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Keys Highlights

Dazzling ‘Drops’ and New Beginnings

Steve Smith | December 2013

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is rapidly drawing to a close. It has been quite a year here in Key West, as it has across the U.S. and throughout the world — which seems to be much smaller now that we get access to news almost as it happens.

Happy New Year from blog author Steve (right) and his husband Paul!

Gay marriage, a political football for many years, is gaining enthusiastic support across our nation. This past July I wrote about honeymooning in the Keys, mentioning 13 states that have legalized same-sex marriage. The number now stands at 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, and 16 countries recognizing same-gender marriage. The Key West Gay & Lesbian Visitor Center, located at 513 Truman Ave., has seen countless honeymooning couples come through its doors in the last couple of months.

Planning your wedding? If you missed my honeymoon tips this summer, one click on the Internet will open up my musings: “Eat, Drink … and Be Married,” “Keys HoneymoonsFrom Laid-Back to Luxurious” and “Honeymooning in Key West.” 

With convenient daily flights from Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and several other major cities, getting to the island couldn’t be easier.

"Pirate wench" Evalena will descend from a tall ship's mast to ring in 2014 at the Schooner Wharf Bar. (Photo courtesy of the Schooner Wharf)

"Pirate wench" Evalena will descend from a tall ship's mast to ring in 2014 at the Schooner Wharf Bar. (Photo courtesy of the Schooner Wharf)

The countdown to New Year’s Eve rings in on Key West with four unique takeoffs on New York City’s Times Square ball drop, each appealing to both locals and visitors.

At the Ocean Key Resort, the all-star cast of Key West Burlesque will have you laughing and loving every minute till the giant Key lime “drops” into an oversized margarita glass.

Around the corner at the Schooner Wharf Bar, live entertainment prevails as everyone’s favorite pirate wench, bar owner Evalena Worthington, is lowered from the mast of the tall ship America 2.0. On lower Duval Street, crowds gather at Sloppy Joe’s Bar awaiting the annual “dropping” of a massive manmade queen conch shell.

A bit further up Duval, you’ll find iconic drag queen Sushi preparing to “drop” while perched in a six-foot red stiletto heel. This 16th anniversary event began as a fun local celebration and has grown to be a globally televised “welcome to the new year,” featuring Sushi (a.k.a. Gary Marion) dressed in a dazzling handmade gown and ensconced in the shoe, presiding over events outside the Bourbon Street Pub/New Orleans House complex while thousands watch and cheer. 

The evening includes chiseled male dancers, performances by colorful drag queens, and an explosion of confetti and laser lights as we applaud the end of 2013 and Sushi’s “descent” in the shoe — broadcast live on CNN. Check with Bourbon Street to see if any VIP tickets are still available to experience the celebration from the balcony of the popular complex.

The dazzling Sushi stars in the New Year's Eve "drag queen drop" in Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As we begin the new year, Key West is also celebrating the new owner of the historic La Te Da. A guesthouse, restaurant, cabaret and piano bar — and the site of weekly tea dances and more fundraising events than I can count — La Te Da will now experience a renaissance spearheaded by owner Christopher Rounds. 

La Terraza de Marti, best known as La Te Da, has been a focal point for gay life in Key West since 1977 when the late Lawrence Formica brought mixed elegance and grand style to the property. New owner Christopher formerly owned and operated the island’s popular Antonia’s Restaurant, and we’re excited that he will be sprinkling his class, style, fairy dust and magic over this beloved property.

Therefore … I hope to see you at Sunday’s tea dance!

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The Saga of Santa Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Keys
smiling holiday revelers savored the breeze.
But in other locations, nobody was smiling
as they braved freezing temperatures far from the islands.

A trio of canine "kids" awaits the arrival of Santa Keys. (Photo by Mary Threlkeld)

While Keys visitors partied in warm outdoor bars,
toasting friends with mojitos sipped under the stars,
Christmas spirits had plans for the cold “refugees”
who were physically elsewhere but craving the Keys.

That’s why, out on the beach, there arose such a squawking
of unsettled seagulls in seagull talk talking
that drivers of cars cruising next to the ocean
couldn’t figure out what had caused all the commotion.

The moon on the shining white crescent of beach
made the shoreline of Cuba seem almost in reach
when what to the drivers’ amazement appeared
but a Santa in flip-flops and seaweed-decked beard.

The legendary Santa Keys drops in on a finned fan during his holiday journey. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Now, this Santa was wise and this Santa was bright
and he sure sympathized with the northerners’ plight.
In his past life, before heading south for the sun,
he too spent the winter months freezing his buns.

So he hijacked a sturdy old boat used for fishin’,
found some Key deer to pull it and started his mission.
Sailing skyward to surf on a tropical breeze,
he steered his ship north bringing gifts from the Keys.

As palm fronds before a wild summer storm fly
(when the shutters are closed and the water is high),
Santa Keys cruised the northern states with his Key deer
spreading visions of warm blue seas and island cheer.

Santa Keys chills out at The Mermaid & The Alligator inn after his strenuous holiday mission. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At each house where the residents longed for the tropics,
he left small Keys tokens stuffed deep in their stockings.
There were conch shells and flip-flops and Key lime tidbits,
Margarita mix too — and “Buffett’s Greatest Hits.”

There were fishing reels, dive logs and lotions for sun
Conch Republic flags, stickers that read “U.S. 1,”
tiny replicas of Key West’s Southernmost Point
and shrimp sauce from a funky old Keys seafood joint.

When he dropped the last gift at the last snow-topped house,
Santa Keys told his Key deer to steer a course south.
His farewell drifted back on a sweet balmy breeze:
“Merry Christmas to all — now come visit the Keys!”

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Island Nightlife: Revelry and Rhythms

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Key West nightlife means the rhythms of reggae, salsa and island rock spilling from the open doorways of clubs and saloons, the whirr of a blender as a bartender concocts a perfect frozen margarita, and the laughter and clink of glasses as new friends toast the evening’s promise.

Jimmy Buffett, whose music epitomizes the easygoing Key West lifestyle, gives a surprise performance at his Margaritaville Cafe. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Especially on lively Duval Street and in the waterfront Historic Seaport, the Key West scene really heats up once the sun goes down. You might sip a tall cool drink at an outdoor bar on Lower Duval, wander into a sultry jazz club or wine bar, or stop by a seaport tavern where regular patrons’ pooches enjoy their own “cocktails” — bowls of ice water.

So where do hearty partiers go? One popular spot is Rick’s/Durty Harry’s Entertainment Complex at 202 Duval St. Its eight venues include the Tree Bar featuring laid-back bartenders and premium spirits, a contemporary dance club dubbed Rick’s Upstairs, the upscale Rick’s Loft specializing in signature martinis, and the live rock hotspot known as Durty Harry’s.

Jimmy Buffett, the famed singer/songwriter/author who honed his creative chops in Key West, also operates a bar and restaurant on Duval Street. The island is credited with inspiring his hit song “Margaritaville” among others — and Jimmy’s Margaritaville Café, located at 500 Duval, offers tasty casual food, cocktails and great music by performers including his musical friends and band members (and occasionally JB himself).

So where did Bob go to celebrate his marathon achievement? Key West's legendary Sloppy Joe's, of course. (Photo courtesy of Sloppy Joe's Bar)

The legendary Sloppy Joe's, a Key West landmark for decades, stands at the corner of Duval and Greene streets. (Photo courtesy of Sloppy Joe's Bar)

Back in the day, Jimmy was a regular at the Chart Room at the Pier House Resort, 1 Duval St., a hideaway where Key West movers-and-shakers plotted and partied in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Venture inside today for what Chart Room bartenders still call “a sensible cocktail,” and you just might hear a hint of their long-ago laughter.

Many notable musicians and performing songwriters favor the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, 4 Charles St. The mostly open-air establishment features quality bands that showcase a wide range of musical stylings. The Tuna is also headquarters for the nationally acclaimed Key West Songwriters’ Festival, which brings more than 100 chart-topping songwriters to the island each May.

While Jimmy Buffett and other songwriter-musicians draw music fans to Key West spots, another favorite son left a different kind of legacy at two local bars.

The late Captain Tony's renegade spirit is captured here in this portrait by Keys photographer Rob O'Neal.

Legendary writer Ernest Hemingway spent most of the 1930s on the island, penning fiction that changed the face of American literature — and hanging out with friends like saloonkeeper Joe “Josie” Russell at his Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

Josie’s bar was located at 428 Greene St. until a rent dispute caused him to move it around the corner to 201 Duval St., where it’s now an internationally known watering hole. Each July, Sloppy Joe’s hosts the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest — and visitors flock to the place year-round for its live entertainment, ample drinks and Hemingway heritage.

Josie’s original Sloppy Joe’s is now called Captain Tony’s Saloon after another colorful former owner. The late Captain Tony Tarracino was a gambler, gunrunner, charterboat captain and Key West’s one-time mayor. Bar patrons enjoy live music and cold libations surrounded by offbeat memorabilia.

A few blocks away at 601 Whitehead St. stands the ramshackle Green Parrot Bar, which dates back to 1890. It’s characterized by easygoing bartenders and eccentric atmosphere (including signs reading “Sorry, We’re Open” and “No Snivelling”). The self-proclaimed home of great drinks and bad art, the Parrot also offers jazz-, funk- and blues-infused entertainment.

Santa skippers a U.S. Coast Guard cutter during a holiday boat parade presented by the Schooner Wharf Bar.

Another hub of Key West’s lively nightlife is the Schooner Wharf Bar, located in the Historic Seaport at 202 William St. The bar began its life on an actual schooner, but later moved ashore to its open-air waterfront setting.

Owner Evalena Worthington and her welcoming staff have made the Schooner a locals’ favorite known for its live music, funky charm and events like an annual holiday boat parade and a wacky “minimal regatta.”

In fact, whether you’re seeking seaport shenanigans, island rhythms or the chance to attempt the “Duval Crawl” of main-street establishments, Key West has what you’re looking for. So come on down and enjoy our nightlife for yourself!

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Festivities, Fausto’s, and Farewell to a Friend

Steve Smith | November 2013

During the Thanksgiving holiday period in Key West, we’re enjoying sunny, breezy temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s.I will be joining my friends and our visitors riding bicycles around Old Town enjoying the island’s Thanksgiving festivities and other events.

This quintet is the talent behind the black comedy "Cock," presented by the Key West Fringe Theater. (Photo courtesy of Key West Fringe)

For example, opening next week at The Studios of Key West is the New York Critics Choice Award-winning play “Cock.”

Described as a “brilliant and blackly hilarious look at love, betrayal, and our desire to control that which we love,” this tour de force is staged by the Key West Fringe Theater and stars a top-notch group of local actors.

The setting at the popular Studios is an intimate space to experience theater, and I encourage you to see the production there during its run.

Across town at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (we call it Fort Elizabeth Taylor), from Dec. 6-8 you’ll find yourself in a “British stronghold” defending the shores against an invasion of pirates.

Key West City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley welcomes shoppers at Fausto's Food Palace. (Photo courtesy of Fausto's)

Step back in time to the buccaneers’ heyday with a living history demonstration, live battles, pirate encampments and more. If you happen to have your own pirate outfit, don it and join the festivities! Admission is free, but the Friends of Fort Taylor will happily accept donations of a few pieces of eight or some gold doubloons.

Key West has always been a haven for writers and artists, actors, and songsters.If you have visited here before, I’m sure you’ve met locals and now have your favorite bartender, waiter, taxi driver or cashier at our local grocery store and social center, Fausto’s Food Palace.

An individualistic and beloved emporium, for over 85 years Fausto’s has offered a unique variety of gourmet and organic foods, meats and cheeses. 

The late Ferron Bell, pictured here in characteristic headgear, was a talented member of Key West's lively arts community.

You’ll even find Key West City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, whose family owns the store, behind the meat counter! Be sure to greet him and check out the store’s specials — and while there, you’re likely to meet some of the colorful characters that make up the fabric of the island. 

On Saturdays at Fausto’s, you might spot tables with homemade baked goods or raffle tickets benefiting one of our schools or local arts undertakings.

Nineteen years ago, I was sitting at a table in front of the store selling tickets to an event when a guy wearing a top hat made of woven palm fronds parked his bicycle and greeted me. I took one look at this person with acrylic paint splattered on his shirt and shorts and wondered what had just stepped into my world.

That began my friendship with Key West artist Ferron Bell, who offered one of his small paintings to be raffled at the event I was promoting. Generous to a fault, Ferron donated his art to almost every nonprofit organization here as well as in Fire Island.

Ferron's unique images include the whimsical "Tea Dance at Tea Table Relief."

His special art made its way into many island hearts and homes. My home is filled with his whimsical interpretations, including “Wisk Clouds” and “Tea Dance at Tea Table Relief,” complete with pink ribbons streaming from the mangrove branches.

On November 25, after a brief illness, Ferron transitioned to another place where I’m certain he’s sharing his special talent of mixing colors and wit with flora and fauna. The Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society reported, “His personality was as eclectic as his art. He put his unique stamp on anything from canvas to driftwood.” Rest comfortably, my friend, until we meet again. 

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Yum … Four January Food Fests on the Keys’ Menu

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2013

It’s easy to find good reasons to spend January in the Florida Keys. For one thing, the weather in much of North America is dreary and freezing, while the Keys generally boast 70-something temperatures and near-constant sunshine. But these days, it’s not just warm-weather fans that flock to the island chain in January — it’s foodies too.

Stone crab claws are among the fabulous local seafood on the menu at the Keys' January food festivals. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In January 2014, for example, food and wine enthusiasts can sample the island chain’s culinary delights at four exuberant celebrations of cuisine and spirits.

Their events blend subtropical sun, flavorful offerings and superior vintages — showcasing local chefs’ creativity, indigenous ingredients like unparalleled fresh fish and seafood, and premium wines. Plus, they offer insights into the Keys’ rich heritage and culture.

The calendar of cuisine begins with Uncorked: the Key Largo and Islamorada Food and Wine Festival set for Jan. 9-18. The 10-day food, wine and spirits celebration features 30-plus savory events to please virtually every palate, spread over several Upper Keys venues with fresh, locally-sourced seafood and international-style dishes.

Highlights include a “second helping” of the Keys’ version of the TV cooking show “Chopped,” a Beer and Bites craft beer event, a tasty performance by Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton combining Cajun music and gumbo (!), a Bubbles on the Beach salute to champagne and Jan. 18’s Grand Tasting Finale at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina at Holiday Isle.

The ninth annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival is next on the “menu,” presented Jan. 18-19 in Key West’s Bayview Park by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. The family-friendly feast stars the fresh local seafood that has “anchored” Keys cuisine for nearly two centuries.

What's the true origin of Key lime pie? Find out at the Key West Food and Wine Festival.

Offerings typically include grilled Florida lobster, fried fish, stone crab claws, smoked fish dip, Key West pink shrimp and more — all caught, cooked and served by Keys commercial fishermen and their families. Attendees will also find traditional favorites like conch chowder, conch salad, sweet flan and Key lime tarts. Nonstop entertainment and booths featuring art, crafts and other items round out the weekend’s attractions.  

Fans of fine food and equally fine vintages can indulge their appetites at the fifth annual Key West Food and Wine Festival. Scheduled Jan. 22-26, the extravaganza spotlights the southernmost island’s lively culinary scene, regional ingredients and fabulous flavors through gourmet galas and tastings, food and wine seminars and food-focused experiences.  

Highlights include Duval Uncorked, a stroll down Key West’s famed Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean with forays into restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. Among other planned standouts are a barefoot evening beach party, seminars on topics ranging from Key West rum to the origins of Key lime pie, a Master Chef’s Classic tasting and competition, an outdoor wine market, an afternoon of coconut bowling (honest!) and a “Save the Turtles” open-air grand tasting in the island city’s Historic Seaport.

Key Largo stages an entire festival devoted to superlative Keys stone crabs. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

January ends with a celebration of one of the Keys’ favorite edible delights: luscious stone crab claws. The Key Largo Stone Crab & Seafood Festival is set for Jan. 25-26 featuring fresh local seafood, live musical entertainment, cooking demonstrations, contests and kids’ activities. Sponsored by the Key Largo Fisheries and Key Largo Merchants Association, the fifth annual family-fun event takes place at Rowell’s Marina.

Expect to find seafood booths serving up succulent stone crab claws, homemade smoked fish dip, conch fritters, chowders, tuna nachos, lobster and more. In addition, attendees can visit cooking tents for tips on how to devise and devour favorite Keys dishes. Other attractions include arts and crafts booths, fireworks, shrimp-eating and Key lime pie-eating contests, a car show and even piratical escapades for kids.

Looking for more reasons to spend January (or any other time period) in the Florida Keys? Click here for a full calendar of events — and then make reservations! 

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Pre-Holiday Happenings, Music and More Enliven Key West

Steve Smith | November 2013

So much is happening in Key West these days that it’s not easy to decide what to see and do. Theatre, workshops, concerts, and art programs are bringing excitement and enrichment to the beginning of our winter season.

The cast of "And The Winner Is!" poses with a larger-than-life "Oscar" while rehearsing for the Waterfront Playhouse's season opener. (Photo courtesy of the Waterfront Playhouse)

For example, The Studios of Key West (also known as TSKW) is offering a one-day workshop highlighting contemplative practice for writers. On Nov. 18, artist-in-residence Juanita Rockwell will guide participants in simple practices that help writers clear away layers of tension and reconnect with their natural creativity.

Then, from Nov. 21 through Dec. 14, TSKW hosts a fundraiser titled “Conch A Doodle” with 50 local artists (FYI, Key West residents are known as “conchs”) designing and embellishing roosters that will be raffled or auctioned. The effort raises money to continue TSKW’s vision of bringing world-class artists to the island, connecting them with locals and visitors through workshops, exhibitions, performances, and an artist-in-residence program.

Also on Nov. 21, the Tennessee Williams Theatre showcases country music singer-songwriter Clint Black, who will perform songs from his award-winning singles and albums. Look for Clint to entertain with his voice, guitar, drums and harmonica. The theatre is located on the campus of Florida Keys Community College, just a brief 10-minute trip from downtown Key West.  

And let’s not forget the island’s theater companies. The Waterfront Playhouse starts its season Nov. 22 and 23 with two evenings of “And The Winner Is!”, a concert of Oscar-winning songs. Talented local singers will perform tunes including the unforgettable “The Way We Were,” “Moon River,” “Last Dance” and recent winner “Skyfall.” 

At the Key West Bight, seafaring heritage and holiday spirit blend into displays like this lobster trap Christmas tree. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

I recommend getting tickets for the Nov. 22 performance, which features a special opening-night party catered by local Small Chef at Large Jennifer Cornell, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute — plus cocktails and champagne at intermission. To add to the fun, opening-night attire is “Key West formal” … the kind of attire you might wear to the Oscars. 

Nov. 27 heralds the start of the island’s “Bight Before Christmas” to ring in the holiday season. This year, the Bight festivities and other holiday events are combined into the inaugural Key West Holiday Fest, which continues until New Year’s Eve. The gala schedule includes historic inn tours, the Harbor Walk of Lights, and a lighted boat parade. 

The inn tours are held Dec. 6 and 13 and feature a variety of popular bed-and-breakfast inns, all lighted and decorated for the holidays. Meander (or take a trolley) from inn to inn, where you can explore the historic properties while sampling hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

Presented by our local Innkeepers Association, the tours offer an inside look at the inns that have helped make Key West so famous. You’ll meet the owners and staff, mingle with inn guests — and there’s a good chance you’ll see me taking tickets at one of the properties.

"Blog dog" Giulio hops on a handy scooter, hoping to participate in Key West's holiday parade.

Our little island even has a rather festive hometown holiday parade set for Saturday, Dec. 7. Yes, Virginia, you’ll spot Santa Claus — accompanied by marching bands, decorated floats, lighted tour trains and trolleys, elves, a Grinch or two, and even drag queens.

The parade starts beside Key West’s Bayview Park and travels down Truman Avenue, turning onto Duval Street. Bring a bag to collect goodies, since participants throw tons of holiday sweets to the crowds lining the streets.

More next time … but until then, I’ll be digging out the tinsel and preparing to deck my halls.

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

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Keys Reefs: Underwater Wonderland

Julie Botteri | October 2013

Affectionately referred to as the islands you can drive to, the Florida Keys boast an unparelleled variety of marine life, a huge number of fish species, and waters that are consistently warm and clear.

Snorkelers explore the undersea realm off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Equally important, running alongside the Keys is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States — which is also the third largest barrier reef in the world. It’s no wonder this crescent of islands has a reputation as one of the world’s most popular dive destinations.

On top of that, for more than a generation, conservation efforts have been focused on maintaining the Keys’ offshore environment.

Those efforts actually began in 1960, when widespread public support laid the foundation for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo. It was the first undersea park in the United States, and divers and snorkelers can thank the late Miami Herald editor John Pennekamp for helping create it.

The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 with an event highlighting its history and mission of protecting and preserving the natural resources within its boundaries — and it offers visitors numerous opportunities to observe remarkable underwater wildlife.

The indigenous population at Pennekamp is composed of countless species of fish and varieties of coral. The coral provides shelter for crabs, sea urchins, snails, lobsters, shrimp, moray eels, worms, chitons (mollusks), starfish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, barnacles and sponges.

Several species of fish, such as this French Angelfish, are protected within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

The undersea park’s waters flow into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was established in 1990 as a marine preserve. Today the sanctuary includes an amazing 2,900 square nautical miles of coastal waters all along the Keys — from northernmost Key Largo south to the pristine uninhabited islands of the Dry Tortugas.

Not only does this area surround the entire land mass of the Keys, it also includes vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Within its boundaries lie mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks filled with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life.

Divers and snorkelers from all over the world are drawn to the Keys to view the extraordinary reef ecosystem within the sanctuary.

Marine conservation efforts include the establishment of Sanctuary Preservation Areas. In these no-take zones, fish and crustacean populations can thrive and grow, fully protected from spear or surface fishing and shell collecting — making for spectacular underwater scenery among schooling fish.

The bronze Christ of the Deep is an iconic underwater landmark off Key Largo. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

What can divers spot there? Iconic blue-striped grunts are typically seen in large numbers around protective elkhorn and high-profile coral heads. Other Keys critters on hand might include glass minnows, goatfish, gray snappers, Atlantic spadefish, horse eye jacks, copper sweepers, Bermuda chubs and sergeant majors.

French and small-mouth grunts are nearly as plentiful, and yellowtail snapper (a favorite of local anglers AND diners) cruise the reef in astonishing numbers.

But that not allby any means! It’s not unusual for divers and snorkelers to spot sea turtles, stingrays, Goliath groupers, nurse sharks or even bright green moral eels on a single bountiful trip to the reef.

The Florida Keys have a long tradition of preservation and reverence for marine life. With divers and snorkelers who are educated in reef responsibility, everyone benefits — and the coral reef can remain an unparalleled environmental treasure for generations to come.

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Flamingos ‘Migrate’ South to Key West’s Butterfly Conservatory

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2013

When Sam Trophia was nine years old, he observed a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a Monarch butterfly. By age 15, he was studying and raising Monarchs — and not long afterward, he helped gather groundbreaking data on Monarch migration.

Sam Trophia's lifelong fascination with butterflies inspires him to create stellar butterfly artwork.

These efforts sparked Sam’s enduring fascination with the fragile creatures sometimes called “flowers of the sky” — a fascination that inspired his satisfying career as an artist.

Ten years ago, in 2003, Sam and his business and life partner George Fernandez debuted a wonderland that shares the world of butterflies with the public: the 13,000-square- foot Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory at 1316 Duval St.

Centered around a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed butterfly habitat, the conservatory is one of three major butterfly facilities in Florida and just 23 in the entire United States. It houses several hundred butterflies from 50 to 60 species, plus a lively population of tiny birds, in a breathtaking tropical garden that calls to mind a perfect, unspoiled rainforest.

When you enter the conservatory, you’ll first explore educational displays that offer insights into aspects of the butterfly’s life — identification and country of origin, anatomy and physiology, and the awe-inspiring annual migration of the Monarchs.

The magnificent Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory houses hundreds of living butterflies and scores of tiny birds in a lush rainforest-like setting.

But you’ll really feel the magic when you step into the butterfly habitat itself. There you can stroll among hundreds of delicate winged creatures, ranging from the glittering Blue Morpho to the vivid Emerald Swallowtail, as they soar and dip and dance between more than 3,500 tropical plants and trees.

It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re following their mesmerizing flight — and if you’re lucky, one of the colorful “flowers” might flutter to rest briefly on your arm or shoulder.

But that’s not all. In one corner of the habitat, you can watch butterflies actually being born — getting a rare glimpse of the hatching process through the wide windows of the “miracle of metamorphosis” observatory.

Actually, the “hatching” of the center was as intricate and wonderful as that of a butterfly. Sam and George spent five years planning it, took research trips to 13 butterfly facilities throughout the world, and invested more than $5 million into making it as perfect as possible. 

Two beautiful pink flamingos are the conservatory's newest residents -- and visitors can enter a contest to choose their names! (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Recently, some other unique creatures joined the butterflies in the world-class habitat: two pink flamingos.

A male and a female, the lovely pale-pink birds were bred in Toronto. Coincidentally, since the species is often associated with love and romance, the prized wading birds were born on Valentine’s Day 2012.

They “migrated” to Key West after their breeder worked closely with Sam and George to ensure that the flamingos would acclimate to their new home.

And acclimate they did. Visitors to the conservatory can watch them in their private pond as they “dance” — gently moving their feet to stir up food in the water — and enjoy their days in the rainforest-like habitat far from Canada’s much chillier climate.

The only thing these lucky birds don’t have is names. In fact, a public contest to name the two flamingos launched Oct. 12. Name “ballots” can be submitted either in person at the conservatory or on its Facebook page, and the winning names will be announced at the end of November 2013.

Occasionally a butterfly will land briefly on the shoulder, arm or even head of a lucky conservatory visitor. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As well as flamingos and butterflies, the conservatory also houses a stunning collection of Sam Trophia’s butterfly artwork. He has spent more than 25 years preserving the beauty of the fragile creatures he loves in original artwork.

Whether you’re interested in viewing that extraordinary art, learning about and walking among butterflies or naming the flamingos, put the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory on the must-see list for your next trip to Key West.

For more details about this rare and fascinating place, click here or visit the Facebook page. You’ll be SO glad you did!

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Super Heroes and Villains are Ready for Fantasy Fest

Steve Smith | October 2013

Fantasy Fest is here and, in accordance with the festival’s 2013 theme of “Super Heroes, Villains… & Beyond,” Key West is fast becoming an enclave of action heroes and evildoers.  And seemingly everyone is talking about who will be the festival’s new King and Queen, who plans to dress for excess in the costume competitions, and what’s on tap for the many other events. 

Dressing for excess is one of the joys of Key West's outrageous annual Fantasy Fest celebration. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In my previous blog, I wrote about the festival’s royal coronation, Goombay street party, Headdress Ball and Pet Masquerade. These fabulous events are enough to fill your photo album, but they’re just the beginning.

On Thursday, Oct. 24, design a toga and head to Sloppy Joe’s for the 30th annual Toga Party and Contest. Entrants will compete in categories for men, ladies and couples or groups — and hundreds of toga-clad revelers will mingle in the street as they socialize and watch the competition. (If you’re not “toga creative,” Sloppy’s retail store sells white toga sheets for $10, with all the proceeds going to the Florida Keys’ AIDS Help.)

Friday you can’t miss the mile-long street fair on legendary Duval Street. Grab one of your costumes and stroll through block after block of arts, crafts, foods, libations, and vendors of festival finery.

My favorite event is the Masquerade March held that same day, attracting flamboyantly costumed characters who promenade through the streets of Old Town Key West. The crowd gathers next to island’s cemetery gates on Frances Street and follows two routes — one heading toward the Atlantic Ocean and one toward the Gulf of Mexico. 

Who's that costumed character in the center of the Masquerade Marchers pictured here? Blog author Steve Smith!

The all-welcome march is free to enter, steps off at 5 p.m., and winds up with some 2,500 singing, dancing, and hooting party-goers converging on the Duval Street area.

Over the years I’ve seen marchers dressed as “Deal or No Deal” sequined drag queens, political notables, the cast of Sordid Lives (I was Juanita), Heidi Fleiss and her bevy of beauties (of course in drag) and other ensembles that gave the word “outrageous” a whole new meaning. This year, look for a couple of outrageous Playboy Bunnies — one of them will be me! 

The following day (Saturday, Oct. 26) stop by the Tropic Cinema and meet Diana Nyad as she introduces the documentary chronicling her recent historic swim from Cuba to Key West. Diana came out of retirement to challenge the Atlantic Ocean and follow her dream of accomplishing the more than 100-mile swim between two countries — and Fantasy Fest is honoring her achievement by naming her the grand marshal of the festival’s highlight event.

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, making the victory sign after completing her super-heroic swim from Cuba to Key West, will lead the festival's grand parade. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

She will lead the annual Captain Morgan Fantasy Fest Parade, stepping off at 7 p.m. and winding along Whitehead, Front and Duval streets. Join more than 60,000 spectators lining the streets and cheering the seemingly endless procession of glittering large-scale floats, bands, and lavishly costumed dancing groups.

What do we do next? Attend the “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings” Sunday Tea Dance at the historic gay La Te Da, of course! Step onto the dance floor at 4 p.m. and dance to the sounds of our beloved local DJ, Rude Girl. The tea dance is a wonderful gathering where attendees mingle with Key West locals and visitors from all corners of the world. 

That event concludes another year of the island’s amazing Fantasy Fest. Started in 1979 by local gay couples Frank Romano and Joe Liszka, and Tony Falcone and Bill Conkle, this tradition has grown from a tiny celebration into a world-renowned spectacle. 

Trust me, whether you’re a hero or villain, it takes superhuman stamina to frolic through the entire festival. When the music stops, this blogger will be home with his hubby and the blog dog! Until then, however … hope to see you in Key West for all the fun.

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Fantasy Fest: Extra Pasty Glue and Other Survival Tips

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2013

Last October in Key West, I spotted a dog impersonating an iguana. A man garbed like King Tut strolling down the street with a mermaid dressed mostly in sequins and body paint. Five slightly intoxicated guys in pink tutus and bushy beards. Two bewildered goldfish (you might ask how a goldfish can look bewildered, but these did!) swimming atop a pseudo coral reef made out of reef-printed shower curtains. And so much more that it defies description.

Superheroes and mythical figures like "Atlas," portrayed here by Daniel Bitnar, are expected for Fantasy Fest 2013. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

You guessed it … it was Fantasy Fest.

I have a strong affection for Fantasy Fest. It’s an extravagant display of Key West’s creativity, individuality and flamboyant spirit — where people of all ages, shapes and levels of attractiveness can “play dress up” and feel great doing it.

The exotic 10-day festival is internationally recognized for its elaborate costume competitions, street fairs, masquerade balls and lavish grand parade. There’s even a costume contest for pets (where I saw those bewildered goldfish). 

Each year, a different theme provides inspiration for costumes and floats. Fantasy Fest 2013 takes place Oct. 18-27, themed “Super Heroes, Villains… & Beyond” (and believe me, “beyond” can mean just about ANYTHING).

The festival highlight is the Captain Morgan Fantasy Fest Parade, this year set for Saturday, Oct. 26, through Key West’s historic downtown. Glitzy, glamorous and unabashedly excessive, the parade features brilliant floats whose riders toss beads to the near-hysterical crowds.

Floats are interspersed with Caribbean-style bands, dancing groups in vivid robes and headdresses, and assorted characters whose dress (or undress, since some wear primarily body paint) can elicit gasps of awe from spectators lining the streets.

The Fantasy Fest parade delights spectators each year with ever-more outrageous floats and lavishly costumed marching groups.

Two of the most unforgettable parade spectators I ever met were Jim and Judy Thorson from Omaha. Both in their 60s, they wore matching fish-printed sarong skirts and bright green sequined headdresses, their torsos adorned only with aquatic-inspired body art.

“I lost my pasties — I didn’t have adequate pasty glue,” confessed Jim Thorson, who was then a professor at the University of Nebraska. “When you prepare for Fantasy Fest, you should bring one more bottle of glue than you need.” 

Of course, not everyone will face a pasty malfunction during the festivities — but everyone is likely to benefit from a few tips for maximizing enjoyment and minimizing any downside.

For example, make your festival fun memorable. Fantasy Fest should be an experience that you savor while it’s happening and relive in your memory for years afterward. But because that can’t happen if you overindulge, don’t overdo the alcoholic libations.

On a related note, you MUST pace yourself. This year’s schedule includes several dozen escapades. It’s physically impossible to participate in all of them, even for superheroes, so pick and choose. (Frequent naps help, too.)

Think outside the (costume) box. One of the joys of Fantasy Fest is donning a standout costume and strutting like a megastar at every party. Since the 2013 theme is likely to inspire a battalion of Batmen and other comic-book heroes and villains, don’t join the pack.

These "ladies" look ready to indulge a fantasy or two during Key West's wild and wonderful Masquerade March.

Plan your masks and costumes to salute mythical gods and demons, filmdom’s classic good guys and gangsters, wizards and Death Eaters from Harry Potter lore, or whatever else your imagination can conjure up.   

No matter what you wear, don’t miss the fabulous 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, accompanied by impromptu bands, meander through the island’s historic district — stopping at designated B&Bs for nibbles and cocktails.

The most colorful participants in previous years have included a flock of feathered “wild things,” four guys in matching Wonder Woman costumes, two polka-dotted walking octopuses and a group of “crab people” who wore little more than oversized orange “claws.”

Whether the costume you choose is claw-based or clawless, don’t be clueless when you arrive in Key West to party. Click here for a VIP Fantasy Fest preview (and don’t forget to bring extra pasty glue!).

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