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Savoring a Key West Sunset

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2014

A sunburned little girl in a flowered print dress, long hair streaming past her waist, clambered onto a high stool on the pier overlooking Key West Harbor. The sun was hesitating low in the sky, seemingly pondering the wisdom of dropping below the horizon. The little girl settled herself firmly on her stool. Turning her face sunward, she tapped her fingers in time with the music coming from the band on stage.

The Sunset Pier at Ocean Key Resort is a great place to watch the sun go down in Key West. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Marina)

The Sunset Pier at Ocean Key Resort is a great place to watch the sun go down in Key West. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

That little girl is just one of the hundreds that gather each evening at Ocean Key Resort’s Sunset Pier to sip tall cool drinks, sample fresh seafood, and savor the magic of a Key West sunset. In fact, spending an evening there with a friend reminded me of the reasons I’m in Key West in the first place.

When we arrived, seating ourselves at a wooden table under a bright-colored “sun-brella,” the orb was still well above the horizon. Across the blue-green harbor, Christmas Tree Island lay serene and the lovely retreat on Sunset Key was fully visible.

We were hardly the first to arrive for the nightly show. Chattering groups were gathered at other tables, standing around the bar, and seated on colorful wooden stools drawn up to the dock’s long rail overlooking the water.

As we ordered cocktails, a variety of vessels passed practically near enough to touch — a lazy sailboat, a powerboat on a mission, a couple of unidentified floating objects. Caribbean music and light rock drifted over the water, and the scent of saltwater mingled with the aroma of deep-fried conch fritters and the tang of vacationers’ sunscreen.

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

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

The Sunset Pier is a great place to catch a casual meal as well as a spectacular sunset. Both a grill and a raw bar are onsite, with a variety of mouthwatering choices available including grilled local fish and mahi-mahi sandwiches. The raw bar features oysters on the half shell, sweet peel-and-eat shrimp, citrus-marinated ceviche, stone crab claws in season and other temptations.

A word about the Sunset Pier bar: you can get virtually anything there, ranging from a simple Perrier to beer to exotic libations. Blender offerings are the choice of many sunset spectators, and several concoctions have names that sound deliciously decadent.

As we watched, sipping our cool (though non-exotic) choices, the sun slipped into the water, and novices at this game thought the show was over.

Not so. After the sun’s actual descent, leftover rays painted the sky with traces of peach and robin’s-egg blue. Connoisseurs of the spectacle generally instruct newcomers to wait at least 20 minutes more to see the most brilliant colors appear.

After the sun’s descent, leftover rays paint the sky off the Sunset Pier. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

After the sun’s descent, leftover rays paint the sky off the Sunset Pier. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

When the lights lining the pier began to glow, we ordered another round. Some people don’t notice it, but sundown brings a subtle electricity to Key West’s waterfront and downtown districts.

Maybe it’s sparked by the evening temperature shift, or the breeze that drifts across slowly darkening water. I don’t know, but for me the sensation is part of the island’s indefinable magic.

As we finally got up to leave, a lone sailboat drifted by with a green light glowing atop its mast. Most people had already gone, the dark sky retained a hint of burgundy, and a few early stars were out. We walked away from the pier feeling relaxed and content — and grateful to glimpse the ritual of sunset from such a fine vantage point.

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Want to Win a Keys Summer Getaway? Just Send a Text!

Julie Botteri | April 2014

It can’t be that simple, you’re probably thinking. Take a break from the “real world” in the Florida Keys this summer — get away from smog, job doldrums, city heat or whatever you want to get away from, and spend blissful days and nights in America’s laid-back “Margaritaville” island chain — and all you have to do is text?

One lucky ocean lover will win a fabulous Florida Keys vacation ... simply by sending a text!

One lucky ocean lover will win a fabulous Florida Keys vacation … simply by sending a text!

Actually, it’s true. Entering to win a summertime Keys vacation is as easy as sending a text from your cell phone (and let’s face it, taking a chance on winning a vacation is a WAYYY better use of your texting time than commenting on somebody’s new Facebook post). 

So here’s the deal: through mid-June, just text the word KEYSFUN to 65047 — and register to win a five-night trip for two to the Florida Keys. It’s that simple.

Travel dates are July 9-14, just after the July 4 holiday, when the Keys waters are clear and calm and great for watersports. And the waters that surround the Keys will be your vacation’s focus — as you enjoy both above- and below-water activities.

"Eel-vis" and his mermaid backup singer jam beneath the sea during a previous Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau).

“Eel-vis” and his mermaid backup singer jam beneath the sea during a previous Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau).

If you’re the lucky winner of the summer getaway, you and a guest will experience Key Largo (widely renowned as the dive capital of the world) and the pristine, laid-back Lower Keys — PLUS “dive into” the quirky Underwater Music Festival.

The 30th annual festival takes place Saturday, July 12, at Looe Key Reef, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary six miles south of Big Pine Key. The internationally recognized event attracts divers, snorkelers, the occasional long-haired mermaid, and costumed characters “playing” musical instruments on the ocean floor — while a local radio station broadcasts music underwater through speakers placed beneath boats. Even the fish seem to sway to the melodies (honest!).

The prize includes an air travel card valued at $1,000, which is redeemable on whatever airline you choose, and a $300 car rental certificate.

Ocean Pointe Suites will host the vacation winner in Key Largo.

Ocean Pointe Suites will host the vacation winner in Key Largo.

Where will you be staying? You’ll receive two nights’ accommodations in an ocean-view suite at Key Largo’s Ocean Pointe Suites, a 60-acre resort surrounded by protected mangrove forest … and three nights in the island-style Reef Cottage at Little Torch Key’s Dolphin Marina and Cottages, located on picturesque Newfound Harbor in the Lower Keys.

But (as they say in those pesky television infomercials), that’s not all! Also awaiting you are dive or snorkel trips to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, kayak rentals and a guided backcountry kayak tour, a sunset sail and a tour of the lovely botanic gardens at Key Largo’s Kona Kai Resort.

When you get hungry, savor dinner for two at the Key Largo Conch House — or nibble on luscious goodies in your VIP gift basket from Key Largo Chocolates.

The prize also includes a relaxing Lower Keys stay in the Reef Cottage at Dolphin Resort & Marina..

The prize also includes a relaxing Lower Keys stay at Dolphin Marina and Cottages.

Overall, this five-night Florida Keys escape is valued at about $3,400 … and you could win it just by texting KEYSFUN to 65047. (Text-capable mobile users also can enter by visiting www.FloridaKeysWin.com.)

Either way, it’s as easy as that.

FYI, you must be at least 21 years old to enter and must live in the continental U.S. You can only enter once, and the deadline is 11:59 p.m. Thursday, June 12. But don’t delay — do it TODAY, and then start planning your getaway to the fabulous Florida Keys. 

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From Conch to Kamp … it’s All on the Calendar in Key West

Steve Smith | April 2014

The Conch Republic lives on and we will be celebrating our historic independence Friday, April 18, at the world-famous Schooner Wharf Bar, located on the Key West Bight at the end of William Street. The bight is home to one of the largest fleets of schooners in the country including Schooner America 2.0, Schooner Western Union, and Schooner Spirit of Independence.

Supporters of the quirky Conch Republic show their conch spirit each spring with a lively festival. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Supporters of the quirky Conch Republic show their conch spirit each spring with a lively festival. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Conch Republic Secretary General, the Honorable Sir Peter Anderson, will kick off the 32nd annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration at 7 p.m. Following his remarks, the Caribbean Queen Junkanoo Band, adorned in colorful costumes, will rock the bar with drums, cowbells, whistles, and horns. It’s a must-see event!

FYI, the Conch Republic was born in April 1982, when the Florida Keys staged a secession from the United States to create an independent ”country.” The secession took place after a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint was installed at the head of the Overseas Highway, essentially stopping traffic on the only road in and out of the island chain.

Each year, we celebrate the anniversary of the secession with a fun-filled festival. Events include a conch shell blowing contest, with prizes awarded for the longest and hardest blast of the conch shell as well as the most musical “blow.” Along with bragging rights, the winner will receive prizes such as schooner and sunset sailing trips on Schooner America and adventures on Sunset Watersports and the Sebago — some of my favorites!

The Great Conch Republic Drag Race will highlight Saturday, April 19, in the middle of Duval Street’s “Pink Triangle” — but you’ve never seen drag races like this! Bring your camera and your friends …. the racing drag queens must wear stilettos at least three inches high (and the higher the heel, the better the handicap). Lavish trophies and awards are given, and bribes are cheerfully accepted.

Even Key West canines, like "blog dog" Giulio shown here, have been enjoying the warm weather recently. (Photo by Steve Smith)

Key West canines, like “blog dog” Giulio shown here, are counting the days till the Xena Dog Walk. (Photo by Steve Smith)

Tuesday, April 22, brings the Xena Dog Walk starting at 5 p.m. at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at the intersection of Whitehead and Greene Streets. Bring your pooch and yourself, in costume or not. The $10 entry fee benefits the Xena Fund, a not-for-profit organization that provides emergency and preventive pet care for our beloved four-legged friends. Here on this tiny island we look after each other, and pet care is a necessity that some people just can’t afford on their own.

The Red Ribbon Bed Race rules the road Saturday, April 26, while raising funds for AIDS Help, our community-based AIDS service organization. The action includes a parade of decorated beds and wacky races with “strange bedfellows” propelling the beds up Duval Street. Organizers bill the event as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on.”

Teams race decorated beds on Duval Street during the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration.

Teams race decorated beds on Duval Street during the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Kamp Key West is coming up May 15-18 — but it’s far different than the summer camp many of us endured as our parents gleefully packed us off so they could get a bit of peace and quiet after the school year. Our “kamp” will be a lot more fun with beach parties, kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, sunset sailing and parasailing. 

“Happy kampers” start the day with a fitness boot camp, and then head for their favorite watersports activities ranging from snorkeling to dolphin encounters. It doesn’t get much better than a weekend of relaxing activities on a two-mile by four-mile island bordered by the sparkling Gulf of Mexico and the emerald Atlantic Ocean.

Before that takes place, however, I’ll look for you during the Conch Republic celebration!

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

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Favorite Museums Tell Key West Tales

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2014

Key West’s past unfolds as you visit its museums and historic homes. Some of them explore the island’s seafaring roots, some celebrate famous residents, some offer a glimpse of unique architecture and a bygone way of life — and all are fascinating if you’re truly interested in the intriguing southernmost city.

Today's Key West Lighthouse beckons visitors as it once beckoned mariners. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today’s Key West Lighthouse beckons visitors as it once beckoned mariners. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

So on your next Key West getaway, put on your walking shoes and adventure through the five favorites listed here.

Key West Lighthouse Museum, 938 Whitehead St. Since the island’s settlement in the 1820s, residents have been dependent on the sea for their livelihood. Whether wreckers, traders, fishermen, or spongers, they were at the mercy of wind and wave — and the beacon of the Key West Lighthouse led them safely home.

The light itself was completed in the late 1840s and guided mariners for more than 120 years. Today the museum contains collections relating to the history of Florida Keys lighthouses and their hardy keepers. (More than one keeper, incidentally, was female.) Eighty-eight steps lead up to the light’s top, and if you make the climb you’ll discover an unequaled view of the island and surrounding waters.

Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead St. Hemingway began his love affair with Key West in 1928. By 1931, he and his then-wife, Pauline, were ensconced in the former Asa Tift home on Whitehead Street. Today the Spanish Colonial mansion is a museum furnished with mementos, and the second-story pool house where Hemingway wrote every morning has an evocative atmosphere all its own.

Ernest Hemingway's former home is now a popular museum whose feline residents have a Hemingway connection. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Ernest Hemingway’s former home is now a popular museum whose feline residents have a Hemingway connection. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Entranced by the island’s rowdy lifestyle and spectacular fishing, Ernest remained in Key West until 1939, and he captured the island’s spirit during the Depression in the brilliant “To Have and Have Not.” The grounds of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s home are inhabited by cats — some with six toes who are supposedly descended from Hemingway’s feline Snowball.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St. Key West resident Mel Fisher spent 16 years searching for the shipwreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank during a 1622 hurricane. On July 20, 1985, his long search ended. Subsequently, gold and silver coins and bars, religious jewelry, contraband emeralds and more were recovered from the site.

The impressive museum contains treasure and artifacts from the Atocha and her fleet-mate, the Santa Margarita. Among them are a 77-karat emerald glowing with green fire, a solid-gold poison cup once used by Spanish nobles, and historically priceless ship’s fittings and navigational instruments. Artifacts from the English merchant slaver Henrietta Marie, also excavated off Key West, are on display as well.

A diver examines gold bars and chains on the site of the Nuestra Se–nora de Atocha shipwreck about 35 miles off Key West. (Photo by Pat Clyne/Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum contains gold bars and chains recovered from the Nuestra Se–nora de Atocha shipwreck. (Photo by Pat Clyne/Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

The Curry Mansion, 511 Caroline St. With its circular drive, exuberant balconies and veranda, and widow’s walk that offers a sweeping panorama of land and water, the Curry Mansion exemplifies the elegance of yesterday’s Key West.

The rear of the house is part of the 1855 homestead of William Curry, who became Florida’s first millionaire, and its imposing facade was added later by Curry’s son Milton. Today the Curry Mansion remains one of the most spectacular structures on the island, and its collection of antiques transports visitors back in time.

Harry S. Truman Little White House, 111 Front St. In 1946, suffering from a vicious cold, then-president Harry Truman was ordered by his doctor to take a break. He visited Key West and was so impressed by the island’s warmth and friendliness that he returned 10 times — spending 175 days of his presidency in the building that became known around the world as Truman’s Little White House.

During his Key West sojourns, Truman made momentous decisions and conducted important meetings away from the pressures of Washington.

During his Key West sojourns, Truman made momentous decisions and conducted important meetings away from the pressures of Washington.

“The best time I ever had,” said Truman, who continued to visit the island until 1969, “was in Key West while I was president.”

Today, the home he loved is restored to offer a fascinating glimpse of the Truman era. Items of note include a round poker table handmade for the president, his desk, and his treasured piano. Every year Truman’s grandson, author Clifton Truman Daniel, returns to the Little White House for a critically acclaimed symposium exploring aspects of his grandfather’s legacy.

Want to fall in love with Key West like Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman did? Click here for some real-time glimpses of the enticing island.

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Keys’ Lady Angler Crushes World Record for Tarpon on Fly

Julie Botteri | April 2014

For Islamorada resident and passionate fly angler Heidi Nute, fly fishing in her Florida Keys backyard has become a hunt for giant tarpon.

Heidi Nute's passion for fly fishing led her to an astonishing tarpon catch.

Heidi Nute’s passion for fly fishing led her to an astonishing tarpon catch.

On a warmer-than-usual Saturday afternoon this past February, she found one (did she ever!). Heidi landed a massive 152.8-pound fish — the largest tarpon caught by a female angler on a fly rod that has EVER been recorded by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA).

How did the history-making story unfold? Heidi was fishing with her husband, fellow fly angler Paul Nute, and Islamorada’s Captain Tim Mahaffey, in the Everglades near Flamingo. After a slow morning, the trio had hooked six tarpon in the shallows. The last and largest ate Captain Mahaffey’s fly without hesitation.

When Heidi took a turn, “large” suddenly developed a whole new meaning.

She patiently enticed the giant fish to bite her bug and gamely fought to land it while it jumped 16 times in a grueling 65-minute period. When the tarpon was finally out of fight, the captain skillfully gaffed it — using a historically successful folding-barb kill gaff that the late legendary angler Billy Pate used.

The use of the gaff was a rare piece of serendipity — because Billy Pate reportedly boated all his record-setting tarpon and marlin with that very hook.

Since honing her fly-fishing skills, Heidi has taken home multiple trophies from notable Keys tournaments.

Since honing her fly-fishing skills, Heidi has taken home multiple trophies from notable Keys tournaments.

Coincidentally — or maybe not — Heidi and Paul had bid on the item and won it during an auction of Pate memorabilia. Later, Heidi had enlisted the aid of local Captain Randy Towe to sharpen the blade and cover the shaft with an anti-slip wrap.

“It is just great to have that piece of history used to get this fish,” Heidi said after her astonishing catch.

Her pending world record submission must meet certain criteria for the IGFA to verify the record. Steps included testing both the length and breaking strength of her leader, and ensuring the catch was made according to international angling rules laid out by the IGFA.

Although the 12-pound tippet over-tested slightly, Heidi’s entry has already successfully qualified for the women’s 16-pound fly rod record for tarpon — held previously by Diana Rudolph for catching a 135.5-pounder.

Heidi’s submission is now in the IGFA’s record certification process, and her outstanding new record should be finalized within a few weeks.

Based on her accomplishment, you might think Heidi has been a “top gun” fly angler for 20 years or so — but that’s not the case.

A tarpon seemingly stands on its tail after being hooked in the Florida Keys. (Photo by Pat Ford)

A tarpon seemingly stands on its tail after being hooked in the Florida Keys. (Photo by Pat Ford)

In fact, she scored her world-record fish — the fish of a lifetime — just seven years after she graduated from Sandy Moret’s world-renowned fly-fishing school in Islamorada.

Before that, her prior experience only included fishing with her father in the streams of upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, where she had used light spinning rods for small trout.

Since taking that fateful class, however, Heidi has competed and triumphed in several Keys tournaments. She scored back-to-back victories, alongside Captain Rob Fordyce, in the 2012 and 2013 Ladies Invitational Tarpon Fly tournaments — and took grand champion angler titles at the 2009, 2010 and 2013 Women’s Fall Fly Classic.

“I attribute 100 percent of my success to the caliber of Keys fishing guides and their coaching,” said Heidi, who moved with Paul from Miami to Islamorada full-time in 2011. “Fishing with the very best has done a lot to shorten the learning curve.”

Now that her new world record seems certain, what’s next for this intrepid angler?

According to those in the know, Heidi is in hot pursuit of the 12-pound tippet record.

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Julia and Edie Get Married — and Other Joys of the Season

Steve Smith | April 2014

The way Mother Nature plays with the weather rarely surprises me, but it did last week when I was in New York City for the 21st GLBT Business & Consumer Exposition. My first day in the city was sunny and just a bit cool, but the day I left it was 25 degrees Fahrenheit with snow on the way. I arrived back in Key West to a 74-degree day and couldn’t wait to get into my shorts and my pool!

With Key West's winter temps in the 70s, it's perfect weather for a lazy sunset sail.

Key West’s balmy spring temps mean it’s perfect weather to enjoy the island’s surrounding waters during a sail, swim or other activity.

This was the 20th time I have promoted the Florida Keys & Key West at this event and I always try to do something outside the box (if not upside down from the norm). For example in 2001, when two people known as the Bitch Sisters were the reigning queens of our annual Fantasy Fest celebration, I rented a convertible, the queens sat on the boot and show visitors joined them for photos.   

This year we held the Javits Center’s first legal lesbian wedding. Key West residents Julia Davis and Edie Hambright came to NYC to tie the knot with several thousand of their newest friends witnessing their event. They were celebrating 20 years together and this was a perfect way to solidify their very successful and loving relationship. 

Cheer New York, New York City’s gay cheerleaders’ group, saluted the couple with customized acrobatic cheers, and the wedding cake was enjoyed by some 200 friends — a fitting celebration for two strong, savvy women.

Surrounded by friends and extended family, Julia and Edie celebrate their marriage.

Surrounded by friends and extended family, Julia and Edie celebrate their marriage.

Returning to Key West certainly reminds me why I love warm weather, and being surrounded by clear water sparkling in hues of emerald and lapis.

While the first day of spring has come and gone, many places in the country are still enduring snow — but our home is alive with blooming frangipani trees splashing the city with pink, yellow, white and red fragrant blooms at the end of strange looking branches. Here we enjoy the fragrance and color signaling the end of our very mild winter.

Speaking of things to celebrate, art fans can still experience an exhibited titled “Tennessee Williams — the Playwright and the Painter” in the historic Custom House Museum on Front Street. Marking 30 years since his death, the display features a variety of “Tom’s” paintings, revealing a different look at this famous gay Key West resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Visitors to the Custom House Museum examine the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad exhibit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Visitors to the Custom House Museum examine the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad exhibit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On another note, you’ve probably heard of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler’s famed early 1900s railway across the ocean from mainland Florida throughout the Keys to Key West. After visiting the Tennessee Williams exhibit, take a few minutes to tour “Flagler’s Speedway to Sunshine” — also on display at the Custom House.

Other cultural highlights this month include a presentation by our inimitable Red Barn Theatre titled “Clybourne Park,” winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize and 2012 Tony Award.

The two-part story begins in 1959 when a black family is purchasing a home in a white neighborhood. Act two fast forwards to the present day when the now predominately African-American neighborhood struggles to maintain its character in the face of gentrification.

For 30 years, the flag of the Conch Republic has flown proudly in the Florida Keys.

Learn the story behind the birth of the Keys’ Conch Republic in Fringe Theater’s popular musical.

The island’s Fringe Theater is bringing back “Conch Republic (The Musical!)” for a three-night run April 25-27 at the San Carlos Institute. This is the story of “the mouse that roared” in 1982 when the Florida Keys declared their independence from the United States. (Want to know more about this intriguing incident? You’ll have to see the show!)

Talented local director Rebecca Tomlinson brings together Monnie King’s book, and Gayla Morgan’s music and lyrics, with musical direction by local Matt Castle. The production sold out during its run last year, so be sure to book your seats now for this rollicking musical about Keys citizens taking on the federal government (and winning!).

Stay tuned till next time, when I’ll tell you about Kamp Key West — a summer camp for grown-ups coming to the island May 15.

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

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Life’s a Beach — at Top-Rated Bahia Honda

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

Want to chill out on one of America’s best beaches? Then head for the Florida Keys. That might sound a little incongruous, since the island chain is better known for its gorgeous living coral barrier reef — the third largest in the world — than its beaches. But nevertheless, the Keys boast some pretty special beaches.

Beautiful Bahia Honda State Park features one of the top-rated beaches in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The beach area at beautiful Bahia Honda State Park is rated among the best in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And one of them, located at Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys, has just been named among the United States’ top 25 beaches for 2014 by TripAdvisor.

That’s quite impressive, since Trip Advisor is acclaimed as the world’s largest travel website. Bahia Honda’s beach kudo was announced as part of TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Beaches Award winners — with rankings based on the quality and quantity of TripAdvisor traveler reviews and ratings for beaches over a 12-month period.

Listed at number 17, Bahia Honda’s lovely (and I do mean lovely) expanse of sand is part of a 524-acre state park on Bahia Honda Key between mile markers 36 and 37. That’s just a little bit north of Big Pine Key, and not far from Looe Key Reef, an amazing snorkeling spot and home to the annual Underwater Music Festival.

In the Lower Keys, you can head for a refreshing spot like the inviting beach at Bahia Honda State Park. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach invites sunning, swimming and snorkeling in the clear near-shore waters. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach features deep near-shore waters for unmatched swimming and snorkeling — and the park is also well known for its camping and picnicking facilities, watersports, nature trails, the Sand and Sea Nature Center, a marina and rental cabins.

By the way, the TripAdvisor honor is far from the first for Bahia Honda’s wonderful beach area. In 1992, it was ranked among America’s top 10 beaches by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman  (best known as “Dr. Beach”), and since then it’s been named among the country’s top 10 in several travel studies. 

But Bahia Honda also has another enticing attraction to offer. Several times each year, visitors to the park are seemingly transported a century into the past — during historic re-enactments that recall the astonishing creation and heyday of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad.

Park visitors take a trip through time from 1912, on the Over-Sea Railroad’s inaugural journey — when it made world history by connecting the Keys with each other and the mainland for the first time — through 1938 when the Florida Keys Overseas Highway replaced the track.

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

Construction on the rail line, which was conceived by visionary Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler, started in 1905. It was officially called the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, but it became known as the Over-Sea Railroad because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water.

Its bridges and viaducts connecting the Keys, including a nearly 7-mile-long bridge at Marathon in the Middle Keys, were regarded as an engineering marvel in their time — and in fact, it became widely acclaimed as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Bahia Honda State Park’s historic re-enactment is presented on a stage decorated like Flagler’s private train car. And it’s supremely fitting that a portion of one of the original railroad bridges, now a scenic walking path, arches against the sky behind the stage.

Characters that appear in the performance include Henry Flagler’s third wife Mary Lily Kenan, literary legend Ernest Hemingway (who lived in Key West throughout the 1930s), Flagler’s brother-in-law Will Kenan and Flagler himself.

This historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Part of a historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The re-enactment shows are one of many first-person interpretation programs presented by the park’s rangers — and believe me, the “actors” are excellent in their roles.

Unfortunately, these well-crafted shows don’t take place every month (or oftener!). But even without the shows, visitors to the park certainly won’t lack things to do — including sunning, swimming or snorkeling at one of America’s best beaches.

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Galleries Galore Spotlight Keys Creativity

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

If you’re in the Florida Keys looking for unique pieces by visual artists, you can find them whether you’re visiting Key Largo, Key West or any of the islands in between. Galleries abound — ranging from tropically themed exhibit halls to artist cooperatives and working studios where you can watch the creative process.

Islamorada resident and gallery owner Pasta Pantaleo is internationally acclaimed as a gamefish artist. (Photo courtesy of Art by Pasta)

Islamorada resident and gallery owner Pasta Pantaleo is internationally acclaimed as a gamefish artist. (Photo courtesy of Art by Pasta)

And the artistry isn’t limited to one type or medium. Spend some time in the local galleries and you’ll discover oils and watercolors, an enormous variety of sculptures, Haitian primitives, collage, pottery, handcrafted jewelry, woodcarving, stained glass and blown glass, acrylics, metalwork, fine crafts and even Japanese gyotaku or fish rubbings.

Recently two inviting arts emporiums opened in the Keys — one in Islamorada and one in Marathon — adding new offerings and excitement to the flourishing cultural scene. 

If you’ve visited the Upper Keys before, chances are you’re aware of the colorful, vibrant artistry of Michelle Nicole Lowe. Not long ago, Michelle opened a gallery bearing her name at mile marker (MM) 81.9 bayside in Islamorada — providing yet another reason to explore the many galleries and boutiques in the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District.

Islamorada artist Michelle Lowe displays a piece she designed for the Morada Way Art Walk, a lively event held the third Thursday of each month.

Michelle Lowe displays a piece she designed for the Morada Way Art Walk, a lively event held in Islamorada on the third Thursday of each month.

Michelle is best known for her watercolors portraying lively-eyed marine life. Her art depicts hogfish, angelfish and other denizens of the deep, detailed portraits of sea birds and scenes inspired by island settings — from native seagrape trees to palm fronds and more.

At her gallery, you can discover and purchase original paintings, prints and gifts including clothing items and even original smartphone cases.

Visiting the Middle Keys? Then consider exploring and expressing your own creativity at The Art Studio, located at MM 53.6 oceanside in Marathon.

There you can take workshops to learn painting in oils, watercolors or acrylic, as well as sculpting and painting pottery. Or expand your creative horizons with a workshop or class in throwing clay, fusing glass or creating jewelry — or try painting and glazing self-selected ceramics.

As well as the work of Sanchez and MacNelly, Gallery on Greene features Peter Vey's vivid artistry. (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

Gallery on Greene features Peter Vey’s vivid impressionism. (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

Heading for Key West? Galleries are as plentiful as palm trees throughout the historic Old Town area — and prime among them is the Gingerbread Square Gallery on upper Duval Street. Founded in 1974, it has displayed the art of such notables as playwright Tennessee Williams (yes, he painted in addition to writing) and Sal Salinero, internationally acclaimed for his glorious portraits of tropical rainforests’ exotic flora and fauna.

Equally prominent are White Street’s Harrison Gallery, presenting work including Helen Harrison’s graceful abstract and realistic sculptures shaped from wood … Lucky Street Gallery on Greene Street, where you’ll find intriguing steel pieces by master sculptor John Martini and much more … and Gallery on Greene that represents the late folk artist Mario Sanchez and mega-talented impressionist Peter Vey among others.

But don’t forget the Lower Keys. In Big Pine, Artists in Paradise Gallery features the work of more than 30 creative spirits in a bright and airy space in the Winn-Dixie shopping plaza at MM 30.

Samantha Langsdale, dressed as a mermaid, blows air through a "musical instrument" sculpted by Lower Keys artist August Powers. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Underwater art lover Samantha Langsdale blows air through a “musical instrument” sculpted by Lower Keys artist August Powers. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Standouts include Gale Upmal’s watercolor batiks on rice paper, wood art and paintings by shipwright artisan Thomas Avery, and August Powers’ quirky, classy sculptures that blend marine creatures and musical instruments (once you see them you’ll understand how that’s possible.).

And if you’re visiting Key Largo, at the head of the Florida Keys, don’t miss the fascinating Gallery at Kona Kai Resort, MM 98 bayside. Highlights on display include dramatic black-and-white photographs by leading American landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, and paintings and sculptures from featured international artists.

If this brief overview leaves you craving more Keys creativity, click here for a full listing of art galleries throughout the island chain. 

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Cocktail Contest, Kamp and Camaraderie Rule Key West Spring

Steve Smith | March 2014

Spring is in full swing and Key West is alive with colorful characters taking a break from their colleges to bask in our bright sunshine. We don’t consider the Florida Keys a major spring break destination — but our popularity as an easily accessible string of islands with a daily variety of activities in and out of the water, and a safe environment, makes us a choice of many gay, lesbian, and allied students.

Smathers Beach is a favorite for Key West visitors seeking sun.

Smathers Beach is a favorite for Key West visitors seeking sun. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Gay and Lesbian Visitor Center has had a steady influx of young LGBTA visitors eager to find out the hidden treasures of the island. The center is open seven days a week and is located just steps from the famed Duval Street. 

It’s worth noting that Key West has operated a gay visitor center, seven days a week, for more than 22 years. I know, because I opened the first one — combined with the offices of the Key West Business Guild (KWBG). Today, the center is open daily from around 9 a.m. until around 5 p.m., though Sundays it opens at noon.

Kicking off the spring season is the Stoli Original Key West Cocktail Classic.  Bartenders from the nation’s most exciting LGBT entertainment venues in cities including Denver, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Fort Lauderdale will showcase their mixology skills and create a signature Stoli cocktail.

Key West's sultry Sushi is one of the celebrity judges of the Cocktail Classic finale. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key West’s sultry Sushi is one of the celebrity judges of the Cocktail Classic finale. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The winners in these cities will be flown to Key West for the grand finale cocktail competition to be held Saturday, May 31.

This is a serious way to reward the bartenders who work long hours bringing joy to their customers while building lasting friendships. Stop by your favorite watering hole and see if its team is part of the challenge.

The celebrity judging panelists include writer and actor Bruce Vilanch, clothing designer Andrew Christian, and Key West’s own Sushi, star of the island’s annual New Year’s Eve “drag queen drop” perched in a six-foot red stiletto while millions watch her on CNN.

The KWBG is one of the oldest gay business associations in the nation and, to my knowledge, the only one that operates a visitor center every day (with the exception of major holidays).

The KWBG also produces events throughout the year. Kamp Key West is a new event geared for those who like to mix sports, kayaking, and a summer “kamp” with their holiday. The dates are May 15-18, and the website should be up and running any day. 

Blog author Steve Smith celebrates Key West Pride during the island city's annual parade.

Blog author Steve Smith celebrates Key West Pride during the island city’s annual parade.

One of the KWBG’s signature events is Key West Pride, this year scheduled June 11-15. The organization also presents Tropical Heat the third weekend of August each year. Tropical Heat revolves around pool parties at the guesthouses, toga parties, snorkeling and kayaking the waters surrounding our island, yoga, and our famous gay bingo.

September means Womenfest in Key West with 4,000 or so women enjoying the sights, sounds of great women’s bands, dinners at our highly acclaimed restaurants, pool parties, and side-splitting comedy showcases.

For more than 30 years, we have welcomed women from all corners of the world … to savor the magic of a subtropical island where “gay” is just a part of our everyday life.

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

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There’s Something Fishy Happening in Marathon

Julie Botteri | March 2014

Widely recognized as being among the world’s premier saltwater sportfishing destinations, the Florida Keys offer sensational year-round fishing opportunities. Why? Because their ideal geographical location, beautiful weather and flourishing fisheries combine to create unbelievably good angling.

Caleb Goins is the guiding spirit behind Marathon's Fishbone Designs.

Caleb Goins is the guiding spirit behind Fishbone Designs.

That doesn’t just mean, however, that visiting and resident fishing fanatics can fight world-class prey or catch a finny dinner. It also influences and inspires the Keys’ lively community of visual artists.

In fact, as more and more artists discover the beauties of the Keys environment and the satisfactions of the angling lifestyle, they express their enjoyment of that lifestyle in unique and intriguing types of artistry. 

Some focus on gyotaku, the fascinating Japanese art of fish printing, while others paint or sculpt the inhabitants of Keys waters. One local artist, multitalented sculptor August Powers, creates quirky hybrids of musical instruments and underwater denizens — ranging from a “trombonefish” to a “wahoo kazoo.” His creations are “played” each July on the ocean floor by costumed divers participating in the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

While angling artistry can be found in galleries and at art shows from Key Largo to Key West, something particularly “fishy” is happening in Marathon these days.

The Workmans' large piece in the Key West International Airport terminal remains the piece dearest to Kim's heart..

This large-scale gyotaku piece, created by Keys artists Kim and Ian Workman, hangs in the Key West airport terminal.

The sportfish and food fish that draw anglers to the Middle Keys also serve as inspiration for a creative spirit with a fresh and freehanded approach to original marine art. The aptly-named Fishbone Designs brings striking representations of indigenous fish, the coral reef, gamefish and spearfishing action to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced metals.

Fishbone Designs’ goal has always been to create original pieces — conceptualizing a theme with a series of sketches and drawings on paper, and then transferring the outline to a sheet of metal such as high-grade aluminum, stainless steel or copper.

Fishbone Designs' striking marine life representations come to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced-metal artwork.

Fishbone Designs’ striking marine life representations come to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced-metal artwork.

A handheld plasma torch is utilized to pierce the metal. The design is then cut and finished using a die grinder (much like applying sandpaper to wood), resulting in a shiny polished finish.

Each metal design, whether a 12-inch hogfish or 40-foot-wide storefront scene, is shaped down to the muscular structure and scales of a fish. According to Fishbone’s Caleb Goins, bending and contorting the sharp edges into rolled angles gives the work a subtle, 3-D effect.

“I try to apply as much scientific accuracy as I can to each piece, with style,” explained the 28-year-old Caleb — who, inspired by the Keys’ nature, water and sea life, has made Marathon his permanent home.

“The idea is to bring the art to life, make it move and mimic what I see underwater, re-create the scenes I have experienced,” he said.

Keys artist Stacie Krupa depicts underwater creatures with vivid colors and individualistic flair.

Keys artist Stacie Krupa depicts underwater creatures with vivid colors and individualistic flair.

Now Fishbone Designs’ solo artist, Caleb took the reins from his father Robert Goins, the one and only “Fishbone.” Robert Goins is a woodsman, fisherman and artist who earned the nickname now synonymous with his and Caleb’s hand-hewn craftwork.

The “hand-hewn” creativity sets the work apart from that of other artisans who use computer-based design-and-cut techniques to mass produce replicas.

Largely focused on commissioned pieces, Fishbone Designs has plans for a studio display location in Marathon. But until that happens, the “fishy” artistry — inspired by the colorful inhabitants of the Florida Keys’ underwater world — can be found by clicking here.

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