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Keys Key Largo

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lawn Furniture, Pool Noodles and That Dreaded Sinking Feeling

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2013

Sometimes in Key Largo, people get that sinking feeling. Not because there’s anything negative about Key Largo — the Florida Keys’ northernmost island features restaurants with great food, interesting attractions to explore, world-class dive opportunities, rollicking nightlife and a friendly, easygoing atmosphere.

These party animals paddled to victory in a past "Anything That Floats" regatta in Key Largo waters. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

No, it’s something else entirely that causes them to get that sinking feeling. It’s because they’re competing in a very strange regatta where, in the course of the afternoon, many participating vessels simply disintegrate underneath their passengers — leaving them dog-paddling like Gilligan when his “three-hour tour” went wrong.

Known as the “Anything That Floats” regatta, the event is set this year for Saturday, Aug. 17 — and it’s sure to be pure maritime mayhem.

Before taking to the water, participating teams are first required to build their boats (no, I’m not kidding). And since the wacky regatta is held in the Florida Keys, where we pride ourselves on doing things a little bit differently, the construction materials they can use aren’t exactly traditional.

In fact, team members must reuse, recycle and regenerate materials that might be found around the house. Wood, PVC, jugs, buckets, pool noodles, plastic wrap, lawn furniture (yes, really!) and cardboard are allowed — as are a roll of all-purpose duct tape to hold the quirky craft together and old T-shirts to hoist as sails.

Oars and paddles are permitted too. But don’t even THINK about using motors, foam, floats, rafts or (for some mysterious but unstated reason) pool toys.

The team aboard this colorful craft may be about to get that dreaded sinking feeling.

Once construction of the bizarre boats is complete, it’s up to their intrepid crews to navigate them through a half-mile buoyed course along Blackwater Sound from Key Largo’s Caribbean Club to Sundowners and back.

During past regattas, even boats that looked about as seaworthy as cottage cheese somehow stayed afloat (possibly held together by team spirit alone). Each year, however, several teams get the aforementioned “sinking feeling,” and can only try to maintain their dignity as their crafts crumble around them.

Whether the vessels stay afloat or not, the event’s spectators seem most impressed by the ones that look the strangest. For example, a past regatta was won by a “sailboat” built from a converted kiddie pool and empty plastic gas cans, its mast topped with a tipsy-looking “macaw” holding a margarita glass.

(Its closest competitors included a crazy cruiser composed primarily of a plastic shelving unit and named, for reasons that quickly became apparent, the Train Wreck.)

This vessel looks seaworthy enough to complete the entire course -- and then take a victory lap!

And few spectators will forget a past entry called the Yardwork Sucks, a converted wheelbarrow fastened to pool noodles, which won the Slowest Boat Award a few years back. The team’s “oar,” a yard broom, may have contributed to its not-so-speedy pace.

Interested in attending the 2013 regatta on Aug. 17? The fun begins with a team check-in at 2 p.m., and the boats set sail at 3 p.m. Spectators can follow the wacky action from viewing areas at waterfront bars and restaurants — and then stick around to enjoy a Keys sunset, with live music and more fun to follow.

Regatta teams can win prizes for the most creative vessel, best-costumed crew, fastest vessel, best hard-luck story, and vessel containing the most participants that manages to remain afloat — completing the course without getting (you guessed it!) that dreaded sinking feeling.

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The Keys Can’t-Miss List

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2013

Let’s imagine you’ve got only two or three days to explore the entire Florida Keys (which would clearly be a planning mistake, since the island chain’s five diverse regions should be explored at a leisurely pace).

Drive the unique Florida Keys Overseas Highway and stop at "Can't Miss" spots along the way. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But in today’s crazy-busy world, some people can only escape their “real world” responsibilities for a few short days.

If that’s your situation, “The Keys Can’t-Miss List” here will help you maximize enjoyment in minimal time.

Where to start? On the northernmost island of Key Largo, renowned for diving, snorkeling and backcountry touring.

From there, follow the Florida Keys Overseas Highway all the way to Key West, driving at an easy pace and stopping along the way.

Can’t Miss #1: Take a snorkeling or scuba excursion, and see stunning coral formations and brilliant tropical fish, in Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park America’s first underwater preserve and predecessor to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Can’t Miss #2: Head for Islamorada, renowned as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Join one of Islamorada’s charter captains or guides for world-class fishing in offshore, reef or shallow backcountry waters. The Keys lay claim to more saltwater world fishing records than any other angling destination on the planet.

A Turtle Hospital staffer examines a loggerhead turtle "patient." (Photo courtesy of The Turtle Hospital)

Can’t Miss #3: After catching your fish (maybe yellowtail snapper, tuna or dolphin fish, also called mahi-mahi), turn it into a meal. Bring it to one of the Keys restaurants that “cook the catch.” There’s nothing like savoring a perfectly prepared and seasoned fish, and knowing you reeled it in.

Can’t Miss #4: Meandering through Marathon, meet rescued sea turtles at the world’s only licensed veterinary hospital specializing in sea turtles (yes, really!). A dedicated team at The Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates, and nurtures sick and injured turtles — and whenever possible, releases them back into the ocean realm. Don’t miss taking a guided behind-the-scenes tour of this one-of-a-kind facility.

Can’t Miss #5: Now drive down the Overseas Highway to Big Pine Key where, if you’re lucky, you can spot (and photograph) a real-life “Bambi.” Tiny, shy Key deer are an endangered species that live only in the Lower Keys. They’re about the size of large dogs and can be found grazing around Big Pine — especially in the early morning hours and at dusk. Spotting them isn’t always easy, but it’s a real treat when you do.

Take a leisurely bike ride to view exuberant blossoms and historic Key West homes.

Can’t Miss #6: Once you reach Key West, you can do anything from taking an art stroll to visiting a Hemingway hangout. But one of the very best activities is wonderfully simple: rent a bicycle and pedal around historic Old Town past colorful Victorian homes, white picket fences and luxuriant foliage. Biking down the narrow lanes, you can smell exotic flowers and peek into hidden gardens, marvel at architectural beauty and exchange smiles with people you pass.   

As you’ll discover on your Florida Keys journey, the islands boast a lively seafaring history, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate, and natural wonders that include continental America’s only living coral barrier reef.

But the Keys’ most important asset is intangible: a laidback vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. Soak up that vibe whether you have two days or two weeks to spend in the magical island chain — and you’ll find yourself refreshed, renewed, and ready for more.

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The Wandering ‘Flower Dog’

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2013

My husband and I got married in a Florida Keys park beside the Atlantic Ocean, less than half a mile from the home we still share.

Was it the bride or the groom that the passing angler was trying to rescue from matrimony? We'll never know. (Photo by Richard Watherwax)

We wanted a simple wedding, one that reflected the easygoing way we live. We had no idea that our ceremony would be serendipitously blessed by a pod of dolphins frolicking just offshore, or that our golden retriever “flower dog” would unexpectedly abandon his duties and take off, tail wagging, for the nearby beach — followed by our startled four-year-old flower girl.

And we certainly didn’t expect that a sport fishing boat would motor by and one of its anglers would offer us a wedding-day message.

Spotting the celebratory crowd, and a man and woman obviously about to tie the knot, he cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered across the water, “It’s not too late — JUMP! We’ll pick you up!”

Was he trying to rescue my husband-to-be from the perils of matrimony? Or me? We’ve laughed about the incident many times since that day, but we’ll never know.

Actually, we’ve laughed about a number of offbeat wedding occurrences (including the wandering flower dog). Though we could have held our ceremony practically anywhere in the U.S. or Caribbean, we know our beloved Keys were the perfect spot.

Couples in love can have a dolphin for their "best man" at Islamorada's Theater of the Sea. (Photo courtesy of Theater of the Sea)

We’re far from alone; the Florida Keys are one of the country’s top wedding destinations.

Why? For one thing, the attitude is very easygoing and informal — which means much of the stress of typical wedding planning simply doesn’t happen. Terrific planners can be found from Key Largo to Key West to handle every detail.

Plus, a visit to the Keys is generally regarded as a lighthearted vacation occasion for the entire wedding group — so the experience of the wedding becomes a unique, eagerly anticipated occasion for everyone involved.

And once the wedding party and guests arrive, they’ll be happily entertained. So many activities can be arranged for family and friends — from deep-sea fishing to tall ship sailing excursions to salon services — that the bride and groom don’t need to worry about taking care of their guests. Instead, they can focus on the deepening of their relationship and their lives together.

Another plus is that, while the Keys certainly host formal weddings, many are delightfully informal. The “tux and unflattering bridesmaids’ dress” cliché simply doesn’t have to apply.

What could be more romantic than a horse-drawn carriage as your wedding transportation? (Photo courtesy of Island Horse Drawn Carriage, Inc.)

Shorts or khakis for men and pretty sundresses for women are popular wedding attire, making the wedding a more laid-back and comfortable experience for the whole group (and eliminating the cost of an item that’s worn only once).

And the food options couldn’t be better — whether gourmet or waterfront casual. Many Keys restaurants overlook marinas, beaches or world-class sunset spots, and can easily accommodate groups.

Imagine a reception menu of fresh local seafood: sweet Key West pink shrimp and stone crab claws, conch fritters and chowder, Key lime pie and dishes with a Caribbean or Cuban flair.

Naturally, more traditional cuisine is also available — and trust me, Keys caterers are happy to provide full onsite service at wedding hotspots like Key West’s Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.

Golden retrievers make excellent "flower dogs" for Keys weddings -- unless they wander off! (Photo courtesy of Crystal Ruffo)

Looking for a setting for intriguing wedding photos? Try the water’s edge with a famed Keys sunset as the backdrop, a historic Civil War-era fort, the Southernmost Point that marks the southernmost spot of land in the continental U.S., or the tiny island of Pigeon Key beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon.

Or pose in a horse-drawn carriage on an Islamorada beach, or cruising on Key Largo’s restored African Queen (yes, the actual boat used in the classic Bogart film).

In fact, if you’re making wedding plans of any kind, consider saying your “I Dos” in the Keys. Just remember to avoid wandering anglers — and keep an eye on your flower dog!

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Rick Hederstrom Tells the ‘Plant’ Truth

Julie Botteri | May 2013

Career paths are rarely preordained. Instead, they might develop around hobbies, interests and learned skills until an opportunity appears that’s a perfect fit. That’s what happened for Rick Hederstrom.

Rick Hederstrom has found a fulfilling career as the ethnobotanist at Key Largo's beautiful Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens. (Photos courtesy of Rick Hederstrom)

Rick started out as a young golf-pro-hopeful and detoured into drafting car designs.

But his life changed completely when he came across the owners of Key Largo’s Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens — and he became their first-ever resident ethnobotanist.

Rick had actually gotten his degree in ethnobotany, the study of the relationships that exist between plants and people, at prestigious Connecticut College. Through what he called divine intervention, he received enough financial grants to fully cover the staggering $43,000 yearly tuition.

Grounded in a strong Catholic faith and kinship with the outdoors and nature, Rick is fascinated with the healing qualities of plants. That led him to pursue ethnobotany, figuring it had more long-term career potential than practicing on golf greens or drawing concept cars indoors at a drafting table.

“I was initially most interested in plants’ usefulness as medicine and perhaps playing a role in developing new treatments and cures from plants,” he said.

During garden tours, Rick explains the origins and uses for many tropical plants -- including the unusual pitcher plant that's considered a carnivore.

When the chance came to study abroad in his junior year, he wound up in the Peruvian Andes and rainforest for three months — immersed in fieldwork with the people of Cuzco and the outlying lowlands, learning how they used plants in everyday life.

“For [Peruvians], the use of plants is a very serious ritual experience and forms the basis of their world view,” Rick explained. “Ayahuasca, a mixture of certain plants, is intensely spiritual, hallucinogenic and is conducive to a positive healing or state of peace.” 

The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai strive to blend enrichment, enlightenment, education and enjoyment. Today, as the facility’s associate director, Rick offers insights to visitors into the crucial roles plants play in our survival.

Guests touring the gardens learn that each living, breathing organism has a name, a story to tell and a complexity and beauty beyond being just a lovely green object. They also can sample delicious fruits he selects from the tropical fruit garden.

“Coconut water from the coconut palms’ fruit provides a valuable source of fresh water, and can substitute as intravenous fluid for hydration,” Rick said, “because it is sterile and has the right balance of minerals and electrolytes.”

Rick skilfully mixes electronic music when he indulges his "hidden passion" for deejaying.

As well as sharing his knowledge, his job includes inventorying the gardens’ plant collections, photographing and noting their condition as well as their flowering and fruiting, and choosing new plants to be added to the collections as planning continues for the facility’s future. He also pens a blog titled “The Diary of the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai.”

Rick spends much of his free time at home in spiritual or religious reading, prayer and meditation, or attending Mass and participating in activities at the Upper Keys’ San Pedro Catholic Church.

On another note, he admits to a whimsical desire to deejay in the Keys, mixing a variety of electronic music. But for now, he’s satisfied with motorcycle rides, exercising and spending time around the water.

“I feel great when I am outdoors, in communion with nature — God’s manifestation in its purest form,” he said.

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Celebrate Bogie’s Best in Key Largo (Where Else?)

admin2 | April 2013

Fans of one of America’s most iconic big-screen legends will gather May 2-5 at the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, where they’ll enjoy four days of immersion in all things Bogart. And what better place to honor the late actor than in the location of one of his greatest films: the beautiful island of Key Largo at the head of the Florida Keys?

Film fans are flocking to celebrate an American screen legend on the island that gave its name to one of his cinema classics.

The inaugural event doesn’t just have a fitting setting; it’s also timed to mark 65 years since the premiere of “Key Largo,” starring Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall. And its host is none other than Stephen Bogart, the legendary duo’s son.

Actually, the Key Largo festival is the only event of its kind ever to be sanctioned by the Bogart estate. It’s even being produced by the estate, partnering with the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.

The festivities officially kick off Thursday, May 2, with an evening cocktail reception hosted by Stephen Bogart — joined by renowned film critic Leonard Maltin — at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo. Following the reception, film buffs can savor an outdoor waterfront screening of (naturally!) Bogie and Bacall’s “Key Largo.”

For the next couple of days, guests can attend screenings of Bogart classics and other landmark movies from the film noir genre. In-theater showings are planned, as are outdoor screenings under the stars in Key Largo’s balmy subtropical climate.

And the film selection is enough to make a fan drool in anticipation.

Festival guests can cruise on the African Queen, the original vessel from director John Huston's 1951 film. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Among the highlights are “Casablanca,” “The Big Sleep,” “Dark Passage,” “The African Queen,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and non-Bogart offerings like “Double Indemnity” and “Body Heat.”

But the festival is about far more than viewing films — enticing as they are. Additional attractions include cruises on the original African Queen, the actual boat used in the famed Bogart film. Now registered as a national historic site and home-ported in Key Largo, the African Queen was relaunched in 2012 after a $70,000 restoration.

Want to party in the style of Bogie and Bacall? Then the elegant Casablanca-themed Bogart Ball, hosted by Stephen Bogart on Saturday, May 4, is the place to be. Happening at the Hilton Key Largo Resort, it begins with a red-carpet cocktail reception. After that, gala-goers can savor the flavors of a three-course Moroccan-themed dinner and dance the night away.

The red carpet, by the way, will be walked by a modern-day star: Jack Huston of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” He’s the grandson of legendary film director, screenwriter and actor John Huston, and he will receive an award recognizing the longtime professional partnership between his grandfather and Bogart.

Stephen Bogart is the enthusiastic host of the film festival honoring his father's work. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

John Huston’s first directing role came with “The Maltese Falcon,” starring Bogart as the film noir detective Sam Spade. He and Huston became lifelong friends and worked together on other films including “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen,” and of course “Key Largo.”

During the ball, Stephen Bogart and Leonard Maltin will present a replica of the famed falcon statuette from “The Maltese Falcon” to Jack Huston.

“It is wonderful that Jack Huston will accept the festival award in recognition of the large role John Huston played in the life and career of my father,” stated Stephen Bogart.

Want to know more about Key Largo’s one-of-a-kind Bogart celebration? Click here to purchase tickets, book accommodations, reserve space on an African Queen cruise and much more.

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