Keys Voices Main Archive

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 reefexplorer@fla-keys.com. 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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Festival Spotlights Fantasy and Sends a Message

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going to the Dogs in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHARLOTTE REED’S GUIDE TO GOOD TRAVEL MANNERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skip Bradeen Marks 50 Years as a Keys Charter Captain

Andy Newman | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Skip Bradeen ever retire?

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

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

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Craving Casual Key West Cuisine?

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Howard Livingston Gets ‘Low Key’ in the Lower Keys

Chloe Lykes | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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