Keys Voices Main Archive

David Wirth Makes Living an Art Form

Briana Ciraulo | December 2014

And to think it all started with a case of chicken pox.

Marine life artist David Wirth displays a wooden carving of one of his amazing authentic circle hooks. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Artist David Wirth displays one of his amazing and authentic carved wood circle hooks. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

David Wirth has traveled the world — fishing, hunting and exploring the great outdoors. But a near-death experience eventually led him to turn his passion for sculpting into a successful career in the Florida Keys.

A California native, David describes himself as a “beach baby” with a constant desire to be fishing, diving or doing anything on or beside the water.

“I would spend at least 100 days out of the year fishing,” he said.

A little more than 20 years ago, however, a unique case of chicken pox made it impossible for him to do what he loved most.

“I was in recovery and I couldn’t be around fish because of the bacteria,” David explained. “I wanted to fish so bad, so I made my own fish and began sculpting.

“I used a tool in my tackle box, got a piece of wood and whittled out my first rainbow trout — all from memory,” he said.

That was the beginning of David’s career as a hardwood sculptor, though his artistic passion dates back to his childhood.

“When I would get in trouble as a child and my parents would send me to my room, I would get my X-Acto knife and start carving into the headboard on my bed,” he confessed.

His artistic talent and passion came naturally to him, with no formal schooling or training — a rarity for such complex work.

Currently an Islamorada resident, David owns and operates The Gallery of Wildlife Art at mile marker 88.9 oceanside. He specializes in hardwood, bronze and stone sculptures — and has his own jewelry line crafted from unusual materials like antlers, gator bones and walrus tusks.

David’s intricate sculptures include everything from a 72-inch-long hanging marlin to a 40-inch standing sailfish. He also takes commissions from art lovers seeking true one-of-a-kind pieces for their collections.

In addition, David creates a variety of custom furniture pieces including tables, benches and picture frames. All are made from local hardwoods — for example, wild tamarind, mahogany and Jamaican dogwood.

A change in the California art market motivated David’s move to Islamorada several years ago, and he’s found the move to be extremely successful. In fact, during his three years in the sport fishing capital, sales have exceeded his expectations every year.

Like many Florida Keys artists, David is inspired by his surroundings.

“I’m a real outdoorsman,” he said. “If I see a marlin, I’ll jump in the water and study it for a sculpture rather than trying to study a dead fish.”

Observing fish in their natural habitat is crucial to his artistry.

“The social habits are important for my artwork,” he explained. “I like looking at the social interactions, fin positions, exploring fish in the water.”

As with other Florida Keys residents pursuing their passions, David doesn’t view his everyday routine as work.

“Twelve hours of carving in the studio — that’s not work to me,” he said.

After living in more than 20 states and visiting many counties around the world, David Wirth exhibits a deep appreciation for the Florida Keys.

“I could write a full 10-chapter book on a four-hour backcountry fishing trip; it is so incredible,” he enthused. “The qualities and quantities of species of fish here, the topography, the mangroves — it’s this quiet beautiful place that, if you take the time every day, you can enjoy a piece of reality that is often forgotten.”


Prohibition Repealed (Again) in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2014

Free-thinkers and libation lovers recently celebrated the repeal of Prohibition (the 1920-1933 ban on the U.S. manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages) at a rum distillery on the island that once was home to illegal speakeasies and rum smuggling operations.

Paul Menta displays a replica of the 21st Amendment at his distillery's "repeal party." (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Paul Menta displays a replica of the 21st Amendment at his distillery’s “repeal party.” (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Wait a minute,” you might exclaim, “wasn’t Prohibition repealed decades ago?” The answer is yes … but that didn’t stop a creative group eager to party in the easygoing outpost of Key West.

Key West First Legal Rum Distillery hosted a “repeal party” Dec. 5, the 81st anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that revoked Prohibition.

The date also marked the first “birthday” of the distillery, located at 105 Simonton St. on the site of a pre-Prohibition saloon. The distillery’s décor recalls the Prohibition era, while Legal Rum flagship bottles bear mug shots of former Florida Keys residents guilty of alcohol contraband offenses (and yes, there were more than a few of those!).

According to distillery owner Paul Menta, the gathering’s highlight was to be a reading of the 21st Amendment by Key West Mayor Craig Cates — scheduled for 5:32 p.m., the moment when the amendment was originally ratified in 1933.

The reading was scrapped, however, after an astute observation by the mayor.

Paul creates unique chef-distilled rums, including a Key lime variety, at his Legal Rum Distillery. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Paul creates unique chef-distilled rums, including a Key lime variety, at his Legal Rum Distillery. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“I’m not sure we ever acknowledged Prohibition in Key West,” he said with a wry grin.

Mayor Cates had a point. In late 1920s Key West, Prohibition was regarded as an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government — and Joe Russell, who became Ernest Hemingway’s fishing partner, was one of the enterprising individuals who operated illegal speakeasies.

In fact, the official beginning of Joe Russell’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the famed Key West saloon beloved by Hemingway, was Dec. 5, 1933 — the very day Prohibition was repealed.

Before that auspicious day, however, Key West was home to a daring group of rumrunners who imported contraband from Cuba, dodging the federales in a fearless nighttime game. Using strategies ranging from misdirection to decoy boats, they brought in enough whiskey and rum to soothe a thirsty populace.

That renegade era was cheerfully recalled during the Legal Rum Distillery’s repeal party. The four-man Happy Dog Band played period tunes while alcohol advocates paraded with signs inscribed, “Rum is the Answer” and “Make it Legal.” Meanwhile, women promoting temperance countered with signs reading, among other slogans, “Lips That Touch Liquor Will Never Touch Mine.”

The distillery's decor pays tribute to Prohibition-era Key West.

The distillery’s decor pays tribute to Prohibition-era Key West.

Even Uncle Sam (or at least his look-alike) turned up — and hoisted a sign that proclaimed, somewhat confusingly, “Me or Rum.”

As people gathered outside the distillery, Paul Menta leaped atop a rum barrel to display a super-sized replica of the 21st Amendment. Inside the emporium, employees served samples of Paul’s products including the new “Devil’s Rum,” enticingly flavored with Florida orange peel and cinnamon leaf.

While the lively repeal party was a one-night-only affair, there’s plenty of action every day at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. It’s open daily for self-guided tours and free samplings of rums crafted on-site (don’t miss the one flavored with real Key lime). And several afternoons a week, Paul offers “How It’s Made” tours featuring quirky stories about Key West’s rum-soaked past.

For fans of fine libations, how could it get any better than that?


Seasonal Celebrations Sparkle in Key West

Steve Smith | December 2014

December signals the beginning of Key West’s winter season with scheduled performances at our three theaters, live entertainment at many of our clubs and cabarets, holiday decorations sprinkled across the city like fairy dust, and happenings around the island almost every night.

Watching decorated boats proceed around the harbor during the Schooner Wharf Bar Lighted Boat Parade is a great way to sail into the holidays.

Watching decorated boats proceed around the harbor during the Schooner Wharf Bar’s lighted boat parade is a great way to sail into the holidays.

This year’s holiday fun begins Saturday, Dec. 13, with the 24th annual Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley/Absolut Vodka lighted boat parade. Our local elementary school’s Steel Your Heart Band kicks off the evening at 6 p.m. with holiday favorites, followed by the Doerfels, a popular family band. Pick a spot at one of the waterfront’s resorts, bars or restaurants to watch sparklingly decorated kayaks, fishing and pleasure craft, small yachts and schooners as they sail through the harbor competing for bragging rights, more than $20,000 in prizes and a free $4,000 raffle.

While strolling the harbor, stop in the shops lining the seaport and surrounding streets to find your holiday gifts — many made by local artisans — during the annual Holiday Fest and Bight Before Christmas events. The boardwalk leading through the harbor will be decorated with holiday lights, Christmas trees including a unique lobster trap tree, and much more.

Key West's gorgeous inns throw open their doors to holiday revelers during annual Lighted Inn Tours presented by the Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of The Mermaid & The Alligator)

Key West’s gorgeous inns throw open their doors to holiday revelers during seasonal inn tours presented by the Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of the Mermaid & the Alligator)

The Lodging Association of the Florida Keys & Key West presents the annual Holiday Historic Inn Tours on the evenings of Dec. 12 and 19. Fine wines, hors d’ oeuvres, and cocktails accompany tours of our historic inns including the Mermaid & the Alligator, the Southernmost House, Old Town Manor, Wicker Guesthouse and several other properties. Trolleys are available to transport you between the inns, and tickets are still available.

December’s monthly Artisan Market will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 21. The Artisan Market is an open-air marketplace filled with juried artists, authors, craftspeople, live entertainment, jewelry, wares and foods all locally made or created. There are no imported trinkets here — only unique handcrafted items, local craft beers, fresh mozzarella, and a variety of homemade pickles and jams. The market is located next to Key West’s Restaurant Store at 1111 Eaton Street.

Looking for quality local theater? “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” opens Dec. 16 at the Red Barn Theatre, located down a small lane off Duval Street next to the Hard Rock Café. This 1997 Tony Award-winning romantic comedy is set in 1939 Atlanta on the eve of World War II and the opening night of “Gone With The Wind.” The story focuses on a Jewish family in Atlanta whose members are looking forward to Ballyhoo, a lavish cotillion ball — and includes an evening full of revelations.

Blogger Steve Smith  is flanked by William Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida's fight for marriage equality. .

Blogger Steve Smith is flanked by William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida’s fight for marriage equality.

After a day of fun in Key West and a stop at the daily sunset celebration, catch “Noises Off” at the Waterfront Playhouse on Mallory Square. The New York Post called this show “the funniest farce ever written,” while the New York Times lauded it as “a spectacularly funny, peerless backstage farce.” Attend a performance and form your own opinion of this hilarious award-winning show.

On another note, many of you have heard that marriage equality in Florida could begin as early as Jan. 6, 2015. Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones challenged the state’s ban on marriage equality earlier this year and our county judge ruled it unconstitutional. Stay tuned for more information on marriage equality in the Florida Keys & Key West as it becomes available.

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


Sand in Your Shoes? No Problem!

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2014

The lively creativity and laid-back oceanfront vibe that characterize Key West came together recently in the International Sand Art Competition, a beachside event for visitors to the continental U.S.A.’s southernmost island city. Six renowned U.S. and international sand sculptors — in fact, from as far away as Acapulco and Quebec — took part in the artistic challenge that was held (appropriately) on the sandy Atlantic Ocean beach at Key West’s Casa Marina Resort.

Benjamin Probanza of Acapulco, Mexico, puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture "Yin-Yang," at the International Sand Art Competition. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Benjamin Probanza of Acapulco, Mexico, adds detail to his intriguing entry at the International Sand Art Competition. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Each sculptor received about seven yards of sand in this competition, which equals out to approximately 15,000 pounds of sand, which they got to shovel on the first day,” said event founder Marianne van den Broek of Key West’s Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting, adding wryly, “That’s a lot of shoveling.”

It certainly was — but the sand sculptors were all pros who were up for the task.

The stalwart competitors were Rusty Croft, host of the television reality show “Sand Masters,” veteran Key West sand artist and show participant Chris Guinto, Canadian master Guy-Olivier Deveau, Acapulco sculptor Benjamin Probanza, Dan Doubleday from Florida’s Treasure Island, and Dan Belcher from St. Louis.

The contestants brought amazingly detailed, imaginative creations to life without using electric tools, molds or glue. Instead, they crafted them out of simple sand and water with a few hand tools — trowels, brushes and knives similar to artists’ palette knives.

Guy-Olivier Deveau puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture titled "Decay/Evolve" on the final day of the competition. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Guy-Olivier Deveau puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture, titled “Decay/Evolve,” on the final day of the competition. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“A lot of people have a hard time believing that it really is just sand and water, but it really IS just sand and water,” said Marianne. “We reuse the sand all the time, so the fact that we can break down a sculpture and build something new is very green. It’s recyclable, and that’s part of the charm.”

Sculptures ranged from four or five feet tall up to nine or 10 feet tall. Among them were Benjamin Probanza’s giant divided head with a surreal flair titled “Yin-Yang,” Dan Belcher’s super-sized 3D coin aptly named “Heads & Tails,” and Guy-Olivier’s “Decay/Evolve,” an intricately muscled male figure in an elaborate headdress.

“I try to go with something visually striking rather than having a deep meaning,” said Guy-Olivier, who lives in Quebec City. “I really go with the aesthetic, and I usually like a dark or creepy aesthetic.”

He appreciates sand as a medium, he reported, despite the resulting work’s impermanence.

“If I would make this out of wood or out of bronze, it would take months to realize,” he said of his massive figure. “I can realize something like this in only four days, so I guess this is where the difference is and why it’s so interesting — sand sculpture.”

Dan Belcher's super=sized coin sculpture earned the competition's People's Choice Award. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle Sand Sculpting)

Dan Belcher’s super-sized coin sculpture earned the unique competition’s People’s Choice Award. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting)

For Marianne van den Broek, whose career began 15 years ago in the Netherlands, the work’s impermanence is a positive characteristic that conveys a healthy life lesson.

“Once you complete a sculpture, it’s completed and I’m ready to move on,” she explained. “It can be there for months or it can be taken down the next day; it’s okay — it’s all about letting go, and you get really used to letting things go.”

When the dust (or actually the sand) at the International Sand Art Competition settled, some 10,000 people had viewed the remarkable works of art — and Benjamin Probanza and Dan Belcher took the top prizes.

According to legend, if visitors get sand in their shoes during a Florida Keys sojourn, they’re destined to return to the island chain again and again. Clearly, the contest’s six sculptors collected enormous amounts of the grainy stuff in their footwear … so let’s hope the legend holds true and they come back SOON for an encore.


Become a Reef Explorer

Julie Botteri | November 2014

Are you among the thousands of scuba divers and snorkelers who visit the Florida Keys each year? Then chances are you’ll want to take part in the “Become a Reef Explorer” program, which spotlights the Keys’ coral reefs with a specially created souvenir journal.

The Reef Explorer program is designed for divers and snorkelers eager to explore the Keys reefs.

The Reef Explorer program is designed for divers and snorkelers eager to explore Keys reefs.

It’s designed for first-timers, families and fun-loving outdoor enthusiasts of all experience levels — in fact, for anybody who wants to log dive or snorkel adventures on reefs between Key Largo and Key West along the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

How does it work? Simple … you receive a journal from a professional dive or snorkel operator so you can collect validation stamps indicating that you’ve visited one or all of a region’s reefs highlighted in the journal.

In Key Largo, popular snorkel and dive spots include Carysfort Reef, Elbow Reef, Grecian Rocks, French and Molasses reefs — many characterized by high-profile tongue-and-spur, brain and pillar corals and massive quantities of tropical marine life. Thanks to the cleansing waters of the Gulf Stream, visibility is consistently clear.

In the waters surrounding John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, you’ll find Dry Rocks. There, the nine-foot-tall bronze “Christ of the Abyss” statue rests in approximately 20 feet of water surrounded by large brain, staghorn and elkhorn coral formations (and often a four-foot barracuda that seems to enjoy being photographed).

Divers and snorkelers can spot turtles, Spanish hogfish and angelfish along the same reef line. (Photo by Tim Grollimund, Coral Restoration Foundation)

Divers and snorkelers can spot turtles, Spanish hogfish and angelfish along the same reef line. (Photo by Tim Grollimund, Coral Restoration Foundation)

In Islamorada, highlights include the unusually named Pickles, Hens & Chickens, Alligator and Conch reefs. At Crocker Reef, depths range from 30 to 60 feet, and its south end slopes along a wall of spur-and-groove coral formations and coral mounds that extends for more than 400 feet, gradually reaching depths to nearly 80 feet.

It’s common to see large schools of blue-striped grunts, large groupers, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, sea turtles, green moray eels, barrel sponges and sea fans. Nearby Davis Reef is easily navigable along the top of the reef and its sandy ledges. Large groupers and moray eels cruise among the cliffs and canyons, gullies and archways in depths from 15 to 40 feet.

Among Marathon’s notable patch reefs and spur-and-groove formations is Sombrero Reef, marked by a large lighted tower. Watch spotfin butterflyfish circle in a courting dance, French angelfish nip and peck at reef plants, huge schools of grunts slide back and forth in a gentle tidal surge or a stingray scour the sandy bottom for a snack.

Coffin’s Patch is not a single reef but a conglomerate of six distinct patch reefs, each with a uniquely predominant coral species, including Pillar Coral Patch with dozens of intact pillar coral heads. Snorkelers especially appreciate the shallow elkhorn forests found throughout the site in less than 20 feet of water.

Reef Explorers can log dive or snorkel excursions on reefs between Key Largo and Key West, along the United States' only living coral reef. (Photo by Tim Grollimund, Coral Restoration Foundation)

Reef Explorers can log dive or snorkel excursions on reefs from Key Largo to Key West. (Photo by Tim Grollimund, Coral Restoration Foundation)

In the Lower Keys, the most significant shallow-water undersea spot is Looe Key Reef, an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary approximately six miles south of Big Pine Key. A complete reef ecosystem is found there, including a rubble ridge of ancient fossilized corals, a reef flat composed of turtle grass and a fore reef made up of large star and brain corals arranged in a spur-and-groove coral formation sloping from 20 to 40 feet.

A deeper reef slopes to more than 100 feet, providing a spectacular opportunity to view species including eagle rays, turtles and, on occasion, the rare and wonderful whale shark or manta ray.

Key West’s largest protected coral reef is Western Sambos, a popular snorkeling site that’s part of an ecological reserve created in 1997. Several other extensive shallow reefs off Key West, including Eastern Dry Rocks, Rock Key and Sand Key, are abundant in corals, gorgonians and fish, and range from five to 45 feet in depth.

After you collect one reef stamp in each of the five regions of the Keys, simply email You’ll receive an access code so you can download, personalize and print a Florida Keys Reef Explorer poster ready for framing — to remind you of your fascinating underwater adventures in the intriguing island chain.


Haunted Hunt ‘Raises Spirits’ in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2014

Key West’s most beloved characteristics include its rich seafaring history, flourishing creative community that dates back to Ernest Hemingway’s 10-year residence, and lighthearted vibe that’s as warm as its year-round subtropical temperatures.

The "spirited" David Sloan guides nightly interactive ghost-hunting tours in Key West's spookiest sites.

The “spirited” David Sloan guides nightly interactive ghost-hunting tours in Key West’s spookiest sites.

Plus, according to paranormal expert David Sloan, it’s one of the most haunted cities in the entire United States.

David should know. He created the island’s first ghost tour in 1996, has written books including “Ghosts of Key West,” and recently researched and launched a unique interactive ghost-hunting tour in historic Old Town.

Dubbed Sloan’s Key West Ghost Hunt, the 90-minute nightly walking tour spotlights some of the island’s most noteworthy and well documented spirits: the famous resident who refuses to leave the building placed over his grave, the judge still lurking around his own murder site (believe me, it’s quite a story!), and the children who play ghostly games in a secluded garden.

The tour features some notoriously haunted island city locations — but it offers far more than well-researched tales. David and his guides show participants how to use of state-of-the-art “ghost hunting” equipment to detect supernatural activities.

“Haunted stories start to lose a lot over the years and become mere legends,” David explained. “I wanted to go back to the roots.”

The Ghosts & Gravestones trolley carries passengers on a journey to Key West's spooky side. (Photo courtesy of Historic Tours of America)

The Ghosts & Gravestones trolley carries passengers on a journey to leading Key West “haunts.” (Photo courtesy of Historic Tours of America)

Instead of creating effects to “spook” tour participants, David and his guides take them on a fascinating, authentic excursion that gives them a chance to glimpse and gain insights into the inhabitants of the supernatural realm. They encourage guests to open their minds — and are sometimes as surprised as anyone else when the ghost-hunting equipment picks up otherworldly influences.

David Sloan’s adventure may be the only interactive ghost hunt in Key West, but several walking and trolley tours blend views of haunted sites with vignettes from the southernmost city’s history.

For example, there’s Old Town Trolley’s Ghosts & Gravestones Tour, featuring a costumed “ghost host” who recounts strange but true stories of tragedies, murders, burials, curses and other unnerving events.

The tour’s highlight is a stop at Fort East Martello Museum for a visit with Robert the Doll, an eerily mischievous century-old toy that still mystifies ghost hunters today.

Robert, the eerie doll, greets his many fans from a handsome glass case at Fort East Martello. (Photo by Kathy Koontz)

Robert, the eerie doll, greets his many fans from a handsome glass case at Fort East Martello. (Photo by Kathy Koontz)

Speaking of Robert, visitors to Key West can actually stay in the home where he began his curious “career.”

It’s called the Artist House, and it stands on Eaton Street just off legendary Duval Street. The house got its name because it was the home of local artist Gene Otto and his wife Anne — along with a doll known as Robert that was given to Gene in 1904, when he was four years old.

The straw-stuffed doll stood about three feet tall, and Gene blamed all his bad behavior on it — both as a child and when he grew up.

While the adult Gene gained renown as an artist, Robert (living in his own attic room in the house, despite Anne’s objections) gained renown of a far more unsettling sort. Children passing by glimpsed him leering from the windows of the turret room and, according to local lore, a workman heard the doll giggling at him.

In 1974 Gene died, and Anne died not long afterward. Robert was eventually moved to the museum, but strange happenings continue to take place at Artist House — some attributed to Robert and others to other spirits.

David's grin betrays his uneasiness as he and Kathy bid farewell to Robert. (Photo by Penn Alexander)

Visitors pose a bit uneasily with Robert at his museum home. (Photo by Penn Alexander)

Visitors have seen a ghostly woman in a wedding dress on the house’s stairs, ghostly presences hovering over their beds, and a woman watching from the window of the turret room where Robert once sat. It’s said that Anne Otto haunts the house … a benign spirit who wants to protect her home and its guests.

Eager to experience Key West’s “haunting” appeal for yourself? Just click here, and begin making plans!


Lights, Camera, Action: From the Keys to the Screen

Julie Botteri | November 2014

The planned debut of Netflix’s “Bloodline” in March 2015 puts the spotlight on the Florida Keys — quite literally, since a good deal of filming for the 13-episode psychological thriller is taking place in the Upper Keys locations.

Two of the stars of "Bloodline," Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler, shoot a scene in the Keys. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Two of the stars of “Bloodline,” Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler, shoot a scene in the Keys. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The series stars Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek and Emmy-winner Kyle Chandler, and follows the dramatic exploits of the Rayburns, a Keys family. And according to material released by the production company, the island chain and its elements play a large role as well.

But “Bloodline” is far from the only television series (or film, for that matter) that has been shot in the Keys over the years.

In fact, while the Florida Keys’ enticing locales inspire visitors to come back again and again, they also attract film and television industries that cast the islands as characters in their productions.

For example, Key Largo’s funky and character-rich Caribbean Club bar appeared in John Huston’s 1947 classic, “Key Largo,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The film’s release brought so much lasting attention for the island that Key Largo honors Bogart — the man the American Film Institute named “America’s greatest male screen legend” — with an annual Humphrey Bogart Film Festival.

And then there was “True Lies,” which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger dodging missile strikes the blew up the Middle Keys’ iconic Seven Mile Bridge.

Despite the advent of Arnold and company, the Seven Mile Bridge is in excellent shape. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Despite the advent of Arnold and company, the Seven Mile Bridge remains in excellent shape. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Before becoming California’s governor, Arnold starred in the 1994 adventure film, shot partially in the Keys, with Jamie Lee Curtis.

The madcap caper, about a spy whose personal and professional lives collide, involved action sequences of helicopter stunts, a warehouse explosion and a bridge blast that necessitated constructing a replica of the landmark Seven Mile Bridge. Needless to say, it was the replica that was actually blown up — but the narrow span unrolling above blue water sure looked like the real thing.

Scenes from 2002’s “Red Dragon,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the twisted Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, were filmed next to Islamorada’s popular Islander Resort at a resident doctor’s home.

And the Keys also were a notable location for James Bond adventures “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “Licence to Kill” — the latter including a wedding scene at Key West’s St. Mary Star of the Sea (now a basilica) that featured scores of local residents as extras.

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

The stunning Cheeca Lodge was the primary setting for an episode of “Platinum Weddings.” (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

The Keys also have appeared in reality television shows. Recently, Destination America’s “Buying the Beach” documented a local musician’s pursuit of buying a private island for himself and his wife.

“Platinum Weddings” was filmed on location in Islamorada to document the million-dollar wedding of two New York investment bankers and their guests at Cheeca Lodge and Spa. Other shows include “Burn Notice” and MTV’s “The Real World,” shot in 2005-06 in Key West (which only confirmed many locals’ belief that America’s southernmost island, perhaps mercifully, is NOT the real world).

In addition, advertising agencies feature iconic Keys locales in ads and commercials: roads, bridges, beaches and crystalline waters. Jeep and Ford recently used Marathon and Key West as backdrops, and a Fiat 500 “swim” from Italy spot was partially shot in the Upper Keys.

A 1996 Ralph Lauren Polo extravaganza featured Terra’s Key, a private Atlantic Ocean island with a four-bedroom home, tennis court, pool, dock, saltwater lagoon and beach. The Moorings Village, a luxury resort in Islamorada, is favored by fashion photographers including Bruce Weber.

Snorkeling sites in the Keys are shallow, allowing for maximum light (and color) exposure along the reef line. (Photo by Pat Taylor)

The Keys are ideal for shooting scenes backdropped by underwater or above-water wonders. (Photo by Pat Taylor)

What is it that makes the Florida Keys so attractive to filmmakers, production companies and ad agencies?

The truth is, the island chain offers some of the most diverse, exciting, and “film-friendly” locations anywhere — including unmatched spots for on-the-water, in-the-water, and underwater shooting.

As well as spectacular underwater vistas, possible settings include Victorian mansions and cottages, fish camps, marinas, neighborhoods full of historic, funky charm and wetlands and backcountry areas rich in unspoiled natural beauties.

In fact, given all that … it’s kind of surprising that more films, television series and ads or commercials AREN’T shot in the Florida Keys!


Stay at New “Stars” in the Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2014

No matter where you stay in the Florida Keys, you’ll find that your accommodations — like the island chain itself — reflect a colorful diversity of cultural and historic influences.

Playa Largo Resort and Spa, an upcoming Key Largo gem, is expected to open in summer 2015.

Playa Largo Resort and Spa, an upcoming Key Largo gem, is expected to open in summer 2015.

Eager to discover these influences? You can choose from resort hotels frequented by playwrights and presidents, inns evolved from stately homes that once sheltered cigar barons and shipwreck salvagers, Victorian gems built by merchants and millionaires, or even former fish camps rich in rustic waterfront charm.

In the coming year, nine new properties and many renovated lodgings will be welcoming Keys visitors — each showcasing aspects of the island chain’s attractions and appeal.

And here, for those of you planning upcoming trips, are overviews of five of the new accommodations “stars.”

The first lies at the head of the Keys in Key Largo. The elegant Playa Largo Resort and Spa, the newest hotel to join Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is set to open in summer 2015. And what a property — the 14-acre waterfront resort features 144 luxury rooms and suites.

The focal point of the soon-to-open Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club is the famous lighthouse, which has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s.

The focal point of the soon-to-open Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club is the famous lighthouse, which has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s.

Amenities include a private marina, multiple bars and restaurants, full-service spa and fitness offerings, a beach house for private or corporate functions, wedding and conference facilities including a ballroom, a secluded white sand beach and much more.

In Islamorada, savvy visitors are awaiting the late 2014 re-launch of the Islamorada Resort (one of the Islamorada Hotel Company’s properties) as Amara Cay Resort, an upscale boutique hotel. Renovations include increasing the number of rooms and suites to 105, updating outdoor amenities and creating an Italian-style eatery. Guests can anticipate daily food and beverage experiences and a Mercedes shuttle (yes, really!) to Islamorada’s most popular locales.

You should be able to spot one of Marathon’s new properties easily: its focal point has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s. Earlier this year construction began on the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club — incorporating the famed Faro Blanco lighthouse and set to open in December 2014.

With the lighthouse as its “beacon,” the new property features an upscale 125-room Hyatt Place hotel with two pools, a fitness center, meeting space and a waterfront restaurant and outdoor bar called (appropriately) Lighthouse Grill. And boaters will find a 74-slip state-of-the art marina capable of handling vessels up to 100 feet long.

The 96-room Marker Waterfront Resort combines a modern and timeless look with the free spirit and tropical vibe of Key West.

The 96-room Marker Waterfront Resort combines a modern and timeless look with the free spirit and tropical vibe of Key West.

At the southernmost tip of the Keys island chain lies eclectic, artistic Key West — and you’ll soon be welcomed at the island’s entrance by The Gates Hotel Key West. Projected to open Feb. 1, 2015, the new 100-room boutique hotel blends luxury, minimalist design, artwork, food and music into a chic, comfortable lodging experience.

Guest rooms feature whitewashed beams, custom cypress platform beds and photography from an exclusive local gallery.

Other highlights include the Rum Row bar and small-plates café, a large swimming pool with cabanas and daybeds, and an atmosphere that recalls “old Key West.”

The southernmost city’s Historic Seaport, one of its most popular hotspots, houses a lively group of restaurants, shops and attractions. The district’s newest gem is The Marker Waterfront Resort, a two-acre luxury property debuting in late 2014.

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)

Wherever you stay in the Keys, you’ll experience lazy, sun-drenched days and luxurious relaxation. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The 96-room resort combines a modern, timeless look with the free spirit and tropical nature of the Key West community. Four room categories are available — offering marina, pool, garden and Old Town views.

Surrounded by lush landscaping, you can relax and swim at multiple pools (complete with poolside cocktail service) savor Cali-Mex–inspired cuisine at the on-site Cero Bodega or enjoy the ocean view.

The 125-mile Florida Keys island chain is characterized by a rich natural environment, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate, and a friendly laidback vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. These new properties — with their differing designs, amenities, prices and location — will add their own unique flavors to the intriguing mix as they welcome visitors eager to experience and explore the Keys.


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.


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.


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.