Keys Key Largo

For the New Year … Resolve to Savor the Keys ALL Year

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2014

It’s the fragrance of frangipani and the ever-present scent of saltwater. The feel of summer heat on sun-browned skin. The soft, rhythmic wash of waves lapping the shore, or the faint sound of tropical tunes playing on the back deck of the house next door.

Blossoms cascading over a white picket fence is a quintessential Keys sight.

Blossoms cascading over a white picket fence are a typical (yet captivating) sight in the Keys -- a perfect visual "centerpiece" for your oasis.

But the Florida Keys experience is much more than those sensory elements. It’s a laid-back attitude; an atmosphere of welcome; an approach to living that blends individuality, a refusal to take life too seriously, and a near-reverence for relaxation.

And you don’t have to give it up when your vacation ends. In fact, with a little thought and imagination, you can savor it throughout the new year (and beyond!).

Whether you’re a first-time visitor sorry to leave the island chain or a wannabe resident whose real-world schedule leaves little time for tropical escapes, you can create an oasis at home that allows you to transcend daily hassles and recapture the magical Keys mindset.

The process is simple. Select a small space in your home — a shelf, a tabletop, or corner — and gather items that remind you of the Keys. You might choose photos of Victorian homes dripping gingerbread and hibiscus blooms, a blazing orange sunset, an underwater world alive with tropical fish and reef life, or the bow of a boat against turquoise water.

Or maybe your Keys memories center around sun-drenched boats at anchor, with a hint of saltwater tang flavoring the breeze.

Maybe your Keys memories focus on boats at anchor, with a hint of saltwater tang flavoring the breeze.

Include cocktail coasters from your favorite Keys watering hole, a small piece of locally-created artwork, your dive log, or maybe some beach pebbles. Find some colorful tropical fabric and set your mementos on it.

But that’s only the beginning. The Keys aren’t just a visual paradise. They surround the senses — and, to truly recreate the island chain’s ambiance, so should your oasis.

Add a bottle of fragrant sunscreen. When you open it, you’re practically guaranteed to trigger a powerful olfactory memory of hours spent lazing on the beach. Or light pillar candles with tropical aromas, or slice a fresh lime for a tangy reminder of your favorite frozen Margarita.

Create your oasis to remind you of lazy, sun-drenched days in the Keys, and the ultimate relaxation you felt. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Create your oasis to recall lazy, sun-drenched days spent relaxing in the Keys. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Don’t forget the sounds of the islands: palm fronds rustling in the constant breeze, languid waves lapping shore or boat, tropical rock music drifting through the air from somebody’s CD player. All can be recreated in your oasis. Whether you favor Buffett’s latest, the guitar mastery of Dave Feder, the infectious rhythms of Howard Livingston & Mile Marker 24, or the natural noises that flavor balmy oceanside days and nights … they’re available on tape or CD.

Once you’ve completed your Florida Keys corner, make visiting it a regular pleasure in 2014. Close your eyes, cast your mind back to a favorite memory of the easygoing islands, and let your cares float away on a sunscreen-scented breeze. What could be a better reminder to slow your pace and savor the things that matter most?

Of course, enticing as it is, your oasis can’t compare to an actual escape to the Florida Keys. Particularly now that temperatures have dropped in much of America, consider a winter break in your favorite subtropical haven. Chances are, you deserve it — and it’s a wonderful way to kick off a brand-new year!


Experience the Keys Like a Local

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Two days after arriving in the Florida Keys, the realization hit me: I had found my home. This crescent of subtropical islands, where blue-green water unrolled to the horizon and palm trees rustled in the balmy February breeze, was where I belonged forever.

For a real locals' treat, stroll through the eclectic marina community at Safe Harbor after savoring seafood at the Hogfish. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Unlikely? Not really. That sense of absolute belonging has turned scores of casual Keys visitors into longtime “locals” who create satisfying lives close to nature and far from the mundane pressures of the “real world.”

Yet you don’t have to be a local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — as long as you’re open to exploring and experiencing the islands’ offerings.

For example, try one of my favorite Key West pastimes: biking or strolling through the Old Town neighborhood as evening falls. Just off Duval Street, the island’s lively shopping and dining center, you’ll pass lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages with the luscious scent of jasmine drifting from flower-filled yards. Though I’ve done it hundreds of times, roaming those residential lanes at dusk still carries a quiet magic.

Speaking of favorites, a trip to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island just off Key West, tops my list of treats. Sit outdoors overlooking the marina, and sample the world-class smoked-fish dip and fresh hogfish (a diver-caught fish with a light flavor).

The Keys' waters are protected within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, offering an unspoiled region for tranquil exploration. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

After eating, stroll down the dock, greet the resident dogs and cats, and discover offbeat sculptures by local artisans living and working in dockside lofts. This small haven for live-aboard houseboats and sailboats is a true hidden gem. 

In the Lower Keys, explore the backcountry shallows, a nature-lover’s paradise. And for another “sport” enjoyed by locals, head for the one-of-a-kind Big Pine Flea Market at mile marker (MM) 30.2.

Open weekends from October through July, the outdoor market features pop-up “stores” with everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to semiprecious jewelry, T-shirts and sundresses. Exploring the lively marketplace has been a Lower Keys tradition for more than 25 years.

In the Middle Keys — a boating hotspot that’s home to the famed Seven Mile Bridge — downtime means being on the water. Kayaking is hugely popular and a launch at Sombrero Beach, MM 50, makes water access easy.

Join fitness-minded locals (and their dogs) walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge to Pigeon Key and back. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marathon-based outfitters offer rentals and trail maps for solo explorations, as well as escorted eco-tours through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve. Don’t forget your camera to capture shots of mangrove forests alive with native birds. 

And while the Keys are famous for their blazing sunsets, many Middle Keys residents favor the sunrise. For an unrivalled view, join early risers (and their dogs!) strolling along a section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

In Islamorada, life is mostly about fishing. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered in the Upper Keys area, and it’s home to scores of world-class charter captains — some of them second- and third-generation — with a passion for the respected Keys profession. 

Soak up their tales over cocktails at the Lorelei, a local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains. The Lorelei is easy to find — a giant mermaid sculpture reclines at its entrance at MM 82.

A Florida Keys flats guide idles away from the dock at dawn, heading out for a day of fishing off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key Largo residents might be tempted to keep one of their beloved eateries a secret, but fortunately they don’t. Ask where to have a great home-style meal, and they’ll mention Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen at MM 99.

Founded in 1976, the unassuming café was named for the mother of original owner Jeff MacFarland. Sisters Angela and Paula Wittke purchased it in the late 1980s, and today’s menu features dishes ranging from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to fresh-off-the-boat fish.

Whatever else you choose to do in the Keys, enjoy plenty of water activities. For locals like me, the turquoise ocean is a necessary part of life. Free time is spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving a starkly beautiful shipwreck site, lazing on a secluded beach or boating with friends.

From on-the-water adventures to restaurant picks, the suggestions here are just a few ways to experience the Keys like a local. But be warned — you might become mesmerized by the offbeat island chain and find yourself returning again and again, powerless to resist its magical appeal.

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The Saga of Santa Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Keys
smiling holiday revelers savored the breeze.
But in other locations, nobody was smiling
as they braved freezing temperatures far from the islands.

A trio of canine "kids" awaits the arrival of Santa Keys. (Photo by Mary Threlkeld)

While Keys visitors partied in warm outdoor bars,
toasting friends with mojitos sipped under the stars,
Christmas spirits had plans for the cold “refugees”
who were physically elsewhere but craving the Keys.

That’s why, out on the beach, there arose such a squawking
of unsettled seagulls in seagull talk talking
that drivers of cars cruising next to the ocean
couldn’t figure out what had caused all the commotion.

The moon on the shining white crescent of beach
made the shoreline of Cuba seem almost in reach
when what to the drivers’ amazement appeared
but a Santa in flip-flops and seaweed-decked beard.

The legendary Santa Keys drops in on a finned fan during his holiday journey. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Now, this Santa was wise and this Santa was bright
and he sure sympathized with the northerners’ plight.
In his past life, before heading south for the sun,
he too spent the winter months freezing his buns.

So he hijacked a sturdy old boat used for fishin’,
found some Key deer to pull it and started his mission.
Sailing skyward to surf on a tropical breeze,
he steered his ship north bringing gifts from the Keys.

As palm fronds before a wild summer storm fly
(when the shutters are closed and the water is high),
Santa Keys cruised the northern states with his Key deer
spreading visions of warm blue seas and island cheer.

Santa Keys chills out at The Mermaid & The Alligator inn after his strenuous holiday mission. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At each house where the residents longed for the tropics,
he left small Keys tokens stuffed deep in their stockings.
There were conch shells and flip-flops and Key lime tidbits,
Margarita mix too — and “Buffett’s Greatest Hits.”

There were fishing reels, dive logs and lotions for sun
Conch Republic flags, stickers that read “U.S. 1,”
tiny replicas of Key West’s Southernmost Point
and shrimp sauce from a funky old Keys seafood joint.

When he dropped the last gift at the last snow-topped house,
Santa Keys told his Key deer to steer a course south.
His farewell drifted back on a sweet balmy breeze:
“Merry Christmas to all — now come visit the Keys!”


Robert Stoky: Recipe for Keys Living

Briana Ciraulo | December 2013

Robert Stoky knows good cooking. Whether it’s preparing lobster fajitas at Señor Frijoles or all-you-can-eat stone crab at Ballyhoo’s, the Stoky family has been a major player in the flourishing Florida Keys restaurant scene since the 1980s.

Robert Stoky, who developed his culinary skills early, now spearheads some of the Upper Keys' most popular eateries.

The family actually moved to the Keys from Miami in 1973 — and quickly set their sights on cooking and restaurants.

“My father was a charterboat fisherman,” Robert said, “so we had to figure out a way to eat the fish that we were catching.”

By 1981 his parents had acquired Señor Frijoles in Key Largo from a family friend. Robert quickly embraced the family business and worked in his parents’ restaurants — beginning as a dishwasher. He eventually learned the in’s and out’s of food preparation and became a chef.

Today, the enterprising man is owner/chef of popular restaurants in the Upper Keys including Señor Frijoles, Sundowners, Cactus Jack’s, Ballyhoo’s and Marker 88.

His adventures in the Keys, however, aren’t confined to the restaurant business. They began when he was growing up.

“We had a boat that was basically our car,” he said. “My younger brother and I would go from island to island, fishing and diving.”

Following his parents’ example, Robert became an entrepreneur at a young age.

Señor Frijoles, the Stoky family's first restaurant in the Keys, remains a welcoming spot for great food.

“We got gas money from commercial fishing,” he explained. “We would catch fish and sell them — grouper, snapper, everything — then we would use that money, buy more bait and fuel, and go out again.

In 2012, Robert added “author” to his list of accomplishments when he decided to share some of his experiences and cooking techniques in his cookbook “Recipes and Tall Tales from the Legendary Restaurants of the Florida Keys.” The book features Keys essentials, from rum drinks and cocktails to learning how to make sea salt and prepare lionfish.

His favorite ingredients (true to Florida Keys form) are fresh Florida stone crab and Key lime. He draws inspiration for his cooking from locally sourced food.

“I want to take advantage of the fresh seafood and tropical fruits the Florida Keys have to offer,” Robert said.

As if his restaurant career and writing weren’t enough, he’s also an active member of the Upper Keys Business Group.

Stoky (in orange shirt) joined judges at the inaugural Key Largo & Islamorada Food & Wine Festival's "Chopped" charity competition. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As such, he spearheads some of Key Largo’s leading events including the Stone Crab & Seafood Festival, the Anything That Floats Race and the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display on Blackwater Sound. He also lends his skills to “Uncorked — The Key Largo & Islamorada Food & Wine Festival” and Key Largo Conch Republic Days.

In addition, Robert has plans to keep enhancing and developing the restaurants he and his family created.

“We want to refine the menus that we currently have,” he said. “We want them to be more chef-crafted.”

The restaurant industry may be constantly evolving, and food trends may come and go, but it’s clear that Robert Stoky will stick close to his family roots. His “recipe” for success and satisfaction is simple yet meaningful: provide his customers the freshest seafood, and some of the most delectable dishes, the Florida Keys can offer. It just doesn’t get any better than that! 


Decking the Hulls … and Other Keys Holiday Highlights

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2013

Maybe because the Florida Keys have never experienced a traditional white Christmas, those of us who live along the island chain are extraordinarily enthusiastic about showing our holiday spirit.

Volunteers at Key Largo's First Baptist Church give Santa a helping hand by collecting gifts for Operation Christmas Child.

For example, recently volunteers in Key Largo acted as Santa’s helpers for kids in need. Gathering at First Baptist Church, they collected huge numbers of colorful gift-filled shoeboxes donated by people throughout the Keys for Operation Christmas Child, a project of the international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. Thanks to the organization’s wide-reaching effort, more than 100 million kids in more than 130 countries have received shoebox gifts since 1993, bringing them a priceless message of hope during the Christmas season.

As well as opening our hearts during the holidays, we tend to go overboard on decorations (if you’ve ever seen an inflatable 10-foot-tall reindeer perched atop a small houseboat, you’ll know what I mean) and throw ourselves gleefully into extended merrymaking.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that, from Key Largo to Key West, the calendar is packed with events to celebrate the season. Jump-start your holiday spirit by checking out some highlights here — all spiced with an individualistic Florida Keys flair.

Get your photo taken for a dolphin Christmas card at Marathon's wonderful Dolphin Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

Holiday Photos with a Dolphin (Marathon): Now through Sunday, Dec. 22. Yes, Virginia, you really CAN send a dolphin Christmas card this year. At Dolphin Research Center, mile marker (MM) 59 bayside on Grassy Key, participants in the Meet the Dolphin program can also pose with the dolphins for a holiday photo. Bring your own holiday-themed props, and DRC’s photographers will shoot high-res digital images. The program is offered several times each day on a walk-in basis, and costs just $25 per person plus general admission. Get your photos on a flash drive for $20 for one person or $35 for up to four people in the same shot.

Ninth Annual Holiday Festival (Islamorada): Friday, Dec. 6, 4-10 p.m. This extravaganza features a tree-lighting ceremony at Founders Park, MM 87, a holiday parade with decorated floats, and a 20-ton mountain of snow (yes, REAL snow!) for mitten-clad munchkins. Other attractions include a Vino Village with gourmet food and fine wines, seasonal contests, a Santa Paws Pet Parade for holiday hounds and Christmas cats, and live music and dance performances.

Find unique holiday gifts, handmade by local artisans, at the annual Big Pine & Lower Keys Island Art Festival.

Big Pine & Lower Keys Island Art Festival (Big Pine Key): Saturday, Dec. 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Experience the joys of art and music, and find some unique holiday gifts, at this festival held on the wooded grounds of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, MM 31 oceanside. Family fun highlights include live music by favorite local entertainers, exhibits and booths featuring the original work of artists and artisans, raffles, and vendors offering food and beverages. Parking and admission are free.

Boot Key Harbor Boat Parade (Marathon): Saturday, Dec. 14, 6 p.m. Boaters “deck the hulls” with festive finery for this lively lighted gala. At the traditional Middle Keys holiday event, vessels from dinghies to mega-yachts cruise the harbor in a sparkling procession. The best viewing sites include Lazy Days South, Marathon Marina, Sombrero Dockside Lounge and Burdines Waterfront around MM 47-50. 

Southernmost Christmas Tree Celebration (Key West): Sunday, Dec. 15, 3 p.m. Enjoy free conch chowder and then board the Conch Tour Train to head for the continental United States’ Southernmost Point — to help set up the honest-to-goodness Southernmost Christmas Tree at sunset overlooking the Atlantic Ocean! The event is an annual community thank-you presented by the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens. The fun starts at 1401 Seminary St.

"Decking the hulls" for a festive boat parade is a Keys holiday tradition.

Pops in the Park Holiday Concert (Plantation Key, Islamorada): Saturday, Dec. 21, 4 p.m. The beloved Keys Community Concert Band will perform a free concert titled “Holiday Happiness” at Founders Park — a “hometown” favorite event that blends balmy breezes and heartfelt holiday spirit. Performances are outdoors, so feel free to bring blankets or lawn chairs for relaxing.

Naturally, these are only a few of the Florida Keys’ holiday happenings. Check out the full calendar of events here, and join me and other slightly holiday-crazed locals to enjoy any or all of them.


Yum … Four January Food Fests on the Keys’ Menu

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2013

It’s easy to find good reasons to spend January in the Florida Keys. For one thing, the weather in much of North America is dreary and freezing, while the Keys generally boast 70-something temperatures and near-constant sunshine. But these days, it’s not just warm-weather fans that flock to the island chain in January — it’s foodies too.

Stone crab claws are among the fabulous local seafood on the menu at the Keys' January food festivals. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In January 2014, for example, food and wine enthusiasts can sample the island chain’s culinary delights at four exuberant celebrations of cuisine and spirits.

Their events blend subtropical sun, flavorful offerings and superior vintages — showcasing local chefs’ creativity, indigenous ingredients like unparalleled fresh fish and seafood, and premium wines. Plus, they offer insights into the Keys’ rich heritage and culture.

The calendar of cuisine begins with Uncorked: the Key Largo and Islamorada Food and Wine Festival set for Jan. 9-18. The 10-day food, wine and spirits celebration features 30-plus savory events to please virtually every palate, spread over several Upper Keys venues with fresh, locally-sourced seafood and international-style dishes.

Highlights include a “second helping” of the Keys’ version of the TV cooking show “Chopped,” a Beer and Bites craft beer event, a tasty performance by Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton combining Cajun music and gumbo (!), a Bubbles on the Beach salute to champagne and Jan. 18’s Grand Tasting Finale at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina at Holiday Isle.

The ninth annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival is next on the “menu,” presented Jan. 18-19 in Key West’s Bayview Park by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. The family-friendly feast stars the fresh local seafood that has “anchored” Keys cuisine for nearly two centuries.

What's the true origin of Key lime pie? Find out at the Key West Food and Wine Festival.

Offerings typically include grilled Florida lobster, fried fish, stone crab claws, smoked fish dip, Key West pink shrimp and more — all caught, cooked and served by Keys commercial fishermen and their families. Attendees will also find traditional favorites like conch chowder, conch salad, sweet flan and Key lime tarts. Nonstop entertainment and booths featuring art, crafts and other items round out the weekend’s attractions.  

Fans of fine food and equally fine vintages can indulge their appetites at the fifth annual Key West Food and Wine Festival. Scheduled Jan. 22-26, the extravaganza spotlights the southernmost island’s lively culinary scene, regional ingredients and fabulous flavors through gourmet galas and tastings, food and wine seminars and food-focused experiences.  

Highlights include Duval Uncorked, a stroll down Key West’s famed Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean with forays into restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. Among other planned standouts are a barefoot evening beach party, seminars on topics ranging from Key West rum to the origins of Key lime pie, a Master Chef’s Classic tasting and competition, an outdoor wine market, an afternoon of coconut bowling (honest!) and a “Save the Turtles” open-air grand tasting in the island city’s Historic Seaport.

Key Largo stages an entire festival devoted to superlative Keys stone crabs. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

January ends with a celebration of one of the Keys’ favorite edible delights: luscious stone crab claws. The Key Largo Stone Crab & Seafood Festival is set for Jan. 25-26 featuring fresh local seafood, live musical entertainment, cooking demonstrations, contests and kids’ activities. Sponsored by the Key Largo Fisheries and Key Largo Merchants Association, the fifth annual family-fun event takes place at Rowell’s Marina.

Expect to find seafood booths serving up succulent stone crab claws, homemade smoked fish dip, conch fritters, chowders, tuna nachos, lobster and more. In addition, attendees can visit cooking tents for tips on how to devise and devour favorite Keys dishes. Other attractions include arts and crafts booths, fireworks, shrimp-eating and Key lime pie-eating contests, a car show and even piratical escapades for kids.

Looking for more reasons to spend January (or any other time period) in the Florida Keys? Click here for a full calendar of events — and then make reservations! 


Keys Reefs: Underwater Wonderland

Julie Botteri | October 2013

Affectionately referred to as the islands you can drive to, the Florida Keys boast an unparelleled variety of marine life, a huge number of fish species, and waters that are consistently warm and clear.

Snorkelers explore the undersea realm off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Equally important, running alongside the Keys is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States — which is also the third largest barrier reef in the world. It’s no wonder this crescent of islands has a reputation as one of the world’s most popular dive destinations.

On top of that, for more than a generation, conservation efforts have been focused on maintaining the Keys’ offshore environment.

Those efforts actually began in 1960, when widespread public support laid the foundation for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo. It was the first undersea park in the United States, and divers and snorkelers can thank the late Miami Herald editor John Pennekamp for helping create it.

The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 with an event highlighting its history and mission of protecting and preserving the natural resources within its boundaries — and it offers visitors numerous opportunities to observe remarkable underwater wildlife.

The indigenous population at Pennekamp is composed of countless species of fish and varieties of coral. The coral provides shelter for crabs, sea urchins, snails, lobsters, shrimp, moray eels, worms, chitons (mollusks), starfish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, barnacles and sponges.

Several species of fish, such as this French Angelfish, are protected within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

The undersea park’s waters flow into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was established in 1990 as a marine preserve. Today the sanctuary includes an amazing 2,900 square nautical miles of coastal waters all along the Keys — from northernmost Key Largo south to the pristine uninhabited islands of the Dry Tortugas.

Not only does this area surround the entire land mass of the Keys, it also includes vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Within its boundaries lie mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks filled with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life.

Divers and snorkelers from all over the world are drawn to the Keys to view the extraordinary reef ecosystem within the sanctuary.

Marine conservation efforts include the establishment of Sanctuary Preservation Areas. In these no-take zones, fish and crustacean populations can thrive and grow, fully protected from spear or surface fishing and shell collecting — making for spectacular underwater scenery among schooling fish.

The bronze Christ of the Deep is an iconic underwater landmark off Key Largo. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

What can divers spot there? Iconic blue-striped grunts are typically seen in large numbers around protective elkhorn and high-profile coral heads. Other Keys critters on hand might include glass minnows, goatfish, gray snappers, Atlantic spadefish, horse eye jacks, copper sweepers, Bermuda chubs and sergeant majors.

French and small-mouth grunts are nearly as plentiful, and yellowtail snapper (a favorite of local anglers AND diners) cruise the reef in astonishing numbers.

But that not allby any means! It’s not unusual for divers and snorkelers to spot sea turtles, stingrays, Goliath groupers, nurse sharks or even bright green moral eels on a single bountiful trip to the reef.

The Florida Keys have a long tradition of preservation and reverence for marine life. With divers and snorkelers who are educated in reef responsibility, everyone benefits — and the coral reef can remain an unparalleled environmental treasure for generations to come.


Carving Pumpkins and Restoring Coral

Julie Botteri | October 2013

Granted, the Florida Keys are surrounded by water — the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The island chain parallels the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, an undisputed national treasure. In fact, underwater enthusiasts come from around the world to explore the Keys’ beautiful coral reef ecosystem and its resident sea life and unique corals.

Something's fishy about this jack-o'-lantern -- it's being carved underwater! (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Equally unique, however, is the array of underwater events that take place beneath the waves.

For example, like other Halloween fans, divers celebrate the holiday by carving pumpkins — but they do it underwater!

The 2013 Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest is set for Saturday, Oct. 19. Armed only with their creativity and dive knives, pumpkin carvers will descend 30 feet beneath the surface in the waters off Key Largo to craft their jolly jack-o’-lanterns. In addition to “making a splash,” they compete for prizes.

As the divers pare away at frightening facial features, quick-swimming reef fish are likely to dart in for a close look at the knife-wielding action. They might even nibble on stray pieces of the natural fleshy gourds.

Past pumpkin entries have featured everything from traditional triangle eyes and toothless grins to shark-mouthed sneers. One crafty past competitor even created an orange-skinned octopus. The contest is presented by Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, and prizes — including a dive trip for two — await the top three pumpkin sculptors.

Pumpkin carvers aren’t the only unusual characters known to immerse themselves in Key Largo waters. In fact, some lucky divers might even catch a glimpse of a sub-sea Santa Claus in December, before he embarks on his round-the-world sleigh ride.

Santa listens to an undersea denizen's Christmas list in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The jolly red-garbed guy appears pretty much every year before Christmas, seeming perfectly at home in the underwater environment — bushy white beard and all. Wearing scuba tanks and a dive mask, Santa glides over shipwrecks and reefs, offering holiday wishes to fishes as part of a fundraiser for a local children’s charity.

And let’s not forget Easter, when a long-eared diving bunny hides brightly colored eggs for eager egg-lovers to find.

The annual Underwater Easter Egg Hunt takes place in Key Largo each year shortly before the holiday. Egg-seeking divers submerge to search for sunken hard-boiled treasure (real eggs decorated with non-toxic colorings, to prevent any negative ecological impact) on one of the Keys’ pristine shallow reefs.

One series of underwater events in Key Largo, however, is essential instead of eccentric — because ordinary divers can participate as “citizen scientists” in an initiative that just might hold the answer to worldwide reef preservation.

Ken Nedimyer, president of the Coral Restoration Foundation, displays juvenile coral cuttings in the organization's coral nursery. (Photo by Kevin Gaines, Coral Restoration Foundation)

Key Largo’s Coral Restoration Foundation, dedicated to creating offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral species, is hosting four coral restoration workshops in 2014 for divers passionate about the underwater environment.

Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort is offering specially priced stay-and-dive packages for the coral restoration programs: Thursday through Sunday, May 15-18, June 12-15, Sept. 11-14 and Oct. 9-12.

Participants go on Friday and Saturday afternoon two-tank working dives to the CRF’s coral nursery to clean and prepare corals for planting, and an orientation dive at one of the restoration sites. Diver-participants also meet for morning lectures and informational seminars.

Workshop space is limited, so interested underwater aficionados are encouraged to register early. For pricing and reservations, call Amoray Dive Resort at 800-426-6729 … and for more information about the amazing work of the nonprofit CRF, click here.


Why One Keys Visit Just Isn’t Enough

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2013

Let’s face it: a single visit to the Florida Keys isn’t enough. Even if you explore just one of the Keys’ five unique districts, chances are awfully good that you’ll realize your vacation is too short.

With joys from tranquil sunrises to perfectly-cooked seafood, the Florida Keys merit FAR more than a single visit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The best solution, then, is a return trip. From secluded natural areas to little-known historic sites to environmental attractions, you can make new discoveries every time you visit the enticing island chain.

For example, did you know Key Largo contains a mecca for chocolate lovers? If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you MUST stop at Key Largo Chocolates, the Florida Keys’ only chocolatier, located at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Self-described as a “grandma and grandpa operation,” Key Largo Chocolates infuses local flavors into handmade chocolate treats — like Key lime white chocolate truffles and quirky “chocodiles” shaped like tiny crocs. 

Just down the Overseas Highway in Islamorada, pull off the road and go wading in the shallows at a lovely little oceanside beach at mile marker 73. It bears the charming name of Anne’s Beach in recognition of the late Upper Keys environmentalist Anne Eaton. Attractions include great views, picnic tables and scenic walkways — and the shallow water typically means no breaking waves.

What could be sweeter than a white chocolate crocodile from Key Largo Chocolates? (Photo courtesy of Key Largo Chocolates)

Travel a bit farther and you’ll find yourself at Long Key State Park, located on the Atlantic Ocean at MM 67.5. The Spanish named this island “Cayo Vivora” or Rattlesnake Key (really!), because it’s shaped like a snake with its jaws open.

In the early 20th century, Long Key was home to a fishing resort frequented by legendary western writer and passionate angler Zane Grey. Today, you can explore the island by paddling through its connected lagoons or hiking two land-based trails. Check out the Golden Orb Trail, meandering through five natural communities to an observation tower that offers a panoramic view of the island. 

Head down the highway through Marathon and, shortly before the Seven Mile Bridge begins, make a sharp right onto Gulfview Avenue. Perched on the waterfront at the end of the short street is one of the best casual seafood restaurants in the Keys: Keys Fisheries.

A Key deer doe, part of a now thriving Lower Keys herd, licks her chops after grazing on a plant. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Try the fresh stone crab claws, peel-and-eat Key West shrimp, savory conch chowder or indescribably amazing Lobster Reuben. You can’t go wrong at this funky spot that’s a favorite of savvy locals. 

If you’ve ever visited Big Pine & the Lower Keys, you probably looked for the tiny, shy Key deer that are protected in the area.

These skittish creatures are most likely to be roaming around at dawn or dusk, and it’s a real treat to spot one. Make a stop at the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center in the Big Pine Key Plaza, located off the Overseas Highway at MM 30 bayside, and learn about the unique deer and their recovery from extinction — a true environmental success story. 

Unexpected discoveries await in Key West, too. Among them is the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at White Street.

Beautiful plants and trees are set against weathered brick at West Martello. (Photo by Lynne Bentley- Kemp; courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

It’s now headquarters for the Key West Garden Club, where beautiful indigenous plants and rare palm trees bloom against the weathered brick fort — with wonders including a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway you can actually walk through. 

And if you enjoy prowling around unusual shops, Key West offers one of the best: an honest-to-goodness “curiosity shop” called 90 Miles to Cuba.

You’ll find everything from local art to nautical antiques, vintage jewelry and Hardy Boys books. It’s located at 616 Greene St. and its hours are as eccentric as the emporium itself; just keep checking back till the weathered wooden door is open. 

As you’ve probably figured out by now, these are only a handful of the out-of-the-way spots worth exploring in the Florida Keys. So start planning your next trip to the colorful island chain … and compile your own list of hidden gems.


Spearing a New Dive Activity

Julie Botteri | September 2013

Even after 20-plus years diving, I enjoy applying new skills underwater. They include helping marine life as well as giving back to the environment — two activities I hope every diver aspires to.

Blog author Julie Botteri (second from right) shows off her team's captured lionfish with teammates (from left) John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman.

This summer, I took pole spear in hand for my first foray into the no-season, no-size-limit activity of capturing Indo-Pacific lionfish that are invading Atlantic waters. With a team of cohorts, I joined the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys’ annual weekend lionfish tournament.

When my teammates (Marathon spearos John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman) and I scouted “hot spots,” we discovered blankets of the red and white feathery fish, billowing their lovely pectoral fins as they covered small wrecks at 140-foot depths — seemingly their most coveted hiding places.

For two days, we also poked under ledges and rock outcroppings at shallower reefs. I’m happy to say that we contributed 131 fish to the tournament’s overall tally of 163 — including the smallest fish, which measured three centimeters. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the populations flooding Atlantic waters.

Why is an Indo-Pacific fish here? It’s believed that the popular aquarium fish was first released in Florida (Atlantic) waters during the 1980s. Now, lionfish prey voraciously on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grunts and hamlets — normal food resources for domestic species like grouper and snapper. In fact the largest fish caught during our tournament, a 17-incher, had two baby snapper in its gut.

Each lionfish captured, like the one displayed here by Rachel, removes pressure from native fish and the Keys' marine environment.

These toothy coral reef fish, part of the scorpion fish family, have no natural reef predators except spearfishing humans. That’s why, when I landed my first shot, I was truly elated. I high-fived my partner Rachel as we both blew “Woo-hoo!” into our regulators.

Lightweight, economical and surprisingly easy to use, the average pole spear ranges from four to 12 feet in length. Since I’m a newbie spearo, most of the fish I was hunting were less than five pounds — so I opted for a five-foot, lighter and faster pole spear fitted with a sharp three-pronged (or “paralyzer”) tip. 

The highly recognizable lionfish (pesky predators also known as dragonfish, firefish or turkeyfish) almost dare you to shoot them.

Even so, it’s a daunting task for humans to outsmart them and break their quick reproductive cycle. It’s crazy how fast they repopulate — it only takes a couple of fertile females laying tens of thousands of eggs at one time; fertilized within 12 hours, the eggs hatch in three days. Three days later, the newborns are already hunting.

Divers can help eradicate invasive lionfish during a derby scheduled Sept. 14 in Key Largo waters.

Capturing lionfish is a way for divers who enjoy the Florida Keys’ coral reefs to help protect them, as well as a hands-on way to help eradicate the species — or at least whittle down the populations.

Learn how to kill, clean and fillet the spiny fish Saturday, Sept. 14, in a lionfish derby sponsored by REEF, an organization dedicated to coral reef preservation, in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. More than $3,500 in prize money will be awarded to divers who bring in the most, largest and smallest lionfish. Check out the details here.

After lionfish are dead, you can still get stuck pretty painfully if you come in contact with the tip of the venomous spines, located along the pectoral, anal and dorsal fins — so it’s best to wear puncture-resistant gloves at all times when handling the fish.

Spines are removed before cooking, and the meat has no poison. Delicious and delicate, the light white meat tastes similar to snapper, grouper and hogfish (one of my all-time favorite Keys fish to eat).

Local’s tip: At John Mirabella’s Castaway Restaurant, lionfish is a regular menu item. Ask for it “wrecker” style, in a yummy sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato.