key West. The home was built in the 1840s and reflects the elegance of a wealthy family who lived in the era of the flourishing shipwreck salvage industry. The romantic tropical gardens provide a perfect wedding setting — where you and your guests can wander brick pathways through tropical foliage including orchids, bromeliads, rare palms and colorful crotons.

Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers can transform a wedding setting into a wonderland of blooms. (Photo courtesy of Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers)

Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers can transform a wedding setting into a wonderland of blooms. (Photo courtesy of Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers)

For more than a decade, Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers — local purveyor of flowers and gifts owned by Richard Dennison and his husband Ron Rupe — has been providing couples with colorful tropical bouquets and floral displays accenting their ceremonies.

Richard, also known as Ms. D, has tirelessly entertained our community at numerous drag shows and charity pageants, claiming the title of Key West Queen Mother 19, Miss Firecracker and the Corn Queen are among other titles, while raising tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. Gourmet Nibbles & Flowers will certainly help make your ceremony sparkle with color and a sprinkling of fairy dust.

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

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Wounded Warriors Meet Keys Dolphins During Soldier Ride

Julie Botteri | January 2015

Each January, our small island community of Marathon welcomes a special group of men and women for an interactive session with bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys. It’s part of Soldier Ride, an annual cycling event (one of many around the country) that begins in Miami and concludes in Key West.

Marathon residents and visitors greet Soldier Ride participants. About 60 vets -- most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and their supporters joined in the ride down segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marathon residents and visitors greet Soldier Ride participants — about 60 vets, most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their supporters. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

When the group of 60 wounded military veterans arrived in the Middle Keys last Friday, Keys residents and visitors stood at the roadside to cheer and shout thanks and praise as the warrior participants pedaled through town to make their way across the Seven Mile Bridge — the longest span of 43 that help make up the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.

Some riders, missing one or more limbs after combat injuries, used specially adapted bicycles to participate in support of their injured comrades. It was a moving tribute to see, and an even more important reminder of our daily American freedoms.

After their crossing, soldiers were welcomed by Dolphin Research Center for swims with the dolphins, sharing flipper shakes and learning dolphin-training techniques.

DRC, founded by a Vietnam vet, values the work soldiers do to keep us safe — and honors their service by sharing fun and a moment of bliss amid the soldiers’ adjusting to the challenges of returning stateside.

Neil Boekel (right) a former Army Staff Sergeant injured after an explosive ambush in Iraq, completes a dolphin dorsal fin tow at Dolphin Research Center.

Neil Boekel (right), a former Army Staff Sergeant injured after an explosive ambush in Iraq, completes a dolphin dorsal fin tow at Dolphin Research Center.

For Neil Boekel, a 34-year-old former Army staff sergeant injured after a 2010 explosive ambush in Baghdad, the experience of interacting with a dolphin was more than he expected. I was honored to speak with him.

“It was like giving a puppy to a roomful of kids,” he said. “We all just wanted to touch it, play with it — we just wanted its attention as much as it wanted ours. We all just turned into a bunch of goobers playing with the dolphin in the water.”

The experience was equally rewarding for the research center’s staff. “When the soldiers get into the water with the dolphins, they have this moment of connection and it opens up the possibilities that there’s joy to be had,” said Rita Irwin, president and CEO of the facility.

Later, Neil admitted that he and others were initially apprehensive about being in the water with the mammals. But as each person in his group successfully circled the lagoon holding a dolphin’s dorsal fin, it was obvious to me that they quickly relaxed. Jokes and delighted laughter skimmed as easily across the water’s surface as the squeaking dolphins did.

Brandon Dodson and Flagler the dolphin splash each other at Dolphin Research Center.

Brandon Dodson and Flagler the dolphin splash each other at Dolphin Research Center.

I asked Neil what it meant to him and fellow veterans to step outside their world and do something so unusual.

“It’s such a new experience, and you’re focused on this experience — you don’t have time to trip over yourself,” he responded. “You forget to be afraid of loud noises, or shadows in the corner of your eye, because you’re too busy trying to figure out why you’re in the water with a pack of dolphins.”

Neil also shared some thoughts that brought me to tears. He told me his first two years after leaving the service were unpleasant, dark, and he would never have spoken to me or anyone about his experiences.

Now, five years later, he can. He lends help to soldiers who are just getting out, both with teaching vets surfing as part of a program in Florida’s Panhandle and through Soldier Ride events.

“It’s not necessarily what we’re doing, it’s the group itself,” he explained. “In this group, you find someone who’s riding a bike for the first time, somebody who’s getting outside again for the first time. Today, I got to be the guy who got the cane out of the back of the truck to bring to my buddy to help him out.”

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Organized by the Wounded Warrior Project, Soldier Ride events raise public awareness and support for the needs of severely injured military members involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts returning to the U.S.

Rehabilitative opportunities and monies help provide for basic comfort items and transporting soldiers and their families between home and hospital — and develop supportive peer-mentoring programs.

“On these rides and these events … you get to see the future; you get to see a little glimpse of hope,” Neil said. “You know where you are now, and you get to see little bit of what tomorrow might have.”

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