Keys Key Largo

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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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! 

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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.

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