Keys Districts

Keri Kenning: One Fish, Two Fish, See Fish, Count Fish!

Julie Botteri | September 2014

As a millennial-age young professional who’s passionate about making epic achievements, 24-year-old Kansas native Keri Kenning sets the bar high. As well as a dizzying array of outdoor interests such as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, fly-fishing, biking and photography, she also pursues underwater objectives driven by mathematical models — counting fish and surveying coral heads.

Keri Kenning encourages  divers to participate in lionfish capture events such as derbies.

Keri Kenning encourages divers to participate in lionfish capture events such as derbies.

“Diving is great, but volunteering underwater is better,” said Keri, a resident of Key Largo since 2012. “Whether it’s for pleasure or for volunteer work, the majority of my dive log is some kind of research, including lionfish monitoring, lionfish capturing and tagging, or fish counting.

“It’s definitely more exciting than normal diving — always fun to have an objective,” she added.

Keri’s father, a diving enthusiast and underwater photographer, introduced her to the water at an early age. At age 10, during a fun-fish identification class with her parents and siblings on a family trip to Bonaire, her fiery passion for fish, invertebrates and corals was ignited. A few short years later, Keri pursued her dive certification.

“I really enjoy seeing the underwater habitats and learning how these animals all live and interact together,” she explained.

While a biology undergrad at the University of Kansas in 2011, Keri experienced a semester-long program at the School for Field Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands that fortified her love of marine science and conservation. There she learned about human impacts on marine resources as well as conservation, environmental policy, socioeconomic values and the impacts of lionfish on the reefs through density surveys, habitat assessments and dissections.

Keri spends her spare time on outdoor pursuits and adventures in the Keys.

Keri spends her spare time on outdoor pursuits and adventures in the Keys.

But it wasn’t until a post-grad dive trip to Belize that Keri met Lad Akins, director of the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, along with other leading lionfish researchers. Keri applied for and was granted a REEF internship and has served as the nonprofit organization’s communications manager — teaching fish identification classes and the how-tos of lionfish collecting, conducting U.S.-based workshops and planning lionfish derbies.

In addition, Keri is an elite member of REEF’s Advanced Assessment Team of divers who have achieved expert status at fish identification. She recently completed fish count dives in Little Cayman as well as on the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West, where REEF has monitored recruitment of fish to the artificial reef since its sinking in May 2009.

Her rewarding adventures continued at Key Largo’s MarineLab, where she taught marine science to grade school-age through college-age students — both in the classroom and in the field. She refers to herself as a human sponge, “squeezing out” everything she takes in to pass along for others to enjoy.

“I really want to stay involved and volunteer as much as I can,” Keri said. “Divers my age and all ages can volunteer with fish counts, lionfish removals, the Coral Restoration Foundation and cleanup dives.”

Keri is passionate about volunteering and helping preserve the Keys' rich environment.

Keri is passionate about volunteering and helping preserve the Keys’ rich marine environment.

Keri emphasized that high school students often are required to earn community service hours for activities such as picking up trash or fundraising at a carwash. Many are excited, however, to learn they can earn a semester’s worth of community service hours for snorkeling — doing REEF fish surveys, collecting data and even submitting their captured data online.

“I encourage divers, both young and old, to take up fish watching because it will transform the way you dive,” she said. “By learning the names, behaviors, and hiding holes of fish and invertebrates, you personify them. By giving a personality to sea creatures, you’re more likely to value and respect them, to conserve and protect them. You can’t love what you don’t know, and you won’t protect what you don’t know.”

Keri’s approach to life in the Keys is equally enthusiastic.

“There’s a lot to love about the Keys … so many outdoor activities,” she said. “I’ve never been healthier because I’m always on the go adventuring somewhere.”

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It’s Good to Be Queen … or King!

Steve Smith | September 2014

As summer fades into fall, our days in Key West have become a bit cooler and the nightlife is heating up — because the campaign to crown the new king and queen of Fantasy Fest is in full swing. Fantasy Fest, in case you don’t know, is the island’s outrageous 10-day costuming and masking festival that takes place each October.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014's royal crowns.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014′s royal crowns.

Royal hopefuls will spend the next month hosting events around Key West to raise funds for the Keys’ AIDS Help organization — and the king and queen candidates who raise the most money will be crowned Fantasy Fest royalty Friday, Oct. 17, under the moonlight on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Candidates’ fundraising events are open to the public and offer a variety of experiences as well as a great time.

On Friday evening, Sept. 19, the “Clyde for King” campaign will transform the parking lot of The Restaurant Store, 1111 Eaton St., into the setting for a gala event featuring food, libations, and entertainment by the Keys’ own Howard Livingston and Mile Marker 24. The “ML for Queen” faction is hosting events including a “Beverly Hillbillies Block Party” with a country fair feel, where the attractions include burgers, dogs and chicken, a bake sale, and entertainment.

“Jules for Queen” is staging a throwback “Gangsta Party” Sept. 24 at the Cork & Stogie that just might bring out Al Capone and Key West’s own Bum Farto (Google him to learn about our former fire chief who disappeared in 1976).

The lovely Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The beautiful Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The “Shane for King” campaign brings the second annual Red Dress Gala to the Woman’s Club on Duval Street Saturday, Sept. 27. Be sure to wear your favorite red dress and enjoy food, drink, and dancing under the stars.

You’ll find many more royal campaign events listed on the AIDS Help website — including orchid auctions, sunset cruises, dinners, Vegas nights, and themed costume galas.

On a related note, each year we look forward to the Royal Ball hosted by former Fantasy Fest Queen Kate Miano at her boutique Gardens Hotel. In addition to savoring food and your favorite beverages, you can stroll through tropical gardens, enjoy live entertainment, and meet former Fantasy Fest kings and queens.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West's new Shameless Lounge each Monday.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West’s new Shameless Lounge each Monday. (Photo by Larry Blackburn)

The Gardens Hotel welcomes gay men and women to its acre of tropical gardens surrounded by guest rooms and cottages — and offers live piano entertainment Thursday through Saturday. On Sundays, the property becomes the setting for live jazz concerts open to locals and visitors alike. While it’s not a “gay specific” property, you’ll find members of our community welcoming you, staying at The Gardens, and stopping by to enjoy the entertainment options.

A new treat on the island is the SHAMELESS LOUNGE and restaurant recently opened at 610 Greene St., offering the cuisine of noted chef Jennifer E. (formerly at favorite eateries Blue Heaven and Salute).

Shameless features live entertainment, a Sunday Drag Brunch, and a Monday comedy night with the irreverent QMitch Jones. Owner Dion Contreras, a former resident of Chicago, has created a great venue for locals and visitors to step off Duval Street for lunch and dinner — and best of all, they serve until 4 a.m. on the weekends!

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Get Ready for Amazing ‘Animeted’ Adventures at Fantasy Fest

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2014

Imagine yourself dressed as a hero from traditional Japanese anime, stalwartly wielding a sword to defeat the forces of evil. Or perhaps you’re a character from an animated film blockbuster, like the delightfully uncouth Shrek or a “Frozen” princess whose beauty is matched only by her spirit. You might even be an evildoer escaped from the pages of a classic comic book, your face set in a ferocious growl as you menace a hapless victim.

Deirdre Robbins displays her feather-bedecked headdress during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Deirdre Robbins displays her elaborate ensemble during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Unlikely? Not if you’re participating in Key West’s renowned Fantasy Fest celebration, coming up Oct. 17-26.

What is Fantasy Fest? Simply the most outrageous festival you’ve ever experienced, combining exotic and elaborate costuming, a flair for the fantastic and a freewheeling party spirit found only in the Florida Keys.

Begun more than 30 years ago as an expression of typical Key West exuberance, Fantasy Fest has grown to achieve international popularity for its style, its sights, and its spontaneity. Thousands of people descend upon the island annually to don masks and costumes and escape their real-world cares in a 10-day whirl of revelry — revelry that includes lavish costume competitions, street fairs, dress-up galas and a decadent grand parade designed to excel in excess and exuberance.

The biggest and best known of Key West’s many festivals, Fantasy Fest adopts a different theme each year, providing continual inspiration for costumes both funky and fabulous — and floats as flamboyant as anything you can imagine. This year’s extravaganza is themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures,” in salute to traditional Japanese anime and virtually all forms of creative animation.

This Dali-inspired creation took "high honors" at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

This Dali-inspired creation took “high honors” at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

The excitement begins Oct. 17 and 18 with the Goombay celebration in historic Bahama Village. Honoring Key West’s Caribbean roots, Goombay combines the tangy smells of jerk chicken and conch fritters, the pulsing beat of Caribbean-American bands, and a vivid collage of wares ranging from African-inspired clothing to copper and brass jewelry.

As the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico, the bands turn their amplifiers up a notch, the rhythms and aromas drift throughout Bahama Village, and the excitement of Fantasy Fest assumes an almost tangible form in the island dusk.

The festival’s subsequent days and nights contain events such as the glitzy Headdress Ball. The glamorous gathering draws entrants wearing elaborate masks and headgear from the beautiful to the bizarre … plus dazzling entertainment from top local performers and female impersonators.

Among the other intriguing events is the Pet Masquerade and Parade, where the fur flies as pets and their owners vie for costume prizes. You’ll find people dressed as animals and animals dressed as people during this family-style competition. Past standouts include a pair of green-headed “space aliens” escorting a starship “manned” by a canine crew, a “vampire cat” with a replica coffin and an eerie people-and-pets ensemble depicting the fictional “Addams Family.”

The fun takes to the streets during the madcap Masquerade March, a lively promenade beginning at the Key West Cemetery. It typically draws high-spirited bands and revelers wearing feathered masks, costumes and finery inspired by the festival theme. Memorable marchers in past years range from a scaly 40-foot “sea serpent” to a flock of “chickens of the sea” wearing tutus, a male quartet in matching Wonder Woman costumes and two polka-dotted walking octopuses.

The Fantasy Fest parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Fantasy Fest Parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The festival spirit is most spectacular, however, during the annual Fantasy Fest Parade, when brilliantly-conceived floats travel down the island city’s main thoroughfare to the cheers of some 60,000 spectators. Walking groups dressed in bright robes and feathers add fire and color to the procession — as do the exotically-dressed revelers gleefully following the floats.

The 2013 parade starred, among many other entries, a float featuring fictional crime fighter Batman rising 40 feet above the crowd to protect “Gotham City,” and a trio of “archangels” with massive white-feathered wings pursued by menacing horned demons.

Want to be part of Key West’s “animeted” adventures at Fantasy Fest this year? Then make plans — and reservations — ASAP, because accommodations fill up FAST.

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Paddleboarding Prevails in the Keys

Julie Botteri | September 2014

Many Florida Keys visitors enjoy outdoor adventures like kayaking the pristine waters and snorkeling or diving along the Keys’ living coral barrier reef (which, FYI, is the continental United States’ ONLY such reef).

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada's popular Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada’s popular Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

But don’t forget other on-the-water activities that allow participants to explore the Keys’ fascinating natural environment — while, at the same time, treating body and mind to some “unplugged” relaxation.

For example, standup paddling or paddleboarding is surging in popularity with people drawn by the island chain’s active-lifestyle mindset. Paired well with other “unplugged” water-sports activities, it’s a relatively simple, straightforward pastime that appeals to a diverse cross-section of people.

The warm, clear, calm waters typical of lazy summer and fall days in the Keys make for easy exploration of the natural world and its creatures. And board sales and rentals are offered by a good number of area watersports and outdoor outfitters — as well as being included among the amenities at several Keys resorts.

Paddlers use the board (typically ranging in length from 12 to 14 feet), for traversing on a “downwinder,” otherwise known as riding the board backed by tradewinds to cover distance. If the winds are nonexistent, they can use the long boards as a fishing platform or just quietly enjoy secluded eco-tours through the backcountry flats.

Patricia Miller, with Lazy Dog Adventures, instructs paddleboarding yoga in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Haig Jacobs)

Patricia Miller, with Lazy Dog Adventures, instructs paddleboarding yoga in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Haig Jacobs)

Some outdoor adventure companies have added a twist to the board sport with paddleboard yoga classes. While that may sound like an unlikely combination, paddleboard yoga actually blends mind and body relaxation with healthy exercise and eco-enjoyment — and beginners through experienced yoga practitioners can participate.

Two-hour classes generally are divided between paddling time and yoga practice. Participants first paddle out to the calm backcountry waters, spotting sea life and wading birds along the way, then begin their yoga while connecting with nature in a tranquil mangrove setting. Like mat yoga, the experience is designed to still the mind and increase flexibility and strength through chanting, breathwork and seated and standing postures — all using the anchored paddleboard to execute warrior, downward facing dog and headstand poses.

Keeping on-the-water fun even more hip and innovative, the Paddle Sports center at Ibis Bay Resort in Key West offers a revolutionary after-dark paddleboarding experience. Paddleboards (and glass-bottom kayaks) are equipped with waterproof LED light bars that illuminate the waters and sea life during nighttime paddling trips through shallow Gulf of Mexico waters.

Dog Beach draws denizens like this happy canine. (Photo by Joanne Denning)

This pup is clearly ready to paddle. (Photo by Joanne Denning)

In addition, the Keys are home to some notable paddling events — including those designed for canine-craving water enthusiasts. MarrVelous Pet Rescues regularly hosts Paddlin’ & Pups events where dog owners and tail-wagging potential adoptees can enjoy time on the boards together cruising the waters of Florida Bay.

The next Paddlin’ & Pups gathering is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, presented in conjunction with Florida Bay Outfitters (located at mile marker 104 in Key Largo). People can rent paddleboards from Florida Bay Outfitters — with all proceeds benefiting the rescue organization — for the worthwhile Fido-friendly paddle.

From mangrove-lined creeks in Key Largo to secluded coastlines in the remote Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys and surrounding shallow subtropical waters are ideal for passionate paddlers. Whether traversing on a “downwinder,” practicing on-the-water yoga or cruising with canines, paddleboarding in the Keys means a “doggone” good time.

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Key West: A Helpful “How To”

Steve Smith | September 2014

Where should I stay in Key West? How do I get to Key West? These are the questions I hear most often when I’m on the road promoting the city and the Florida Keys.

The Florida Keys' Overseas Highway bisects the Atlantic Ocean (left) and the Gulf of Mexico on the right. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway leads to Key West, bisecting the Atlantic Ocean (left) and the Gulf of Mexico on the right. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In fact, many people don’t realize that Key West is an island at the end of U.S. Highway 1 — closer to Cuba than the mainland United States. Long known as a “gay Mecca,” the city of Key West proudly adopted “One Human Family” as its official philosophy in 2000 — a move soon followed by Monroe County, which encompasses the entire Florida Keys island chain. Recognizing that all people are created equal, the entire destination is renowned for its welcoming and accepting attitude.

Getting to Key West is a treat whether you drive or fly. Major airlines fly into Key West International Airport from several connecting cities. For example, Delta connects through Atlanta and offers direct service from New York La Guardia during the winter, American Airlines connects through Miami, and United connects through Tampa, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Fort Lauderdale with its regional carrier Silver.

Visitors driving to Key West travel the scenic Overseas Highway, a ribbon of roadway that includes 42 bridges — one of them nearly seven miles long — with sparkling blue water on both sides. You might consider flying into Miami, renting a car to drive over the water, and flying home from the Key West airport when your vacation has ended.

Toga parties are  among the most entertaining attractions at Key West's Equator Resort.

Toga parties are among the most entertaining attractions at Key West’s Equator Resort.

Key West has several properties that specially cater to gay men. The New Orleans House, located above Bourbon St. Pub at the heart of Duval Street, combines renovated rooms with a pool and Jacuzzi, sundecks both poolside and up two and three stories overlooking the island, a grill and full-service bar.

You can even step onto the balcony and take a selfie in the six-foot stiletto that’s featured live on CNN each New Year’s Eve during Key West’s famous “Shoe Drop.” Plus, the Garden Bar turns into a cabaret for the annual Mr. Pride and Miss Pride pageants as well as numerous fundraising events throughout the year.

The Equator Resort, located in the 800 block of Fleming Street, offers 34 rooms and suites, two pools, two Jacuzzis and sunning areas spread across four buildings. Guests can enjoy continental breakfast and afternoon happy hour — and several times each year, toga-clad men descend on the Equator for its famed toga parties.

Alexander’s Guesthouse is the longest-operated gay and lesbian property on the island. Located at 1118 Fleming St., it features sundecks and a pool and Jacuzzi surrounded by tropical foliage. Guests savor an expanded continental breakfast and complementary happy hour at the poolside bar. During winter months, offerings include poolside movies, beach and “traffic light” parties.

Revelers can make a splash during the Sunday pool parties at the Island House.

Revelers can make a splash during the Sunday pool parties at the Island House.

The Island House, 1130 Fleming St., has been hosting gay men for more than 25 years. The resort’s guest rooms surround the pool and sundecks, which open onto a café and full-service bar. Two Jacuzzis, a sauna, gym, and a steam room complete the visitor experience. The Island House hosts weekly themed pool parties as well as innovative events throughout the year — such as Key West’s White Party.

Hopefully I’ve given you a few choices of places to stay and ways to get to our paradise. So why not start planning now for a fall or winter escape?

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

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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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