Keys Profiles

Robert Stoky: Recipe for Keys Living

Briana Ciraulo | December 2013

Robert Stoky knows good cooking. Whether it’s preparing lobster fajitas at Señor Frijoles or all-you-can-eat stone crab at Ballyhoo’s, the Stoky family has been a major player in the flourishing Florida Keys restaurant scene since the 1980s.

Robert Stoky, who developed his culinary skills early, now spearheads some of the Upper Keys' most popular eateries.

The family actually moved to the Keys from Miami in 1973 — and quickly set their sights on cooking and restaurants.

“My father was a charterboat fisherman,” Robert said, “so we had to figure out a way to eat the fish that we were catching.”

By 1981 his parents had acquired Señor Frijoles in Key Largo from a family friend. Robert quickly embraced the family business and worked in his parents’ restaurants — beginning as a dishwasher. He eventually learned the in’s and out’s of food preparation and became a chef.

Today, the enterprising man is owner/chef of popular restaurants in the Upper Keys including Señor Frijoles, Sundowners, Cactus Jack’s, Ballyhoo’s and Marker 88.

His adventures in the Keys, however, aren’t confined to the restaurant business. They began when he was growing up.

“We had a boat that was basically our car,” he said. “My younger brother and I would go from island to island, fishing and diving.”

Following his parents’ example, Robert became an entrepreneur at a young age.

Señor Frijoles, the Stoky family's first restaurant in the Keys, remains a welcoming spot for great food.

“We got gas money from commercial fishing,” he explained. “We would catch fish and sell them — grouper, snapper, everything — then we would use that money, buy more bait and fuel, and go out again.

In 2012, Robert added “author” to his list of accomplishments when he decided to share some of his experiences and cooking techniques in his cookbook “Recipes and Tall Tales from the Legendary Restaurants of the Florida Keys.” The book features Keys essentials, from rum drinks and cocktails to learning how to make sea salt and prepare lionfish.

His favorite ingredients (true to Florida Keys form) are fresh Florida stone crab and Key lime. He draws inspiration for his cooking from locally sourced food.

“I want to take advantage of the fresh seafood and tropical fruits the Florida Keys have to offer,” Robert said.

As if his restaurant career and writing weren’t enough, he’s also an active member of the Upper Keys Business Group.

Stoky (in orange shirt) joined judges at the inaugural Key Largo & Islamorada Food & Wine Festival's "Chopped" charity competition. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As such, he spearheads some of Key Largo’s leading events including the Stone Crab & Seafood Festival, the Anything That Floats Race and the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display on Blackwater Sound. He also lends his skills to “Uncorked — The Key Largo & Islamorada Food & Wine Festival” and Key Largo Conch Republic Days.

In addition, Robert has plans to keep enhancing and developing the restaurants he and his family created.

“We want to refine the menus that we currently have,” he said. “We want them to be more chef-crafted.”

The restaurant industry may be constantly evolving, and food trends may come and go, but it’s clear that Robert Stoky will stick close to his family roots. His “recipe” for success and satisfaction is simple yet meaningful: provide his customers the freshest seafood, and some of the most delectable dishes, the Florida Keys can offer. It just doesn’t get any better than that! 

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Loren Rea: ‘Hooked’ on the Keys

Briana Ciraulo | October 2013

She’s a seasoned graphic designer and website programmer, the director of two fishing tournaments and a proud mother and wife. So it’s no surprise that Sugarloaf Key resident Loren Rea has made a name for herself over the last 17 years in the Florida Keys.

Skilled angler and mom Loren Rea has passed on her passion for fishing to her 5-year-old son.

Originally from a small town outside Stanford, Conn., Loren spent her days fishing off the beach in Greenwich — until, that is, her friends recommended that she visit the Keys.

Quickly “hooked” on the laid-back island chain, from then on Loren took long weekends away from work to visit and fish at the Lower Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park.

“I would always call my boss and tell him I was staying here another day,” she confessed.

In 1996 Loren moved to the Keys, with only her pet Doberman as a companion, and got a job designing ads for the local daily newspaper. In 1998, she transferred to the paper’s Internet affiliate and began building web pages.

Around 2005, Loren started scorekeeping for the Del Brown Permit Tournament, a popular fly- and flats-fishing challenge. The contest honors the late angling legend Del Brown, widely considered to be the most successful permit fly-rodder in history.

A few years later, she became the event’s director.

“We were cleaning up after a tournament, and the co-founder just asked me if I wanted to take her position,” Loren said. “I thought about it for a little while, but then I gladly accepted.”

In the last few years, she’s made major changes to the tournament — including decreasing entry fees to make it more appealing to anglers. In recent years the tournament has donated to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a nonprofit devoted to the conservation of saltwater flats species.

Loren, shown here releasing a permit, is the only woman to fish the renowned March Merkin Permit Tournament.

As well as a skilled tournament director, Loren is a passionate — and talented — angler in her own right. In fact, she’s the only woman to fish Key West’s prestigious March Merkin Permit Tournament.

“I knew they weren’t easy to catch, but I definitely knew I had the skills to do it,” Loren said of the notably elusive permit.

She certainly does. In her first year of fishing the March Merkin, she caught a 20-pound permit and earned the respect of the 25 male participants.

Fittingly, Loren shares her love of fishing with the love of her life: her husband Captain Justin Rea. Justin is the founder of tarponfishingkeywest.com, a fly-fishing business that provides guided shallow water flats fishing tours.

“I always fish with my husband,” Loren confided. “He’s great because he’s very passionate about it.”

Loren and Justin have a 5-year-old son who’s already a fishing fanatic.

“He’s been fishing and swimming since he was one-and-a-half years old,” Loren marveled. “He’ll just sit at Bahia Honda on the shore with his little net and catch fish all day.”

In 2011, Loren and Justin founded the Cuda Bowl, a barracuda-fishing tournament that takes place just before Super Bowl Sunday each year. These days the event is growing steadily, attracting ever more participants and sponsorships.

Loren and Justin founded a popular Keys tournament called the Cuda Bowl, and the family fishes together during time off.

So what does the Rea family do during their down time? Fish, of course. Loren and Justin have traveled to angling destinations including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Their travels even led to their very own fishing show. In 2012, “Getting Guided” focused on prime destinations for saltwater and freshwater fishing adventures from the Rocky Mountains to the Caribbean.

Loren and Justin hope to expand to new businesses in the near future.

“I really want to write a book,” Loren revealed, “a mixture of fishing stories, fishing advice and food recipes.”

Whether it’s writing, designing a website or catching her next permit in Lower Keys waters, one thing is clear: Loren Rea will find the perfect “angle” to succeed.

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A “Shine”-ing Light

Katharine Roach | July 2013

Virtually everyone who lives in Key West, or has spent much time visiting, knows that Ernest Hemingway lived here in the 1930s. The Hemingway Days festival celebrates his birthday and the lifestyle he enjoyed during his decade on the island.

Shine's infectious grin and spirit explain where his nickname came from. Here, he spars playfully with a familiar-looking man. (Photo by Tom Netting)

When one thinks of Hemingway’s Key West years, and his associates during those years, it’s hard not to think of Kermit “Shine” Forbes. Shine was a fixture in Key West until his death in 2000 at the age of 84. 

A small man, standing only 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Shine was a stellar example of how to enjoy a full life.

Both in his prime and as a senior, he exhibited a genuine enthusiasm for living and being involved in the Key West community.  

When he met Ernest Hemingway, Shine was a former boxer who trained local amateur fighters like Alfred “Black Pie” Colebrooks. Hemingway refereed some of the neighborhood boxing matches, then held in Bahama Village on the site that is now the Blue Heaven Restaurant.

Ernest set up a boxing ring at his Whitehead Street property where he and Shine sparred. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The two men’s friendship had a rocky beginning; they disagreed vehemently about a call Ernest made while refereeing a fight that featured one of Shine’s boxers. Tempers got so heated that eventually Shine attempted to punch the “ref.” 

“I didn’t know who he was,” Shine said of the famed writer.

When he found out, he went to Hemingway’s house to apologize, and the two became sparring partners and comfortable friends.

Shine was a regular visitor to the 907 Whitehead St. home owned by Hemingway — today renowned as the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum — where he sparred with the author on the section of the property now occupied by the swimming pool.

Hemingway left Key West in 1939, but Shine remained living in the Bahama Village neighborhood. He served in the Army during World War II and fought in Army boxing tournaments. After the war, he became a cook at the Key West Naval Hospital, where he worked for 32 years. He also mentored neighborhood kids, offering down-to-earth advice in the yard outside his tiny home.

Shine played an important role in the Hemingway Days festivities. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As he grew older, and the Hemingway legacy became an integral part of Key West’s appeal for visitors, Shine was “discovered” by journalists eager to meet the man who sparred with the legendary author.

He answered their questions and seemed to enjoy their company, but remained pretty much unchanged by the media spotlight.

Even as a senior, Shine didn’t lose his enthusiasm for boxing. One of his friends in later life was best-selling mystery writer Randy Wayne White, and the two sparred four times through the years. The last time was in 1999, when Shine was 83 years old — yes, 83 — and he knocked out the 220-pound, much younger White in the third round!

Invariably cheerful and seemingly ageless, Shine was an important part of the annual Hemingway Days festivities. He became a dear friend of Lorian Hemingway, Ernest’s granddaughter, and the 1999 fight with White was her suggestion to commemorate her grandfather’s 100th birthday.           

Author Lorian Hemingway shared her grandfather's fondness for Shine. (Photo by Michael Whalton)

After Shine’s death, Lorian created the Shine Forbes Award to honor the man who had been a link to her grandfather. His friends from many walks of life helped raise the money for his funeral, and he now has a resting place in the Key West Cemetery.

Shine Forbes never tried to capitalize on his friendship with Hemingway. He remained the unassuming man with integrity that Hemingway had long ago admired. And he will always remain an important part of Hemingway lore in Key West.

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Nadene Grossman: Key West’s Go-To Planner for Upscale ‘I Do’s’

Julie Botteri | June 2013

Every day between sunrise and sunset, Florida Keys weddings take place … on beaches and boats, and in historic homes, hotels, guesthouses, gardens, and other picturesque locales.

Nadene has the keys ... to a perfect wedding experience in Key West! (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Nadene Grossman is the go-to planner for upscale “I Do’s” in the heart of Key West. For a decade she has guided nervous brides (and their traveling wedding parties and guests) through their nuptial gaieties.

A Long Island native, Nadene is the founder of the wedding and events planning enterprise known as We’ve Got the Keys. But when she left upstate New York after college, she had no idea that matrimonial coordination would become her career.

In October 1991, with two suitcases in tow and $250 in her pocket, Nadene arrived in Key West to manage High Tide Gallery after being asked to fill in for a gallery owner friend while he was on his honeymoon.

“My first customers were a set of grandparents — a feather boa–clad woman leading her husband into the gallery by a studded leather leash,” she recalled. “I got a crash course in Fantasy Fest and it sparked my passion for people.”

Nadene eventually developed a strong connection with Fantasy Fest, a world-famous costuming and masking festival held each October in Key West. In 2003 she was crowned Fantasy Fest queen — a title bestowed each year on the candidate who raises the most money for the local AIDS Help organization.

Billy and Kristin won a Key West dream wedding in a contest Nadene dreamed up. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Nadene put her zesty creative flair and suave people skills to work in Key West, embracing jobs that proved to be excellent stepping stones to a successful career. The gallery springboarded into what she calls the “three Cs” of surviving island life: cocktailing, crewing on a catamaran and concierge services.

She excelled at all three — earning kudos and serious know-how in sales, overseeing corporate groups and catering. As a concierge at the Key West Hilton, she explored wedding planning … and had an entrepreneurial epiphany.

“I knew I could do this on my own; the corporate world taught me well to plan great events,” said Nadene, who worked solo for the first 18 months of her new career.

Her faith in herself was justified when her first wedding customer tipped her as much as the entire planning fee. 

Today, We’ve Got the Keys employs four event planners who specialize in weddings and other group gatherings. In addition, the company has been the creative driving force behind the Key West Songwriter’s Festival for a decade — and launched the inaugural Key West Film Festival in 2012.

Away from work, Nadene relaxes on the water with her husband and furry family members.

Now 42 and married with two adopted dogs, Nadene leads her team to arrange destination weddings for groups of 40 to 200 people — with everything from personal websites to planning mini-vacations for guests. Their goal is to take care of every detail necessary for the ideal wedding experience, right down to advising clients where to get the best Cuban coffee, slice of Key lime pie or fishing charter.

“I’m surrounded by talented people,” Nadene enthused. “If you’re good at something and have a name for yourself, you’ll do well.”

She should know — because Nadene Grossman herself is living proof of that assertion.

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Mel Fisher, a ‘Treasured’ Senior

Katharine Roach | May 2013

“Today’s the day!” That was the cry of Mel Fisher every day as he and his dedicated crew searched for the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, sunk in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in 1622.

Adventurer Mel Fisher, discoverer of the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Atocha, proved that the American dream is thriving -- at least in the Keys. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures)

Key West has become known as a locale where age discrimination is non-existent. And well it might — what with residents of all ages owning businesses, chartering fishing boats, and taking part in virtually all the activities of the island. One of the most adventurous seniors ever to live and work in Key West was Mel Fisher.

Mel and his crew had been searching in Keys waters for the Atocha without success until, in 1971 they found a Spanish anchor. The search continued with limited but encouraging results — until 1975, when Mel’s son Kane found a silver bar whose numbers identified it with the manifest of the Spanish galleon. They knew they were on the right track to discover the fabled shipwreck and the treasures and artifacts it held.

And discover it they did, after ten more years of searching. On July 20, 1985, when Mel Fisher was 63 years old, his crew uncovered a reef of silver bars. They had found the Atocha at last!

Recovering the treasures and artifacts, and performing painstaking underwater archaeology on the site, went on for many years. In fact, Mel himself continued diving until the age of 76. Riches beyond anyone’s expectations, and historic artifacts that were equally important, were discovered at the wrecksite of the Spanish galleon.

Mel and Deo Fisher were early SCUBA pioneers before they became shipwreck seekers. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures)

Mel Fisher was born in Hobart, Indiana — an unlikely place to spawn an expert deep-sea diver. Some claim he was influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” In any event, he was fascinated by the brand-new sport of diving and became one of its pioneers.

After a stint as a chicken farmer in California, Mel became enamored with diving rivers and turned his focus to the dive business. He and wife Deo opened a dive shop, and Mel expanded his efforts to dive on shipwrecks.

He developed a fascination with shipwreck salvage, which eventually led him to Florida and the Keys. The rest is history.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West is the resting place for many of the priceless objects Mel found. There visitors can learn more about the discovery of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita, another galleon from Spain’s 1622 fleet, and view treasure ranging from gold bars to contraband emeralds. Located at 200 Greene St., the museum is open 365 days a year.

A diver examines gold bars and chains on the site of the Nuestra Se–nora de Atocha shipwreck about 35 miles off Key West. (Photo by Pat Clyne/Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

In honor of the illustrious Mel Fisher, who died in 1998, a festival called Mel Fisher Days is held each year to celebrate his historic discovery. This year’s celebration is scheduled for July 11-14 with events including a costume contest, block party, “treasure brunch” and a meet-and-greet with crewmembers who helped salvage the legendary shipwreck.

Ever the dreamer, the optimist, and a model of perseverance, the late Mel Fisher is an inspiration to seniors. His motto of “Today’s the Day!” is a valuable reminder that each day can bring excitement, promise, and treasure — as long as you have the vision to look for it.  

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Rick Hederstrom Tells the ‘Plant’ Truth

Julie Botteri | May 2013

Career paths are rarely preordained. Instead, they might develop around hobbies, interests and learned skills until an opportunity appears that’s a perfect fit. That’s what happened for Rick Hederstrom.

Rick Hederstrom has found a fulfilling career as the ethnobotanist at Key Largo's beautiful Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens. (Photos courtesy of Rick Hederstrom)

Rick started out as a young golf-pro-hopeful and detoured into drafting car designs.

But his life changed completely when he came across the owners of Key Largo’s Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens — and he became their first-ever resident ethnobotanist.

Rick had actually gotten his degree in ethnobotany, the study of the relationships that exist between plants and people, at prestigious Connecticut College. Through what he called divine intervention, he received enough financial grants to fully cover the staggering $43,000 yearly tuition.

Grounded in a strong Catholic faith and kinship with the outdoors and nature, Rick is fascinated with the healing qualities of plants. That led him to pursue ethnobotany, figuring it had more long-term career potential than practicing on golf greens or drawing concept cars indoors at a drafting table.

“I was initially most interested in plants’ usefulness as medicine and perhaps playing a role in developing new treatments and cures from plants,” he said.

During garden tours, Rick explains the origins and uses for many tropical plants -- including the unusual pitcher plant that's considered a carnivore.

When the chance came to study abroad in his junior year, he wound up in the Peruvian Andes and rainforest for three months — immersed in fieldwork with the people of Cuzco and the outlying lowlands, learning how they used plants in everyday life.

“For [Peruvians], the use of plants is a very serious ritual experience and forms the basis of their world view,” Rick explained. “Ayahuasca, a mixture of certain plants, is intensely spiritual, hallucinogenic and is conducive to a positive healing or state of peace.” 

The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai strive to blend enrichment, enlightenment, education and enjoyment. Today, as the facility’s associate director, Rick offers insights to visitors into the crucial roles plants play in our survival.

Guests touring the gardens learn that each living, breathing organism has a name, a story to tell and a complexity and beauty beyond being just a lovely green object. They also can sample delicious fruits he selects from the tropical fruit garden.

“Coconut water from the coconut palms’ fruit provides a valuable source of fresh water, and can substitute as intravenous fluid for hydration,” Rick said, “because it is sterile and has the right balance of minerals and electrolytes.”

Rick skilfully mixes electronic music when he indulges his "hidden passion" for deejaying.

As well as sharing his knowledge, his job includes inventorying the gardens’ plant collections, photographing and noting their condition as well as their flowering and fruiting, and choosing new plants to be added to the collections as planning continues for the facility’s future. He also pens a blog titled “The Diary of the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai.”

Rick spends much of his free time at home in spiritual or religious reading, prayer and meditation, or attending Mass and participating in activities at the Upper Keys’ San Pedro Catholic Church.

On another note, he admits to a whimsical desire to deejay in the Keys, mixing a variety of electronic music. But for now, he’s satisfied with motorcycle rides, exercising and spending time around the water.

“I feel great when I am outdoors, in communion with nature — God’s manifestation in its purest form,” he said.

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Michelle Nicole Lowe: Balancing Island Art and Life

Julie Botteri | April 2013

She maintains a busy seasonal weekend schedule of art shows intermixed with creating new paintings. Even so, Islamorada artist Michelle Nicole Lowe still manages to remain grounded.

Michelle displays some of her work at the annual Islamorada Fine Art Expo. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At the same time, the 28-year-old is deeply passionate about the ocean and about sharing her boldly original art with fellow sea lovers.

Michelle’s watercolors, oils and colored pencil renderings seemingly pop off the canvas. Each scene is a snapshot of lively-eyed creatures like hogfish, angelfish, large-scaled tarpon, tangs and turtles — or the unmistakeable contours of native seagrape trees, palm fronds and plumage of island birds.

“As much as I love to paint, I have a passion for the ocean and the underwater creatures,” she explained.

Michelle also loves traveling to art shows, accompanied by her mother/assistant, because she meets other people who’ve been around the world and who love to dive or snorkel just as she does.

“The majority of people buy my art because they are ocean lovers,” she reported. “They have a memory of whatever I’ve painted and want it on their wall just for the pleasure of it.”

Even at five years old, Michelle loved the water. Here she plays captain for the day with her family.

Michelle spent her childhood fishing, snorkeling and diving in the clear waters off the Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas, Marquesas and Bahamian Out Islands with her parents and younger brother.

Actually, her family tree is solidly rooted in the Keys. Her great-grandfather Archie Lowe was born on the Bahamas’ Green Turtle Cay, emigrated to Key West and traded as a local turtle retailer. The Keys’ turtle fishing trade, which flourished in the mid to late 1800s, essentially ended decades ago with the passage of the Endangerd Species Act. Today, Michelle expresses her fascination with turtles and other underwater creatures through her paintings.

A graduate of the University of Florida and a die-hard fan of its Gators football team, Michelle was always talented in art. Nevertheless she pursued a degree in finance, figuring it would provide independence and stability.

After two post-graduate (and freezing!) years in the corporate finance arena of Washington, D.C., she began a yearlong painting program in Florence, Italy, to return to her heart’s passion.

Michelle's stunning images reflect her love of the Keys ocean environment. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Nicole Lowe)

Afterward in 2010, she took a leap of faith and came home to the Florida Keys, using her in-home studio in Islamorada to cultivate creativity and solace.

Michelle’s knack for finance comes in handy as she manages her own entrepreneurial business — spearheading everything from booking shows months in advance to overseeing reproductions and giclee prints. Yet even while juggling show setups in major South Florida cities and price points per square inch, she finds her age presents a surprising challenge.

“As a young artist at shows, I do get doubted a lot and people don’t want to buy from me,” she said.

She’s often mistakenly judged to be as young as 20 — an age that implies having so many original pieces of art would be impossible. In fact, one show patron, who was convinced art only became valuable after the artist was dead, was reluctant to make a purchase because Michelle wouldn’t be “gone” any time soon!

Michelle (right) shares her giclee prints with a fan at the Pigeon Key Art Festival, held each February in Marathon.

That’s good news for the Upper Keys arts community. Islamorada and the Keys are where Michelle feels most grounded, and she participates enthusiastically in the monthly art walk sponsored by Islamorada’s Morada Way Arts District.

To balance her intense work schedule, she spends Wednesdays on peaceful pursuits that clear her mind — without the distractions of other people or her cell phone. Her mid-week activities might include being on the water or fishing the backcountry.

“Being in the Keys is a good thing,” Michelle enthused. “There are a lot of artists around to talk to and learn from, but not so many that they’re competitive and don’t want to be friendly and share their advice with you.

“I love it here,” she summed up. “I hope I’ll be here for a long time.”

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Andrea Paulson: Exploring the Unspoiled Lower Keys

Christina Baez | March 2013

More than 13 years ago, Captain Andrea Paulson began exploring the Lower Keys backcountry as a weekend alternative to Key West shopping for herself and other fishermen’s wives.

Andrea Paulson's easygoing attitude and love of the Keys' ocean realm make her the perfect guide for backcountry kayak trips. (Photos courtesy of Andrea Paulson)

She discovered she loved the experience so much that it seemed only natural for her to share it with others — which led to a career and a richly rewarding life.

Today, Andrea entertains hundreds of Florida Keys visitors annually with her Reelax Charters Lower Keys backcountry kayak excursions.

A 20-year Keys resident and lifetime outdoor enthusiast, Andrea named her business Reelax Charters for her nickname “Ree” and the relaxing experience participants enjoy.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., she grew up boating and canoeing on Lake Ontario. A true water lover, she even worked as a lifeguard on the beach.

Andrea met her husband, Bobby Paulson, while visiting a friend who owned the house he was renting.

“I came down and was expecting to meet some old salty captain,” she recalled. “We met and that was it; it was kind of love at first sight.”

Adventures in the Keys' shallows and uncharted islets await Reelax Charters' guests.

After a long-distance romance that often involved commutes back and forth from Palm Beach, she moved to the Keys permanently in 1993.

While her husband is out guiding flats-fishing trips, Andrea guides her clients on a journey by motorboat seven to nine miles off the Lower Keys. There they begin their kayak adventure in a realm of crystal clear waters, remote islands, pristine beaches, shallow flats, mangroves and more.

While exploring, kayakers enjoy an “off-the-beaten paddle experience,” discovering islands and areas unreachable by kayak alone. They might spot native Keys wildlife like great white herons, ibis, starfish, stingrays, colorful tropical fish, sea turtles and even a dolphin or two.

Offered daily by appointment from Sugarloaf Marina on Sugarloaf Key, Reelax Charters’ fully customized kayak excursions are an escape in time. Participants begin at their leisure — and Andrea doesn’t watch the clock while guests are having fun. Most tours last four to five hours and accommodate up to six people.

A few couples, clearly romanced by the natural beauty of the Florida Keys, have even gotten engaged or tied the knot on one of Andrea’s private kayak excursions.

Bobby, Andrea and puppy Clark share a moment of "reelaxation" on the water.

Families too find themselves captivated by Reelax Charters’ adventures, and the captain keeps books and literature on hand for kids to use in identifying Keys wildlife.

“I love my job, and when I’m not working I’m out exploring new areas by kayak,” Andrea admitted. “The best part (of my job) is ending the day with a hug from a customer because we’ve had so much fun together it’s almost like we’ve become best friends.”

During her free time, Andrea often finds herself kayaking, fishing with her husband and entertaining other fishermen’s wives. She also enjoys “downtime” with her husband and their yellow Labrador puppy, Clark.

Like a true Paulson, Clark loves the water. In fact, most likely he’ll be spotted exploring the Lower Keys backcountry by kayak sometime soon!

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Kelly Grinter: Wild Birds’ Best Friend

Julie Botteri | January 2013

Originally, she was more interested in working with porcupines and skunks than birds. Yet Kelly Grinter has spent 18 years at the helm of the Marathon Wild Bird Center — and now she’s one of the Florida Keys’ best-known wildlife rehabilitators.

Kelly Grinter is renowned for her passion for helping the Keys' avian residents and visitors.

Kelly came to the Keys in 1995 to intern at the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, in part to escape a cold Massachusetts January and an unsatisfying career in graphic design.

A friend of hers was an ornithologist — and that friend’s passion and knowledge about birds convinced her to relocate and learn.

“I discovered that birds were light for flight and had high metabolisms, and thought, ‘Okay, they’re interesting,’” she said.

In addition, she was intrigued by the Florida Keys’ location within a migratory flyway, where 10,000 or more birds pass the same travel paths each year. Winged travelers ranging from small songbirds or warblers to birds as big as bald eagles — white ibis, brown pelicans, red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, double-crested cormorants, raptors and peregrine falcons — take a migratory break in the fall before they head farther south to Cuba.

Within a year, Kelly was offered the top spot at the Marathon Wild Bird Center at the Museums of Crane Point, tucked inside a 64-acre hardwood hammock at mile marker 50 on Florida Bay.

The center’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds. Each year, it treats 500 or more migratory and native birds.

The Marathon Wild Bird Center rescues and rehabilitates wild birds in need and releases recovered "patients" back into the wild.

“The coolest thing about coming to the Marathon Wild Bird Center,” Kelly said, “is you get to see these birds up close and personal.”

People might glimpse a red-tailed hawk, pelican or osprey in flight or in their nests, but sightings in the wild rarely offer the chance for a close-up examination of the bird.

“Here, visitors can see their plumage, interact with them and discover they each have their own personality,” Kelly advised. “Families learn together.”

During the past 18 years, she has performed thousands of avian rescues. Few, however, were as harrowing as helping a young female pelican that had swiped and swallowed the 8-inch filet knife a fisherman was using to cut mackerel at his cleaning table.

Kelly was afraid she would lose precious time transporting the bird to the center’s hospital to anesthetize it and surgically remove the knife. So she attempted to extract it right then.

Each year, the Marathon center provides help and a safe haven for around 500 native and wild birds.

“The blade was pointing straight up, so I figured all I had to do was pull it up and out,” she recalled. “After a few unsuccessful attempts at grabbing the slimy blade, I put on latex gloves and on the count of one-two-three, up and out came the knife, without a drop of blood.”

The crowd gathered around erupted in cheers.

“I told the pelican not to do that again and released her back into the water,” Kelly quipped.

At 42, she remains enthusiastic and committed to her chosen path. In 2006, she was named a finalist for the Animal Planet network’s Hero of the Year award.

She’s fueled by life-affirming events such as the birth of baby cormorants at the center and the release of the young birds into the wild. Her toddler son, Noah, accompanied her on the release so he could watch and learn.

“I love what I do, caring for these innocent creatures. Honestly I can’t see myself doing anything else or living anywhere else,” Kelly said. “I want to help others learn how to care for birds, and I want my son to be an advocate for the birds of the Keys.”

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Captain Finbar, Key West’s Colorful Seafaring Senior

Katharine Roach | January 2013

Captain Finbar and the Schooner Wolf. Think of one, and the other immediately comes to mind.

Finbar Gittelman, a master seafarer with a roguish sense of humor, is the builder and skipper of the Schooner Wolf. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Captain Finbar Gittelman, one of the Florida Keys’ most illustrious senior citizens, has lived and sailed in and around Key West since the early 1970s.

When you look at his weathered face and neatly trimmed grey beard, you’ll quite likely be reminded of artists’ renditions of salty sailors. A twinkle in his eye and an offbeat sense of humor only add to the resemblance.

In fact, Captain Finbar looks unnervingly like the wicked Barbossa in “Pirates of the Caribbean” (though a good bit more cheerful!). Barbossa, however, probably couldn’t tell as many tales of rogues and renegades as Finbar can — or tell them so entertainingly.

In the early 1980s, along with master builder Willis Ray, Finbar built the 74-foot topsail schooner Wolf, which he still owns and operates. The Wolf, incidentally, is the flagship of the Conch Republic, the Keys’ offbeat alter ego, and Finbar is the Conch Republic Navy’s Admiral and First Sea Lord.

Finbar is the Admiral and First Sea Lord of the Keys' spirited Conch Republic Navy. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

It’s far more than a ceremonial title. He directs operations including an annual sea battle, which has received national and international acclaim, commemorating the birth of the republic.

In addition, Finbar and the Wolf have taken Key West visitors on day trips and sunset cruises for many years, been the location for weddings at sea, and have sailed over many parts of the world representing the Florida Keys.

The majestic Wolf is reminiscent of the blockade runners of the 19th century that sailed the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Finbar takes his schooner to seaport festivals in the U.S. and Caribbean islands and the ship has appeared in several films. It was also the lead vessel in Key West’s late lamented Pirates in Paradise festival, offering buccaneer excursions complete with an appropriately scurvy crew.

But there’s also a more serious side to Finbar Gittelman. In 1980, along with three others, he survived Hurricane Allen in the Caribbean. After the boat Finbar was piloting sank during the storm, he and his crew endured three terrifying days in a life raft, not knowing whether rescue or death awaited them.

Aspiring seafarers can experience sunset cruises on Captain Finbar's magnificent Schooner Wolf. (Photo courtesy of the Schooner Wolf)

Perhaps as a result of that experience, over the years Finbar and first mate (and wife) Julie McEnroe have taken the Wolf on many humanitarian journeys into the Caribbean, delivering food and other relief supplies to area devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters.

“We’re islanders,” explains Finbar simply, “and we need to take care of our fellow islanders.”

These days the Wolf is docked at Safe Harbor Marina, located at 6810 Front St. on Stock Island (the island next to Key West). She is available to take passengers on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and sunset cruises, piloted by Key West’s colorful seafaring senior … the one and only Captain Finbar.

For information and tickets, call (305) 294-9694 or click here.

 

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