Keys Topics

Festival Spotlights Fantasy and Sends a Message

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

Key West’s annual Fantasy Fest masking and costuming celebration ended Oct. 26 after 10 days of masquerade parties, intriguing costume contests and street fairs — all climaxing in a spectacular grand parade. And as well as focusing on flamboyant fun and fantasy, the 2014 festival communicated a significant message.

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones, pioneers in Florida's fight for same-sex marriage equality, were grand marshals  of the spectacular Fantasy Fest parade. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones, pioneers in Florida’s fight for same-sex marriage equality, were grand marshals of the spectacular Fantasy Fest parade. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

This year’s Fantasy Fest was themed, “Animeted Dreams & Adventures,” inspired by Japanese anime and other forms of creative animation. The two Key West men chosen as grand marshals of the highlight parade, however, were “animated” by their own dream: that of being allowed to marry legally in Florida.

Festival officials selected bartenders Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones to be grand marshals because of their efforts to bring same-sex marriage equality to Florida and the Keys.

Earlier this year, they won a landmark court ruling overturning Florida’s statewide same-sex marriage ban for Florida Keys residents. A subsequent appeal by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi means they still can’t marry — but their Fantasy Fest parade float proclaimed their desire to tie the knot.

Couples in wedding attire, marching beside the grand marshals' float, tossed their wedding bouquets to the crowd. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Couples in wedding attire, marching beside the grand marshals’ float, tossed their wedding bouquets to the crowd.

Their presence at the head of the parade was both colorful and compelling. Wearing matching tuxes and sparkling rainbow-colored top hats handcrafted by a local artisan, they stood under a rainbow arch atop a supersized “wedding cake” float as it proceeded through Key West’s historic downtown in front of more than 50,000 spectators.

But that’s not all. Traveling alongside the float were 33 other couples in wedding attire — gay, lesbian, straight, transgender and even mobility-impaired.

“The couples that are marching with us in the parade represent everybody,” said Aaron Huntsman shortly before the procession began. “It’s time for equality for everybody now.”

When the grand marshals’ float reached a reviewing stand along the parade route, the couples exuberantly threw their wedding bouquets to the crowd.

The festival drew more than 40 lavishly decorated floats and marching groups in elaborate costumes. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The festival drew more than 40 lavishly decorated floats and marching groups in elaborate costumes.

Of course, Fantasy Fest is internationally recognized for its untamed revelry and lighthearted spirit — and parade participants and spectators gleefully displayed both.

The spectacular parade included more than 40 lavishly-decorated motorized floats, many featuring music, light shows and oversized moving parts.

Accompanying them were marching groups, island bands and street dancers in elaborate sequined and feathered costumes.

Standout floats and marching groups included a troupe of colorful superheroes and villains bearing cartoon-style placards reading “Zap!” and “Ka-Pow!,” a massive float exploring what might happen if the iconic “Hello Kitty” met one of Key West’s renowned six-toed Hemingway cats, and a float spoofing the “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic books and film.

A 20-foot long Japanese-style dragon is carried down Key West's Fleming Street during the Fantasy Fest Masquerade March.

This 20-foot long Japanese-style dragon was carried down Key West’s Fleming Street during the Fantasy Fest Masquerade March.

Of course, while the parade was the highlight of Fantasy Fest, more than three dozen other events also took place during the 10-day festival. Among them were the exotic Headdress Ball and a high-spirited masquerade march starting at the Key West Cemetery.

The madcap march drew thousands of costumed participants — including a group carrying a 20-foot-long blue and orange Japanese-style dragon, an ensemble dressed as television’s animated “Family Guy” characters, an exotic walking “butterfly” whose gauzy spangled wings rose 10 feet in the air, a huge blue furred “wolf” on stilts and a man portraying his own framed “beach bum” portrait.

While the 2014 Fantasy Fest was both memorable and meaningful, there’s another chance for expressing flamboyant fantasies in just 12 months. Fantasy Fest 2015, themed “All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show,” is scheduled Oct. 23 through Nov. 1 — with the highlight parade set for Halloween night.

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From Parade Headliners to Parrot Heads

Steve Smith | October 2014

The recent Fantasy Fest 2014 parade had special grand marshals — Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, a local couple denied a marriage license because of Florida’s current law. They filed a suit and won a landmark court ruling overturning the state’s same-sex marriage ban for Florida Keys residents — though the attorney general filed an immediate appeal that means they still can’t marry.

Blogger Steve Smith salutes Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, fighters for same-sex marriage equality in Florida, before the Fantasy Fest parade.

Blogger Steve Smith salutes Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, fighters for same-sex marriage equality in Florida, as they stand atop their Fantasy Fest wedding cake float.

In the parade, Aaron and Lee rode atop a giant wedding cake float topped with a rainbow symbolizing the marriage equality they’re aiming for — and they were followed by 33 other couples in wedding attire including yours truly. Motivated by a philosophy of Love is Love, hopefully soon they will be able to tie the knot and open the door for other Floridians to marry.

“The Fat Lady Sings” at La Te Da’s Tea Dance this past Sunday signaled the official end of Fantasy Fest 2014.

We have new festival royalty: King Shane Hall and Queen Mary-Lynne “ML” Price. Over eight weeks of campaigning for the crowns, they and the other tireless candidates raised $235,000 for our local AIDS community service organization, AIDS Help.

For those of you who plan ahead, the theme for Fantasy Fest 2015 is “All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show.” Let your imagination run wild and remember the 2015 festival kicks off with the coronation ball and Goombay street party on Friday Oct. 23, 2015 — and the parade will be on Halloween night, Oct. 31!

Coming on the stilettos of Fantasy Fest, this weekend is the annual invasion of Parrot Heads. Some 3,500-plus fans of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett will descend on the island with their colorful headgear, tropical shirts and flip-flops to dance in the streets of the island that inspired many of Jimmy’s classic songs.

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy Buffett's music and and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy Buffett’s music and and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

While this group grooves to the island sounds, it also has a serious side — Parrot Heads give to their communities and ours. Last year in Key West they donated 155 pints of blood during their eighth annual blood drive, and they also hold a toy and school supply drive for the children, from toddlers to teenagers, who reside in our county.

There are now more than 200 Parrot Head clubs across the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and Australia. These local chapters have amassed a 12-year total of raising $33.9 million dollars for charities and donating almost 3.2 million volunteer hours in their communities — proving that their passion for giving is as strong as their passion for Jimmy’s music.

Check the Parrot Heads’ Key West schedule here. There will be concerts beachside at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, and a concert on Duval Street that’s open to the public. If you’re on the island for the Buffett bash, look for me with a parrot on my head and a tropical shirt — slowly wasting away in Margaritaville.

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Going to the Dogs in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

Key West is a great place to be a dog. The island city’s canines can often be spotted as passengers on scooters or in bicycle baskets, they’re welcomed with bowls of ice water in many outdoor bars and restaurants (one notable eatery even provides bacon), and they have their own beach.

Renowned pet expert Charlotte Reed is this week's guest columnist -- offering insights into exploring the Keys with canine companions.

Renowned pet expert Charlotte Reed is this week’s guest columnist — offering insights into exploring Key West with canine companions.

Dog Beach is located on the Atlantic Ocean beside a popular gourmet restaurant called Louie’s Backyard. Around cocktail hour, it’s common to see four-legged and two-legged friends hurrying toward it — the dogs heading for the beach to play water Frisbee or coconut chase with their buddies, and the people heading for Louie’s deck to enjoy a libation while their pets have fun.

And let’s not forget Pet Masquerade, the costume contest where pooches promenade on an oceanfront stage at the lovely Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. A highlight of Key West’s Fantasy Fest masking and costuming festival, the family-friendly competition draws entries ranging from pet-and-person duos to animal-and-human ensembles staging choreographed performances.

In fact, dogs even have their own New Year’s Eve celebration on the island: the annual Dec. 31 Key West Dachshund Walk, drawing about 200 dachshunds and their owners each year for a noontime stroll through the picturesque downtown district.

Two dogs and their "cuckoo" companions show ofs their finery during a past Fantasy Fest Pet Masquerade. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Two dogs and their “cuckoo” compadres show off their finery during a past Fantasy Fest Pet Masquerade. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Given all that, it’s no surprise that many visitors to Key West choose to bring their cherished canines with them. And here, from nationally acclaimed pet expert Charlotte Reed, author of “The Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Dog Etiquette,” are a few tips to help people and their pups have a doggone good time during their stay.

CHARLOTTE REED’S GUIDE TO GOOD TRAVEL MANNERS

Although Key West is one of the most pet-friendly destinations in the United States, it is important to remember that you and your pooch are canine ambassadors wherever you go. As a result, practice your “petiquette.” Petiquette is the art of understanding and behaving properly with your companion pet. Apply your conventional manners and consideration for others, especially when you travel.

As the Mistress of Canine Etiquette, Miss Fido Manners provides her best travel tips:

Away from work, Nadene relaxes on the water with her husband and furry family members.

In public places including beaches, keep  furry family members close and well-behaved. (Photo courtesy of Nadene Grossman Orr)

Hotels: To make cleaning up on a daily basis as easy as possible for you and the hotel staff, feed your pooch in the bathroom so you can easily wipe up the tile floors. Additionally, if your fur-baby likes to sleep in bed with you, bring an extra sheet to prevent shedding or soiling. Most importantly, when you check out, make sure you leave the room the way you found it — intact!

Beaches: Treat dog-friendly beaches like rare jewels. Care for them by scooping the poop.

Stores: Before entering a business establishment, ask if your dog is welcome. Whatever the response, always thank the person or staff member who has helped you. If allowed admittance, take care that your pet stays with you at all times. And remember, if your pet plays, eats or pees on the merchandise, be prepared to buy it!

Street Smarts: Prior to your arrival in the Keys, practice your “Leave It!” and “Let’s Go!” commands. The appearance of a gypsy chicken, common in Key West, can turn the most well-heeled dog into a barking and frenzied hound. Additionally, in the evenings, when the sidewalks are full of pedestrians in the most popular areas, consider alternative walking routes so that your pet gets the most effective daily exercise.

Long dogs with short legs hit the sidewalk to begin the annual Key West Dachshund Walk on New Year's Eve Day. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau

Well-behaved pooches are welcome in a large number of Key West locations. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau

Restaurants: With the challenges of confined spaces, a busy wait staff and diners who may not expect to share their eating experience with four-legged patrons, only the most well-mannered and best-groomed dogs should be taken out to eat in an outdoor restaurant. Additionally, carrying pet supplies (like portable pet bowls) is a must for doggy diners, since it is inappropriate to allow pets to drink or eat from restaurant dinnerware.

Dog Parks: While at the dog park, don’t upset the local residents. Your pooch should be under your control at all times.

A good dog and his owner are a team and should always follow local rules and regulations regarding pets. Check with the local health department to find all laws pertaining to dog ownership.

Want more tips on enjoying travel to the Florida Keys & Key West? Just click here.

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Skip Bradeen Marks 50 Years as a Keys Charter Captain

Andy Newman | October 2014

Captain Skip Bradeen is in the cockpit of his beloved Blue Chip Too, barking instructions to his angler.

Skip Bradeen recently celebrated 50 years as a Keys charterboat captain. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Skip Bradeen recently celebrated 50 years as a Keys charterboat captain. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Now listen to me,” says the captain in his New York-staccato dialect. “He might be eating it. All right, hit him.”

The angler reels down, raises the rod and a nice dolphin (mahi-mahi) leaps into the air off the Florida Keys.

In September 2014, 72-year-old Skip Bradeen marked his 50th year in the Florida Keys charterboat business. The legendary skipper is best known for his enthusiastic personality and quick wit.

Skip’s love for the Keys began in September 1964 when he was 22 years old. He had just finished a stint in the U.S. Air Force and was destined to become a New York butcher. In a bar in Long Island, N.Y., he told some friends about plans to travel to Fort Lauderdale for a vacation in his new Chevrolet Impala convertible.

“I was going to Lauderdale to chase women for a couple of weeks before going back to Long Island and meat-cutting school,” he said. “A buddy of mine asked if he could come and share expenses, because he had a job offer as a deckhand on the Tradewinds party boat in Islamorada.

Skip is pictured here in 1966 with his first customers as captain of his first charterboat.  (Photo courtesy of Skip Bradeen)

Skip is pictured here in 1966 with his first customers as captain of his first charterboat. (Photo courtesy of Skip Bradeen)

“I had never even heard of the Florida Keys, but he talked me into passing Lauderdale to bring him down,” Skip recalled. “I stopped at the dock to drop him off, got out of my car, walked around and this captain says to me, ‘You wanna go fishing tomorrow?’”

Skip explained he didn’t have money to go fishing, but the charterboat skipper offered him the opportunity to work as a mate.

“We went out the next day for a half day,” Skip remembered. “Caught eight barracuda and went back to the dock at noon. He gave me a $5 bill after I cleaned the boat and the party gave me a $5 tip.”

Thrilled with making $10 in a half day, Skip decided to stick around for a little while to learn the charterboat business.

“So I called mom and told her I wasn’t going to be home until Thanksgiving,” he related. “And then when Thanksgiving came, I was doing even more charter work and told mom I wouldn’t be home until Christmas.”

Skip kept postponing his return to Long Island, and in the spring of 1965 he called his mother to deliver a final message.

Skip (center) displays a nice dolphin with anglers Veronica Pereira and Barron Pritt. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Skip (center) displays a nice dolphin with anglers Veronica Pereira and Barron Pritt. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Mom, you know my cold weather clothes?” he said. “Give ’em away. I’m not coming home no more.”

In 1966 Skip purchased that first boat he had worked on as a mate for $3,200, including fishing gear. He’s been a captain ever since — and over the years has built a strong and loyal clientele of professionals and their families.

Barron Pritt, now 27, started fishing with Skip when he was a 7-year-old on a family vacation.

“We just picked a boat and we went,” he said. “Now, we make it a reunion to come down here and always fish with Skip — nobody else.”

The captain’s style is to let his customers become fully involved in the angling experience. That’s one of the reasons Saltwater Sportsman magazine named him one of 50 top charterboat skippers.

“He wants it to be a hands-on experience for you, so you know what fishing is,” Barron Pritt said. “He’s always so happy and energetic and outgoing — wants to make sure everyone catches fish and has a good time.”

Skip currently owns and operates two Blue Chip Too charterboats based out of Islamorada's Whale Harbor Marina. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Skip currently owns and operates two Blue Chip Too charterboats based out of Islamorada’s Whale Harbor Marina. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That’s exactly what Skip’s goal has been for more than 14,000 charter fishing trips.

“When they get off the boat, whether we catch a lot of fish or not, people say they had a wonderful time,” said the iconic captain, who has skippered for American presidents, rock stars and sports celebrities.

Will Skip Bradeen ever retire?

“That word is not in my vocabulary right now,” he said. “When (Denver Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning lost the Super Bowl (XLVIII), they asked him about retirement.

“He said ‘I’m on a journey, not a destination’,” Skip said. “I’m the Peyton Manning of this business — on a journey, no retirement in sight.”

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Key West’s Fabulous Fantasy Fest Means Exotic Exuberance

Steve Smith | October 2014

Key West’s Fantasy Fest, themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures” in salute to Japanese anime and creative animation, has arrived on the island! Friday night, a new king and queen of Fantasy Fest will be crowned, and the 10-day festivities will be in full swing.

Entrants wear elaborate masks, cowls, bonnets and other headgear to vie for cash prizes at the glamorous Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

Entrants wear elaborate masks, cowls, bonnets and other headgear to vie for cash prizes at the glamorous Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

In previous blogs, I’ve told you about the events leading up to the Royal Coronation. This time, I want to share more information about my favorite festival events.

The 32nd annual Headdress Ball, themed “Animelistic Head Trip,” will take over the South Street parking lot of Southernmost on the Beach Hotel — under the largest tent on the island — on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 21.

For years, the Key West Business Guild has invited contestants from across the globe to create winning headdresses and strut their stuff onstage in front of an audience of hundreds of revelers. Those vying for the $1,500 grand prize will entertain the crowd with headdresses like you’ve never seen before. (Tickets are still available, but don’t wait until Tuesday!)

More than 40 masquerade and costume events will take place during Fantasy Fest, challenging the creativity of amateur and professional designers alike. One of the most offbeat and fun-filled each year is the Pet Masquerade and Parade for our furred and feathered companions, held Wednesday, Oct. 22, on the Atlantic Ocean shore of the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

The quirky Pet Masquerade and Parade features costumed dogs, cats, birds and more who prance across an oceanfront stage at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The quirky Pet Masquerade and Parade features costumed dogs, cats, birds and more who prance across an oceanfront stage at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Each year, several dozen people and pets take part, with pets parading their owners across the oceanfront stage in costumes designed to dazzle and delight. Open to all domestic pets, the “animal antics” are set to begin at 5:30 p.m. — but arrive early for a chance to mingle with two-legged and four-legged entrants.

Revelers dressed as comic-book heroes, characters from Japanese manga, and colorful creatures from above and below the sea are to parade through Key West’s historic Old Town Friday, Oct. 24, for the annual Masquerade March.

Everyone is welcome to join this wild, wacky, and outrageous strut through the streets of the historic district. Plus, most guesthouses and hotels will supply libations to those “parched” marchers! Be on Frances Street at the Key West Cemetery gates by 5 p.m. to join this lively procession.

Saturday’s 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade will bring island fever to a furious peak as thousands line Duval Street to applaud the fabulous floats, marching groups, street dancers and bands that make up the over-the-top spectacle. The design creativity will boggle the mind — or whatever is left of it after 10 days of partying.

Friday, Oct. 24, just before sunset, the Masquerade March of exotically garbed characters will parade from the Key West Cemetery through historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Friday, Oct. 24, just before sunset, the Masquerade March of exotically garbed characters will parade from the Key West Cemetery through historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For those who prefer another type of excitement, Key West’s HE Travel is offering an adventure tour of the Keys taking place Nov. 29 through Dec. 7. After quick stops in South Beach and the Everglades, participants can enjoy an intriguing jaunt throughout the island chain. Water activities, bicycling and an abundance of fresh local seafood are on the schedule, virtually guaranteeing entertainment during the trip and great memories afterwards.

If you’re heading this way for Fantasy Fest, I may see you during one of the costume soirees — but you just might not recognize me!

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Craving Casual Key West Cuisine?

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

Key West is filled with top-quality casual eateries that offer everything from fresh locally-caught seafood to a classic Cuban fare. Therefore, the challenge for visitors isn’t finding a restaurant that serves mouthwatering meals — it’s choosing from among the bewilderingly large array of possibilities.

Savor Keys seafood (traditional shrimp boil, anyone?) and much more at the fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival.

Casual cuisine incorporating Keys seafood (traditional shrimp boil, anyone?) and much more is available at island city eateries.

Local residents, of course, have their favorite go-to spots and aren’t shy about making recommendations. Here, in no particular order, are some universal favorites.

B.O.’s Fish Wagon is a small, old-fashioned thatched-roof restaurant that looks like it belongs on a sunny third-world island. Its funky atmosphere and weathered tables are uniquely Key West, and its fried fish sandwiches (including the infamous Square Grouper) are a specialty. Handcut french fries, huge hamburgers, conch fritters and cracked conch are other menu highlights. Beer and wine are also served, and the Friday night gatherings are not to be missed. 801 Caroline St.

In operation since 1984, the family-friendly El Siboney is tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood. The menu features Cuban specialties such as traditional ropa vieja and picadillo, savory roast pork and roast chicken, and dishes marinated in garlicky mojo criollo — most accompanied by black beans and yellow rice, Cuban bread and sweet plantains. Other attractions include large portions and fast, no-nonsense service. 900 Catherine St.

El Siboney's specialties include this savory dish served with traditional yellow rice and sweet plantains. (Photo courtesy of El Siboney)

El Siboney’s specialties include this savory dish served with traditional yellow rice and sweet plantains. (Photo courtesy of El Siboney)

Conch Republic Seafood Company is a 10,000 square-foot restaurant located in a former fish house building in Key West’s Historic Seaport district, overlooking the seaport’s working marina. The menu is based on local and Caribbean seafood, with specialties such as conch chowder, blackened Florida Keys pink shrimp and baked oysters callaloo. Portions are pleasantly ample; a full bar is also available, and the restaurant features live music. 631 Greene St.

The Schooner Wharf Bar can be found on the waterfront in the Historic Seaport district. It’s the kind of laid-back open-air place where patrons bring their dogs, girlfriends and fishing buddies for a brew and high-quality live music — and it also serves good food in a cheerfully colorful setting. Breakfasts include Gulf shrimp omelets and palomilla steak and eggs; lunch and dinner dishes range from shrimp nachos to fresh mahi-mahi plates and jerk chicken. 202 William St.

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

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

Pepe’s Cafe, established in 1909, is believed to be the oldest eatery in the Florida Keys. Located in a small frame building that once was a neighborhood store, it consists of a small main dining room and rustic brick-floored courtyard. Pepe’s is open for breakfast, lunch, courtyard cocktails, and homestyle dinners that include an amazing dish of steak smothered in pork chops. Other menu staples include hearty steaks, fresh fish and oysters — and the undemanding neighborhood atmosphere calls to mind Key West’s earlier days. 806 Caroline St.

Just outside Key West on neighboring Stock Island stands a hideaway restaurant called the Hogfish Bar & Grill. This proudly ramshackle watering hole is a true locals’ spot alongside an authentic “old style” marina. Its signature dish is hogfish, a diver–caught fish with a light yet unparalleled flavor, but a wide variety of Keys seafood temptations are served including lobster pot pie and an excellent smoked-fish dip. 6810 Front St.

Craving seafood at an off-the-beaten path spot? Try the Hogfish, renowned for its world-class seafood.

Seeking seafood in an off-the-beaten path setting? Try the Hogfish, renowned for its world-class fare.

Also located on Stock Island is Roostica, a pizzeria and Italian restaurant with the friendly atmosphere of a locals’ hangout. Its name is a play on the Italian word “rustica,” describing a natural simplicity, and a tribute to Stock Island’s free-roaming roosters. Roostica serves authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza (try the shrimp and pesto pizza!) as well as pastas, salads, calzones and a long list of beers and wines. 5620 McDonald Ave.

Want to know more about Key West’s enticing eateries? Tantalize your tastebuds by clicking here.

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Howard Livingston Gets ‘Low Key’ in the Lower Keys

Chloe Lykes | October 2014

Some may find the area during a road trip down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway and others, like Howard Livingston, find it by boat. South of the brash lifestyle of Miami and slightly north of colorful Key West lie Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys.

Howard Livingston is passionate about his Lower Keys home and keeping his feet in the sand.

Howard Livingston is passionate about his Lower Keys home and keeping his feet in the sand.

Big Pine and the Lower Keys have a decidedly “low-key” reputation — which is just the way the residents, like local celebrity musician Howard Livingston, like it.

Howard discovered the Florida Keys on a sailing trip in the mid-1980s and, like others who feel the addictive appeal of the island chain, was determined to make it his home.

After many subsequent visits, he quit his corporate job and moved to Summerland Key to follow his dream of becoming a professional musician. Today, he’s widely known for his tropical-rock band, Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band.

While some might figure nightlife-rich Key West is an ideal base for a performing band, Howard strongly favors the Lower Keys.

“Summerland Key has kind of a country environment,” he explained. “Everyone knows everyone, and everyone takes care of each other. And it’s the best of all worlds — I’m a short drive from the incredible nightlife of Key West, and afterwards I can come back home and have a campfire in my backyard.”

Howard, his wife Cyndy and their canine companions enjoy some laid-back time in the water.

Howard, his wife Cyndy and their canine companions enjoy some laid-back time in the water.

Howard spends much of his time outdoors on his boat, diving and exploring his extended “backyard” — also known as the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer, he visits Looe Key Reef weekly and enjoys diving in what he calls the “best place on the planet.”

Even after many dives at Looe Key, he remains awed by the different types of fish that inhabit the flourishing underwater region.

“Last week I took some friends who spend a lot of time snorkeling in Hawaii and they were flabbergasted by the fish species they saw, including a huge goliath grouper,” Howard marveled.

Though he’s lived on Summerland Key for more than eight years, he admits still feeling a bit like a tourist.

Howard and Cyndy are happy to share insights into their favorite Lower Keys spots. (Photo by Ralph De Palma)

Howard and Cyndy are happy to share insights into their favorite Lower Keys spots. (Photo by Ralph De Palma)

“My favorite places to go now are the same places that were my favorite to go before moving here,” he stated. “And there are so many different restaurants and things to do, I’m still exploring.”

This summer, he and his wife and band manager, Cyndy, discovered an island they call their “secret beach.” Located on the backside of the Keys in the flats, it’s only accessible by boat during low tide. The flats are so full of small islands, Howard said, that others could explore to find secret beaches of their own.

He also recommends enjoying the water at the Lower Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park, where the beach has earned repeated kudos as one of America’s top 10.

Howard’s other favorite spots include Boondocks Grille and Draft House on Ramrod Key. The emporium’s attractions include a large menu, mini golf, live music daily — and regular performances by Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band.

“It’s a place for a great meal, getting to meet locals and has one of the best stages in the Lower Keys,” the seasoned musician said.

Howard, who has appeared on several national morning shows, is shown here with Al Roker during a live "Today" show broadcast in Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Howard, who has appeared on several national morning shows, is shown here with Al Roker during a live “Today” show broadcast in Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

According to Howard, “the best hogfish sandwich on the planet” can be found at Keys Cuisine, a food truck located on Big Pine Key. Keys Cuisine owner Kim Moore started the business three years ago after retiring as a nurse. In addition to supremely fresh fish, her menu also features grilled burgers, chicken and salads.

Howard also likes the No Name Pub, a quirky eatery off U.S. Highway 1 in an idiosyncratic settlement known as No Name Key. As well as its no-nonsense good food, the pub is known for its historic Florida Keys charm and ramshackle décor that includes interior walls papered with dollar bills.

“It’s always packed, has a great ambiance and has the best pizza,” Howard advised. “Don’t forget to leave your dollar.”

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From Pumpkins to Zombies: October in Key West

Steve Smith | October 2014

October, the tenth month of the year, heralds the arrival of fall — and in the Florida Keys, that means balmy weather and a lively calendar of festivals and events.

Something's fishy about this jack-o'-lantern -- it's being carved underwater! (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jack-o’-lanterns in the Florida Keys are even carved underwater! (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As you bicycle around Old Town Key West, you’ll see pumpkin displays, fall flags waving alongside pride flags, and homes decorated for the upcoming Halloween festivities. On Fleming Street this weekend, I observed a home decked out with an entire Halloween scene starting at the sidewalk and ending at the second-floor roof. (This is one of my husband’s favorite holidays, so our home was ornamented with pumpkins and Halloween decorations a couple of weeks ago.)

One of the best places to get Halloween pumpkins in Key West (just in case you want to carve one) is at the pumpkin patch presented annually by the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens (MARC). A sea of orange pumpkins in every size imaginable awaits you at the organization’s plant store on Seminary Street.

MARC is a non-profit agency that has served adults with developmental and other disabilities since 1966. To fund its client services, the organization operates one of the largest plant nurseries in the Keys featuring a wide variety of tropical foliage — most of it raised on the property by MARC clients.

MARC also hosts world-class fundraising events throughout the year. They include the Master Chef’s Classic, where attendees sample signature dishes from Keys restaurants, and an eagerly anticipated multi-week sale of Christmas trees and handmade ornaments.

Find the finest pumpkins in Key West at MARC's fundraising pumpkin patch. (Photo courtesy of MARC)

Find the finest pumpkins in Key West at MARC’s friendly pumpkin patch. (Photo courtesy of MARC)

For extra convenience, if you purchase plants but don’t want to carry them home, that’s no problem — because MARC ships to points across the country.

October also brings Key West’s Fantasy Fest, this year themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures,” featuring 10 days of uninhibited revelry.

Fantasy Fest’s kickoff weekend includes the rollicking Goombay Festival set for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17-18. Petronia Street (which crosses Duval Street around the 800 block) will be lined with booths piled high with locally created and African arts and crafts, plus Caribbean and ethnic foods. Goombay attendees can also enjoy nonstop island-style music and dancing in the streets.

Sunday, Oct. 19, you can participate in the wild and wacky “Zombie Bike Ride.” Created in 2009, by last year it had swelled to include some 5,000 zombies of all ages, shapes and sizes.

The event begins at the “haunted” Fort East Martello on South Roosevelt Boulevard with an afternoon of zombie face and body painting (FYI, no nude zombies are allowed since this is a family event), plus food, beverages, and entertainment. Then away we all bike to Higgs Beach, where we traditionally dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the Zombie Beach Bash.

Zombies "invade" Key West each year during the zany Zombie Bike Ride. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Zombies “invade” Key West each year during the zany Zombie Bike Ride. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

Participants then throng the streets, eventually arriving on Duval Street where the 100 to 300 blocks will be dedicated to a Zombie Street Party. Bring your camera and your zombie-ragged costume, and join in the fun!

Fantasy Fest events include the Pet Masquerade at the Casa Marina Resort and the 32nd annual Headdress Ball at the Southernmost on the Beach Hotel. I’ll provide details next time — but meantime, if you want to attend the Headdress Ball, tickets are on sale now through the event website.

The website also features information about Delta Air Lines and American Airlines values on flights to Key West for Fantasy Fest. So get your masks and costumes ready, and fly down to immerse yourself in the festivities!

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Embracing the ‘Margaritaville Mystique’

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2014

They eat “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” drink margaritas, and regard Key West as their spiritual home port. They are Parrot Heads, ardent fans of internationally renowned singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett — and from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2, an estimated 3,500 of them will descend on the island credited with being the inspiration for Jimmy’s famed “Margaritaville” for their annual convention.

This classic Jimmy Buffett album cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

This classic Jimmy Buffett album cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

When Jimmy discovered Key West in the early 1970s, he couldn’t have known that he would inspire millions of people to share his love for the easygoing subtropical island.

He summed up his passion for his new surroundings by writing “I Have Found Me a Home” about Key West, describing riding his old red bike to “the bars and the beaches of my town.”

As well as being Jimmy’s home during some of his most productive years, Key West — and its people, attractions and ambiance — became the subject of some of his most enduring tunes. Many of them appear on the album “A1A,” named for the roadway leading through the Florida Keys to the island city, and “Havana Daydreamin’.”

Jimmy’s lyrics are rich in references to Key West spots such as Fausto’s Food Palace, the Blue Heaven Restaurant and the Chart Room Bar.

Jimmy's Key West years are captured in this volume of photos and prose by his longtime friend Tom Corcoran.

Jimmy’s Key West years are memorialized in this volume of photos and prose by his longtime friend Tom Corcoran.

His songs memorialize Key West characters like Captain Tony Tarracino, an offbeat former mayor featured in “Last Mango in Paris,” and the late Phil Clark, whose real-life exploits unfold in “A Pirate Looks at 40.”

In fact, Jimmy’s fondness for Key West as a subject, and the many renegade references in his tunes, made him the island’s unofficial “pirate laureate.”

In the mid-1980s Jimmy founded the Margaritaville Store in Key West’s funky waterfront enclave of Lands End Village.

A Mecca for his fans, the store is now located beside his original Margaritaville Café on the island’s iconic Duval Street. His unmarked yet renowned recording studio, Shrimp Boat Sound, overlooks the former shrimp docks.

Jimmy’s portrayal of Key West in song led it to become the geographical focus of the “Margaritaville mystique” embraced by his Parrot Head fans, who flock to visit the island that inspired their musical hero.

Jimmy Buffett waves to some 3,500 "Parrot Head" fans during his surprise concert on Key West's Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jimmy waves to some 3,500 Parrot Head fans during his 2011 surprise concert on Key West’s Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Activities at their annual conventions usually include waterfront musical performances by regional and Parrot Head favorites, charity auctions and raffles, a rollicking street festival and concert outside the Margaritaville Store, and performances by some (or all) of Jimmy’s Coral Reefer Band members.

Sometimes the man himself makes a surprise appearance — as he did for an unforgettable 70-minute Duval Street concert during the 2011 gathering.

So how exactly did the Parrot Head phenomenon begin? According to Buffett legend, the fans earned their name for the offbeat tropical parrot caps and other headgear they often wear to concerts.

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy's and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy’s music and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And according to convention organizers, the first Parrot Heads in Paradise Club was formed in 1989 in Atlanta. There are now more than 200 clubs around the U.S., plus international clubs in the Caribbean, Australia, Canada and Europe.

While Parrot Heads undeniably love a party, they do far more than have a good time. As well as enjoying Jimmy Buffett’s music and the lifestyle it depicts, they support charitable, environmental, educational and humanitarian activities.

In fact, since 2002, members of the national and international chapters have contributed a total of $33.9 million and nearly 3.2 million volunteer hours to local and national charities.

Want to know more about this terrific bunch of people — and their upcoming Key West convention? Then order a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” settle back with a tall cold one, and click here.

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Keri Kenning: One Fish, Two Fish, See Fish, Count Fish!

Julie Botteri | September 2014

As a millennial-age young professional who’s passionate about making epic achievements, 24-year-old Kansas native Keri Kenning sets the bar high. As well as a dizzying array of outdoor interests such as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, fly-fishing, biking and photography, she also pursues underwater objectives driven by mathematical models — counting fish and surveying coral heads.

Keri Kenning encourages  divers to participate in lionfish capture events such as derbies.

Keri Kenning encourages divers to participate in lionfish capture events such as derbies.

“Diving is great, but volunteering underwater is better,” said Keri, a resident of Key Largo since 2012. “Whether it’s for pleasure or for volunteer work, the majority of my dive log is some kind of research, including lionfish monitoring, lionfish capturing and tagging, or fish counting.

“It’s definitely more exciting than normal diving — always fun to have an objective,” she added.

Keri’s father, a diving enthusiast and underwater photographer, introduced her to the water at an early age. At age 10, during a fun-fish identification class with her parents and siblings on a family trip to Bonaire, her fiery passion for fish, invertebrates and corals was ignited. A few short years later, Keri pursued her dive certification.

“I really enjoy seeing the underwater habitats and learning how these animals all live and interact together,” she explained.

While a biology undergrad at the University of Kansas in 2011, Keri experienced a semester-long program at the School for Field Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands that fortified her love of marine science and conservation. There she learned about human impacts on marine resources as well as conservation, environmental policy, socioeconomic values and the impacts of lionfish on the reefs through density surveys, habitat assessments and dissections.

Keri spends her spare time on outdoor pursuits and adventures in the Keys.

Keri spends her spare time on outdoor pursuits and adventures in the Keys.

But it wasn’t until a post-grad dive trip to Belize that Keri met Lad Akins, director of the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, along with other leading lionfish researchers. Keri applied for and was granted a REEF internship and has served as the nonprofit organization’s communications manager — teaching fish identification classes and the how-tos of lionfish collecting, conducting U.S.-based workshops and planning lionfish derbies.

In addition, Keri is an elite member of REEF’s Advanced Assessment Team of divers who have achieved expert status at fish identification. She recently completed fish count dives in Little Cayman as well as on the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West, where REEF has monitored recruitment of fish to the artificial reef since its sinking in May 2009.

Her rewarding adventures continued at Key Largo’s MarineLab, where she taught marine science to grade school-age through college-age students — both in the classroom and in the field. She refers to herself as a human sponge, “squeezing out” everything she takes in to pass along for others to enjoy.

“I really want to stay involved and volunteer as much as I can,” Keri said. “Divers my age and all ages can volunteer with fish counts, lionfish removals, the Coral Restoration Foundation and cleanup dives.”

Keri is passionate about volunteering and helping preserve the Keys' rich environment.

Keri is passionate about volunteering and helping preserve the Keys’ rich marine environment.

Keri emphasized that high school students often are required to earn community service hours for activities such as picking up trash or fundraising at a carwash. Many are excited, however, to learn they can earn a semester’s worth of community service hours for snorkeling — doing REEF fish surveys, collecting data and even submitting their captured data online.

“I encourage divers, both young and old, to take up fish watching because it will transform the way you dive,” she said. “By learning the names, behaviors, and hiding holes of fish and invertebrates, you personify them. By giving a personality to sea creatures, you’re more likely to value and respect them, to conserve and protect them. You can’t love what you don’t know, and you won’t protect what you don’t know.”

Keri’s approach to life in the Keys is equally enthusiastic.

“There’s a lot to love about the Keys … so many outdoor activities,” she said. “I’ve never been healthier because I’m always on the go adventuring somewhere.”

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