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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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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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John Mirabella: Spearing Marathon Diners’ Fresh Catch

Julie Botteri | August 2013

At Middle Keys eateries, most local customers are known by name and visiting patrons receive a feel-good welcome at the door. John Mirabella, owner and operator of Marathon’s Castaway Restaurant with his wife Arlene, is at the heart of the good times — which roll as easily at his waterside seafood joint as the daily featured sushi rolls.

John and Arlene Mirabella are the guiding spirits behind Marathon's Castaway Restaurant, a favorite for its fresh seafood and welcoming vibe. (All photos courtesy of John Mirabella)

“I love these island communities. The simple way of life is a strong draw for me and many other island dwellers,” he said. “There is a strong sense of ownership in the community, and people care for and support one another.”

John was Brooklyn born and raised in Titusville, Fla., across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39B. He served a stint in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear plant operator, electrician and ship’s diver aboard a Fast Attack Submarine. That led to working in the commercial nuclear industry for another five years.

John and Arlene met in 1994 and the pair sailed from Los Angeles to Marathon on a 36-foot Piver Trimaran. In 2000, they purchased the Castaway Restaurant and embarked on what John calls a new life.

Ask the 44-year-old restaurateur what his passion is, and the answer is simple.

“Ahhhh, spearfishing! I love it!” John enthused. “I want to go scuba diving all the time, and yes, I hunt most of the time — it’s hard not to hunt fish when you own a seafood restaurant and you are hooked on the sport anyway.

John scored this cubera snapper during one of his frequent forays into the beautiful and fish-filled Middle Keys waters.

When time allows, John and Arlene visit family scattered from the Midwest to the Philippines. The Maldives and Tahitian Islands are still on their destination bucket list, but the waters surrounding the Keys are where they most want to be.

John honed his spearfishing skills in the Keys — something he’d tried with Hawaiian slings in the Bahamas at age 10.

“What’s awesome about spearfishing is, you can’t have the wrong bait and the fish don’t have to be hungry,” he reported.

He used to fish the Keys from the surface, but during scuba diving trips he would notice the migration patterns of baitfish and other species — and know right away if there were fish to catch on a certain day, rather than sitting in the boat with fishing rod in hand and nothing biting.

“My favorite moment is when I pull the trigger, the spear goes to the fish and I realize I’m about to have a few minutes of big excitement, man versus creature, to dispatch the fish and get him on my stringer,” John said. “It’s especially exciting for me if it’s a big, strong fish like a cobia or an African pompano — something that will really challenge me.”

Spearfishing not only provides recreation, but fresh fish for his restaurant, too. Patrons savor John’s own fresh-caught snapper, grouper, hogfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, African pompano, cobia and wahoo. He even serves lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific fish and menu mainstay whose delicate white meat is a favorite for ceviche.

For John, fishing with friends provides both supreme enjoyment and fresh-caught delicacies to serve Castaway diners.

“We don’t kill any fish we don’t eat,” said John.

He stressed that spearfishermen are stewards of the environment, since the sport doesn’t contribute to any by-catch and promotes cleanliness in the environment.

“I don’t leave any trash or damage in my wake, and I seldom drop my anchor because we mostly drift dive around manmade structures and wrecks,” he explained. “I’m not sure why anyone would think that spearfishing is bad for the ocean.”

What’s John Mirabella’s advice to aficionados ready to come to the Middle Keys with friends and learn how to spearfish? Learn from watching the pros and remember that, as with most skills, practice makes perfect.

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It’s Viva Las Vegas for Keys Sea Turtle

Andy Newman | July 2013

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — and so will a 320-pound green sea turtle, until recently living in “rehab” in the Florida Keys, who was transported to the glitzy Nevada gaming mecca via FedEx.

OD enjoys a snack in the Turtle Hospital's "transition pool" before beginning his long journey. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That may sound surprising, since the millions who flock to “Sin City” each year don’t usually include sea turtles. And on top of that, they don’t usually travel by FedEx.

The tale behind the trip is as unusual as the means of transportation for the turtle — who was found in 2008 in Key Largo waters, floating and clearly in trouble, by the Ocean Diver dive charterboat. Rescued by the crew and named OD after the boat, he was quickly transported to the KeysTurtle Hospital for care.

Located in Marathon, the unique hospital has been treating and rehabilitating sick and injured turtles for some 25 years. And OD was no exception.

While examining and testing the new “patient,” the facility’s vet discovered he had a collapsed lung, likely caused by an infection. It couldn’t be repaired — a serious problem, since it caused the hapless turtle to float on his side, unable to submerge and swim level.

The Turtle Hospital team gives OD a final exam in preparation for his Las Vegas adventure.

To compensate, the Turtle Hospital team came up with an ingenious plan: they used marine epoxy to fasten weights to OD’s shell so he could submerge and swim like other sea turtles.

Unfortunately, that didn’t completely solve the problem. Every 12 to 18 months, because of the growth of his shell, the weights shed off him and need to be reattached — which means he can never be released back into the ocean.

For almost five years, OD was cared for in the Turtle Hospital’s 100,000-gallon tidal rehabilitation pool. But he couldn’t stay there forever. Earlier this year, hospital staff began the search for a new home for the turtle.

“We wanted to give OD a permanent home that offered a larger habitat with diverse marine life,” explained Bette Zirkelbach, the hospital’s manager.

The Turtle Hospital's Richie Moretti (left) and Bette Zirkelbach check on OD in his comfy traveling crate before all three of them board the FedEx plane.

That’s exactly what was offered by officials at the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. And what an amazing habitat it is — a 1.3-million-gallon exhibition saltwater aquarium that’s 22 feet deep and designed like an active reef, with areas for its inhabitants to swim, rest and surface.

To prepare OD for his 2,400-mile journey from the Keys to Las Vegas, the Turtle Hospital team examined him to make sure he was healthy, and even scrubbed his shell.

In Marathon, they carefully placed him into the hospital’s “turtle ambulance” and drove him up to Fort Lauderdale. There he was carried aboard the FedEx plane that would fly him to Las Vegas.

Throughout his travels, he was watched over by Turtle Hospital manager Bette and founder Richie Moretti — who, like OD, were transported free by FedEx.

OD is now one of Las Vegas' newest residents -- and he's one lucky turtle!

Upon arrival, OD was quickly moved into the Shark Reef Aquarium’s “guest quarters,” a quarantine area where he will stay for about six weeks before being transferred to his “forever home.” According to Bette, he seemed healthy and comfortable in his new surroundings.

By early fall, visitors to the aquarium should be able to spot OD in the main exhibition tank — which has viewing windows and a walkthrough acrylic tunnel — as he swims and interacts with other marine animals, including fellow sea turtles.

He may not be a gambler, but the plucky (and lucky!) OD is clearly one of the biggest winners in Vegas.

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Four Florida Keys Perspective-Changers

Julie Botteri | July 2013

Some days, you feel like seeing things from a different perspective. Luckily, in the Florida Keys you can almost always come up with an intriguing way to do just that. 

During an aerial tour, view 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)

For example, try taking flight — seriously! — at a fabulous new Middle Keys sightseeing adventure. Marathon’s Overseas Aero Tours provides a unique opportunity to see the Keys from a vintage WWII biplane. 

During the company’s biplane rides for two, you can view the historic and contemporary bridges that connect the beautiful islands of the Florida Keys. You’ll also spot marine life like fish, sharks, rays and dolphins making their way through the clear shallow waters below. 

Tour highlights include getting a bird’s-eye view of Marathon, tiny Pigeon Key, Sombrero Lighthouse and the historic Seven Mile Bridge. In fact, each tour combines history and natural wonders into a memorable adventure.

Overseas Aero Tours’ pilots are savvy and personable: Captain Brad Neat, who began Keys seaplane tours in 1993, and former Continental Airlines pilot Captain Evan Doumis.

Author Brad Bertelli offers informative insights on Upper Keys history during his walking tours.

Excursions range from eight-to-10-minute tours up to 60-minute flights. You’ll find Overseas Aero Tours’ biplane at the Florida Keys/Marathon International Airport, mile marker (MM) 52.2 gulfside.

You don’t have to take to the sky to get a different perspective on the Keys — instead, step back in time with author and historian Brad Bertelli. Brad’s Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours are small-group explorations of the region’s important locales and bygone days.           

For example, the Historic Downtown Tavernier Tour spotlights neighborhoods developed by pineapple farmers and workers on Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. During the hour-long stroll, Brad shares stories about people and incidents that shaped the downtown Tavernier community.

Brad typically offers walking tours between 9 a.m. and noon, Mondays through Saturdays — and you must make reservations in advance. 

Speaking of stepping back into the past, don’t miss the nostalgic (and ever-growing) museum-type exhibit called Made in America No More. You’ll find it inside the ReStore operated by Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Keys — the organization’s non-profit retail outlet that sells quality secondhand home goods and boutique clothing.

From the antique to the unique, you'll find it at Habitat's Lower Keys ReStore. (Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Keys)

It’s located on Big Pine Key at MM 30.5, and it has become a popular stop for people interested in memorabilia from the 19th and 20th centuries.

On display, you’ll discover rare original-material items like a Penncrest Caravelle 10 typewriter, gold-rimmed Norman Rockwell dinner plates and a Rochester Stamping Co.’s teakettle from 1888.

During summer months, the Habitat ReStore is open every day except Wednesday. It’s definitely worth a stop! 

For a totally different “take” on life, abandon adulthood temporarily and think like a kid again. Or at least play in the sand like one.

Actually, both kids and grownups can build intricate, eye-catching sandcastles on the beach in Key West — and craft sand sculptures of all kinds — thanks to a partnership between the historic waterfront Casa Marina Resort and an award-winning group of sand artists.

The resort, located at 1500 Reynolds St. on the Atlantic Ocean, and Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting have teamed up to offer 2.5-hour beachside workshops for everybody eager to play in the sand.

Sculpted in sand, Kermit the Frog reclines on the Casa Marina beach. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting)

Up to six people can enjoy the master class with Sand-Isle’s Marianne van den Broek. And Marianne is certainly an expert teacher. She has crafted giant sand sculptures for holidays, special events, proposals and MUCH more since her career began in the Netherlands almost 15 years ago.

If you take her class, you’ll create your own sand sculpture from scratch — and what could be more fun and more liberating? Just remember to book the class in advance, either through the Casa Marina’s concierge or by clicking here.

These four suggestions are just a sample of the activities you can explore to change your perspective in the Florida Keys. Experience one or more of them … and then come up with some perspective-changers of your own!

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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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Discover Florida Keys History at One-of-a-Kind Sites

admin2 | May 2013

The Florida Keys & Key West are internationally renowned as a laidback subtropical getaway, yet they’re also rich in fascinating history. Since 2013 marks the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon setting foot on Florida’s east coast, it’s a perfect time to discover them.

Journey into history down one of the old roads on Indian Key. (Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks)

Of course, you can explore elements of the Keys’ natural and cultural history at attractions and sites throughout the islands — but a trio of intriguing highlights is chronicled here.

INDIAN KEY

Located less than a mile from Lower Matecumbe Key, Indian Key is just 11 acres in size. But it was the site of one of the Keys’ most dramatic (and chilling) incidents.

In the early 19th century, the tiny island boasted a thriving shipwreck salvage (also called wrecking) community. It had the largest population between St. Augustine and Key West — and in 1836, it was declared the first county seat of Dade County (FYI, the Keys now lie in Monroe County and Dade County’s focal point is Miami).

Just four years later, in 1840 during what was called the Second Seminole War, an Indian Key wrecking captain named Jacob Housman offered to remove the Seminoles from the area.

That proved to be a fatal mistake. A group of them paddled to the island, where they killed settlers and set structures ablaze in a horrific inferno. 

The Museum of Natural History at Crane Point spotlights the remarkable early history of the Florida Keys. (Photo courtesy of Crane Point)

Indian Key never regained its population or its prominence. In 1971 it was purchased by the Florida Park Service, and the following year became a National Historic Site.

Today Indian Key Historic State Park, located offshore at mile marker 78.5, is accessible only by boat. Rent a boat or kayak from Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, and spend a few hours at the park swimming, sunning, and hiking the acres where the thriving community once stood.

CRANE POINT

The 63.5-acre Crane Point is one of the Keys’ most sensitive environmental and archaeological sites — and fortunately, it has been preserved by the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust as a nature sanctuary and education center.

A one-of-a-kind living record of Keys history, the property at MM 50.5 in Marathon contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts. It was once the site of a Bahamian village, and artifacts dating from the 19th century have been found there as well.

The flora and fauna of the Keys form the basis of many Crane Point exhibits. (Photo courtesy of Crane Point)

But that’s only the beginning. Crane Point is home to a wide range of tropical vegetation, including 10 endangered plant and animal species. It also features the Museum of Natural History, the Marathon Wild Bird Center and the historic Adderley House.

Visiting the fascinating place, you’ll discover more than 10 major exhibits covering the geography, plant and animal life of the Keys — and the 5,000-year history of man’s habitation in the area. 

SAN CARLOS INSTITUTE

Though it’s more than 150 miles from Miami, Key West lies just 90 miles from Cuba — and the island city’s culture reflects that geographic closeness. In fact, an important Cuban heritage center can be found at 516 Duval St. in the heart of Key West’s historic district.

The San Carlos Institute was established in 1871 to preserve Cuban culture and promote the freedom of Cuba, which at the time was ruled by Spain. In 1892, famed Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí launched his drive for Cuba’s independence in a pivotal speech from the balcony of the San Carlos.

The majestic San Carlos is a leading Cuban heritage site. (Photo courtesy of the San Carlos Institute)

Marti loved the San Carlos so much that he called it “La Casa Cuba.” The landmark institute now serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater and school (and hosts many of Key West’s leading special events each year).

Its museum exhibits focus on Cuba’s history and the history of the Cuban-American community in Florida — including an inspiring collection of photographs and documents relating to José Martí. 

Want to know more about Florida Keys history and unique sites to visit? Click here to begin your exploration.

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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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Pigeon Key: Tranquil Islet, Vibrant History

Katharine Roach | April 2013

Only the most senior of us senior citizens are old enough to remember Pigeon Key in its historic glory — but we all can visit the tiny island, which lies underneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Middle Keys. And it’s well worth a visit, since there are very few sites as important in the history and development of the Florida Keys.

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)

The islet’s first claim to fame came during the construction of the Keys extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, Henry Flagler’s ambitious undertaking that became known as the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Work on this massive project — a railroad whose track stretched nearly 100 miles “out to sea” to connect the Keys with mainland Florida and each other for the first time — began in 1905, but it was not completed until 1912.

One of the most challenging parts of Flagler’s enterprise was the construction of the Seven Mile Bridge just west and south of Marathon. For that, he needed workers and a place to house them. Pigeon Key was the ideal spot, so a construction camp was built to house several hundred workers.

When the railroad was completed, Pigeon Key became home to the maintenance workers. Its amenities included permanent homes, a school for children of married personnel and even a post office.

Pigeon Key's restored historic structures and tranquil atmosphere offer visitors a glimpse of the Over-Sea Railroad era. (Photo courtesy of the Pigeon Key Foundation)

Everything went according to plan after the railroad’s completion until the devastating hurricane of 1935. Instead of restoring the heavily damaged railroad, the powers that be decided to construct a two-lane road through the Keys to Key West. At that time, the U.S. was still in the throes of the Great Depression and the government sent hundreds of men to Pigeon Key to give them jobs building the road. 

Once completed, the highway served the Keys well. Many of the original bridges were modernized or replaced in the 1980s. I traveled the “new highway” all the way to Key West in its infancy, and I marveled at the construction miracles the workers had achieved.

Today Pigeon Key is thriving as home to the Pigeon Key Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 to preserve the cultural history of the Keys. Its Pigeon Key Marine Science Center oversees many educational programs.

The early homes have been restored, and the former home of one of the officials how houses a museum, with exhibits from the days of the former railroad and the original highway.

Educational programs are high on the list of the foundation’s projects, and daily guided tours are offered for visitors of all ages.

Pigeon Key has recently adopted solar power for its energy needs -- using today's technology to enhance the historic setting. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Believe me, touring the windswept island will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, becoming part of the simpler lifestyle that characterized the Keys decades ago. 

For a relaxing getaway, you can stay at the Pigeon Key guesthouse, a comfortable building that’s listed on the National List of Historic Places. The guesthouse sleeps 10, with two baths, a living room, and a kitchen. It’s a great place for a multi-generation family vacation, or for a group of friends to get together and reconnect in a tranquil, slow-paced setting.

For many years Pigeon Key could be accessed on foot across the Old Seven Mile Bridge. However, that avenue is now closed, and the only way to reach the historic island is by a short ferry ride from Knight’s Key. The ferry is an easier way for seniors to travel and is a delightful trip.

When Henry Flagler completed his railroad and realized his dream, he opened up the Florida Keys as a recreational area for people from around the United States and around the world. Those of us who love the island chain, whether as residents or eager visitors, will be forever glad he did!

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