Keys Marathon

13 Laid-back Activities to Savor

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Evan Doumis: Marathon’s Eye in the Sky

Julie Botteri | May 2014

“Kids down in the Florida Keys, they’re kids of charter fishermen so they grow up on the back of a boat,” explained Evan Doumis. “I grew up in the back of an airplane.”

Marathon pilot Evan Doumis shows off two of his favorite girls: daughter Peyton and his company's Waco UPF-7 biplane .

Marathon pilot Evan Doumis shows off two of his favorite girls: daughter Peyton and his company’s Waco UPF-7 biplane.

At age 32, with an astounding 10,000 accumulated flight hours, the Marathon resident and pilot is the embodiment of setting a life path and sticking with it — while peppering it with a little mischief along the way.

Since May 2013, Evan has been one of two captains of the open-cockpit Waco UPF-7 biplane of Overseas Aero Tours. Not only is the operation Marathon’s latest in-flight attraction, but it’s also an enterprise that Evan calls a true to-the-bone family business.

He and his stepfather, Brad Neat, take turns flying the classic 1940 plane on scenic trips of 10 to 20 minutes over the island, historic Pigeon Key and the old and new Seven Mile bridges — while sharing local and historic trivia over an in-helmet microphone with the plane’s two passengers.

“People are so amazed at what they see from the air … sharks, spotted eagle rays,” Evan enthused. “The most fun is finding a pod of dolphin, because it’s not very frequent.”

On the ground, Evan’s mother Joy (equipped with an iPad) juggles reservations, payments and the occasional tennis ball toss for Boudreaux, a mini Australian Shepard who appears completely unafraid of the biplane’s comings and goings.

Overseas Aero Tours' guests enjoy scenic trips over Marathon, historic Pigeon Key and the old and new Seven Mile bridges.

Overseas Aero Tours’ guests enjoy scenic trips over Marathon, historic Pigeon Key and the old and new Seven Mile bridges.

Evan developed his pragmatic outlook at an early age, when he was “bucking rivets (structural fasteners), changing oil and doing all the stuff that needs to be done to keep a plane flying” at an air park on Florida’s west coast — where his father’s charter flight company was housed.

He relocated to the Florida Keys during middle school with his mother and older sister, who also are pilots. By the time he graduated from high school he had earned both a boat captain’s license and a license to fly a plane solo — an achievement he had some teenaged fun with when he buzzed his high school’s athletic field at low altitude.

Perhaps predictably, the stunt didn’t go unnoticed by the authorities. But that didn’t stop Evan from continuing to acquire every single-engine commercial and multiengine commercial land and sea rating he could amass. Since this made pursuit of a flight operations degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University redundant (ummm … just a little?), he decided to study meteorology.

“You fly in weather, and as a pilot you have to plot weather, read maps and charts … why not study weather?” Evan said with a wide grin.

Evan and longtime love Stacy VanKirk enjoy their comfortable Keys lifestyle with daughter Peyton.

Evan and longtime love Stacy VanKirk enjoy their comfortable Keys lifestyle with daughter Peyton.

His experience is extremely impressive. He was chosen by Continental Connection airline right after college to fly a 19-seat Beech 1900 out of Key West, and then spent nearly two years overseas flying for a civilian contractor in Afghanistan.

He arrived home from that dangerous duty within one day of the birth of his daughter Peyton with longtime love Stacy VanKirk.

“I got home, took a nap, and the baby came,” Evan said.

That life-changing event, the start of the young entrepreneur’s own family, gave him pause. It planted the seed for establishing his own business in the islands he calls home, where he grew up diving, fishing and catching lobster.

These days, Evan Doumis spends his time flying, cutting the grass and keeping his two Weimeraners, Morgan and Kimber, from stealing celery sticks from Peyton.

In addition, he’s building his daughter a pedal plane, a variation on a toy car that’s fitting for the child of an aviation professional. It might even help inspire her to become a next-generation Keys pilot!

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Keys Top 10 List: Live Like a Local

Julie Botteri | April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada's popular Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada’s Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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There’s Something Fishy Happening in Marathon

Julie Botteri | March 2014

Widely recognized as being among the world’s premier saltwater sportfishing destinations, the Florida Keys offer sensational year-round fishing opportunities. Why? Because their ideal geographical location, beautiful weather and flourishing fisheries combine to create unbelievably good angling.

Caleb Goins is the guiding spirit behind Marathon's Fishbone Designs.

Caleb Goins is the guiding spirit behind Fishbone Designs.

That doesn’t just mean, however, that visiting and resident fishing fanatics can fight world-class prey or catch a finny dinner. It also influences and inspires the Keys’ lively community of visual artists.

In fact, as more and more artists discover the beauties of the Keys environment and the satisfactions of the angling lifestyle, they express their enjoyment of that lifestyle in unique and intriguing types of artistry. 

Some focus on gyotaku, the fascinating Japanese art of fish printing, while others paint or sculpt the inhabitants of Keys waters. One local artist, multitalented sculptor August Powers, creates quirky hybrids of musical instruments and underwater denizens — ranging from a “trombonefish” to a “wahoo kazoo.” His creations are “played” each July on the ocean floor by costumed divers participating in the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

While angling artistry can be found in galleries and at art shows from Key Largo to Key West, something particularly “fishy” is happening in Marathon these days.

The Workmans' large piece in the Key West International Airport terminal remains the piece dearest to Kim's heart..

This large-scale gyotaku piece, created by Keys artists Kim and Ian Workman, hangs in the Key West airport terminal.

The sportfish and food fish that draw anglers to the Middle Keys also serve as inspiration for a creative spirit with a fresh and freehanded approach to original marine art. The aptly-named Fishbone Designs brings striking representations of indigenous fish, the coral reef, gamefish and spearfishing action to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced metals.

Fishbone Designs’ goal has always been to create original pieces — conceptualizing a theme with a series of sketches and drawings on paper, and then transferring the outline to a sheet of metal such as high-grade aluminum, stainless steel or copper.

Fishbone Designs' striking marine life representations come to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced-metal artwork.

Fishbone Designs’ striking marine life representations come to life in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced-metal artwork.

A handheld plasma torch is utilized to pierce the metal. The design is then cut and finished using a die grinder (much like applying sandpaper to wood), resulting in a shiny polished finish.

Each metal design, whether a 12-inch hogfish or 40-foot-wide storefront scene, is shaped down to the muscular structure and scales of a fish. According to Fishbone’s Caleb Goins, bending and contorting the sharp edges into rolled angles gives the work a subtle, 3-D effect.

“I try to apply as much scientific accuracy as I can to each piece, with style,” explained the 28-year-old Caleb — who, inspired by the Keys’ nature, water and sea life, has made Marathon his permanent home.

“The idea is to bring the art to life, make it move and mimic what I see underwater, re-create the scenes I have experienced,” he said.

Keys artist Stacie Krupa depicts underwater creatures with vivid colors and individualistic flair.

Keys artist Stacie Krupa depicts underwater creatures with vivid colors and individualistic flair.

Now Fishbone Designs’ solo artist, Caleb took the reins from his father Robert Goins, the one and only “Fishbone.” Robert Goins is a woodsman, fisherman and artist who earned the nickname now synonymous with his and Caleb’s hand-hewn craftwork.

The “hand-hewn” creativity sets the work apart from that of other artisans who use computer-based design-and-cut techniques to mass produce replicas.

Largely focused on commissioned pieces, Fishbone Designs has plans for a studio display location in Marathon. But until that happens, the “fishy” artistry — inspired by the colorful inhabitants of the Florida Keys’ underwater world — can be found by clicking here.

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Gizmo and Kristi Go Home

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2014

Gizmo and Kristi have splashed back into their ocean home. The loggerhead sea turtle couple — Gizmo is male and Kristi is female — swam together on Valentine’s Day into the waters off Islamorada.

Marine life artist Wyland (left), Richie Moretti of the Turtle Hospital (right) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel (second from right) begin to release Kristi (left) and Gizmo on Valentine's Day. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Officials from Marathon’s acclaimed Turtle Hospital, where Gizmo and Kristi were treated after being rescued in Florida Keys waters, released the flippered couple behind Marker 88 Restaurant.

“I think love is in the air … I feel it,” said Bette Zirkelbach, the Turtle Hospital’s manager, just before the two two turtles swam out of their tubs into Florida Bay.

Their release came after significant treatment for both Gizmo and Kristi. Gizmo, a sub-adult loggerhead, was found floating near Conch Key last October, suffering from emaciation and a head wound. After X-rays taken at the Turtle Hospital revealed that he had an intestinal impaction, he was treated with antibiotics, lactulose, vitamins, honey wound care, and a diet of squid and fish.

Kristi, an adult loggerhead, was rescued near Tavernier Creek where she was found entangled in a trap line. As well as getting physical therapy on her back flipper, she was treated with antibiotics and vitamins, and fed squid and fish.

As important as Gizmo and Kristi’s recovery and freedom, however, is the occasion their release marked: the launch of a cooperative awareness-raising and fundraising venture between the Florida Keys’ nonprofit volunteer organization Save-A-Turtle and the environmentally focused Wyland Foundation.

Kristi splashes into the water off Islamorada, with Gizmo close behind. Their release marked the start of a partnership to benefit sea turtles around the U.S. and beyond.

That partnership spells good news not just for Gizmo and Kristi, but for sea turtles throughout the Keys and America’s coastal waters.

Save-A-Turtle’s president Harry Appel was on hand for the release of Gizmo and Kristi. So was internationally acclaimed marine life artist Wyland, who uses his art to encourage preservation and protection of marine creatures and the world’s oceans and waterways. His 20-year-old Wyland Foundation furthers that mission.

“It’s not only about the art,” Wyland explained. “It’s about the conservation and the message. If we can get people involved through art, then we can inspire them to be curious, maybe learn more and maybe get behind supporting a group like Save-A-Turtle.”

And well they should. Founded in 1985, the all-volunteer Save-A-Turtle is dedicated to the preservation and protection of rare and endangered marine turtles — and to the enhancement of their habitats in the Keys. Its volunteers patrol turtle nesting habitats, protect nests when needed, and provide guidance on issues that affect sea turtles and their habitats.

“We are their voice,” said Harry Appel of the turtles. “We need to speak up for their rights.”

Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel show off the artwork Wyland created for Save-A-Turtle.

As part of the two organizations’ collaboration, Wyland created an appealing brush-art portrait of a sea turtle to be featured on Save-A-Turtle merchandise that will be sold to raise money for the effort. Most of the attendees at the Valentine’s Day turtle release (except, of course, Gizmo and Kristi) were wearing T-shirts bearing the image.

Several hundred people watched Gizmo and Kristi swim away on Valentine’s Day — and some even shouted “heartfelt” messages to the turtle couple. But probably the happiest person on the beach was Harry Appel.

“It’s through organizations like the Wyland Foundation, Save-A-Turtle and the Turtle Hospital that endangered and threatened sea turtles are given a voice that they otherwise simply do not have,” Harry said.

If you’re interested in supporting their efforts and helping give sea turtles a voice, click here.

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Soldiers and Dolphins Share Unforgettable Keys Moments

Andy Newman | January 2014

 About 50 wounded military veterans visited the Florida KeysDolphin Research Center this past week, and completed the Soldier Ride bus and adaptive cycling trip down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway — pedaling across bridges that spanned long stretches of the blue Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Soldiers travel across one of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway's 42 brldges on adaptive cycles during the 2014 Soldier Ride. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As well as a satisfying challenge, for some it was a deeply meaningful journey that almost defied description.

Many of the soldiers entered the water at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon for an interactive session with the center’s resident dolphins. There they enjoyed experiences ranging from dorsal fin tows and flipper shakes to dolphin kisses.

For retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Rivera, who sustained a spinal injury in Iraq in 2010, the first-time dolphin experience was pure joy — a bonding experience with both the dolphins and his comrades.

Rivera said one of the benefits of this kind of event is to get fellow veterans out of the house, back with the community, and doing things with other wounded soldiers.

“I got a chance to kiss the dolphin,” the 45-year-old retired veteran marveled. “Got a chance to hold the dorsal fin and swim back and forth. It was an unbelievable experience.”

But Rivera said the MOST rewarding aspect of the session was the reactions of his comrades — many who had lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, or suffer from injuries that are not visually apparent.

U.S. Army Sgt. Wade Mitcheltree is towed by a dolphin at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. Mitcheltree lost his right forearm and much of his right leg in Afghanistan in 2012.

“It was great to see smiles on all our faces,” he said. “Most of us came here kind of nervous … but once we got in the water it was high-five time and fun, fun, fun.”

One soldier even introduced his service dog to two dolphins, who seemed quite interested in meeting a furry new friend.

Before their dolphin encounter, the veterans pedaled their state-of-the-art adaptive bicycles across the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest of 42 spans over water that help comprise the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.

Along the way they were greeted and thanked for their service by Keys school children and adult residents, who lined segments of the highway.

This wasn’t the first Soldier Ride through the Florida Keys. In fact, the event — organized by the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which empowers injured veterans through rehabilitative opportunities to restore their physical and emotional well-being — takes place each January.

Veteran Alex Besch, who suffers from post-traumatic brain disorder, introduces his service dog Suzy to dolphins Gypsi (left) and Delta (right) at Dolphin Research Center during 2014's Solder Ride.

While the activities themselves remain much the same from year to year, the experiences mean different things to different soldiers who take part.

In January 2013, for example, one of the men who swam with the dophins was Army 1st Lt. Josh Pitcher, who lost his left leg after an explosion in Afghanistan in April 2012.

“That was pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life,” the then 24-year-old veteran from Kentucky said after the experience.

Pitcher said he felt camaraderie with the dolphins, Tanner and Jax, who also is challenged with missing sections of his dorsal fin and tail.

“And I’m an amputee from an explosion from Afghanistan,” Pitcher said. “It was almost like a bond that we felt in the water. It was pretty cool.”

For a video of the soldiers riding through the Keys and interacting with dolphins, click here. To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project, click here. 

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Bette Zirkelbach: A Positive Force to Reckon With

Julie Botteri | January 2014

People who know Bette Zirkelbach have learned not to act surprised when she responds to a “Hey, what are you doing?” query with an answer like, “Well, I just finished super-gluing some turtles.”

Bette is dedicated to the health and well-being of the turtles she calls her "babies with flippers."

A slim yet stalwart woman from Delaware, Bette is the manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital — and she’s been one of the driving forces behind the unique facility since 2006. Before that, she spent more than a decade at Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center as director of facilities.

The Turtle Hospital treats an average of 50 to 75 turtles per year. At any hour of any given day, Bette and her trained staff can be called to meet critical care patients arriving at the hospital in one of its two ambulances (yes, ambulances for turtles — seriously!).

If impactions or internally trapped air have caused a turtle to float, the staff uses an animal-safe, epoxy-like “super glue” to attach small weights to the patient’s shell to help it to dive and descend.

During its 27-year history, the hospital has been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of a stunning 1,300-plus injured and sick sea turtles — and their release back to the wild. Turtle releases often take place at beach locations in the Florida Keys, close to where the turtle was first rescued, and the public is invited.

“People leave inspired … inspired to want to do something,” said Bette. “I think it helps to broaden their horizons and they start to think about human impact on our environment.”

Bette (left), fellow staff members and volunteers release a rehabilitated sea turtle. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Living consciously has been a part of Bette’s moral fabric since she was in her twenties.

On Earth Day 1990 in Washington, D.C., after hearing disturbing dialog about cattle farming methods, she became a vegetarian.

“If it has a face and I have to look it in the eye, I cannot kill it or eat it,” she said, though adding that she and her two children Bing (11) and Belle (9) embrace an environmentally friendly “pescatarian” diet that includes fish and crustaceans.

The 90s also were a time when she had to choose between continuing to manage her family’s successful industrial business or devoting her life to her passion — animals. By then, she had volunteered for countless hours with marine mammal stranding and wild bird rescue networks, as well as training service dogs in the Northeast.

“The family business was challenging, but taught me good management skills and I became a great networker,” said Bette, who got her college degree in biology and was largely self-taught in business skills.

Bette (left front) and the Turtle Hospital team examine a patient to make sure his recovery is complete. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“I was brave enough to leave a six-digit income and follow my heart,” she said. “Now I feel good about what I’m doing with my days.”

It’s also good for the people around Bette — whose firecracker energy and electric smile seemingly act as a magnet for other enterprising go-getters.

Her often-harried days can include animal rescues and caring for turtles around the clock, plus work on Turtle Hospital medical and public relations elements. Ninety-minute hospital tours, offered several times daily, convey the importance of the nonprofit’s mission to rescue and rehabilitate (and also to educate people).

Despite her packed schedule, Bette maintains balance by imparting positive efforts and energies wherever they’re most beneficial.

“Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do,” she advised. “Mornings I can see two tarpon in the water, or an osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere.”

Bette enjoys baking cupcakes and cakes when she can find some spare time.

Her inspiration comes from forward-thinkers like Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the world’s leading female scuba divers and marine researchers.

“Our time right now is a sweet spot on the planet, if we pay attention now,” Bette explained. “So I feel a responsibility globally to our species.”

Equally strong is her sense of dedication to the turtles.

I have all these babies with flippers,” she said. “My life is full.”

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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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