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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!

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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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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It’s Good to Be Queen … or King!

Steve Smith | September 2014

As summer fades into fall, our days in Key West have become a bit cooler and the nightlife is heating up — because the campaign to crown the new king and queen of Fantasy Fest is in full swing. Fantasy Fest, in case you don’t know, is the island’s outrageous 10-day costuming and masking festival that takes place each October.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014's royal crowns.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014’s royal crowns.

Royal hopefuls will spend the next month hosting events around Key West to raise funds for the Keys’ AIDS Help organization — and the king and queen candidates who raise the most money will be crowned Fantasy Fest royalty Friday, Oct. 17, under the moonlight on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Candidates’ fundraising events are open to the public and offer a variety of experiences as well as a great time.

On Friday evening, Sept. 19, the “Clyde for King” campaign will transform the parking lot of The Restaurant Store, 1111 Eaton St., into the setting for a gala event featuring food, libations, and entertainment by the Keys’ own Howard Livingston and Mile Marker 24. The “ML for Queen” faction is hosting events including a “Beverly Hillbillies Block Party” with a country fair feel, where the attractions include burgers, dogs and chicken, a bake sale, and entertainment.

“Jules for Queen” is staging a throwback “Gangsta Party” Sept. 24 at the Cork & Stogie that just might bring out Al Capone and Key West’s own Bum Farto (Google him to learn about our former fire chief who disappeared in 1976).

The lovely Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The beautiful Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The “Shane for King” campaign brings the second annual Red Dress Gala to the Woman’s Club on Duval Street Saturday, Sept. 27. Be sure to wear your favorite red dress and enjoy food, drink, and dancing under the stars.

You’ll find many more royal campaign events listed on the AIDS Help website — including orchid auctions, sunset cruises, dinners, Vegas nights, and themed costume galas.

On a related note, each year we look forward to the Royal Ball hosted by former Fantasy Fest Queen Kate Miano at her boutique Gardens Hotel. In addition to savoring food and your favorite beverages, you can stroll through tropical gardens, enjoy live entertainment, and meet former Fantasy Fest kings and queens.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West's new Shameless Lounge each Monday.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West’s new Shameless Lounge each Monday. (Photo by Larry Blackburn)

The Gardens Hotel welcomes gay men and women to its acre of tropical gardens surrounded by guest rooms and cottages — and offers live piano entertainment Thursday through Saturday. On Sundays, the property becomes the setting for live jazz concerts open to locals and visitors alike. While it’s not a “gay specific” property, you’ll find members of our community welcoming you, staying at The Gardens, and stopping by to enjoy the entertainment options.

A new treat on the island is the SHAMELESS LOUNGE and restaurant recently opened at 610 Greene St., offering the cuisine of noted chef Jennifer E. (formerly at favorite eateries Blue Heaven and Salute).

Shameless features live entertainment, a Sunday Drag Brunch, and a Monday comedy night with the irreverent QMitch Jones. Owner Dion Contreras, a former resident of Chicago, has created a great venue for locals and visitors to step off Duval Street for lunch and dinner — and best of all, they serve until 4 a.m. on the weekends!

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Get Ready for Amazing ‘Animeted’ Adventures at Fantasy Fest

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2014

Imagine yourself dressed as a hero from traditional Japanese anime, stalwartly wielding a sword to defeat the forces of evil. Or perhaps you’re a character from an animated film blockbuster, like the delightfully uncouth Shrek or a “Frozen” princess whose beauty is matched only by her spirit. You might even be an evildoer escaped from the pages of a classic comic book, your face set in a ferocious growl as you menace a hapless victim.

Deirdre Robbins displays her feather-bedecked headdress during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Deirdre Robbins displays her elaborate ensemble during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Unlikely? Not if you’re participating in Key West’s renowned Fantasy Fest celebration, coming up Oct. 17-26.

What is Fantasy Fest? Simply the most outrageous festival you’ve ever experienced, combining exotic and elaborate costuming, a flair for the fantastic and a freewheeling party spirit found only in the Florida Keys.

Begun more than 30 years ago as an expression of typical Key West exuberance, Fantasy Fest has grown to achieve international popularity for its style, its sights, and its spontaneity. Thousands of people descend upon the island annually to don masks and costumes and escape their real-world cares in a 10-day whirl of revelry — revelry that includes lavish costume competitions, street fairs, dress-up galas and a decadent grand parade designed to excel in excess and exuberance.

The biggest and best known of Key West’s many festivals, Fantasy Fest adopts a different theme each year, providing continual inspiration for costumes both funky and fabulous — and floats as flamboyant as anything you can imagine. This year’s extravaganza is themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures,” in salute to traditional Japanese anime and virtually all forms of creative animation.

This Dali-inspired creation took "high honors" at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

This Dali-inspired creation took “high honors” at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

The excitement begins Oct. 17 and 18 with the Goombay celebration in historic Bahama Village. Honoring Key West’s Caribbean roots, Goombay combines the tangy smells of jerk chicken and conch fritters, the pulsing beat of Caribbean-American bands, and a vivid collage of wares ranging from African-inspired clothing to copper and brass jewelry.

As the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico, the bands turn their amplifiers up a notch, the rhythms and aromas drift throughout Bahama Village, and the excitement of Fantasy Fest assumes an almost tangible form in the island dusk.

The festival’s subsequent days and nights contain events such as the glitzy Headdress Ball. The glamorous gathering draws entrants wearing elaborate masks and headgear from the beautiful to the bizarre … plus dazzling entertainment from top local performers and female impersonators.

Among the other intriguing events is the Pet Masquerade and Parade, where the fur flies as pets and their owners vie for costume prizes. You’ll find people dressed as animals and animals dressed as people during this family-style competition. Past standouts include a pair of green-headed “space aliens” escorting a starship “manned” by a canine crew, a “vampire cat” with a replica coffin and an eerie people-and-pets ensemble depicting the fictional “Addams Family.”

The fun takes to the streets during the madcap Masquerade March, a lively promenade beginning at the Key West Cemetery. It typically draws high-spirited bands and revelers wearing feathered masks, costumes and finery inspired by the festival theme. Memorable marchers in past years range from a scaly 40-foot “sea serpent” to a flock of “chickens of the sea” wearing tutus, a male quartet in matching Wonder Woman costumes and two polka-dotted walking octopuses.

The Fantasy Fest parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Fantasy Fest Parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The festival spirit is most spectacular, however, during the annual Fantasy Fest Parade, when brilliantly-conceived floats travel down the island city’s main thoroughfare to the cheers of some 60,000 spectators. Walking groups dressed in bright robes and feathers add fire and color to the procession — as do the exotically-dressed revelers gleefully following the floats.

The 2013 parade starred, among many other entries, a float featuring fictional crime fighter Batman rising 40 feet above the crowd to protect “Gotham City,” and a trio of “archangels” with massive white-feathered wings pursued by menacing horned demons.

Want to be part of Key West’s “animeted” adventures at Fantasy Fest this year? Then make plans — and reservations — ASAP, because accommodations fill up FAST.

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Paddleboarding Prevails in the Keys

Julie Botteri | September 2014

Many Florida Keys visitors enjoy outdoor adventures like kayaking the pristine waters and snorkeling or diving along the Keys’ living coral barrier reef (which, FYI, is the continental United States’ ONLY such reef).

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 popular Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

But don’t forget other on-the-water activities that allow participants to explore the Keys’ fascinating natural environment — while, at the same time, treating body and mind to some “unplugged” relaxation.

For example, standup paddling or paddleboarding is surging in popularity with people drawn by the island chain’s active-lifestyle mindset. Paired well with other “unplugged” water-sports activities, it’s a relatively simple, straightforward pastime that appeals to a diverse cross-section of people.

The warm, clear, calm waters typical of lazy summer and fall days in the Keys make for easy exploration of the natural world and its creatures. And board sales and rentals are offered by a good number of area watersports and outdoor outfitters — as well as being included among the amenities at several Keys resorts.

Paddlers use the board (typically ranging in length from 12 to 14 feet), for traversing on a “downwinder,” otherwise known as riding the board backed by tradewinds to cover distance. If the winds are nonexistent, they can use the long boards as a fishing platform or just quietly enjoy secluded eco-tours through the backcountry flats.

Patricia Miller, with Lazy Dog Adventures, instructs paddleboarding yoga in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Haig Jacobs)

Patricia Miller, with Lazy Dog Adventures, instructs paddleboarding yoga in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Haig Jacobs)

Some outdoor adventure companies have added a twist to the board sport with paddleboard yoga classes. While that may sound like an unlikely combination, paddleboard yoga actually blends mind and body relaxation with healthy exercise and eco-enjoyment — and beginners through experienced yoga practitioners can participate.

Two-hour classes generally are divided between paddling time and yoga practice. Participants first paddle out to the calm backcountry waters, spotting sea life and wading birds along the way, then begin their yoga while connecting with nature in a tranquil mangrove setting. Like mat yoga, the experience is designed to still the mind and increase flexibility and strength through chanting, breathwork and seated and standing postures — all using the anchored paddleboard to execute warrior, downward facing dog and headstand poses.

Keeping on-the-water fun even more hip and innovative, the Paddle Sports center at Ibis Bay Resort in Key West offers a revolutionary after-dark paddleboarding experience. Paddleboards (and glass-bottom kayaks) are equipped with waterproof LED light bars that illuminate the waters and sea life during nighttime paddling trips through shallow Gulf of Mexico waters.

Dog Beach draws denizens like this happy canine. (Photo by Joanne Denning)

This pup is clearly ready to paddle. (Photo by Joanne Denning)

In addition, the Keys are home to some notable paddling events — including those designed for canine-craving water enthusiasts. MarrVelous Pet Rescues regularly hosts Paddlin’ & Pups events where dog owners and tail-wagging potential adoptees can enjoy time on the boards together cruising the waters of Florida Bay.

The next Paddlin’ & Pups gathering is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, presented in conjunction with Florida Bay Outfitters (located at mile marker 104 in Key Largo). People can rent paddleboards from Florida Bay Outfitters — with all proceeds benefiting the rescue organization — for the worthwhile Fido-friendly paddle.

From mangrove-lined creeks in Key Largo to secluded coastlines in the remote Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys and surrounding shallow subtropical waters are ideal for passionate paddlers. Whether traversing on a “downwinder,” practicing on-the-water yoga or cruising with canines, paddleboarding in the Keys means a “doggone” good time.

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Key West: A Helpful “How To”

Steve Smith | September 2014

Where should I stay in Key West? How do I get to Key West? These are the questions I hear most often when I’m on the road promoting the city and the Florida Keys.

The Florida Keys' Overseas Highway bisects the Atlantic Ocean (left) and the Gulf of Mexico on the right. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway leads to Key West, bisecting the Atlantic Ocean (left) and the Gulf of Mexico on the right. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In fact, many people don’t realize that Key West is an island at the end of U.S. Highway 1 — closer to Cuba than the mainland United States. Long known as a “gay Mecca,” the city of Key West proudly adopted “One Human Family” as its official philosophy in 2000 — a move soon followed by Monroe County, which encompasses the entire Florida Keys island chain. Recognizing that all people are created equal, the entire destination is renowned for its welcoming and accepting attitude.

Getting to Key West is a treat whether you drive or fly. Major airlines fly into Key West International Airport from several connecting cities. For example, Delta connects through Atlanta and offers direct service from New York La Guardia during the winter, American Airlines connects through Miami, and United connects through Tampa, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Fort Lauderdale with its regional carrier Silver.

Visitors driving to Key West travel the scenic Overseas Highway, a ribbon of roadway that includes 42 bridges — one of them nearly seven miles long — with sparkling blue water on both sides. You might consider flying into Miami, renting a car to drive over the water, and flying home from the Key West airport when your vacation has ended.

Toga parties are  among the most entertaining attractions at Key West's Equator Resort.

Toga parties are among the most entertaining attractions at Key West’s Equator Resort.

Key West has several properties that specially cater to gay men. The New Orleans House, located above Bourbon St. Pub at the heart of Duval Street, combines renovated rooms with a pool and Jacuzzi, sundecks both poolside and up two and three stories overlooking the island, a grill and full-service bar.

You can even step onto the balcony and take a selfie in the six-foot stiletto that’s featured live on CNN each New Year’s Eve during Key West’s famous “Shoe Drop.” Plus, the Garden Bar turns into a cabaret for the annual Mr. Pride and Miss Pride pageants as well as numerous fundraising events throughout the year.

The Equator Resort, located in the 800 block of Fleming Street, offers 34 rooms and suites, two pools, two Jacuzzis and sunning areas spread across four buildings. Guests can enjoy continental breakfast and afternoon happy hour — and several times each year, toga-clad men descend on the Equator for its famed toga parties.

Alexander’s Guesthouse is the longest-operated gay and lesbian property on the island. Located at 1118 Fleming St., it features sundecks and a pool and Jacuzzi surrounded by tropical foliage. Guests savor an expanded continental breakfast and complementary happy hour at the poolside bar. During winter months, offerings include poolside movies, beach and “traffic light” parties.

Revelers can make a splash during the Sunday pool parties at the Island House.

Revelers can make a splash during the Sunday pool parties at the Island House.

The Island House, 1130 Fleming St., has been hosting gay men for more than 25 years. The resort’s guest rooms surround the pool and sundecks, which open onto a café and full-service bar. Two Jacuzzis, a sauna, gym, and a steam room complete the visitor experience. The Island House hosts weekly themed pool parties as well as innovative events throughout the year — such as Key West’s White Party.

Hopefully I’ve given you a few choices of places to stay and ways to get to our paradise. So why not start planning now for a fall or winter escape?

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Diana Nyad Honored in Key West for Epic Swim

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

On Labor Day 2013, Diana Nyad walked weakly but determinedly ashore onto Key West’s Smathers Beach — becoming the first person EVER to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Never, ever give up,” said the then-64-year-old Diana, her face swollen and salt-encrusted from the nearly 111-mile swim that she had attempted four times before her Labor Day triumph. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

Diana first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old, swimming with a shark cage. After more than 41 hours of fighting strong currents and huge waves, driven far off course in a physically and mentally debilitating battle, she was lifted into a support boat.

In 2010, after being inspired by her 60th birthday, she tried again. But by the time she had the necessary Cuban government paperwork, her weather window had expired.

In 2011, Diana twice attempted the swim, estimated to take approximately 60 hours, with heartbreaking results both times. She was foiled by shoulder pain and a devastating in-water asthma attack in August 2011, and severe jellyfish stings in September.

During a 2012 attempt, she suffered multiple painful and debilitating stings from box jellyfish despite wearing a protective full-body suit each night.

Diana makes the victory sign after completing  her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana makes the victory sign after completing her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West.

At that point, many people said swimming the grueling distance just wasn’t possible — particularly for a woman in her 60s. But that didn’t stop Diana Nyad.

“All my life I believed in dreaming big — I guess it doesn’t satisfy me to have small dreams,” she said with magnificent understatement.

Just before Labor Day 2013, she tried it again. Buoyed by lessons learned during her previous attempts, supported by a team whose dedication was nearly as strong as her own, she began swimming in Havana at 8:59 a.m. Aug. 31.

“I have had this Cuba swim under my skin since I was a child,” Diana admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. And so you want to be the first.”

At night in the water, she donned the full-body suit, gloves and a specially crafted silicone face mask to protect her from jellyfish. She was accompanied by kayakers with electronic shark repelling devices.

And finally, after swimming continuously for 52 hours and 54 minutes, fighting bouts of nausea and exhaustion, Diana Nyad made it to the welcoming shore of Key West.

Diana hoists a bronze plaque Sept. 1 at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana hoists a bronze plaque at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. The plaque will be installed at Smathers Beach where she came ashore.

Nearly 2,000 people greeted her with cheers and applause as she reached the beach, hugged her best friend and business partner Bonnie Stoll, and lay down on a stretcher so medics could check her physical condition.

“I wanted this swim, this endeavor, not to just be the athletic record,” she said the next day, her face radiating peace and gratitude. “I wanted it to be a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged. Be awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day’.”

On Labor Day 2014, Diana and her team were back in Key West for the unveiling of a bronze plaque recognizing her achievement. It will be installed by the City of Key West on the promenade wall in front of Smathers Beach, close to the spot where she came ashore.

As well as honoring Diana for her amazing physical feat, the plaque honors the mental strength and perseverance that kept her focused on achieving her goal — and will forever be an example for those seeking to fulfill their dreams.

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Savoring the Southernmost Spas

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

Chances are, you need a break. You might be winding up a summer full of too many houseguests and outdoor activities, feeling drained by personal or professional challenges, or simply seeking a rejuvenating breather from real life in the “real world.” But no matter what you need to escape FROM, it makes sense to escape TO the Florida Keys.

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

That’s because the 125-mile island chain offers a rare blend of luxury and easygoing informality, inducing an air of tranquility and relaxation that’s one of the greatest luxuries of all. On your Keys escape, you might choose to stay in a restored Victorian inn behind a white picket fence, or a rustically elegant bed-and-breakfast surrounded by a nature sanctuary. But for the ultimate getaway, there’s nothing like a waterfront spa resort. Let’s face it: a truly relaxing vacation just doesn’t seem complete without a soothing, sinfully sybaritic spa treatment or two. Luckily, you’ll find spa facilities from Key Largo to Key West — many of them housed in tropically elegant full-service resorts with top-level restaurants and beaches lapped by blue water.

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Among them is the Spa at Cheeca Lodge, located at the historic luxury property in Islamorada. Cheeca’s truly amazing spa features a variety of skin care treatments like the luscious Golden Veil facial incorporating passion flower oil (yummy!), massage therapies including the signature Hot Lava Shell offering, a heated lap pool with butler service and private personal fitness sessions. At Hawks Cay Resort, located on a lush 60-acre island just outside Marathon, the pampering possibilities at the 7,000-square-foot Calm Waters Spa include body treatments such as the signature Key Lime Mojito scrub and warm sea stone massage (trust me — it’s guaranteed to make you relax). You’ll also find hydrating facials and salon services, and even a menu of teen services featuring massage, facial and salon treatments.

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay's Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Off the Lower Keys, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a private island offering tropically elegant suites in thatched-roof villas, features the SpaTerre experience. Among the health and beauty treatments are ancient Javanese and Thai rituals, flower-petal bath experiences in a traditional Japanese soaking tub (how could you NOT love that?), facial indulgences and massages including one surrounded by the ocean. (FYI, Little Palm Island is so exotic that movie producers used it as a set for the filming of “PT-109,” portraying Lt. John F. Kennedy’s naval heroics in the South Pacific.) Key West offers a number of spas, both in resorts and independent facilities. Among the absolute standouts is the boutique spa at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, A Westin Resort, located on the 27-acre island of Sunset Key — just across the harbor from Key West’s historic downtown.

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

The spa menu includes traditional and tropical body treatments, facials with hydrating rose products and plant extracts, scrubs and wraps, touch therapy and a blending station where you can create a custom scent for your treatment. And if you’re visiting with that special someone, consider the Sunset Romance package for couples, featuring massages and a champagne dinner in a private beachside cabana. Ready to plan the ultimate indulgent getaway? Then click here for more information on Florida Keys spa and wellness offerings, and prepare to be pampered.

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