Keys Voices Main Archive

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Discover Engaging Dolphins at Five Keys Centers

Josie Gulliksen | August 2011

Ever since marine researchers discovered dolphins just might rival humans among the world’s most intelligent mammals, people have been fascinated by the lively marine creatures.

At Dolphins Plus, Bob (the bigger one) and Jessica provide an affectionate Keys welcome.

At Dolphins Plus, dolphins Bob (left) and Jessica provide an affectionate Keys welcome.

In the Florida Keys, where dolphins are studied year-round, visitors to each of five centers can have a unique and wonderful encounter — sharing an in-water experience with these gentle animals while learning about them.

Before any in-water encounter, the facilities provide in-depth briefings that cover dolphin behavior, facts about the engaging creatures, and how to safely and respectfully interact with them. (FYI, during your encounter, don’t be surprised if the ever-curious dolphins use their sensitive bottle-shaped noses to give you the once-over — or present their chins to be scratched or even kissed.)

So where can you have an intriguing dolphin experience in the Keys?

Mandy Rodriguez, the guiding spirit behind Dolphin Research Center, shares some quality time with two buddies. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

Mandy Rodriguez, the guiding spirit behind Dolphin Research Center, shares some quality time with his buddies. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

Dolphin Research Center, mile marker (MM) 59 bayside on Grassy Key near Marathon, specializes in presenting marine mammal education and research programs to the public. Founded in 1984 as a nonprofit facility, DRC is home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions — most of whom were born there.

Enjoy daily narrated dolphin and sea lion behavior sessions and educational presentations to learn about marine mammals and the environment — plus interactive programs like Trainer for a Day, Researcher for a Day, swim and wade sessions and even the fun-filled Paint with a Dolphin.

At Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, Ocean Bay Drive at MM 100 oceanside, you can experience natural or unstructured swims with other participants and dolphins, structured swims or one-on-one interactive sessions with dolphins and sea lion encounters. Natural swim participants revel in the natural beauty and behavior of dolphins while snorkeling; structured swim participants follow a trainer’s instructions for hands-on interaction.

You’ll also find extended education programs, including Trainer for a Day and a three-day Dolphin Exploration Lab, that focus on a general study of dolphins and their habitats.

Marine life and lively parrots intrigue young visitors to Islamorada's Theater of the Sea.

As well as dolphins, lively parrots and other creatures delight visitors to Islamorada's Theater of the Sea. (Photo courtesy of Theater of the Sea)

In addition, dolphin therapy programs are offered on the premises to individuals with disabilities and their families. Coordinated by the not-for-profit Island Dolphin Care, these remarkable programs involve educational, recreational, and motivational activities.

Islamorada-based Theater of the Sea, MM 84.5 oceanside, offers dolphin, sea lion and stingray swim programs, along with bottomless boat rides, parrot shows and continuous marine shows featuring dolphins and sea lions. Plus there’s a guided marine life tour that features tropical fish, sea turtle, alligator and crocodile exhibits — and don’t miss Theater of the Sea’s four-hour adventure boat tour, which includes a bay ride and snorkel time.

Dolphin Cove is a marine education and dolphin swim facility at MM 102 bayside in Key Largo. There you can choose from natural or structured swims, shallow water encounters in waist-deep water or Trainer for a Day programs that include dolphin interactions and a glimpse into marine mammal care and training.

Even small children can safely participate in magical dolphin encounters in some Keys centers.

Even small children can safely participate in magical dolphin encounters in some Keys centers.

Based at Hawk’s Cay Resort, MM 61 oceanside on Duck Key, Dolphin Connection offers a group of appealing dolphin encounter programs. Dolphin Discovery allows supervised contact with dolphins from a submerged platform, while Dockside Dolphins offers interactions without entering the water. You’ll also find a fascinating three-hour Trainer for a Day session that includes a behind-the-scenes look at dolphin training.

Of course, all five centers maintain high standards for safeguarding the physical and emotional health of the dolphins under their care, and the environment these creatures call home.

There’s no substitute for an unforgettable firsthand dolphin encounter at one of the places described here. But if you can’t make it down to the Florida Keys quite yet, click here for webcam previews from Dolphin Research Center, Dolphin Cove, and Island Dolphin Care.

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Key West: The Write Stuff

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2011

“I want to get to Key West and away from it all,” literary legend Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to his friend and editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Writers Tom Corcoran, Michael Haskins, Lorian Hemingway and Mark Childress -- who live in Key West or visit regularly -- recently gave a critically acclaimed reading during the island city's Hemingway Days. (Photo courtesy of Michael Haskins)

Among the notable writers who live in Key West or visit regularly are (from left) Tom Corcoran, Michael Haskins, Lorian Hemingway and Mark Childress. (Photo courtesy of Michael Haskins)

Hemingway, who lived in a Spanish Colonial villa on Key West’s Whitehead Street throughout the 1930s, is arguably the island’s most famous writer-resident — but he’s far from the only one. In fact, for decades America’s subtropical southernmost city has exerted an almost mystical attraction for writers of all types.

For example, Tennessee Williams owned a home on a quiet side street from the late 1940s until his death. Robert Frost was a frequent guest of hostess Jessie Porter Newton, and Thornton Wilder wrote “The Matchmaker” in Key West.

More recent literary residents have included Shel Silverstein, Annie Dillard, Tom Corcoran, Richard Wilbur, Alison Lurie, Thomas McGuane, Judy Blume, Mark Childress, Jimmy Buffett, Meg Cabot, Michael Haskins and Philip Caputo.

What is it that draws writers to Key West, captures their imaginations, and keeps them returning as visitors or inspires them to become residents?

Author Lorian Hemingway (right) is joined at a Key West book signing by her daughter Cristen, also a writer and editor. (Photo courtesy of Katharine Roach)

Author Lorian Hemingway (right) is joined at a Key West book signing by her daughter Cristen, also a writer and editor. (Photo courtesy of Katharine Roach)

Lorian Hemingway, author of the novel “Walking into the River,” the critically acclaimed memoir “Walk on Water” and the riveting “A World Turned Over,” has been coming to the island since the late 1960s. She’s currently chronicling its flavor, personalities and past in a book-in-progress titled “Key West: The Pirate Heart.”

Lorian is Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, but her reasons for referring to Key West as her second home have little to do with her grandfather’s legacy.

“Writers are drawn to places of fecundity and abundance, particularly when water is involved,” she says. “It’s a natural thing, being close to your roots — and the ocean is, in the very truest sense, our genesis. Perhaps writers, because of what they have to tap into in order to create, pick up on this subconsciously a little more than others.”

Phil Caputo’s best-known book is “A Rumor of War,” widely regarded as a definitive work on the brutal Viet Nam conflict. Several of his subsequent offerings took shape during his 11-year residence in Key West — a perfect setting, he believes, for those artists and writers who crave freedom from the mainstream world and its values.

Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Caputo, author of "Crossers" among other acclaimed volumes, lived in Key West for 11 years.

Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Caputo, author of "Crossers" among other acclaimed volumes, lived in Key West for 11 years.

“Artists and writers are a bit outlaw. They march to a different drummer — and it’s a lot more congenial when you’re surrounded by a lot of other people who also march to a different drummer,” says Phil. “That’s what’s great about Key West. You’ve got people who are treasure divers and fortune seekers and renegades and runaways, and that makes life interesting.”

Perhaps acclaimed playwright Tennessee Williams provided the simplest yet most important reason for the island city’s popularity with those who write. “I work best here,” he stated in a long-ago interview.

As an authors’ haven and favorite retreat, Key West has earned an indelible place in the literary world. The island’s undemanding atmosphere leaves plenty of room for creativity to flower — and many writers seem to feel the pull of an elemental magic that defies definition.

“I’ve always been drawn by the ocean and the great ships and the moon and the water, and there’s something magical in Key West that goes somewhere very deep in me,” says Lorian Hemingway, whose island hideaway overlooks the Atlantic. “There’s a mystical quality that has at times just taken me over. I feel like I’m home every time I come back.”

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Cynthia Aguilar: Paddling into History

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2011

When she paddled ashore on a Key West beach not long ago, she was sunburned and exhausted — and as joyfully triumphant as a 27-year-old woman could ever be.

Cynthia Aguilar cries with joy as she ends her incredible 103.2-mile prone paddleboard marathon on a Key Wes Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Cynthia Aguilar cried with joy as she ended her incredible 103.2-mile prone paddleboard marathon on a Key West beach. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That’s because, when she reached that beach, South Florida lifeguard Cynthia Aguilar became the first solo prone paddleboarder ever to cross the Florida Straits — paddling an astonishing 103.2 miles in just 29 hours and 12 minutes.

Making her feat even more remarkable is the fact that prone paddleboarding doesn’t involve actual paddles.

Instead, participants in the sport propel themselves through the water using their hands and arms.

When she landed, Cynthia dragged her paddleboard onto the beach as crowds of supporters erupted in wild cheers, then hugged her parents while tears streamed down her face.

When a friend uncorked a bottle of champagne and moved to pour it over her head in celebration, Cynthia grabbed it and doused her bright yellow paddleboard instead — sharing her victory with the board that was her “partner” in the historic journey.

Cynthia became the first prone paddleboarder to complete a voyage across the Florida Straits -- and did it in just 29 hours, 12 minutes. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Cynthia became the first prone paddleboarder to complete a voyage across the Florida Straits -- and did it in just 29 hours and 12 minutes. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Everybody here kept me going to prove that anything is possible no matter what,” she said breathlessly as members of her support crew took turns enveloping her in jubilant embraces. “You’re knocked down, you get up, you keep fighting — you keep paddling no matter what.”

Strong and wiry, yet surprisingly small, Cynthia believes the phrase “keep paddling” also describes the best way to conquer life’s struggles — like the daily struggles of the Make-A-Wish Foundation kids she designed her crossing to benefit. It also inspired the name of the nonprofit she started.

And it certainly describes her unswerving determination to complete the Florida Straits crossing even after an initial attempt failed.

Cynthia first tried to paddle across the straits in September 2010. However, she encountered such strong currents and suffered so many Portuguese Man o’ War stings that she and her crew were forced to end the effort after 17 hours.

Cynthia's strength and determination kept her going even after a previous attempt to make the crossing was unsuccessful.  (Photo by Presley Adamson, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Cynthia's strength and determination kept her going even after a previous attempt to make the crossing was unsuccessful. (Photo by Presley Adamson, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“The greatest challenge for this attempt is letting go of the past, moving on and doing what I need to do at this moment, which is cross this body of water,” she said as she left Key West just before the 2011 crossing.

A seasoned endurance paddleboarder, she completed a 58-mile solo paddle in 2007 from Bimini to Dania Beach, Fla., in approximately 19.5 hours. And even after 2010’s unsuccessful Florida Straits attempt, she wasn’t about to give up on her dream.

“I know what went wrong last time, and not finishing last time made me even more determined. I’m meant to do it,” Cynthia said as she boarded the catamaran that carried her to a spot just outside Cuban waters, where she began the 2011 paddle. “That was a trial run the first time; this is the real run now.”

Cynthia's supporters welcome her with joy and open arms when she completed the crossing -- which benefits the Make-a-Wish Foundation. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Cynthia's supporters welcomed her with joy and open arms when she completed the crossing -- which benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

During the 2011 run, as she stroked her way across the straits on her board, she was trailed by the catamaran and a yacht carrying a support crew, supplies and a documentary film crew chronicling her incredible journey. Like her crossing, the documentary will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Southern Florida.

And when Cynthia finally completed her marathon paddle, landing on that Key West beach, her success sparked such shared joy that it practically shimmered visibly in the air.

With true grace of spirit, she credited her victory to her team, her well-wishers, and even the elements.

“This year the gods, the ocean {and} mother nature were on our side,” said Cynthia Aguilar — whose athletic feat, determination and generous heart make her one of the most inspiring visitors ever to arrive on Key West’s shores.

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Keys Reefs Provide Rehabilitation for Wounded Veterans and Families

Julie Botteri | July 2011

Life’s lessons present themselves unexpectedly, and this week mine came via the smiling face of a U.S. Army Special Operations Command soldier whose physical body was marred by war but whose positive outlook is as big as the ocean. His unflagging spirit reminded me what a great blessing family togetherness is.

Just seven months after he lost both legs and full use of his right arm following an attack in Afghanistan, Army Chief Warrant Officer Scott Schroeder was reintroduced to scuba diving with his wife and son who were learning to dive in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Scott, his wife Laura and teenage son Zach — all from Clarksville, Tenn. — were part of a trip coordinated by Task Force Dagger Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit organization. Established in 2009, the nonprofit provides opportunities for wounded warriors to become certified to scuba dive after sustaining life-altering injuries during military service.

“The Task Force Dagger Foundation is unique in that it allows the families to bond together by letting them participate in all the events,” Scott said. “A lot of foundations out there are very good at taking care of us wounded warriors, but not all of them include the family — and this one does.”

Scott, who’s 45 years old, sustained his injuries last December when his vehicle rolled over a hidden roadside bomb (which he described as 50 pounds of homemade explosives) in a rural province of Afghanistan.

cott Schroeder, a U.S. Army Special Operations Chief Warrant Officer severely wounded in Afghanistan, examines a brain coral while scuba diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key West. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Scott Schroeder, a U.S. Army Special Operations Chief Warrant Officer severely wounded in Afghanistan, examines a brain coral while scuba diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“When I was hurt, it wasn’t just me that was hurt,” he said. “It impacted the entire family.”

Before his injuries, Scott had contacted Task Force Dagger Foundation’s managing director Keith David, with whom he’d served in the early 90s, about donating his time and energy to the organization to help wounded comrades.

“I said I want to be a part of {the foundation} monetarily, with my time, with everything. I think about retiring, and this is one way for me to give back after a 24-year career,” Scott recalled.

He never thought he would be on the receiving end of the foundation’s mission.

“I originally thought I was going to be on the giving end,” he said. “I’m blessed that they were there to help me … help us recover together as a family.”

Keith David said Task Force Dagger Foundation’s family focus sets it apart from other organizations.

Scott Schroeder, center, scuba dives with his son Zachary, left, and wife Laura in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Scott Schroeder, center, scuba dives with his son Zachary, left, and wife Laura in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“We try to assist when there’s a need,” he said. “One of the things we try and do is help them heal as a family unit.”

This trip to the Florida Keys was a first for the Schroeder family.

Despite being scuba certified in the late 1980s, Scott had to take a refresher course — primarily to adapt his knowledge to his new capabilities. Special hi-tech prosthetic “swim legs” helped propel him through the water during his dive on a shallow reef with his wife and son.

“It was so cool, like you’re in an aquarium,” Laura Schroeder said of the reef fish, barracuda and conch they spotted on their first ocean dive. “I thought the Keys were all about margaritas and salt.”

Although the diving is rehabilitation for him, Scott said he gets to do things he wouldn’t normally do while stuck in a hospital — getting on and off boats, walking up and down the beach and the dock — activities that I, and probably most of us, take for granted.

“Any ‘first’ we get to do as a family is a big event, and to be out here and to be able to dive with them on their first time is just great,” Scott said with a beaming smile. “You can see their eyes light up inside their masks while they’re down there.”

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Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival Rocks!

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2011

According to divers at the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, held recently in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Elvis Presley never died. He simply took his act underwater.

Eel-vis Presley," portrayed by diver Eric Rolfe "strums on a colorful faux guitar during the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

"Eel-vis Presley," portrayed by diver Eric Rolfe, strums on a colorful faux guitar during the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (All photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Divers costumed as “Eel-vis,” “Bob Marlin,” “Joss Stone Crab” and other rock-and-rollers “performed” beneath the waves for an audience of more than 500 divers and snorkelers at the offbeat festival.

In addition to brightly-painted underwater guitars, their undersea jam session featured “fishy” instruments such as a “sax-eel-phone,” “clambourine,” “trombonefish,” and “wahoo kazoo” sculpted by talented Lower Keys artist August Powers.

Not only did participating divers and snorkelers enjoy watching the iconic “rockers” in action — they also had the opportunity to view the colorful marine life that inhabits the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, which parallels the Florida Keys.

“I’ve never had a snorkeling experience like this,” marveled first-time festival participant Gail Coad of Sarasota, Fla. “It’s just like a magic show with the different beautiful tropical fish.”

Samantha Langsdale, dressed as a mermaid, blows air through a "musical instrument" sculpted by Lower Keys artist August Powers.

Samantha Langsdale, dressed as a mermaid, blows air through a "musical instrument" sculpted by Lower Keys artist August Powers.

Staged by Keys radio station U.S. 1, the quirky Underwater Music Festival featured melodies broadcast into the undersea realm via speakers suspended beneath boats at the reef. It took place at Looe Key, a part of the marine sanctuary about six miles south of Big Pine Key.

“Sound underwater is incredible because you can sense it with your entire body,” advised festival director and founder Bill Becker of U.S. 1. “You can feel it coming through your head and your chest — it actually comes from all directions.”

The broadcast playlist included ocean–related tunes such as the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins,” and even familiar themes from the film “Jaws” and television’s wacky “Gilligan’s Island.”

FYI, it wasn’t just human participants who appeared to be rocking at the sub-sea songfest.

“The fish seemed to enjoy the music as much as I did,” said Gail Coad. “They almost were dancing in unison to the melody — and the music just kind of surrounds you.”

"Eel-vis" and his mermaid backup singer jam beneath the sea during the offbeat underwater songfest.

"Eel-vis" and his mermaid backup singer jam beneath the sea during the offbeat underwater songfest.

Veteran festival participant Samantha Langsdale, who wore a vivid green mermaid costume and jammed with “Eel-vis,” reported that she made some undersea “friends” during the festival.

“I believe the parrotfish family has accepted me,” Samantha confided after returning to the surface. “We have similar colors.”

As well as being a one-of-a-kind event for divers and snorkelers, the Underwater Music Festival included diver awareness messages promoting preservation of the Keys’ unique coral reef ecosystem.

“We have a lot of fun, we dress up in costumes, but there’s a serious side,” said Bill Becker. “Coral reef conservation is the message.”

To all the divers and snorkelers who take the festival’s lesson to heart, and pledge to protect the Keys’ underwater wonderland, “Eel-vis” might add his own message: “Thank you … thank you very much.”

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