Keys Highlights

Artistry and Observances Coming Up in Key West

Steve Smith | November 2014

Opening night was Nov. 4 at Key West’s Red Barn Theatre for the world premiere of “The Poetry of Hearts,” produced with TheatreXP and written by award-winning island city playwright Bob Bowersox.

Powerful theater can be found at "The Poetry of Hearts" this month. (Photo courtesy of the Red Barn Theatre)

Powerful theater can be found at “The Poetry of Hearts” this month. (Photo courtesy of the Red Barn Theatre)

Locals Vanessa McCaffrey and Tony Konrath bring to the stage the struggle between a driven wife and an ailing British poet who, after many years living in the U.S., has decided it’s time to retire and return to the U.K. His wife is not ready for his retirement and will go to unthinkable lengths to prevent his leaving. This is a meaningful story about learning when it’s time to let go, and what the costs of doing so can be.

If you’ve not visited the Red Barn Theatre, take an evening and acquaint yourself with this tiny but perfectly laid-out former carriage house. Located behind the Key West Woman’s Club, this space provides an enchanting and intimate setting for live theater. Every seat offers a premium view of the stage, and they even serve libations in the courtyard prior to the performances. I predict the Red Barn will soon become your favorite venue.

ART! Key West! returns Nov. 28-30 with a three-day island-wide art festival. Key West has long been home to a terrific cultural community including performing actors and musicians, artists, potters, writers and poets. This year’s ART! Key West! is a celebration of all the arts and will be held across the island in theaters, galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

In addition to a “Black Friday” Fine Art Sale on the pier at the Westin Key West Resort, there will be a soiree at the nearby Custom House Museum. And across town on the beach at the historic Casa Marina, you’ll find a unique artistic challenge that’s ideal for a subtropical island.

Among the ART! Key West! highlights is street mural painting for kids and adults with acclaimed local artist Rick Worth. (Photo courtesy of ART! Key West!)

Among the ART! Key West! highlights is street mural painting for kids and adults with acclaimed local artist Rick Worth. (Photo courtesy of ART! Key West!)

The lively creativity and sun-drenched oceanfront vibe that characterize Key West come together in the inaugural International Sand Art Competition, an intriguing event for Thanksgiving weekend visitors.

Six renowned U.S. and international sand sculptors are scheduled to participate in the event, set to begin Wednesday, Nov. 26, on the Atlantic Ocean beach at the Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. The competition was conceived and organized by Marianne van den Broek of Key West’s Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting.

Competitors include Rusty Croft, host of the Travel Channel reality show “Sand Masters,” veteran Key West sand artist and show participant Chris Guinto, Canadian master Guy Olivier-Deveau, noted sculptor/photographer/filmmaker Benjamin Probanza, seasoned sand artist Dan Doubleday and world champion Dan Belcher.

Stop by the Casa Marina starting Nov. 26 and watch the artists at work. There will be special lighted sand sculpture evenings as well as the “Mel Fisher Treasure Dig” where you can compete to search the sand for an authentic shipwreck treasure coin valued at $1,000.

The Sand Art Competition's beachside artistry is to continue through 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, when the sculptors put the final touches on their creations. (Photo courtesy of Sand Isle)

The Sand Art Competition’s beachside artistry is to continue through 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, when the sculptors put the final touches on their creations. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle)

Shortly afterward, World AIDS Day is celebrated Dec.1 in Key West beginning with a candlelight Memorial March. The march starts at the corner of United and White streets and proceeds to the Key West AIDS Memorial at the foot of the White Street Pier. The memorial is a tribute to the people who have died of AIDS and, in their lifetimes, showed a love of the Florida Keys by living, working, or visiting here. The names are engraved in Zimbabwe granite.

So if you’re looking for a meaningful observation, powerful new theater, a cultural celebration or a chance to marvel at sand artistry, you’ll find it this month in Key West.

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Stay at New “Stars” in the Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2014

No matter where you stay in the Florida Keys, you’ll find that your accommodations — like the island chain itself — reflect a colorful diversity of cultural and historic influences.

Playa Largo Resort and Spa, an upcoming Key Largo gem, is expected to open in summer 2015.

Playa Largo Resort and Spa, an upcoming Key Largo gem, is expected to open in summer 2015.

Eager to discover these influences? You can choose from resort hotels frequented by playwrights and presidents, inns evolved from stately homes that once sheltered cigar barons and shipwreck salvagers, Victorian gems built by merchants and millionaires, or even former fish camps rich in rustic waterfront charm.

In the coming year, nine new properties and many renovated lodgings will be welcoming Keys visitors — each showcasing aspects of the island chain’s attractions and appeal.

And here, for those of you planning upcoming trips, are overviews of five of the new accommodations “stars.”

The first lies at the head of the Keys in Key Largo. The elegant Playa Largo Resort and Spa, the newest hotel to join Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is set to open in summer 2015. And what a property — the 14-acre waterfront resort features 144 luxury rooms and suites.

The focal point of the soon-to-open Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club is the famous lighthouse, which has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s.

The focal point of the soon-to-open Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club is the famous lighthouse, which has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s.

Amenities include a private marina, multiple bars and restaurants, full-service spa and fitness offerings, a beach house for private or corporate functions, wedding and conference facilities including a ballroom, a secluded white sand beach and much more.

In Islamorada, savvy visitors are awaiting the late 2014 re-launch of the Islamorada Resort (one of the Islamorada Hotel Company’s properties) as Amara Cay Resort, an upscale boutique hotel. Renovations include increasing the number of rooms and suites to 105, updating outdoor amenities and creating an Italian-style eatery. Guests can anticipate daily food and beverage experiences and a Mercedes shuttle (yes, really!) to Islamorada’s most popular locales.

You should be able to spot one of Marathon’s new properties easily: its focal point has been a Middle Keys landmark since the 1950s. Earlier this year construction began on the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club — incorporating the famed Faro Blanco lighthouse and set to open in December 2014.

With the lighthouse as its “beacon,” the new property features an upscale 125-room Hyatt Place hotel with two pools, a fitness center, meeting space and a waterfront restaurant and outdoor bar called (appropriately) Lighthouse Grill. And boaters will find a 74-slip state-of-the art marina capable of handling vessels up to 100 feet long.

The 96-room Marker Waterfront Resort combines a modern and timeless look with the free spirit and tropical vibe of Key West.

The 96-room Marker Waterfront Resort combines a modern and timeless look with the free spirit and tropical vibe of Key West.

At the southernmost tip of the Keys island chain lies eclectic, artistic Key West — and you’ll soon be welcomed at the island’s entrance by The Gates Hotel Key West. Projected to open Feb. 1, 2015, the new 100-room boutique hotel blends luxury, minimalist design, artwork, food and music into a chic, comfortable lodging experience.

Guest rooms feature whitewashed beams, custom cypress platform beds and photography from an exclusive local gallery.

Other highlights include the Rum Row bar and small-plates café, a large swimming pool with cabanas and daybeds, and an atmosphere that recalls “old Key West.”

The southernmost city’s Historic Seaport, one of its most popular hotspots, houses a lively group of restaurants, shops and attractions. The district’s newest gem is The Marker Waterfront Resort, a two-acre luxury property debuting in late 2014.

Create your oasis to remind you of lazy, sun-drenched days in the Keys, and the ultimate relaxation you felt. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wherever you stay in the Keys, you’ll experience lazy, sun-drenched days and luxurious relaxation. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The 96-room resort combines a modern, timeless look with the free spirit and tropical nature of the Key West community. Four room categories are available — offering marina, pool, garden and Old Town views.

Surrounded by lush landscaping, you can relax and swim at multiple pools (complete with poolside cocktail service) savor Cali-Mex–inspired cuisine at the on-site Cero Bodega or enjoy the ocean view.

The 125-mile Florida Keys island chain is characterized by a rich natural environment, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate, and a friendly laidback vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. These new properties — with their differing designs, amenities, prices and location — will add their own unique flavors to the intriguing mix as they welcome visitors eager to experience and explore the Keys.

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Festival Spotlights Fantasy and Sends a Message

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Parade Headliners to Parrot Heads

Steve Smith | October 2014

The recent Fantasy Fest 2014 parade had special grand marshals — Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, a local couple denied a marriage license because of Florida’s current law. They filed a suit and won a landmark court ruling overturning the state’s same-sex marriage ban for Florida Keys residents — though the attorney general filed an immediate appeal that means they still can’t marry.

Blogger Steve Smith salutes Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, fighters for same-sex marriage equality in Florida, before the Fantasy Fest parade.

Blogger Steve Smith salutes Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, fighters for same-sex marriage equality in Florida, as they stand atop their Fantasy Fest wedding cake float.

In the parade, Aaron and Lee rode atop a giant wedding cake float topped with a rainbow symbolizing the marriage equality they’re aiming for — and they were followed by 33 other couples in wedding attire including yours truly. Motivated by a philosophy of Love is Love, hopefully soon they will be able to tie the knot and open the door for other Floridians to marry.

“The Fat Lady Sings” at La Te Da’s Tea Dance this past Sunday signaled the official end of Fantasy Fest 2014.

We have new festival royalty: King Shane Hall and Queen Mary-Lynne “ML” Price. Over eight weeks of campaigning for the crowns, they and the other tireless candidates raised $235,000 for our local AIDS community service organization, AIDS Help.

For those of you who plan ahead, the theme for Fantasy Fest 2015 is “All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show.” Let your imagination run wild and remember the 2015 festival kicks off with the coronation ball and Goombay street party on Friday Oct. 23, 2015 — and the parade will be on Halloween night, Oct. 31!

Coming on the stilettos of Fantasy Fest, this weekend is the annual invasion of Parrot Heads. Some 3,500-plus fans of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett will descend on the island with their colorful headgear, tropical shirts and flip-flops to dance in the streets of the island that inspired many of Jimmy’s classic songs.

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy Buffett's music and and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy Buffett’s music and and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

While this group grooves to the island sounds, it also has a serious side — Parrot Heads give to their communities and ours. Last year in Key West they donated 155 pints of blood during their eighth annual blood drive, and they also hold a toy and school supply drive for the children, from toddlers to teenagers, who reside in our county.

There are now more than 200 Parrot Head clubs across the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and Australia. These local chapters have amassed a 12-year total of raising $33.9 million dollars for charities and donating almost 3.2 million volunteer hours in their communities — proving that their passion for giving is as strong as their passion for Jimmy’s music.

Check the Parrot Heads’ Key West schedule here. There will be concerts beachside at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, and a concert on Duval Street that’s open to the public. If you’re on the island for the Buffett bash, look for me with a parrot on my head and a tropical shirt — slowly wasting away in Margaritaville.

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Key West’s Fabulous Fantasy Fest Means Exotic Exuberance

Steve Smith | October 2014

Key West’s Fantasy Fest, themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures” in salute to Japanese anime and creative animation, has arrived on the island! Friday night, a new king and queen of Fantasy Fest will be crowned, and the 10-day festivities will be in full swing.

Entrants wear elaborate masks, cowls, bonnets and other headgear to vie for cash prizes at the glamorous Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

Entrants wear elaborate masks, cowls, bonnets and other headgear to vie for cash prizes at the glamorous Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

In previous blogs, I’ve told you about the events leading up to the Royal Coronation. This time, I want to share more information about my favorite festival events.

The 32nd annual Headdress Ball, themed “Animelistic Head Trip,” will take over the South Street parking lot of Southernmost on the Beach Hotel — under the largest tent on the island — on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 21.

For years, the Key West Business Guild has invited contestants from across the globe to create winning headdresses and strut their stuff onstage in front of an audience of hundreds of revelers. Those vying for the $1,500 grand prize will entertain the crowd with headdresses like you’ve never seen before. (Tickets are still available, but don’t wait until Tuesday!)

More than 40 masquerade and costume events will take place during Fantasy Fest, challenging the creativity of amateur and professional designers alike. One of the most offbeat and fun-filled each year is the Pet Masquerade and Parade for our furred and feathered companions, held Wednesday, Oct. 22, on the Atlantic Ocean shore of the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

The quirky Pet Masquerade and Parade features costumed dogs, cats, birds and more who prance across an oceanfront stage at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The quirky Pet Masquerade and Parade features costumed dogs, cats, birds and more who prance across an oceanfront stage at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Each year, several dozen people and pets take part, with pets parading their owners across the oceanfront stage in costumes designed to dazzle and delight. Open to all domestic pets, the “animal antics” are set to begin at 5:30 p.m. — but arrive early for a chance to mingle with two-legged and four-legged entrants.

Revelers dressed as comic-book heroes, characters from Japanese manga, and colorful creatures from above and below the sea are to parade through Key West’s historic Old Town Friday, Oct. 24, for the annual Masquerade March.

Everyone is welcome to join this wild, wacky, and outrageous strut through the streets of the historic district. Plus, most guesthouses and hotels will supply libations to those “parched” marchers! Be on Frances Street at the Key West Cemetery gates by 5 p.m. to join this lively procession.

Saturday’s 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade will bring island fever to a furious peak as thousands line Duval Street to applaud the fabulous floats, marching groups, street dancers and bands that make up the over-the-top spectacle. The design creativity will boggle the mind — or whatever is left of it after 10 days of partying.

Friday, Oct. 24, just before sunset, the Masquerade March of exotically garbed characters will parade from the Key West Cemetery through historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Friday, Oct. 24, just before sunset, the Masquerade March of exotically garbed characters will parade from the Key West Cemetery through historic Old Town. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For those who prefer another type of excitement, Key West’s HE Travel is offering an adventure tour of the Keys taking place Nov. 29 through Dec. 7. After quick stops in South Beach and the Everglades, participants can enjoy an intriguing jaunt throughout the island chain. Water activities, bicycling and an abundance of fresh local seafood are on the schedule, virtually guaranteeing entertainment during the trip and great memories afterwards.

If you’re heading this way for Fantasy Fest, I may see you during one of the costume soirees — but you just might not recognize me!

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Embracing the ‘Margaritaville Mystique’

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2014

They eat “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” drink margaritas, and regard Key West as their spiritual home port. They are Parrot Heads, ardent fans of internationally renowned singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett — and from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2, an estimated 3,500 of them will descend on the island credited with being the inspiration for Jimmy’s famed “Margaritaville” for their annual convention.

This classic Jimmy Buffett album cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

This classic Jimmy Buffett album cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

When Jimmy discovered Key West in the early 1970s, he couldn’t have known that he would inspire millions of people to share his love for the easygoing subtropical island.

He summed up his passion for his new surroundings by writing “I Have Found Me a Home” about Key West, describing riding his old red bike to “the bars and the beaches of my town.”

As well as being Jimmy’s home during some of his most productive years, Key West — and its people, attractions and ambiance — became the subject of some of his most enduring tunes. Many of them appear on the album “A1A,” named for the roadway leading through the Florida Keys to the island city, and “Havana Daydreamin’.”

Jimmy’s lyrics are rich in references to Key West spots such as Fausto’s Food Palace, the Blue Heaven Restaurant and the Chart Room Bar.

Jimmy's Key West years are captured in this volume of photos and prose by his longtime friend Tom Corcoran.

Jimmy’s Key West years are memorialized in this volume of photos and prose by his longtime friend Tom Corcoran.

His songs memorialize Key West characters like Captain Tony Tarracino, an offbeat former mayor featured in “Last Mango in Paris,” and the late Phil Clark, whose real-life exploits unfold in “A Pirate Looks at 40.”

In fact, Jimmy’s fondness for Key West as a subject, and the many renegade references in his tunes, made him the island’s unofficial “pirate laureate.”

In the mid-1980s Jimmy founded the Margaritaville Store in Key West’s funky waterfront enclave of Lands End Village.

A Mecca for his fans, the store is now located beside his original Margaritaville Café on the island’s iconic Duval Street. His unmarked yet renowned recording studio, Shrimp Boat Sound, overlooks the former shrimp docks.

Jimmy’s portrayal of Key West in song led it to become the geographical focus of the “Margaritaville mystique” embraced by his Parrot Head fans, who flock to visit the island that inspired their musical hero.

Jimmy Buffett waves to some 3,500 "Parrot Head" fans during his surprise concert on Key West's Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jimmy waves to some 3,500 Parrot Head fans during his 2011 surprise concert on Key West’s Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Activities at their annual conventions usually include waterfront musical performances by regional and Parrot Head favorites, charity auctions and raffles, a rollicking street festival and concert outside the Margaritaville Store, and performances by some (or all) of Jimmy’s Coral Reefer Band members.

Sometimes the man himself makes a surprise appearance — as he did for an unforgettable 70-minute Duval Street concert during the 2011 gathering.

So how exactly did the Parrot Head phenomenon begin? According to Buffett legend, the fans earned their name for the offbeat tropical parrot caps and other headgear they often wear to concerts.

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy's and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Parrot Heads flock to Key West each year to celebrate Jimmy’s music and the Keys lifestyle it encourages. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And according to convention organizers, the first Parrot Heads in Paradise Club was formed in 1989 in Atlanta. There are now more than 200 clubs around the U.S., plus international clubs in the Caribbean, Australia, Canada and Europe.

While Parrot Heads undeniably love a party, they do far more than have a good time. As well as enjoying Jimmy Buffett’s music and the lifestyle it depicts, they support charitable, environmental, educational and humanitarian activities.

In fact, since 2002, members of the national and international chapters have contributed a total of $33.9 million and nearly 3.2 million volunteer hours to local and national charities.

Want to know more about this terrific bunch of people — and their upcoming Key West convention? Then order a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” settle back with a tall cold one, and click here.

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It’s Good to Be Queen … or King!

Steve Smith | September 2014

As summer fades into fall, our days in Key West have become a bit cooler and the nightlife is heating up — because the campaign to crown the new king and queen of Fantasy Fest is in full swing. Fantasy Fest, in case you don’t know, is the island’s outrageous 10-day costuming and masking festival that takes place each October.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014's royal crowns.

Shane Hall is among the candidates for Fantasy Fest 2014’s royal crowns.

Royal hopefuls will spend the next month hosting events around Key West to raise funds for the Keys’ AIDS Help organization — and the king and queen candidates who raise the most money will be crowned Fantasy Fest royalty Friday, Oct. 17, under the moonlight on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Candidates’ fundraising events are open to the public and offer a variety of experiences as well as a great time.

On Friday evening, Sept. 19, the “Clyde for King” campaign will transform the parking lot of The Restaurant Store, 1111 Eaton St., into the setting for a gala event featuring food, libations, and entertainment by the Keys’ own Howard Livingston and Mile Marker 24. The “ML for Queen” faction is hosting events including a “Beverly Hillbillies Block Party” with a country fair feel, where the attractions include burgers, dogs and chicken, a bake sale, and entertainment.

“Jules for Queen” is staging a throwback “Gangsta Party” Sept. 24 at the Cork & Stogie that just might bring out Al Capone and Key West’s own Bum Farto (Google him to learn about our former fire chief who disappeared in 1976).

The lovely Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The beautiful Gardens Hotel is the site of the eagerly anticipated Royal Ball.

The “Shane for King” campaign brings the second annual Red Dress Gala to the Woman’s Club on Duval Street Saturday, Sept. 27. Be sure to wear your favorite red dress and enjoy food, drink, and dancing under the stars.

You’ll find many more royal campaign events listed on the AIDS Help website — including orchid auctions, sunset cruises, dinners, Vegas nights, and themed costume galas.

On a related note, each year we look forward to the Royal Ball hosted by former Fantasy Fest Queen Kate Miano at her boutique Gardens Hotel. In addition to savoring food and your favorite beverages, you can stroll through tropical gardens, enjoy live entertainment, and meet former Fantasy Fest kings and queens.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West's new Shameless Lounge each Monday.

The lovely QMitch brings comedy to Key West’s new Shameless Lounge each Monday. (Photo by Larry Blackburn)

The Gardens Hotel welcomes gay men and women to its acre of tropical gardens surrounded by guest rooms and cottages — and offers live piano entertainment Thursday through Saturday. On Sundays, the property becomes the setting for live jazz concerts open to locals and visitors alike. While it’s not a “gay specific” property, you’ll find members of our community welcoming you, staying at The Gardens, and stopping by to enjoy the entertainment options.

A new treat on the island is the SHAMELESS LOUNGE and restaurant recently opened at 610 Greene St., offering the cuisine of noted chef Jennifer E. (formerly at favorite eateries Blue Heaven and Salute).

Shameless features live entertainment, a Sunday Drag Brunch, and a Monday comedy night with the irreverent QMitch Jones. Owner Dion Contreras, a former resident of Chicago, has created a great venue for locals and visitors to step off Duval Street for lunch and dinner — and best of all, they serve until 4 a.m. on the weekends!

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Get Ready for Amazing ‘Animeted’ Adventures at Fantasy Fest

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2014

Imagine yourself dressed as a hero from traditional Japanese anime, stalwartly wielding a sword to defeat the forces of evil. Or perhaps you’re a character from an animated film blockbuster, like the delightfully uncouth Shrek or a “Frozen” princess whose beauty is matched only by her spirit. You might even be an evildoer escaped from the pages of a classic comic book, your face set in a ferocious growl as you menace a hapless victim.

Deirdre Robbins displays her feather-bedecked headdress during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Deirdre Robbins displays her elaborate ensemble during the 2013 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Unlikely? Not if you’re participating in Key West’s renowned Fantasy Fest celebration, coming up Oct. 17-26.

What is Fantasy Fest? Simply the most outrageous festival you’ve ever experienced, combining exotic and elaborate costuming, a flair for the fantastic and a freewheeling party spirit found only in the Florida Keys.

Begun more than 30 years ago as an expression of typical Key West exuberance, Fantasy Fest has grown to achieve international popularity for its style, its sights, and its spontaneity. Thousands of people descend upon the island annually to don masks and costumes and escape their real-world cares in a 10-day whirl of revelry — revelry that includes lavish costume competitions, street fairs, dress-up galas and a decadent grand parade designed to excel in excess and exuberance.

The biggest and best known of Key West’s many festivals, Fantasy Fest adopts a different theme each year, providing continual inspiration for costumes both funky and fabulous — and floats as flamboyant as anything you can imagine. This year’s extravaganza is themed “Animeted Dreams & Adventures,” in salute to traditional Japanese anime and virtually all forms of creative animation.

This Dali-inspired creation took "high honors" at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

This Dali-inspired creation took “high honors” at a recent Headdress Ball. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Business Guild)

The excitement begins Oct. 17 and 18 with the Goombay celebration in historic Bahama Village. Honoring Key West’s Caribbean roots, Goombay combines the tangy smells of jerk chicken and conch fritters, the pulsing beat of Caribbean-American bands, and a vivid collage of wares ranging from African-inspired clothing to copper and brass jewelry.

As the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico, the bands turn their amplifiers up a notch, the rhythms and aromas drift throughout Bahama Village, and the excitement of Fantasy Fest assumes an almost tangible form in the island dusk.

The festival’s subsequent days and nights contain events such as the glitzy Headdress Ball. The glamorous gathering draws entrants wearing elaborate masks and headgear from the beautiful to the bizarre … plus dazzling entertainment from top local performers and female impersonators.

Among the other intriguing events is the Pet Masquerade and Parade, where the fur flies as pets and their owners vie for costume prizes. You’ll find people dressed as animals and animals dressed as people during this family-style competition. Past standouts include a pair of green-headed “space aliens” escorting a starship “manned” by a canine crew, a “vampire cat” with a replica coffin and an eerie people-and-pets ensemble depicting the fictional “Addams Family.”

The fun takes to the streets during the madcap Masquerade March, a lively promenade beginning at the Key West Cemetery. It typically draws high-spirited bands and revelers wearing feathered masks, costumes and finery inspired by the festival theme. Memorable marchers in past years range from a scaly 40-foot “sea serpent” to a flock of “chickens of the sea” wearing tutus, a male quartet in matching Wonder Woman costumes and two polka-dotted walking octopuses.

The Fantasy Fest parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Fantasy Fest Parade typically includes feather-bedecked marching groups, Caribbean bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The festival spirit is most spectacular, however, during the annual Fantasy Fest Parade, when brilliantly-conceived floats travel down the island city’s main thoroughfare to the cheers of some 60,000 spectators. Walking groups dressed in bright robes and feathers add fire and color to the procession — as do the exotically-dressed revelers gleefully following the floats.

The 2013 parade starred, among many other entries, a float featuring fictional crime fighter Batman rising 40 feet above the crowd to protect “Gotham City,” and a trio of “archangels” with massive white-feathered wings pursued by menacing horned demons.

Want to be part of Key West’s “animeted” adventures at Fantasy Fest this year? Then make plans — and reservations — ASAP, because accommodations fill up FAST.

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Diana Nyad Honored in Key West for Epic Swim

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

On Labor Day 2013, Diana Nyad walked weakly but determinedly ashore onto Key West’s Smathers Beach — becoming the first person EVER to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Never, ever give up,” said the then-64-year-old Diana, her face swollen and salt-encrusted from the nearly 111-mile swim that she had attempted four times before her Labor Day triumph. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

Diana first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old, swimming with a shark cage. After more than 41 hours of fighting strong currents and huge waves, driven far off course in a physically and mentally debilitating battle, she was lifted into a support boat.

In 2010, after being inspired by her 60th birthday, she tried again. But by the time she had the necessary Cuban government paperwork, her weather window had expired.

In 2011, Diana twice attempted the swim, estimated to take approximately 60 hours, with heartbreaking results both times. She was foiled by shoulder pain and a devastating in-water asthma attack in August 2011, and severe jellyfish stings in September.

During a 2012 attempt, she suffered multiple painful and debilitating stings from box jellyfish despite wearing a protective full-body suit each night.

Diana makes the victory sign after completing  her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana makes the victory sign after completing her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West.

At that point, many people said swimming the grueling distance just wasn’t possible — particularly for a woman in her 60s. But that didn’t stop Diana Nyad.

“All my life I believed in dreaming big — I guess it doesn’t satisfy me to have small dreams,” she said with magnificent understatement.

Just before Labor Day 2013, she tried it again. Buoyed by lessons learned during her previous attempts, supported by a team whose dedication was nearly as strong as her own, she began swimming in Havana at 8:59 a.m. Aug. 31.

“I have had this Cuba swim under my skin since I was a child,” Diana admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. And so you want to be the first.”

At night in the water, she donned the full-body suit, gloves and a specially crafted silicone face mask to protect her from jellyfish. She was accompanied by kayakers with electronic shark repelling devices.

And finally, after swimming continuously for 52 hours and 54 minutes, fighting bouts of nausea and exhaustion, Diana Nyad made it to the welcoming shore of Key West.

Diana hoists a bronze plaque Sept. 1 at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana hoists a bronze plaque at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. The plaque will be installed at Smathers Beach where she came ashore.

Nearly 2,000 people greeted her with cheers and applause as she reached the beach, hugged her best friend and business partner Bonnie Stoll, and lay down on a stretcher so medics could check her physical condition.

“I wanted this swim, this endeavor, not to just be the athletic record,” she said the next day, her face radiating peace and gratitude. “I wanted it to be a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged. Be awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day’.”

On Labor Day 2014, Diana and her team were back in Key West for the unveiling of a bronze plaque recognizing her achievement. It will be installed by the City of Key West on the promenade wall in front of Smathers Beach, close to the spot where she came ashore.

As well as honoring Diana for her amazing physical feat, the plaque honors the mental strength and perseverance that kept her focused on achieving her goal — and will forever be an example for those seeking to fulfill their dreams.

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Savoring the Southernmost Spas

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

Chances are, you need a break. You might be winding up a summer full of too many houseguests and outdoor activities, feeling drained by personal or professional challenges, or simply seeking a rejuvenating breather from real life in the “real world.” But no matter what you need to escape FROM, it makes sense to escape TO the Florida Keys.

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

That’s because the 125-mile island chain offers a rare blend of luxury and easygoing informality, inducing an air of tranquility and relaxation that’s one of the greatest luxuries of all. On your Keys escape, you might choose to stay in a restored Victorian inn behind a white picket fence, or a rustically elegant bed-and-breakfast surrounded by a nature sanctuary. But for the ultimate getaway, there’s nothing like a waterfront spa resort. Let’s face it: a truly relaxing vacation just doesn’t seem complete without a soothing, sinfully sybaritic spa treatment or two. Luckily, you’ll find spa facilities from Key Largo to Key West — many of them housed in tropically elegant full-service resorts with top-level restaurants and beaches lapped by blue water.

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Among them is the Spa at Cheeca Lodge, located at the historic luxury property in Islamorada. Cheeca’s truly amazing spa features a variety of skin care treatments like the luscious Golden Veil facial incorporating passion flower oil (yummy!), massage therapies including the signature Hot Lava Shell offering, a heated lap pool with butler service and private personal fitness sessions. At Hawks Cay Resort, located on a lush 60-acre island just outside Marathon, the pampering possibilities at the 7,000-square-foot Calm Waters Spa include body treatments such as the signature Key Lime Mojito scrub and warm sea stone massage (trust me — it’s guaranteed to make you relax). You’ll also find hydrating facials and salon services, and even a menu of teen services featuring massage, facial and salon treatments.

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay's Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Off the Lower Keys, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a private island offering tropically elegant suites in thatched-roof villas, features the SpaTerre experience. Among the health and beauty treatments are ancient Javanese and Thai rituals, flower-petal bath experiences in a traditional Japanese soaking tub (how could you NOT love that?), facial indulgences and massages including one surrounded by the ocean. (FYI, Little Palm Island is so exotic that movie producers used it as a set for the filming of “PT-109,” portraying Lt. John F. Kennedy’s naval heroics in the South Pacific.) Key West offers a number of spas, both in resorts and independent facilities. Among the absolute standouts is the boutique spa at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, A Westin Resort, located on the 27-acre island of Sunset Key — just across the harbor from Key West’s historic downtown.

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

The spa menu includes traditional and tropical body treatments, facials with hydrating rose products and plant extracts, scrubs and wraps, touch therapy and a blending station where you can create a custom scent for your treatment. And if you’re visiting with that special someone, consider the Sunset Romance package for couples, featuring massages and a champagne dinner in a private beachside cabana. Ready to plan the ultimate indulgent getaway? Then click here for more information on Florida Keys spa and wellness offerings, and prepare to be pampered.

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