Keys Voices Main Archive

Key West Artisan Inspired by Passion for Potions

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2011

Fans of Crystal Ruffo’s artistry don’t just appreciate it on a visual level. Instead, they rub her creations into their skin, savor their tropical fragrances and even lather them into pets’ fur.

Crystal Ruffo crafts all-natural tropical bath products at her Key West store.

Crystal Ruffo crafts all-natural tropical bath products at her Key West store.

That’s because Crystal’s artwork doesn’t consist of paintings, sketches or sculptures — it’s a unique type of “mixed media” composed of natural ingredients, fragrant essential oils, botanicals and ground-up minerals blended into tropical hues.

A friendly and outgoing blonde, Crystal is the artisan and owner of Purely Paradise Natural Bath Products. Her inviting emporium, located at 1108-A Duval St. in Key West, offers all-natural personal-care products that she handcrafts on site.

“Many artists work in the mediums of oils and watercolors; I work in the mediums of soaps and salts and bath products,” says Crystal, a longtime Key West resident who explored fiction writing and Web design before discovering her passion for “potions.”

At Purely Paradise, you’ll find a wide range of artisan wares including body and facial butters enriched with mango, scented shampoo with coconut oil and aloe vera, sea salt and sugar scrubs, revitalizing skin toner made with green tea, handcrafted sunburn relief products and even natural aluminum-free deodorants.

Soaps are crafted in whimsical, Keys-inspired shapes and scented with tropical fragrances.

Soaps are crafted in whimsical, Keys-inspired shapes and scented with tropical fragrances.

“We can create personalized facial products based on your skin type and what you’re looking for the product to do,” Crystal says. “I especially enjoy creating things for people with allergies — lotions and soaps that make their bodies feel good.”

But it’s not just people who benefit from her soothing proprietary formulas. Motivated by her dog Nicky’s skin and coat problems, Crystal developed a pet shampoo with goat’s milk, shea butter and essential oils to calm skin irritations.

“We use castor oil to make their coats shine but not be oily, and we use several different essential oils which naturally repel insects,” she reveals. “Several of the vets in town recommend our pet shampoos.”

NIcky's sensitive skin inspired Crystal to create pet shampoos for four-footed "customers."

NIcky's sensitive skin inspired Crystal to create pet shampoos for four-footed "customers."

(Nicky’s skin problems, by the way, are now completely gone and his coat is glossy and beautiful.)

Many customers at Purely Paradise favor the fragrant multicolored soaps, all crafted in whimsical shapes that communicate the spirit of the Keys.

You’ll discover palm trees, two-toned flip-flops that invariably evoke a smile, conch shells, cats inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famed six-toed feline, roguish pirates, bare feet, manatees, parrots, dolphins and intricately “sculpted” mermaids with flowing hair.

Crystal takes particular pleasure in formulating and blending the unique colors that tint her soaps and lotions.

“None of our products are made with artificial coloring or dyes, so I create all of our colors by mixing ground-up minerals together — playing with the colors until I get the shade and hue I like,” she explains. “I try to stay very tropical with aquas for our water, a light ‘Key lime’ green, pinks and corals.”

According to Crystal, Key West is "purely paradise" -- inspiring the name of her Duval Street emporium..

According to Crystal, Key West is "purely paradise" -- inspiring the name of her Duval Street emporium.

Since its debut in 2010, Purely Paradise has become a gathering spot for locals and visitors drawn by its inviting atmosphere and personalized all-natural offerings. Nonstop tunes by Jimmy Buffett — Crystal’s favorite entertainer — provide a laid-back soundtrack while customers browse, sample lotions and creams, and watch her craft products behind a pastel-painted counter.

“I’ve done many things throughout my life, and many of them were very satisfying,” says the “artist in residence” with a characteristic smile. “But I think this is the most fun and the most self-satisfying adventure that I’ve ever undertaken.”

Comments

Kings, Queens and Four-Footed Friends ‘at Large’ in Key West

Steve Smith | October 2011

Wow, time just keeps flying by on this island! September ended with the sloth of Bear Fest attendees growling, moaning, groaning, eating, drinking, and laughing as they enjoyed Key West. I played with the bears as I welcomed and escorted three German, two British, and three domestic journalists to the island.

Fort Jefferson, lying on a tiny island in the Dry Tortugas nearly 70 miles west of Key West, is a favorite spot for visitors eager to snorkel the cool, clear waters. (Photos by Rob O'Neal)

Fort Jefferson, lying on a tiny island in the Dry Tortugas nearly 70 miles west of Key West, is a favorite spot for visitors eager to snorkel the cool, clear waters. (Photos by Rob O'Neal)

In addition to the bear parties, my group enjoyed dinners at Mangoes, Antonia’s, Braza Lena, and Abbondanza Family Italian Restaurant. The days were spent on the Blu Q snorkeling and picnicking, visiting Fort Jefferson (one of the largest brick structures in North America, located 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico), and walking and bicycling around historic Old Town Key West. The weather was splendid during their trip and a great time was had by all.

The Bear Fest bears also splashed in the pools at Big Ruby’s and the Island House, and watched the moon cross the sky while playing in the Bourbon Street pool and foam parties. (I would think it difficult to see the moon through mountains of foam — when you’re here, ask the Bourbon Street boys how one does it).

It was truly a weekend to be remembered. Next year’s Key West Bear Fest is set for Oct. 4-7, 2012.

The U.S.S. Spruance was commissioned at a sunset ceremony on Key West's waterfront. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The U.S.S. Spruance was commissioned at a sunset ceremony on Key West's waterfront. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Another event to remember took place Oct. 1. A new chapter in Key West’s nearly 200-year military history was written when the island hosted the commissioning of U.S.S. Spruance, the U.S. Navy’s most advanced destroyer. The sunset ceremony included the raising of the ship’s colors and a flyover by a Naval Air Station Key West fighter squadron.  This is the first time the subtropical island has hosted a Naval vessel commissioning — and it couldn’t have came at a better moment, just after the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” opened a new chapter of pride in serving our country.

October, by the way, contains a staggering number of events hosted by the candidates for king and queen of Fantasy Fest.  Recent highlights were an afternoon of music by our own Howard Livingston at Charlie Bauer’s Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, hosted by Dave Taylor, Cypress House general manager and candidate for king. Drop in sometime and enjoy a hidden treasure just steps from Duval Street.

Clockwork Orange won first place in the 2010 Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of Fantasy Fest)

Clockwork Orange won first place in the 2010 Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of Fantasy Fest)

Other candidate events included chocolate parties, wine tastings with the butterflies at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (one of our award-winning gay-owned attractions), dinners, fashion shows, and sailing adventures.

If you’re here for Fantasy Fest, don’t miss the 29th annual Headdress Ball on Oct. 25. It’s sponsored by the Key West Business Guild and held in a massive tent on the grounds of the former Atlantic Shores at Southernmost on the Beach. Attendees will be entertained by some of Key West’s finest, including recording artist and local entertainer Faith Michaels.

Speaking of Fantasy Fest, you and your favorite pet should start planning your costumes for the festival’s annual Pet Masquerade and Parade. The wacky costume contest for domestic pets and their people takes place at the Casa Marina Resort Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Time to start choosing your four-footed friend's Pet Masquerade attire!

Time to start choosing your four-footed friend's Pet Masquerade attire!

Past competitors have included a leather-clad dog ‘driving’ a tiny hot rod, a ‘cocktail-loving’ cockatoo, a hairless cat in goggles, and an Asian ensemble starring a Great Pyrenees dog as a giant panda.

Let your imagination inspire you, and compete in the fun-filled event with your furred or feathered friend.

(After all, pets and their owners sometimes look alike, so now is your chance to dress alike too!)

I’m on the way to Atlanta Pride, but I’ll be back in plenty of time to frolic at Fantasy Fest. See you there!

Comments

Sea Turtles Thrive at Unique Middle Keys Hospital

Andy Newman | September 2011

Truth be told, I can’t remember the first time I met Richie Moretti. I know it was pre-1985.

Television nature host Jack Hanna (left} and Hanna's wife Suzi help Richie Moretti examine a loggerhead sea turtle. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Television nature host Jack Hanna (left} and Hanna's wife Suzi help Richie Moretti examine a loggerhead sea turtle. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

He had a small “Mom and Pop” motel in Marathon called Hidden Harbor. Richie and his girlfriend, Tina Brown, had begun filling the motel’s saltwater-fed pool with fish. There were tarpon, snappers, jacks, triggerfish, a small goliath grouper, Florida lobsters and a blowfish that followed Richie as he walked around the pool’s perimeter.

I asked why.

“Because I like getting up in the morning and going swimming with the fishes,” Richie replied.

I shook my head in wonderment — but what the heck. Even back then, I had begun to understand that the Florida Keys are a place of character and characters. Certainly Richie was (and still is!) a character.

One day he called me to say he was trying to get a Fish and Wildlife permit to keep a sea turtle. Again, I asked why.

Richie (center) displays a proclamation honoring The Turtle Hospital on its 25th anniversary. Shown with him are Florida Keys Mayor Pro Tem David Rice and Mayor Heather Carruthers. (Photo by Larry Benvenuti, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Richie (center) displays a proclamation honoring The Turtle Hospital on its 25th anniversary. Shown with him are Florida Keys Mayor Pro Tem David Rice and Mayor Heather Carruthers. (Photo by Larry Benvenuti, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“We’re bringing in school groups now to teach kids the importance of preserving their marine environment,” Richie said. “I’ve had several requests to see one, because of this new cartoon that’s out there.”

I said he must mean the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” he agreed. “Those martial arts-fighting reptiles.”

Richie got his first turtle and then another.

Later, someone called to report a turtle that had been hit by a boat.

“Bring it here,” said Richie. “I’ll take care of it.”

Now, you must understand that Richie had no veterinary experience. He made his money in Orlando restoring Volkswagen Beetles. But that didn’t stop him. He managed to convince local vets to help out.

In September 1986, The Turtle Hospital was born.

One day, Richie was brought a turtle that had hideous cauliflower-like tumors over its head and flippers. He tried to find out what the problem was, but no one knew.

Sandy, shown here, was flown in to be treated at The Turtle Hospital after being injured by wild dogs. Eventually she was released back into her home territory.

Sandy, shown here, was flown in to be treated at The Turtle Hospital after being injured by wild dogs. Eventually she was released back into her home territory.

He did learn that sea turtles around the world were washing up on shorelines with the same disease. Determined to do something about it, Richie contacted the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine. Vets there agreed to begin a research project.

Several years later the disease was identified as fibropapilloma, a herpes-like virus. It was discovered that, in many cases, the tumors could be removed and the turtles released back into the wild.

A place to do surgery was needed, so Richie purchased Fanny’s, a closed-down strip club next to his motel. He used his own money to gut the place and build a surgical suite, examination room, commons area, classroom and an upstairs apartment for visiting vets. The one item that didn’t get torn down was the dance pole in the middle of the building.

Since its opening, the hospital has treated and rehabilitated more than 1,200 sick or injured sea turtles and assisted tens of thousands of hatchlings gone astray after exiting their nests.

Sara, "the world's luckiest sea turtle," undergoes a final checkup by Richie (right) and other Turtle Hospital staff members before her release. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Sara, "the world's luckiest sea turtle," undergoes a final checkup by Richie (right) and other Turtle Hospital staff members before her release. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Among the most memorable patients was Kincaid, a sick 80-pound loggerhead sea turtle that managed to find its own way to the hospital. Kincaid swam near a dock just 20 feet from the hospital’s rehabilitation pools for several hours without leaving. Upon close examination, staff determined he had a bacterial infection, treated him and released him 10 weeks later.

It was a lucky coincidence that Kincaid found The Turtle Hospital. But one thing’s for sure: turtles don’t need health insurance when they come in. Each gets treated.

Turtles have arrived from all over the eastern seaboard and Caribbean. Sandy flew in on an American Airlines jet after getting attacked by wild dogs on a Virgin Islands beach. Less than a year later she was flown back, good as new, and released to lay her eggs.

Not long ago, Richie and everyone at The Turtle Hospital celebrated a very special moment. A loggerhead turtle named Sara was released, less than six weeks after she arrived with a diver’s spear in her head.

Former President Jimmy Carter (left) grins delightedly as he holds a juvenile green sea turtle at Marathon's Turtle Hospital. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Former President Jimmy Carter (left) grins delightedly as he holds a juvenile green sea turtle at Marathon's Turtle Hospital. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Why anyone would want to do that is unfathomable. Loggerheads are endangered and federally protected. People in the Keys are not happy. They’ve raised a reward of more than $16,000 in cash, plus complimentary services — like eight hours of welding — for the tipster who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of the imbecile that launched the spear into Sara’s head.

“This has to be one of the luckiest turtles in history,” said Doug Mader, the fulltime volunteer vet who works with the hospital’s staff of 12. “The spear went in just behind the ear, crisscrossed over the windpipe and lodged against the jaw on the other side. Quarter of an inch in either direction and that animal would be dead.”

Education remains a priority at The Turtle Hospital and tours are offered daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., with tour fees funding ongoing treatment programs.

Many famous folks have visited the hospital — including former President Jimmy Carter, who toured in 2010 and helped release a recovered turtle.

I watched in amazement as President Carter hung on Richie’s every word as he was shown the facility. He was unbelievably interested in the entire operation.

Jimmy Carter (right) and Richie help carry Danger, the loggerhead sea turtle, just before Danger's release. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jimmy Carter (right) and Richie help carry Danger, the loggerhead sea turtle, just before Danger's release. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

I credit that to Richie. He cares so much about sea turtles, and that concern is so infectious, that it’s impossible to walk away without getting “the fever.”

Recently, Florida Keys county commissioners declared Sept. 24, 2011, to be “Richie Moretti and The Turtle Hospital Day,” honoring 25 years of serving the marine environment.

“I don’t have grandchildren,” Richie told the commissioners. “These turtles are my grandchildren.”

No doubt about that.

Comments

Fantasy Fest Survival Guide … for Fun and Frolic

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2011

Imagine yourself dressed as a vibrant-hued fish with sequined scales and gauzy fins, “swimming” down a street lined with beautiful Victorian houses and flower-bedecked picket fences. Or wearing a mystical sea king’s robes, the breeches and tricorn hat of a bold buccaneer, or the flowing hair and nearly sheer gown of a seductive siren.

Two cuckoos and their canines show of their finery during a past Fantasy Fest costume contest. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Two cuckoos and their canines show of their finery during a past Fantasy Fest costume contest. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Now imagine thousands of other revelers gleefully parading alongside you, costumed like mischievous mermaids, leering mariners, and devilish denizens of the deep. You raise your fins in salute, and crowds of spectators erupt in a thunderous cheer.

An unlikely scenario? Not if you’re participating in Key West’s Fantasy Fest celebration, held each October on the tiny island where virtually any occasion can spark a party.

The exotic 10-day festival is internationally recognized for its elaborate costume competitions, street fairs, masquerade balls and lavish grand parade. Fantasy Fest 2011 takes place Oct. 21-30 — and trust me, it will be an unprecedented display of Key West’s creativity, individuality, flamboyant spirit and love of “dressing for excess.”

Mariners of mayhem guide their vessel down Key West's Duval Street during a past year's Captain Morgan Fantasy Fest Parade. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Mariners of mayhem guide their vessel down Key West's Duval Street during a past year's Captain Morgan Fantasy Fest Parade. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Each year, a different theme provides inspiration for the festival’s fabulous costumes and floats. This year’s theme is “Aquatic Afrolic” — with an emphasis on “frolicking” in virtually every allowable manner.

With that much revelry taking place, however, unprepared partiers are likely to fall by the wayside. To maximize enjoyment, follow this five-step survival guide.

Pace yourself. This year, Fantasy Fest includes close to 50 undersea-themed escapades. No matter how dedicated you are, it’s physically impossible to participate in all of them — so study the festival schedule, figure out which events look most appealing, map out your strategy, and stick to it. (And take a nap at every reasonable opportunity.)

Wearing comfortable shoes (generally smaller than this one!) is a must to maximize Fantasy Fest enjoyment. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wearing comfortable shoes (generally smaller than this one!) is a must to maximize Fantasy Fest enjoyment. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wear comfortable shoes. Okay, you’re planning on dressing as the sea king’s princess, in a lavish multicolored gown with a glittering mask. But you’ll be doing a lot of walking and dancing, so leave the four-inch heels at home. Instead, get some comfortable flats and decorate them with sequins and glitter. An hour into your first party, you’ll be thanking the ocean gods you did.

Design your costume(s) to be easy-access. Let’s face it … eventually, everybody has to answer a call of nature. And that’s not easy if you’re wearing, say, a massive wraparound sea shell that weighs 15 pounds and requires two cohorts to help you put it on. Sure, it might attract lots of compliments … but you’ll be a lot happier in something more practical for a long night of carousing.

Make it memorable. Fantasy Fest should be a fabulous, unforgettable experience that you savor while it’s happening and relive in your memory for years afterward. But that can’t happen if you overindulge — so make some of your libations non-alcoholic. You’ll get a buzz from the festival anyway, and you won’t have to rely on blurry cell-phone photos and your friends’ tales to recall what a good time you had.

Fantasy Fest's Masquerade March draws costumed characters of all kinds to parade through Key West's historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Fantasy Fest's Masquerade March draws costumed characters of all kinds to parade through Key West's historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Do not — under any circumstances — miss Fantasy Fest’s Masquerade March. This exuberant walking parade, which begins at the strangely appealing Key West Cemetery, is the locals’ favorite event. Marchers in masks and costumes, carrying noisemakers and accompanied by impromptu bands, meander through the island’s historic Old Town — stopping at designated B&Bs for nibbles and cocktails. Last year’s most colorful marchers included a flock of feathered “wild things,” four guys in matching Wonder Woman costumes, two polka-dotted walking octopuses and the self-proclaimed Sisters of Insanity, who confessed to having “nasty habits.”

Whether your festival plans involve nasty habits or not, click here for a VIP preview of Key West’s aquatic frolic.

Comments

Frolic into Fall — and Fantasy!

Steve Smith | September 2011

Sept. 23 marks the official beginning of autumn, a mysterious occasion when day and night are the same length. That’s nothing new in Key West, however, since our days start with an early sunrise and end at 4 a.m. when the bars close!

Fantasy Fest's frivolity and exuberance are captured each year in Fast Buck Freddie's extraordinary window displays. (Photo courtesy of Fast Buck Freddie's)

Fantasy Fest's frivolity and exuberance are captured each year in Fast Buck Freddie's extraordinary window displays. (Photo courtesy of Fast Buck Freddie's)

Our leaves don’t change color come autumn, but look for outrageous colors across the island when Fantasy Fest begins. Themed Aquatic Afrolic, it kicks off Oct. 21 with the Goombay Festival offering the tastes, sights, and sounds of the Caribbean in the center of Old Town Key West.

Businesses across Key West decorate for Fantasy Fest. Fast Buck Freddie’s, founded in 1976 by legendary gay couple Bill Conkle and Tony Falcone, leads the way in Fantasy Fest window decorations. A must-visit emporium when you’re on the island, the classy boutique department store is named after a popular cut on the first gold record of the group Jefferson Starship.

Oct. 21 also is the night we crown our king and queen of Fantasy Fest. I recently wrote about the hard work the candidates take on to claim the crown.  You can meet the royals at the spectacular coronation event, titled The Lost City of Atlantis and hosted by the Southernmost Beach Café. Book your table now since the gala gathering sells out every year!

Fans of HBO’s “True Blood” will love another Fantasy Fest event — the Vampires Ball at the Haunting of Fort Zachary Taylor (we locals lovingly refer to the place as Fort Elizabeth Taylor).

Revelers can really sink their teeth into the Vampires Ball. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Revelers can really sink their teeth into the Vampires Ball. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

This costume event starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. Dig deep into your crypt for an appropriate costume and be sure to sharpen your fangs for the haunting evening.

If you’re not into vampire vamping, check out the entertaining vamps at the Twirling Buoy Salacious Sideshow, also set for Saturday night and featuring Key West’s own burlesque troupe. The show is a raucous ride down into the depths of an old circus carnival full of sordid seductresses and marvelously mischievous characters — guaranteed to be unforgettable.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, unleash your creative fantasies, don the headdress that sparks your imagination, and enter the Key West Business Guild’s 29th annual Headdress Ball. A $1,500 prize awaits the best headdress, along with a ride in the Fantasy Fest parade. Titled Aquatic Afrolic — Underseas Odyssey, it will be held on the site of our former Atlantic Shores at the Southernmost on the Beach.

Elaborately costumed revelers "dress for excess" during Fantasy Fest. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Elaborately costumed party lovers "dress for excess" during Fantasy Fest. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Headdress displays are likely to suggest everything from mysterious mariners to divas of the deep, and exuberant entertainment is planned for the evening cabaret hosted by local actor Tom Luna.

Tom was crowned Fantasy Fest king in 1992. I was there the night he was awarded his crown while a massive crowd screamed, “Luna, Luna, Luna!” and I will never forget that evening. You won’t forget the Headdress Ball either. Wear a mask, hat, costume, or headdress and be part of the over-the-top fun.

I’m off to ready myself for the arrival of the sloth of bears for Key West Bear Fest. FYI, bears can run up to 40 miles an hour and run sideways, beating the fastest human; they just can’t make turns as sharply as we do.

Most people would call a sloth of bears big trouble, but our bears are the gentle kind. They make their turns on the dance floor or in our bars and restaurants. Next blog I’ll tell you about them and their invasion of Key West!

Comments

Get ‘Unplugged’ in the Lower Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2011

September is a languid, laid-back month in the Florida Keys. On most days, a light breeze tempers the sun-drenched temperatures, and room rates are enticingly low at most resorts and bed-and-breakfast properties.

The Lower Keys, an area of small pristine islands, are a great place to spend some time "unplugged" and enjoying the natural world. (Photo courtesy of Strike Zone Charters)

The Lower Keys' small pristine islands are a great place to "unplug" and enjoy the natural world. (Photo courtesy of Strike Zone Charters)

In fact, it’s the perfect season to spend a lazy interval on the water in the Lower Keys, discovering the intriguing natural environment while treating body and mind to some “unplugged” relaxation.

For example, Big Pine Key’s Strike Zone Charters is well known for dive and snorkel trips to places like Looe Key Reef and the 210-foot Adolphus Busch shipwreck. But they also offer an island excursion and picnic that’s a great way to unwind with family and friends.

The excursions begin at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily on Strike Zone’s 40-foot glass-bottom catamaran — and even kids as young as toddlers can enjoy the experience with their families.

Attractions include snorkeling in shallow protected waters, the chance to glimpse aquatic birds, spotting stingrays and sometimes dolphins in the wild, a sample of light-tackle fishing and entertaining narration about the Keys’ history and environment.

Strike Zone passengers travel on a comfortable catamaran during their island excursion and picnic. (Photo courtesy of Strike Zone Charters)

Strike Zone passengers travel on a comfortable catamaran during their island excursion and picnic. (Photo courtesy of Strike Zone Charters)

Trip passengers learn how the individual Florida Keys got their names, the history of the railroad that first connected the island chain with the mainland and facts about the Keys’ birds, wildlife and marine life.

But that’s not all. The highlight is Strike Zone’s popular fish cookout on an uninhabited island — surrounded by shallow water ideal for wading. (For kids who don’t eat fish, the captain/chef grills hotdogs cut into octopus shapes.)

Excursions include snorkel and fishing gear, soft drinks and the fish cookout. Trips depart from Strike Zone’s headquarters at mile marker (MM) 29.5 bayside.

For reservations and details, visit www.strikezonecharter.com.

To benefit both mind and body, try paddleboard yoga. (Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog)

To benefit both mind and body, try paddleboard yoga classes. (Photo by Romi Burian)

What combines mind and body relaxation, healthful exercise and an eco-experience in Florida Keys waters? Paddleboard yoga classes from Lazy Dog, a unique outdoor adventure company located at Hurricane Hole Marina, 5114 Overseas Highway on Stock Island.

The two-hour classes are divided equally between paddling time and yoga practice. Participants first paddle out to the calm backcountry waters, spotting sea life and wading birds along the way.

The yoga experience is designed to still the mind and increase flexibility and strength through chanting, breathwork and seated and standing postures — all using the board as a “mat” while connecting with nature in a tranquil mangrove setting. The class ends with a paddle back to the dock.

Beginners through experienced yoga practitioners are welcome. For more information, including costs, visit www.lazydog.com.

And speaking of Lazy Dog, it may be a dog’s life — but in the Keys, that life can include a dog’s-eye exploration of azure waters by kayak, while the humans do all the paddling. As well as paddleboard yoga, Lazy Dog offers Doggie Paddle guided kayak excursions for people and their pooches.

This canine quartet is clearly ready for a kayak adventure. (Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog)

This canine quartet is clearly ready for a kayak adventure. (Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog)

Dog-loving kayak guides lead the two-hour excursions, and paddlers travel through the mangrove shallows to a sandbar where two-footed and four-footed friends can frolic together in the warm saltwater.

Or, to enjoy a completely laid-back afternoon, take a languid swim at Bahia Honda State Park — where the beach has earned repeated kudos as one of America’s top 10.

The park is located on Bahia Honda Key at MM 37. For info, click here.

In fact, with so many ways to unplug and relax in the Lower Keys, this tranquil subtropical area just might have inspired the phrase “low key.”

Comments

Card Sound — The Road Less Traveled

Buck Banks | September 2011

(Editor’s Note: Occasionally we receive articles about the Keys that are too good NOT to share, like the piece here. It’s penned by writer/editor Buck Banks, veteran of the in-flight magazines for USAir and United Airlines among others. He has an offbeat sense of humor and a fondness for off-the-beaten-path explorations — as you’ll see when you read on.)

Want some instant decompression on your way to the Keys? Take Card Sound Road. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Want some instant decompression on your way to the Keys? Take Card Sound Road. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

By the time Kathy and I head to the Keys for a respite, we REALLY need it. We’re stressed, tired and cranky. Thank goodness we’re just an hour’s drive away from relief.

Actually, we’ve discovered we’re closer to decompression than that. Once Miami and the Florida Turnpike are behind us, we hang a left just past the Last Chance Saloon — and the vacation begins.

We take less-traveled, less-direct Card Sound Road to the Keys rather than the 18-Mile Stretch of U.S. Highway 1 that often seems like it should be named the Florida Keys Speedway.

While U.S. 1 is the route of choice for people who have to get to the Keys RIGHT NOW, Card Sound Road offers a slower, laid-back and scenic route that feels like the Keys even before you get there.

Welcome to Alabama Jack's, the laid-back heart of Card Sound. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Welcome to Alabama Jack's, the laid-back heart of Card Sound. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The two-lane CSR has no passing zones, so you have to travel at the prevailing speed, whether you’re behind a car towing a boat or a dump truck from the nearby quarry. But slower means you have time to look around.

There’s not a lot to see at first — sawgrass, a roadside canal, mangroves and assorted shrubs — but it’s easy on the eyes and restful.

Soon we come to what passes for civilization on the CSR — a patch of trailers and ramshackle dwellings that are home to the few denizens of Card Sound, complete with fishing nets, floats and crab traps along the road.

The social, victual and libation center of the place (the sign says “Welcome to Downtown Card Sound”) is Alabama Jack’s, an open-air bar, restaurant and honky-tonk that overhangs the mangrove-lined canal on the southern side of the road.

The Card Sound Bridge offers an unmatched view of clear water and lush vegetation. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Card Sound Bridge offers an unmatched view of clear water and mangrove islands. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

What the joint lacks in physical charm it more than makes up for in friendly, attentive service, live music and good food.

The seafood platter, featuring real conch fritters, dolphin filet and crab cakes (all fried in a light batter) with sweet Southern coleslaw pairs well with an ice-cold bottle of Swamp Ape India Pale Ale.

After lunch, we pay the $1 toll and set off up Card Sound Bridge, which provides a panoramic view of the sound’s emerald waters dotted with countless mangrove islands.

After the bridge we enter Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, home to indigenous North American crocodiles (though we’ve never seen one there). On the left are open vistas of Atlantic Ocean, and on the right thick mangroves.

At the intersection of State Road 905 we turn right and enter a new ecosystem — a tropical hammock of gumbo limbo, mahogany and poisonwood trees, and native shrubs.

Blog author Buck toasts his Card Sound experience with an icy brew. (Photo by Kathy Banks)

Blog author Buck toasts his Card Sound experience with an icy brew. (Photo by Kathy Banks)

The woods look impassable and are interrupted only occasionally by white-sand roads that meander off into their dim depths.

The 905 rather abruptly empties into U.S. 1 at the north end of Key Largo. While it’s an adjustment to go from a quiet two-lane to a bustling four-lane road, it’s all right — because now we’re in the Florida Keys.

Comments

Captain Tony Murphy: The Light-Tackle Limey

Christina Baez | September 2011

In the 1700s sailors with the British Royal Navy brought fine goods to the Caribbean colonies, sailing the seas and earning the nickname “limey” for their practice of sucking limes to prevent scurvy on long voyages.

Captain Tony Murphy, who skippers the aptly-named Key Limey, displays a substantial prize.

Captain Tony Murphy, who skippers the aptly-named Key Limey, displays a substantial prize.

Today, Tony Murphy is a limey who brings fun and laughter to the Florida Keys — both with his light-tackle guide business on his boat Key Limey, and at Captain Tony Murphy’s Saltwater Angler fishing outfitter.

“I always want to have fun; it’s all about having fun,” Tony said. “When it comes to guiding, if you’re having fun, your equipment is fantastic, your boat is clean and you present yourself … then the fish are just extra.”

Tony attributes his success as a guide to his passion for fishing and unconditional ability to have fun.

He caught his first chub fish at age 4 in the Thames River, and he’s been hooked on angling ever since. The self-proclaimed fishing fanatic grew up in London, and spent every weekend fishing with his uncle 30 miles away in Henley.

A two-week teenage holiday turned into a life change for the Londoner when he met a third-generation Key West native, fell in love, got married and moved to the Keys.

Tony began living in the Keys in 1986 and took his first job on a boat in 1988 as the first mate on the Lucky II. Later, with two days’ instruction, he learned commercial fishing and spent four years pursuing the profession.

Fishing has been Tony's passion since the Londoner captured his first fish at age 4.

Angling has been Tony's passion since the Londoner captured his first fish at age 4.

“Down here when you actually show up for work, word gets around,” Tony advised. “You get a lot of opportunities, and sometimes lucky things just happen to you.”

Even as a young man in his 20s, however, Tony found that commercial fishing took a toll on his body — so he transitioned into guiding. In an era when Key West boasted some of the pioneers of angling, his youth and attitude enabled him to reel with the best of them.

“What was a little different for me, early on, was that the guides who were around at that time were a little bit older and a lot grumpier,” Tony said. “I really like to make people laugh, feel comfortable and relax.”

The limey’s lively persona and guiding expertise earned him the limelight on many television shows over the years.

He was one of the expert anglers who worked with ESPN to put together the Madfin Shark Series Tournament, also a top-rated television series, and participated in and won the event for three consecutive years. In addition, he was the guide of three television shows based on shark fishing for the famed Bill Dance of “Bill Dance Outdoors.”

Tony's engaging personality and extensive angling experience made him a natural choice for more than one of television's notable outdoors shows.

Tony's engaging personality and extensive angling experience made him a natural choice for more than one of television's notable outdoors shows.

Tony’s most challenging catch came in 2008, when a client offered him the opportunity to purchase a premier Key West angling outfitter called the Saltwater Angler.

Today he guides a few days a week, primarily for repeat clients, but spends most of his time running the Saltwater Angler. There he oversees 24 employees and refers business to 32 flats guides, 15 light-tackle guides and eight offshore boats. He hopes to make the Saltwater Angler an iconic shop that’s a must-see for all visitors to Key West.

“In the Florida Keys, we have so much going for us,” he said. “By the time we get people down here, it’s our job as guides to make sure they have a ‘Florida Keys experience,’ and I love being a part of their experience.”

These days Captain Tony Murphy is remarried, raising two sons and devotes his free time to his family. Happily settled in the subtropical Keys, he never wants to live in the cold hustle and bustle of London again — but, like a true limey, will forever have a passion for soccer, rugby and cricket.

Comments

Underwater in Key Largo: Pumpkins, Santa and … Ironing?

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2011

In Key Largo, it’s all about the world beneath the sea. Key Largo has been dubbed the dive capital of the world — with good reason, since it draws underwater enthusiasts from around the globe to experience its diverse, fascinating coral reef ecosystem alive with sea life and unique corals.

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

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

It’s the home of America’s first undersea preserve, 50-year-old John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — and to one of the largest vessels ever sunk as an artificial reef, the 510-foot Spiegel Grove.

But Key Largo can boast another oceanic claim to fame: its weird and wonderful array of lighthearted underwater events.

Planning to carve a pumpkin for Halloween this October? Do it underwater in Key Largo.

Surrounded by spectator fish and a coral reef backdrop, divers will plunge beneath the sea to transform hollowed-out pumpkins into jolly jack-o’-lanterns during the annual Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest — set this year for Sunday, Oct. 16.

Contestants submerge to a depth of less than 30 feet with only their creative imaginations and dive knives as tools. Prizes, including a dive trip for two, await the top three pumpkin sculptors at the contest presented by Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort.

Santa listens to an undersea denizen's Christmas list in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Santa listens to an undersea denizen's Christmas list in the waters off Key Largo. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Craving a good poker game? Experience it underwater in Key Largo, where the most popular “suits” are wetsuits. Generally in late fall, watched by goliath grouper and other marine species, costumed pirates in scuba gear play free-wheeling hands of five-card stud beneath the sea. Their wacky Underwater Pirates Poker Tournament is part of the annual Key Largo Pirates Fest.

But pirates aren’t the only costumed characters known to immerse themselves in island waters. Want to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus before he embarks on his round-the-world sleigh ride? Look for him (where else?) underwater in Key Largo.

The jolly red-garbed guy appears every year before Christmas, seeming perfectly at home in the underwater environment. Beneath his bushy white beard, he looks a little like Captain Spencer Slate of Key Largo’s Atlantis Dive Center.

It's "egg-stremely" unusual to see an Easter bunny beneath the sea ... except in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

It's "egg-stremely" unusual to see an Easter bunny beneath the sea ... except in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wearing scuba tanks and a dive mask, Santa glides over shipwrecks and reefs in Key Largo waters, offering holiday wishes to fishes as part of a fundraiser for a local children’s charity.

And let’s not forget Easter, when a long-eared bunny hides brightly colored eggs for eager egg-lovers to find — you guessed it, underwater in Key Largo. Captain Slate typically hosts the annual Underwater Easter Egg Hunt shortly before the holiday.

Donning an extra-large bunny suit and dive gear, he hides eggs (real eggs decorated with non-toxic colorings, to prevent any negative ecological impact) in a secret location on one of the Keys’ pristine shallow reefs. Egg-seeking divers hop aboard the Atlantis boat, head to the secret site, and submerge in search of the sunken hard-boiled treasure.

Unlike the above, there’s one underwater event planned for Key Largo that didn’t quite happen: a world-record bid for “extreme underwater ironing.”

Florida Keys ironing fans are ready and waiting, with their equipment prepped, for a new world record attempt.

Florida Keys ironing fans are ready and waiting, with their equipment prepped, for a new world-record attempt.

Yes, ironing. In 2010, event organizers hoped to draw approximately 100 divers to perform the unpopular domestic chore — ironing items simultaneously within a 10-minute time limit — at a shallow dive site in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

They were trying to break a world record held by an 86-person group of British scuba divers (and by the way, participants had to provide their own ironing boards and irons).

Sadly, a forecast of rough seas and strong winds forced the event’s cancellation — even though many ironing fanatics wanted to “press” on.

For additional wrinkles on Key Largo’s wonderful underwater world, click here.

Comments

Keeping the Key West Promise

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2011

Key West is the kind of place that can turn a vacationer into a resident in a life-changing instant. Talk to a group of locals, and chances are a handful of them will tell you they came down to spend a week or a season, or take a break for a few months … but, somehow, they got hooked on the place and never left.

Upon my arrival in Key West, I was stunned to see palm trees seemingly everywhere. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Upon my arrival in Key West, I was stunned to see palm trees seemingly everywhere. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Take me, for example.

When I first came to Key West, I was a naïve 20-year-old Minnesota girl in a Salvation Army fur jacket (which I discarded as quickly as possible). I flew down to this exotic and then-unknown place to meet my Minnesota boyfriend John, who had friends living on the island, to spend a couple of months thawing out after a miserable Minnesota January.

John had to take a side trip to New York, so we didn’t fly together. I emerged from a tiny plane operated by Air Sunshine (also called Air Sometimes for its erratic on-time record) into a third-world airport and a light-drenched landscape.

The taxis outside the airport were startlingly pink, and there were palm trees EVERYWHERE. I gawked out the cab window during the entire drive to John’s friend Wally’s house, where we were supposed to stay.

When the pink taxi pulled up to an old wood-frame house, I jumped out eagerly, ran up the porch steps and knocked on the screen door. “Hello?” I called.

A glorious old frame house was my first temporary "home" on the island.

A glorious old frame house was my first temporary "home" on the island.

The door was opened by Willie Nelson. (Okay, it wasn’t really Willie. But it could have been his dark-haired twin.)

“Hey there,” he said, his eyes slightly glazed.

“You must be Wally,” I responded brightly, trying not to stare. “I’m Carol, John’s friend from Minnesota. Is he here yet?”

Willie/Wally looked at me. “John?” he repeated. “Hey, how’s he doing? I haven’t heard from him in six months!”

Apparently John had neglected to tell Wally we were coming — OR staying with him. But since this was Key West in the late 1970s, five minutes later Wally had offered me his spare bedroom to stay in until John showed up or I figured out what I wanted to do next.

Actually, John DIDN’T show up. But that didn’t matter because, 48 hours after my arrival, I knew perfectly well what I wanted to do next: live in Key West for the rest of my life.

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.

The decision wasn’t reasoned, or even particularly rational. It came from my bones.

Admittedly, my new home was a fascinating place. In the late 70s and early 80s, shrimpers in white rubber boots ruled the island’s waterfront, and lobster and fish were free for the catching.

In those days, there wasn’t much money in Key West. But nobody noticed unless they went to the mainland, and people didn’t go to the mainland very often. Living was an impromptu affair and the pace was slow; Duval Street was so empty on hot summer afternoons that dogs drowsed undisturbed on the blacktop.

The Victorian houses in Old Town, the ones that stand lovingly restored today, were ramshackle and rundown, their paint peeling or absent altogether. But their clean, proud lines made them gorgeous anyway, and the hibiscus and bougainvillea blooming around them were all the adornment they needed.

Now, as in the late 70s, exuberant blossoms add a lush beauty to Key West homes.

Now, as in the late 70s, exuberant blossoms add a lush beauty to Key West homes.

Back then, Key West was a haven for adventurers — from treasure hunters seeking shipwrecked Spanish galleons to the spiritual descendents of Prohibition rumrunners. Everyone seemed to know they were living at the edge of a continent, in a renegade but strangely innocent world.

It was pretty heady stuff for a naïve Minnesota girl.

Fairly quickly, I was “adopted” by a group of longtime Key Westers — writers and shrimpers and pirate bartenders. Their passion for the island was enduring and true, and for some serendipitous reason they decided to share their stories and their lives with me.

Today, Key West and I have both changed a good bit, but my love for the place is stronger than ever. In essence, those old friends who opened their world to me earned an unspoken promise in return — that I would cherish that world like they did.

And you know what? It’s never been a hard promise to keep.

Comments

Google

couk