Keys Key Largo

Find Florida Keys Adrenaline Adventures … All Year Round

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

Every day is an adventure in the Florida Keys, where the subtropical climate and scenic natural setting make an ideal backdrop for high-energy sporting activities all year round.

Entrants the Lazy Dog Paddleboard Race are tasked with paddling a 3-mile ocean course. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Entrants in the Lazy Dog Paddleboard Race are tasked with paddling a 3-mile ocean course. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

You can easily enjoy watersports and eco-excursions, unparalleled diving and offshore, inshore and flats fishing — no matter what the time of year. But the Keys also offer an energetic calendar of organized sporting events: marathons for runners, swim competitions, triathlons, cycling treks and much more.

For example, adrenaline enthusiasts can compete either on foot or on paddleboards in the Malibu Rum Hemingway 5k Sunset Run and Paddleboard Race set for Saturday, July 19.

It’s a highlight of the annual Hemingway Days festival, which celebrates the writing and exuberant outdoor lifestyle of the legendary author who spent the 1930s in Key West. You can test your strength in the 3-mile ocean paddleboard challenge, 5k run through historic Old Town — or even register for both!

And if you’re a paddleboard or self-propelled watercraft fan, Keys attractions also include the 12-mile Key West Paddleboard Classic. The race usually occurs in May, and the course takes you all the way around the United States’ southernmost island.

A field of 1,500 runners crosses the "hump" of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Runners cross the “hump” of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Have stamina to spare? Then consider competing in one of the Keys running events that test physical limits and personal resolve to the max. Chief among them is the KEYS100 Ultramarathon, also held in May, where U.S. and international contestants race 100 miles (yes, really!) from Key Largo to Key West.

Other Florida Keys running competitions include April’s Seven Mile Bridge Run across the longest segmental bridge in the world, and the Key Largo Bridge Run each November. And if you’re visiting Key West, enter the renowned Key West Half Marathon in January or the Southernmost Marathon & Half Marathon in October.

Looking for a shorter challenge? The Lower Keys’ No Name Race and the Middle Keys’ Sombrero Beach Run offer scenic trails and camaraderie during the island chain’s sunny winter months.

Besides running, the Florida Keys are home to swimming events that have inspired athletes for many years. They include the Florida Keys Community College Swim Around Key West, held each June, and Key Largo’s Orange Bowl Swimming Classic in January — a test of ability for the best collegiate swimmers in the U.S.

But that’s not all. If you enjoy mixing sports with history, check out Islamorada’s 8-mile Swim for Alligator Light. Generally scheduled for September, it helps raise awareness about the need to preserve the island chain’s aging lighthouses.

Larry Herlth begins a roundtrip swim to Alligator Reef Lighthouse. Swim founder Herlth, a Florida Keys artist,  created the event to call attention to preserving aging Florida Keys' lighthouses. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Larry Herlth begins a roundtrip swim to Alligator Reef Lighthouse. The Florida Keys artist created the Swim for Alligator Light to call attention to preserving Keys lighthouses. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In addition, the Florida Keys host triathlons and cycling races that draw thousands of participants eager to vie for victory in multiple sports disciplines. If you’re one of them, start training for the annual Key West Triathlon. Held each December, it brings endurance-sports enthusiasts to compete in a fast-paced swim in ocean waters, bike ride and run along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline.

If cycling is your passion, the Keys also offer opportunities to enjoy biking vacations and tours. Among the most popular are the annual 200-mile BubbaFest Bike Tour, generally held in November, and the lively excursions hosted by Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours.

Want to know more about Florida Keys athletic competitions (and other intriguing events)? Click here for a full calendar of challenges and adventures.

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13 Laid-back Activities to Savor

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2014

You don’t have to be a Florida Keys local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — particularly during the long, lazy summer days that are fast approaching.

Paddle a kayak through the backcountry waters of the Florida Keys, and you'll see one of the world's most diverse marine life ecosystems. (Photo by Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Join Keys locals and kayak through the backcountry waters to view the unique marine life ecosystem. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

What are some of the off-the-beaten-path, laid-back summer experiences that you can share with locals? How can you savor the island chain’s carefree, life-loving vibe? Try some (or all!) of the 13 Keys activities listed here.

1. In the Middle Keys, launch a kayak at Sombrero Beach, mile marker (MM) 50. Explore on your own or take an escorted eco-tour through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve, and marvel at the mangrove forests alive with native birds like herons, egrets and cormorants. 

2. Immerse yourself in creativity during the neighborhood art strolls held each month in Islamorada and Key West. Discover unique visual art, meet the local artisans who create it, and explore intriguing galleries alongside island chain residents enthusiastic about the cultural community.

3. Savor the sunrise while strolling along the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The historic landmark parallels the modern bridge, and a 2.2-mile section of it is open to pedestrians and bicyclists.

History buffs can visit the former Over-Sea Railroad work camp at Pigeon Key, lying beneath the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Take a leisurely stroll along the Old Seven Mile Bridge to tiny Pigeon Key. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

4. On weekends, browse at the Big Pine Flea Market at MM 30.2 for bargains on everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to sundresses and jewelry. It’s a Lower Keys tradition — and the socializing is as much fun as the “treasure hunting.”

5. Soak up fishing tips and tales from some of Islamorada’s world-class charter captains over cocktails at the Lorelei, MM 82, a favorite local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains.  

6. Treat yourself to a great home-style meal of straight-off-the-boat fresh fish at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen at MM 99 in Key Largo. Dishes and sauces are homemade from scratch — and the “World Famous Key Lime Pie” sign is not an exaggeration.

7. For a tranquil escape, explore the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at White Street. Now home to the Key West Garden Club, it features beautiful indigenous plants and rare palm trees blooming against the weathered brick fort — like a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway people can actually walk through.

Discover the tranquil waterfront oasis created by the Key West Garden Club on the grounds of historic Fort East Martello. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

Discover the tranquil waterfront oasis created by the Key West Garden Club on the grounds of historic Fort East Martello. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

8. Enjoy prowling around unusual shops? Check out Key West’s honest-to-goodness “curiosity shop” at 616 Greene St. Called 90 Miles to Cuba, it contains everything from local art to nautical antiques, vintage jewelry and Hardy Boys books.

9. Stroll along the rustic interpretive nature trails at Marathon’s 63.5-acre Crane Point to discover endangered native foliage, unusual geologic features, colorful exotic vegetation and even ancient ocean fossils. It’s a one-of-a-kind living record of Keys history.

10. If you want to chill out on one of America’s best beaches, then head for Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys. Its sandy expanse was recently named one of 2014’s top 25 U.S. beaches by TripAdvisor. Bahia Honda’s deep near-shore waters mean unmatched swimming and snorkeling.

11. Sample the world-class pizza at the wonderfully funky No Name Pub just off Big Pine Key. You’ll find yourself falling in love with its historic Keys charm, laid-back regular customers and ramshackle décor that includes interior walls papered with dollar bills.

The Schooner Wharf's postcard identifies the bar as "the center of the universe" -- and for its many fans, it just might be.

The Schooner Wharf’s postcard identifies the bar as “the center of the universe” — and for its many fans, it just might be.

12. Enjoy one of the locals’ favorite sports: hop on a paddleboard to blend fun and a core physical workout. You can use the board for surfing, traversing on a “downwinder” (riding the board backed by tradewinds to cover long distances), or exploring the tranquil backcountry flats in an environmentally friendly way.

13. If you’re looking for a Key West locals’ hangout with great live music, stop by the Schooner Wharf Bar. Located on the waterfront in the Historic Seaport, it’s the kind of funky open-air place where you can bring your dog, your girlfriend and half a dozen fishing buddies — and everyone will have a good time.

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Keys Top 10 List: Live Like a Local

Julie Botteri | April 2014

There’s a locals’ vibe in the Florida Keys, and travelers who visit want more of the laid-back lifestyle that attracts so many. Why are these islands so enchanting, and what activities do Keys residents appreciate and embrace? Hear it straight from the locals’ mouths.

Stephen's brilliant photo of Key Largo's iconic Christ of the Abyss statue was widely recognized during the recent 50th anniversary celebration of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Snorkeling Florida Keys waters is a favorite pastime of local residents.  (Photo by Stephen Frink)

“Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do. Mornings I can see spotted eagle rays feeding in the water below, tarpon or an osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere.” Bette Zirkelbach, manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital

“Snorkeling will always be my favorite activity because it’s noncompetitive, it’s all about the experience, and it’s a great family activity. If I could have anything I wanted in life — a million dollars or (to) spend another hour with my family — I would spend another hour with my family.” George Shattuck, owner of Sundance Watersports

“I take silly things from my surroundings and turn them into a tune. For inspiration, I like driving over Keys bridges, sitting in a boat in the backcountry or in the mangroves, or sitting in the forest by my house. We all have to do our little part to make this world a better place, and bringing music to children is my little piece.” Dave Feder, professional musician

“The Keys’ warm, flat, shallow waters are ideal for kiteboarding (best wind conditions late October to early June), and standup paddleboarding and wakeboarding flourish during the summer months when flatter waters prevail. The sports we participate in are not only sports, it’s a true passion.” Mike Walsh, Otherside Boardsports co-owner

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 Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

“I tell everyone how the Keys are perfect because you can work and play hard here. The diversity here is great — you can be wild and crazy one night, and the next sit in the backcountry in your kayak enjoying nature.” Diane Schmidt, general manager of Westin Key West Resort & Marina

“I continue to appreciate our tranquil existence on Sugarloaf Key … I live on a wonderful wooded acre with a pool, a pond and a great garden that I get to tend to year-round. I have a great life.” Bill Becker, U.S. 1 Radio news director, Underwater Music Festival founder

“I really like fishing, and came to the Keys for years with my father on trips. [Later] the marine science subject matter at Pigeon Key appealed to me, and who could ever imagine living in the middle of the ocean at a camp? It’s a different way of life on the island; I can’t just zip back to the store for milk or eggs.” Kelly McKinnon, Pigeon Key Foundation executive director

Andrea Paulson's easygoing attitude and love of the Keys' water environment makes her the perfect guide for backcountry kayak trips. (Photos courtesy of Andrea Paulson)

When Andrea Paulson isn’t guiding kayak excursions, she enjoys fishing as do many other Keys locals.

“My first dive was way too much for me — I knew I had to have more of this magical place. I was hooked. When we came here on vacation, my parents had to tie me down to get me back in the car. That was in 1969.” Ken Nedimyer, Coral Restoration Foundation founder, CNN Hero 2012

“I often find myself kayaking, fishing with my husband and entertaining other fishermen’s wives. I love my job, and when I’m not working I’m out exploring new areas by kayak.” Andrea Paulson, Reelax Charters backcountry guide

“Take a sunset cruise — it’ll blow you away. Eat some local seafood. Have a margarita on the beach at sunset, and see the Keys like a local. That’s how you see the real Keys.” Bobby Mongelli, restaurant owner (Hogfish, Geiger Key Smokehouse, Roostica)

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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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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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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!

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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!”

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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! 

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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.

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