Keys Highlights

Life’s a Beach — at Top-Rated Bahia Honda

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

Want to chill out on one of America’s best beaches? Then head for the Florida Keys. That might sound a little incongruous, since the island chain is better known for its gorgeous living coral barrier reef — the third largest in the world — than its beaches. But nevertheless, the Keys boast some pretty special beaches.

Beautiful Bahia Honda State Park features one of the top-rated beaches in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The beach area at beautiful Bahia Honda State Park is rated among the best in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And one of them, located at Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys, has just been named among the United States’ top 25 beaches for 2014 by TripAdvisor.

That’s quite impressive, since Trip Advisor is acclaimed as the world’s largest travel website. Bahia Honda’s beach kudo was announced as part of TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Beaches Award winners — with rankings based on the quality and quantity of TripAdvisor traveler reviews and ratings for beaches over a 12-month period.

Listed at number 17, Bahia Honda’s lovely (and I do mean lovely) expanse of sand is part of a 524-acre state park on Bahia Honda Key between mile markers 36 and 37. That’s just a little bit north of Big Pine Key, and not far from Looe Key Reef, an amazing snorkeling spot and home to the annual Underwater Music Festival.

In the Lower Keys, you can head for a refreshing spot like the inviting beach at Bahia Honda State Park. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach invites sunning, swimming and snorkeling in the clear near-shore waters. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach features deep near-shore waters for unmatched swimming and snorkeling — and the park is also well known for its camping and picnicking facilities, watersports, nature trails, the Sand and Sea Nature Center, a marina and rental cabins.

By the way, the TripAdvisor honor is far from the first for Bahia Honda’s wonderful beach area. In 1992, it was ranked among America’s top 10 beaches by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman  (best known as “Dr. Beach”), and since then it’s been named among the country’s top 10 in several travel studies. 

But Bahia Honda also has another enticing attraction to offer. Several times each year, visitors to the park are seemingly transported a century into the past — during historic re-enactments that recall the astonishing creation and heyday of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad.

Park visitors take a trip through time from 1912, on the Over-Sea Railroad’s inaugural journey — when it made world history by connecting the Keys with each other and the mainland for the first time — through 1938 when the Florida Keys Overseas Highway replaced the track.

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

Construction on the rail line, which was conceived by visionary Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler, started in 1905. It was officially called the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, but it became known as the Over-Sea Railroad because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water.

Its bridges and viaducts connecting the Keys, including a nearly 7-mile-long bridge at Marathon in the Middle Keys, were regarded as an engineering marvel in their time — and in fact, it became widely acclaimed as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Bahia Honda State Park’s historic re-enactment is presented on a stage decorated like Flagler’s private train car. And it’s supremely fitting that a portion of one of the original railroad bridges, now a scenic walking path, arches against the sky behind the stage.

Characters that appear in the performance include Henry Flagler’s third wife Mary Lily Kenan, literary legend Ernest Hemingway (who lived in Key West throughout the 1930s), Flagler’s brother-in-law Will Kenan and Flagler himself.

This historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Part of a historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The re-enactment shows are one of many first-person interpretation programs presented by the park’s rangers — and believe me, the “actors” are excellent in their roles.

Unfortunately, these well-crafted shows don’t take place every month (or oftener!). But even without the shows, visitors to the park certainly won’t lack things to do — including sunning, swimming or snorkeling at one of America’s best beaches.

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‘Conch Honker’ Earns Victory and Honors His Dad

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

For Michael Cox, it was all about his dad. Nearly 30 years ago Michael’s father, James “Whistle” Cox, took first place in Key West’s annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest — a beloved annual event nicknamed the “Conch Honk.”

Michael Cox blows his late father's conch shell win Key West's Conch Shell Blowing Contest. (All photos by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Michael Cox used his late father’s conch shell to win Key West’s Conch Shell Blowing Contest. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And though Michael lives in Colorado, quite a distance from Key West, he was determined to enter the 2014 contest and follow in his father’s footsteps.

“In 1986 my father was about the same age that I am today, so it was on my bucket list to come to Key West and do my duty and reclaim the family trophy,” Michael said.

On March 1, he did just that — winning the contest while playing the same shell his father had used to win in 1986.

This is not just any run-of-the-mill challenge. Now in its 52nd year, the quirky event draws dozens of contestants each year who are eager to share in a Key West tradition: testing their “pucker power” by trying to make music using the fluted, pink-lined conch shell.

Since the conch shell is not easy to play, some entrants only manage weird splutters or hoots — though some with hardy lungs can produce amazingly long, vigorous blasts.

Three-year-old Frank Umlauf was the youngest entrant in the 2014 contest.

Three-year-old Frank Umlauf was the youngest entrant in the 2014 contest.

Michael, however, refused to settle for a halfhearted attempt. He won the men’s division title by blowing a melodic two-toned blast that lasted about 30 seconds on his father’s shell — followed by part of the 1935 George Gershwin classic “Summertime” on a smaller shell.

“I realized that, to win this competition, I was going to need to learn how to play a song. So I practiced every night in my basement,” said Michael, who admitted that he spent two years preparing for the contest.

His father gave him a trumpet when he was a kid, and he learned how to buzz his lips and play it. Later he learned a technique called “circular breathing” — but despite those skills, Michael believes the shell itself contributed to his success.

“This was my father’s shell, so I knew that was going to give me a leg up,” he explained after his victory. “It’s already won one competition, and now I’m so happy it’s won another.”

Clinton Curry, the contest's 2008 winner, performed the amazing feat of tootling two shells simultaneously.

Clinton Curry won a previous contest by tootling two shells simultaneously.

Conch shell blowing, by the way, has been practiced in the Florida Keys for generations. Early settlers blew blasts to signal that a sinking ship had been spotted offshore, and native-born islanders are commonly called Conchs. The shell of the sturdy sea mollusk is a symbol of the island chain, which is also known as the Conch Republic.

The 2014 Conch Shell Blowing Contest attracted hopeful conch “honkers” ranging from toddlers to people in their late 70s. The youngest was three-year-old Frank Umlauf, whose family was taking a subtropical break from Brooklyn and heard about the competition. Though he had never “honked a conch” before, Frank issued a praiseworthy blast while watched by his proud mom Cindy, dad Taylor and little brother Leo.

A panel of dedicated judges gave each entrant the serious consideration he or she deserved (okay, maybe the consideration wasn’t exactly serious).

The Boca Chica Conchestra amazed spectators with a wacky takeoff on the Village People's "Y.M.C.A."

The Boca Chica Conchestra amazed spectators with a wacky takeoff on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

Contestants were judged on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they made. 

Some sounds were novel indeed, but two intrepid entrants managed to warble recognizable excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Trust me, that’s tough to play on ANY instrument — let alone a conch shell.

FYI, it’s not just individuals who can enter. Among the highlights of the 2014 contest was a hilarious performance by the Boca Chica Conchestra. Composed of more than two dozen people, the offbeat ensemble presented a wacky conch-shell-and-dance takeoff on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” — complete with costumes and letter-forming arm gestures.

It was (wait for it!) a total hoot.

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David Sloan: Key Lime Pie and the ‘Spirit’ of Success

Briana Ciraulo | February 2014

“I first visited Key West in college, and even though I spent most of the night sobering up in a jail cell, I loved it,” David Sloan quipped.

David Sloan's lighthearted attitude, wit and can-do spirit have made him a popular Key West figure. (All photos by Rob O'Neal)

David Sloan’s lighthearted attitude, wit and can-do approach have made him a popular Key West figure. (All photos by Rob O’Neal)

That may or may not be strictly true — but it IS true that, during that first fateful visit, he never imagined that a few years later he would start businesses, write and publish books, and make record-breaking Key lime pies on the very same island.

After studying hospitality at Florida International University, David worked in just about all areas of the hotel industry before switching to Premier Cruise Lines.  

His lighthearted, can-do manner helped him earn significant success — but the corporate world just didn’t feel like a good fit. It wasn’t until he took a ghost tour in Scotland, however, that all the pieces fell into place and David found his path.

“I took the tour and was fascinated by it,” he reported. “I got back to the U.S., quit my job and moved to Key West.”

After a few months, endless nights of research and some help from historian Tom Hambright of the Key West Public Library, David unveiled Ghost Tours of Key West — one of the first tours of its kind in the United States. He also released his first book, “Ghosts of Key West.”

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

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

Almost immediately the ghost tour and supernatural culture became all the rage, gaining massive popularity with visitors and locals alike.

There’s a lot more to David, though, than an interest the supernatural. He mixes his lively personality and wit with his love for Key West in Phantom Press, a publishing company he co-founded with his friend Christopher Schultz.

The team has released 10 quirky hits including the collaborative “Quit Your Job and Move to Key West” and a volume David penned and dubbed “The Key West Bucket List.”

Their most recent offering is David’s “Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” featuring recipes for 20 crusts, 20 fillings, 20 sauces and 20 toppings — which he swears can be mixed and matched to create more than 150,000 varieties of Key lime pie.

David’s connection with Key lime pie, the Florida Keys’ signature dessert, didn’t end with the cookbook. When he stumbled upon reports of a Key Lime Festival that took place in Key Largo in the 1950s, he was intrigued.

David Sloan and his team (which didn't include the bird!) constructed a world-record-breaking Key lime pie in Key West July 4.

David and his feathered cohort check out a Key lime creation.

“I just thought to myself, Key limes are such an important part of our culture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it back?” he said.

With characteristic enthusiasm, he and fellow creative spirit Marky Pierson staged the reborn Key Lime Festival in Key West in July 2013. Events included a “Miss Key Lime” pageant, a Key lime pie-eating competition and the creation of what just might be the world’s largest Key lime pie.

To make the record-breaking confection, which measured over eight feet in diameter (yes, really!), David teamed up with Marky, chef Paul Menta and the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.’s Jim Brush. Prepared July 4 in a specially-made pan that was about the size of a pickup truck, the gargantuan pie was documented for submission to the Guinness Book of World Records.

With the second annual Key Lime Festival scheduled for summer 2014, David Sloan shows no signs of slowing down. 

Key lime pie-makers (from left) Paul Menta, Jim Brush, David Sloan and Marky Pierson savor their triumph. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key lime pie-makers (from left) Paul Menta, Jim Brush, David Sloan and Marky Pierson savor their triumph.

In fact, he recently unveiled his new take on ghost tours. Designed as an interactive experience, “Sloan’s Ghost Hunt” gives participants the chance to use state-of-the-art devices to detect the supernatural at various haunted stops around Key West’s Old Town.

“Haunted stories start to lose a lot over the years and become more legends,” he explained. “I want to go back to the roots.”

More than ghosts and Key limes, David Sloan attributes his success to his love for Key West and the never-ending support of the close-knit island community.

“I love Key West because it has that small-town feel with big city benefits,” he said. “This community rallies around you and helps you to succeed, and that’s why I’m here today — there really is no place in the United States like it.”

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Gizmo and Kristi Go Home

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2014

Gizmo and Kristi have splashed back into their ocean home. The loggerhead sea turtle couple — Gizmo is male and Kristi is female — swam together on Valentine’s Day into the waters off Islamorada.

Marine life artist Wyland (left), Richie Moretti of the Turtle Hospital (right) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel (second from right) begin to release Kristi (left) and Gizmo on Valentine's Day. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Officials from Marathon’s acclaimed Turtle Hospital, where Gizmo and Kristi were treated after being rescued in Florida Keys waters, released the flippered couple behind Marker 88 Restaurant.

“I think love is in the air … I feel it,” said Bette Zirkelbach, the Turtle Hospital’s manager, just before the two two turtles swam out of their tubs into Florida Bay.

Their release came after significant treatment for both Gizmo and Kristi. Gizmo, a sub-adult loggerhead, was found floating near Conch Key last October, suffering from emaciation and a head wound. After X-rays taken at the Turtle Hospital revealed that he had an intestinal impaction, he was treated with antibiotics, lactulose, vitamins, honey wound care, and a diet of squid and fish.

Kristi, an adult loggerhead, was rescued near Tavernier Creek where she was found entangled in a trap line. As well as getting physical therapy on her back flipper, she was treated with antibiotics and vitamins, and fed squid and fish.

As important as Gizmo and Kristi’s recovery and freedom, however, is the occasion their release marked: the launch of a cooperative awareness-raising and fundraising venture between the Florida Keys’ nonprofit volunteer organization Save-A-Turtle and the environmentally focused Wyland Foundation.

Kristi splashes into the water off Islamorada, with Gizmo close behind. Their release marked the start of a partnership to benefit sea turtles around the U.S. and beyond.

That partnership spells good news not just for Gizmo and Kristi, but for sea turtles throughout the Keys and America’s coastal waters.

Save-A-Turtle’s president Harry Appel was on hand for the release of Gizmo and Kristi. So was internationally acclaimed marine life artist Wyland, who uses his art to encourage preservation and protection of marine creatures and the world’s oceans and waterways. His 20-year-old Wyland Foundation furthers that mission.

“It’s not only about the art,” Wyland explained. “It’s about the conservation and the message. If we can get people involved through art, then we can inspire them to be curious, maybe learn more and maybe get behind supporting a group like Save-A-Turtle.”

And well they should. Founded in 1985, the all-volunteer Save-A-Turtle is dedicated to the preservation and protection of rare and endangered marine turtles — and to the enhancement of their habitats in the Keys. Its volunteers patrol turtle nesting habitats, protect nests when needed, and provide guidance on issues that affect sea turtles and their habitats.

“We are their voice,” said Harry Appel of the turtles. “We need to speak up for their rights.”

Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel show off the artwork Wyland created for Save-A-Turtle.

As part of the two organizations’ collaboration, Wyland created an appealing brush-art portrait of a sea turtle to be featured on Save-A-Turtle merchandise that will be sold to raise money for the effort. Most of the attendees at the Valentine’s Day turtle release (except, of course, Gizmo and Kristi) were wearing T-shirts bearing the image.

Several hundred people watched Gizmo and Kristi swim away on Valentine’s Day — and some even shouted “heartfelt” messages to the turtle couple. But probably the happiest person on the beach was Harry Appel.

“It’s through organizations like the Wyland Foundation, Save-A-Turtle and the Turtle Hospital that endangered and threatened sea turtles are given a voice that they otherwise simply do not have,” Harry said.

If you’re interested in supporting their efforts and helping give sea turtles a voice, click here.

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Key West and Cuba Share Pioneering Art Exchange

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2014

Art lovers who venture to the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, the eclectic and beautifully eccentric outpost of Key West, will find a full calendar of art festivals and shows — including the first Cuban-American art exchange in more than 50 years.

The Key West Art Center, shown in this vivid painting, presents the Old Island Days Art Festival each year. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art Center)

For example, there’s the nationally renowned Old Island Days Art Festival, set for Feb. 22-23 and held annually on Key West’s Whitehead Street. Now in its 49th year (amazingly!), the enticing art show features watercolors and oils, sculpture, graphics, collage, photography, jewelry, wearable art and more created by approximately 100 fine artists from around the United States and Canada.

It’s presented by the Key West Art Center, and you’ll find fabulous pieces displayed against a backdrop of century-old architecture and towering shade trees in the heart of the island’s historic district.

The most unusual upcoming creative celebration, however, is the groundbreaking Feb. 20-22 Cuban-American art exchange. During that time, art lovers in Key West can view as many as 120 unique pieces by nine Cuban artists and one Cuban-American, all with international followings.

Mario Sanchez' "Lucky Fish Rhumba" showcases the cultural harmony that has enriched Key West for more than a century. (Image courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

Key West is the perfect place for the event, since it lies closer to Cuba than to mainland Florida — and the two islands have shared a cultural heritage since the 1830s, when Cuban cigar-makers first fled 90 miles across the Florida Straits to the island city.

The exchange actually began Jan. 17, when an exhibition of 30 intaglio prints by the late Key West folk artist Mario Sanchez was unveiled at Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.

Mario, a second-generation American of Cuban descent, created vibrant and often subtly funny painted bas-relief carvings that chronicled Key West life in the early 1900s. And equally important, they portrayed the racial, religious and gender harmony that existed in those days — as it does today — making the island a warm and welcoming place to live. 

Events begin at The Studios of Key West with appearances by artists including Manuel Mendive, painter of this intriguing image. (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

“This pioneering cultural exchange, titled ‘One Race, The Human Race,’ features the most famous cutting-edge artists in Cuba today,” said Nance Frank, a Sanchez expert and director of Key West’s Gallery on Greene who spearheaded the exchange.

Events begin with a 6-9 p.m. unveiling Thursday, Feb. 20, at The Studios of Key West. There you’ll meet artists include world-renowned sculptor and painter Manuel Mendive, staging a performance art piece featuring body-painted dancers; respected painter, illustrator and sculptor Roberto Fabelo; Sandra Ramos, whose artistry explores the harsh realities of Cuban life; and Rocio Garcia, a cartoon-inspired master whose pieces tell vivid stories.

Friday’s events include a 5-7 p.m. debut at the Gato Building, a former cigar factory at 1100 Simonton St. that now houses the Florida Keys Council of the Arts. Starring there are Ruben Alpizar, whose paintings and sculptures include diverse historic figures, and painter/sculptor Reynerio Tamayo, known for a series on the beloved sport of baseball.

The artistic team called the Merger is known for satirical sculptures like "Cuban Knife." (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

The evening’s 6-8 p.m. focus is on the Merger, three sculptors of large-scale satirical works, showcasing pop art–inspired creations at the 907 Whitehead St. home where Ernest Hemingway lived for much of the 1930s. The site is particularly fitting, because the legendary author had close ties to Cuba as well as Key West.

Saturday’s initial spotlight is on internationally acclaimed Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada, appearing 5-7 p.m. at the Oldest House Museum, 322 Duval St. This master has developed collaborative art projects in countries around the globe, and even created installations at the north and south poles. 

The cultural celebration concludes Saturday with the 6-8 p.m. debut of a massive sculpture by Sandra Ramos at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St.

The breathtaking piece is titled “The Bridge,” and it represents the Florida Straits crossing from Cuba to Key West. The sculpture is large enough for people to walk across, and no doubt many will — in a symbolic reconnecting of the two islands and their cultures.

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Islamorada: Hooked on Fishing

Andy Newman | January 2014

Renowned as a world-class destination for anglers, history-rich Islamorada is where backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered — so it’s no surprise that, for decades, savvy anglers have found themselves “hooked” on stalking finned and gilled prey in area waters.

A swordfish leaps after being hooked off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Fishing charter operations in Islamorada began in the late 1930s with Captain Walter A. Starck and his son Walter E. “Buck” Starck. The elder Starck began his charter fishing career in the 1920s when he brought high-roller guests from Miami to Bimini and the Florida Keys. Later, he bought the property that’s known today as Whale Harbor Marina and Restaurant.

After World War II, Buck Starck ventured out on his own and built a fishing camp where Robbie’s Marina is now located. For years, Islamorada sport fishing was operated exclusively by the Starck family.

In the mid-1940s Bud and Mary Stapleton, a New England couple who knew nothing about fishing (!), acquired the land that became Bud N’ Mary’s Marina. It began as a hotel and tackle shop — but when Captain Don Gurgiolo convinced the Stapletons to let him build a small dock for his boat so he could run offshore fishing charters, Bud N’ Mary’s entered the charter business.

In the 1950s, the fishing and tourism scene in Islamorada began to explode. In 1950 a group of fishermen, fishing guides and charter captains formed the Islamorada Fishing Club. Today, that group continues to formulate rules and regs and promote conservation and responsible fishing in the region.

Who were some of the legendary pioneers of Islamorada fishing? Captain Jimmy Albright, for one, and his protégé Captain Cecil Keith. And let’s not forget former Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams.

Richard Stanczyk (left) owner of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, holds a swordfish caught during daylight hours by Vic Gaspeny (right) off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“These guys fished everyone from presidents to major league ball players,” said Captain Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud N’ Mary’s since 1978. “They were the people who pioneered advancements in tackle, and they discovered everything from how to tie your knots to what fish eat.” 

A living legend himself, Richard Stanczyk holds the world record for bonefish caught on a fly rod — a record whose odds of being broken are about the same as winning the lottery. Still, his most notable legacy may be his discovery of a large body of broadbill swordfish off the coast of Islamorada.

Before that 2002 discovery, few broadbill swordfish had ever been caught. Typically, they were targeted only at night. Richard Stanczyk and company discovered how to fish for the species during the day — and have turned Islamorada into a top destination to catch broadbill swordfish.

Over the years, the region’s waters have been fished by notable anglers including former President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Riders of the Purple Sage” author Zane Grey, former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, and even actor Paul Newman.

In April 2008, former President George H. Bush (left) caught and released a 135-pound tarpon while fishing with guide George Wood (right) in Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Mill)

Why is the area so popular with anglers? Most importantly, an amazing array of species of fish can be caught there.

Islamorada is located between three different bodies of water — Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean — and close to the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef and the Everglades. There’s something to fish for during every season of the year.

In fact, the fishing is so extraordinary that Islamorada is where “Field & Stream” Senior Editor Mike Toth journeyed to celebrate his 50th birthday by attempting a unique accomplishment. He set out with Richard Stanczyk to catch 50 different species of fish, one for each year — and fulfilled that goal in an astonishing two and a half days.

According to at least one angling expert, that couldn’t have happened anywhere else on earth. 

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The Southernmost Norwegian Forest Cat in the Continental United States

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2014

Until Carl Peachey moved in next door, I was the southernmost writer in the continental United States. But I was forced to surrender my title when Carl, whose novels bear wonderfully quirky titles like “Quantum Voodoo,” took up residence one house closer to the southern edge of the continent than mine.

The southernmost Norwegian Forest Cat in the continental United States grins for her adoring public.

And though I really like Carl and his wife Kate, a multi-talented artist, losing that title was something of a disappointment. I mean, things that are “southernmost” are a big deal in Key West.

For example, there’s the Southernmost Point, looming next to the Atlantic Ocean at the end of Whitehead Street half a block from my humble abode.

It’s just a concrete buoy replica, and some people say it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. But every day of the year, many hundreds of visitors line up to have their photos taken beside its red, black and yellow expanse.

Why? Because it marks the southernmost spot of land in the continental United States. (BTW, it’s also the site where a large decorated evergreen is installed by a local nonprofit each December. The fir is widely known, of course, as the Southernmost Christmas Tree.)

And then there’s the Southernmost House. That designation is so important in Key West that, for decades, two houses have vied for the title. One is privately owned, and stands beside (what else?) the Southernmost Point. In the 1940s it was the residence of Thelma Strabel, who wrote “Reap the Wild Wind” (and in her day was DEFINITELY the southernmost writer in the continental United States).

Visitors love to snap photos at Key West's Southernmost Point marker, which delineates the southernmost spot of land in the continental U.S. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The other, a gloriously turreted mansion, was built at the turn of the 20th century for a Key West judge. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it epitomizes the elegance of the island’s colorful past. Today the frequently photographed landmark is a popular boutique hotel called (naturally) the Southernmost House Historic Inn.

In Key West you’ll also find the Southernmost Hotel. The Southernmost Point Guest House. The Southernmost Beach Cafe.

And when the Old Town Trolley and Conch Tour Train cruise by the Southernmost Point, their drivers are likely to inform passengers that they are — for that moment, at least — the southernmost tourists in the continental United States.

So, yeah, being southernmost is a big deal — at least to those of us bred in the offbeat culture of Key West. But despite having lost my literary title, I can claim an equally eminent one that (chances are) no one will EVER take away from me.

The "southernmost legs" in the continental United States catch some rays at the pool of the Southernmost House. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

I am the nanny, cook and groomer for the southernmost Norwegian Forest Cat in the continental United States.

Her name is Rafiki, and she really is a member of the rare Norwegian breed. Like many of us, she wasn’t sure what to expect when she traveled down the Overseas Highway and arrived in Key West.

A refugee from New Orleans, she brought all her belongings (in a classy backpack provided by the rescue organization that fostered her), and was ready for a new beginning.

Boy, did she find it. She was quickly accepted into the island’s eclectic “family” of people and animals. After all, in Key West it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, tuxedo or even calico — as long as you’re more inclined to purr than growl, you’re welcomed with open paws. 

It takes a lot of energy -- and an afternoon snooze or two -- to uphold the title of southernmost Norwegian Forest Cat.

These days, Rafiki enjoys several Key West pastimes — birding, watersports (albeit in the bathroom sink), and lounging on her second-story balcony checking out the visitors headed for the Southernmost Point.

Quite often, passersby spot her furry head peeking out between the balcony railings, point and smile at her, and snap a quick cell-phone photo. If I’m on the balcony too, I proudly inform them of her “southernmost” designation.

The Conch Train and trolley guides haven’t added her to their regular commentary yet, but I figure that’s just a matter of time. If necessary, I could even write a little script for them.

After all, I AM the former southernmost writer in the continental United States.

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Soldiers and Dolphins Share Unforgettable Keys Moments

Andy Newman | January 2014

 About 50 wounded military veterans visited the Florida KeysDolphin Research Center this past week, and completed the Soldier Ride bus and adaptive cycling trip down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway — pedaling across bridges that spanned long stretches of the blue Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Soldiers travel across one of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway's 42 brldges on adaptive cycles during the 2014 Soldier Ride. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As well as a satisfying challenge, for some it was a deeply meaningful journey that almost defied description.

Many of the soldiers entered the water at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon for an interactive session with the center’s resident dolphins. There they enjoyed experiences ranging from dorsal fin tows and flipper shakes to dolphin kisses.

For retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Rivera, who sustained a spinal injury in Iraq in 2010, the first-time dolphin experience was pure joy — a bonding experience with both the dolphins and his comrades.

Rivera said one of the benefits of this kind of event is to get fellow veterans out of the house, back with the community, and doing things with other wounded soldiers.

“I got a chance to kiss the dolphin,” the 45-year-old retired veteran marveled. “Got a chance to hold the dorsal fin and swim back and forth. It was an unbelievable experience.”

But Rivera said the MOST rewarding aspect of the session was the reactions of his comrades — many who had lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, or suffer from injuries that are not visually apparent.

U.S. Army Sgt. Wade Mitcheltree is towed by a dolphin at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. Mitcheltree lost his right forearm and much of his right leg in Afghanistan in 2012.

“It was great to see smiles on all our faces,” he said. “Most of us came here kind of nervous … but once we got in the water it was high-five time and fun, fun, fun.”

One soldier even introduced his service dog to two dolphins, who seemed quite interested in meeting a furry new friend.

Before their dolphin encounter, the veterans pedaled their state-of-the-art adaptive bicycles across the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest of 42 spans over water that help comprise the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.

Along the way they were greeted and thanked for their service by Keys school children and adult residents, who lined segments of the highway.

This wasn’t the first Soldier Ride through the Florida Keys. In fact, the event — organized by the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which empowers injured veterans through rehabilitative opportunities to restore their physical and emotional well-being — takes place each January.

Veteran Alex Besch, who suffers from post-traumatic brain disorder, introduces his service dog Suzy to dolphins Gypsi (left) and Delta (right) at Dolphin Research Center during 2014's Solder Ride.

While the activities themselves remain much the same from year to year, the experiences mean different things to different soldiers who take part.

In January 2013, for example, one of the men who swam with the dophins was Army 1st Lt. Josh Pitcher, who lost his left leg after an explosion in Afghanistan in April 2012.

“That was pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life,” the then 24-year-old veteran from Kentucky said after the experience.

Pitcher said he felt camaraderie with the dolphins, Tanner and Jax, who also is challenged with missing sections of his dorsal fin and tail.

“And I’m an amputee from an explosion from Afghanistan,” Pitcher said. “It was almost like a bond that we felt in the water. It was pretty cool.”

For a video of the soldiers riding through the Keys and interacting with dolphins, click here. To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project, click here. 

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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!

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

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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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