Keys Halloween: Underwater Pumpkins and Zombies

Chloe Lykes | October 2015

Expect things to be a little strange in the Florida Keys this month (stranger than usual, that is!). Quirky and laid-back year-round, the Keys turn to mischievous mayhem come Halloween.

Underwater Pumpkins Key Largo

Jana Vandelaar uses an oversize toothbrush on a jack-o’-lantern she sculpted during the Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

You’ll find haunting happenings in the island chain from the northernmost outpost of Key Largo to the continental United States’ southernmost city of Key West. And they start (speaking of strange) underwater.

Yes, divers can earn prizes and praise for creating the most unique jack-o’-lanterns beneath the sea — during the 18th annual Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest that’s set for Saturday, Oct. 17.

The contest is hosted by Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, a welcoming property located at mile marker (MM) 104.5 bayside in Key Largo, and it’s open to all certified scuba divers.

During the offbeat event, two-person teams submerge about 30 feet beneath the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where they’re tasked with carving pumpkins into imaginative jack-o’-lanterns. FYI, entrants’ challenges include keeping the hollowed-out pumpkins from floating away while they carve their works of art!

Wayne Cline won the 2014 contest, wowing the judges by crafting an intricately designed seahorse. But underwater artistry, he discovered, isn’t always easy.

underwater pumpkin carving Key Largo

Something’s fishy about this jack-o’-lantern — it’s being carved underwater! (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“What’s challenging about carving a pumpkin underwater is not only the buoyancy of your body, but the buoyancy of the pumpkin itself,” Wayne advised.

Contestant Patricia Coe also encountered some unexpected obstacles.

“It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” she admitted. “You’re 30 feet under water and things float away — including your tools and your ideas.”

The fee is just $85 per diver for the two-tank, two-location dive. Clever carvers are encouraged to sign up early, since space is limited.

Ghostly goings-on are also scheduled on land in the Keys. For example, brave kids can venture into Crane Point Hammock’s Creepy Carnival starting at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30. The eerie event, taking place in Marathon at MM 50, is to feature spooky special guests like the Bearded Lady, Crazy Clowns and Wolfman.

Geared toward youngsters age 12 and under, the fright-filled fun is free to the public.

One of Key West’s scariest spectacles involves land, sea — and outer space. The historic U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, docked at the Truman Waterfront and operating as a maritime museum, will host an interactive experience titled “King Neptune’s Curse: Aliens vs. Coast Guard.”

Zombie bikers Key West

Zombies “invade” Key West each year during the zany Zombie Bike Ride. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Coast Guard and adventurous attendees will battle “aliens” trying to take over the USCGC Ingham. Each compartment will have various challenges for attendees to complete to “protect” the ship.

Skirmishes are scheduled each evening from Oct. 22-30 (except Oct. 26 and 29). Tickets will be on sale beginning at 7:30 p.m. and gates open at 8 p.m. Closed-toed shoes are required.

And let’s not forget a pre-Halloween happening designed especially for the walking dead (or actually the bicycling dead) dubbed the Zombie Bike Ride.

Several thousand kids and grownups, costumed and painted as the fearsome creatures, are expected to participate in Oct. 25th’s raucous ride — pedaling beside Key West’s Atlantic Ocean shoreline and palm-lined streets.

A canine with unnerving extra heads takes part in a past Zombie Bike Ride. (Photo by Mike Marrero, Florida Keys News Bureau)

A canine with unnerving extra heads takes part in a past Zombie Bike Ride. (Photo by Mike Marrero, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The zany family-friendly event begins at 2 p.m. when “Zombieland” opens at Fort East Martello Museum, a reputedly haunted historic site beside the Atlantic. Attractions include music, food and beverage vendors and on-site face and body painters to help attendees transform into zombies.

At 6 p.m., the spooky cyclists depart. The bike route takes them along the Atlantic down South Roosevelt Boulevard and into a section of Key West’s picturesque Old Town — culminating in the ZombieFest Street Party in the 100, 200 and 300 blocks of famed Duval Street.

Want to know more about the Florida Keys’ October events and adventures? Then just click here — and make plans to take part in them!


Alpacas, a Lemur and Mo (Oh My!)

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2015

The Florida Keys are well known as the home to endangered sea turtles, stately blue herons, scores of fish species and a flourishing herd of tiny, shy Key deer.

Keys animal farm lemur

An energetic ring-tailed lemur named Kelsie is one of the most popular residents at the animal farm.

But they’re also home to a gaggle of other critters that almost no one would expect to find in the island chain. Like an emu named Kramer after a character on television’s “Seinfeld.” A pair of alpacas. An energetic ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar. And a 10-year-old two-toed sloth dubbed Mo.

While it might seem strange that all those creatures can be found in the subtropical environment of the Keys, it’s even stranger that they’re all “roommates” — at a unique and wonderful facility called the Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm.

The “farm” really does stand on the grounds of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office detention center (in other words, the Keys jail) near Key West. Its animal inhabitants are primarily cared for by a group of the detention center’s inmates — each of them screened and approved to work there and interact with the public.

Keys animal farm inmate croc

An inmate displays one of the unique farm’s reptilian inhabitants.

The farm opens its gates from 1 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, and eager visitors from kids to seniors flock to it to observe and “meet” the resident animals.

Especially for visiting kids, the place provides a chance to get a close-up view of traditional farm animals like donkeys, goats, pigs and velvety rabbits that seem to enjoy being petted.

And observing the more exotic creatures is a rare treat for virtually all the visitors.

The farm began in 1994 in an open area underneath the jail facility (which was built on stilts). Its first inhabitants were some homeless Muscovy ducks and Keys chickens, who were joined shortly by a blind horse found abandoned in Miami. Inmates built a pen for the horse, subsequently named Angel, and the population expanded from there. Many animals came from abusive or neglectful homes, while others were donated by people no longer able to care for them.

Keys animal farm sloth

“Farmer” Jeanne Selandar and Mo the sloth are often special guests at Keys events.

For nearly a decade the animal park and its operation have been overseen by “Farmer” Jeanne Selander, a staff member at the Sheriff’s office — and it has proved to benefit the animals, inmates and visitors who fall in love with the place.

Today, the animal family is surprisingly large and diverse. It includes peacocks, pythons, African spurred tortoises, a somewhat shy black bull named Angus, a crocodile or two, a pygmy goat named Domino among other goats, and a blonde skunk called (really!) Chanel. An alpaca named Snowflake appears to be the unofficial greeter, and Kelsie the lemur can hardly contain her excitement when visitors pause outside her cage.

But the undisputed star of the facility’s animal kingdom is the two-toed sloth, whose name is Molasses but has been shortened to Mo. His long, thick fur is smooth to the touch and his affectionate nature makes him a favorite with visitors.

“He’s the perfect Key West animal,” said Jeanne Selander. “He’s laid-back.”

Keys animal farm alpaca

Snowflake the alpaca greets visitors to the enjoyable facility.

“Farmer” Jeanne and Mo receive regular invitations to appear at special events and festivals in the Keys, and she’s happy to transport him. The easygoing sloth wraps his arms and legs comfortably around her body to be carried and seems to enjoy his outings.

“Everybody wants Mo — I’m just his roadie,” Jeanne quipped.

Admission to the captivating farm is free, but donations are accepted and much appreciated. And for those who can’t stop by personally, it’s possible to “meet” the farm’s residents via its Facebook page.


Fantasy, Drag and Key West Delights

Steve Smith | September 2015

Summer has slipped into fall and this time of year brings “haunting” happenings to Key West. Soon our streets will be decorated with ghosts and goblins as much of our downtown transforms into a slightly twisted interpretation of this year’s Fantasy Fest theme, “All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show.”

Key West Fantasy Fest parade

A lavish float and revelers proceed down Duval Street during 2014’s Fantasy Fest Parade. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The quest for the title of Fantasy Fest king and queen is the focus of many events leading up to the Coronation Ball on Friday, Oct. 23 — held on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at the Southernmost Beach Café.

The royal candidates campaign by staging events to raise money for our local community-based service organization AIDS Help, Inc. The candidates raising the most money for AIDS Help will be crowned king and queen and will preside over the revelries culminating in Oct. 31’s Fantasy Fest Parade.

Bahama Village’s Goombay Festival will take place on the weekend of Oct. 23 and 24, stretching down Petronia Street from Duval to Fort streets.

The village’s main thoroughfare is the setting for colorful Bahamian-flavored attractions including live entertainment, arts and crafts, free-flowing beverages and a sampling of foods from the islands. The music and fun starts each day at noon and winds down at midnight.

Key West drag queen Sushi

Sushi, aka Gary Marion, is a featured personality in the “What a Drag!” exhibit.

Approaching the site of the Goombay Festival, you’re likely to meet a bevy of our local drag entertainers. Under the talented guidance of Sushi (also known as Gary Marion), the famous star of the New Year’s Eve Shoe Drop, the troupe keeps watch over the rainbow crosswalks that grace the entrance to Bahama Village. They also entertain visitors traversing Duval Street, posing for photographs and promoting their raucous drag shows held in the 801 Bourbon Cabaret.

A short walk down Duval Street takes you to Aqua, where entertainers led by Inga (Roger Hultman) light up both the sidewalk and the stage with their nightly “Reality is a Drag” shows.

Pinky, Margo, La La Belle, RV Beaumont, Parquesa and Samantha are some of the queens that have graced Key West stages in years past, entertaining us with their own style of drag. These famous entertainers have since passed on, but the essence of our thriving drag community is being celebrated at the Custom House Museum’s new exhibit titled “What a Drag.”

While highlighting the glitz and glamour of drag, the exhibit takes attendees on a journey that showcases the important role our female impersonators have played in the fabric of the Key West community.

Drag exhibit Key West

The Custom House Museum’s “What a Drag!” exhibit spotlights Key West’s famed drag queens. (Photo by Susan Guadagno, Monkey Apple Art Factory)

While these “girls” perform for you in our cabarets and clubs, they also have shared their talents at hundreds of charitable events throughout the years. You may see them at a picnic benefiting Hospice, strutting down Duval Street during the annual Poker Run, sharing the stage at the Tennessee Williams Theatre or performing on stages set up across the island during events supporting local nonprofit organizations.

Take an afternoon to visit the exhibit at the Custom House, located at the intersection of Whitehead and Front streets, and discover our community as you meet the men who create — and transform into — the flamboyant entertainers starring on our stages.

Who knows … you might be inspired to try your own talents at becoming an illusionist.

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


Celebrate Bogie and Bacall in Key Largo

Julie Botteri | September 2015

For fans of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, one of America’s all-time great screen couples, Key Largo is the place to be in late October.

Key Largo movie poster

Festival attendees can discover the best of Bogie and Bacall in — where else? — Key Largo.

That’s not just because Key Largo shares its name with one of Bogie and Bacall’s iconic films, though the connection to the classic is undeniable.

It’s also because the island at the head of the Florida Keys is the setting for the third annual Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, scheduled Oct. 21-25 — and because the festival, which celebrates the late Bogart’s life and films, this year also pays homage to his wife Lauren Bacall.

On top of that, the event’s co-host and one of its guiding spirits is none other than Stephen Bogart, the son of Bogie and Bacall. And among its scheduled highlights are cruises on the African Queen (yes, it’s the boat from John Huston’s 1951 film starring Bogart and Katharine Hepburn), which has been lovingly restored and is available for canal and dinner cruises in Key Largo waters.

“My father and mother starred in ‘Key Largo’ and the actual boat from ‘The African Queen’ is here in Key Largo,” Stephen Bogart explained before the first annual festival. “It just feels right to honor my father and his movies in this beautiful place, which has such an organic connection to his legacy.”

That legacy will be very evident during the festival, as film buffs celebrate the legendary actor who appeared in 75 movies during a 50-year career. Among them were four pairings with the beautiful Bacall, who died just over a year ago.

Stephen Bogart African Queen

Stephen Bogart, shown here steering the original African Queen, is the co-host of the annual film festival. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The duo’s films were “To Have and Have Not,” adapted from a novel written by former Key West resident Ernest Hemingway; “The Big Sleep,” a thriller based on a Raymond Chandler book; “Dark Passage,” the story of a falsely convicted murderer and the woman who helps him; and 1948’s legendary “Key Largo,” whose plot involves a notorious gangster, a hurricane and a hostage situation at a Key Largo hotel.

At the 2015 festival, Stephen Bogart is to be joined by Eddie Muller — an acclaimed novelist and film historian known internationally as the “Czar of Noir.” He’s also the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation that’s dedicated to rescuing, restoring and showing at-risk noir offerings.

In addition, film buffs in attendance can meet special guest Monika Henreid — a documentary filmmaker and the daughter of Paul Henreid, who played Victor Laszlo in the famed “Casablanca.”

So what’s planned for the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival? Highlights include indoor and outdoor single- and double-feature showings of Bogart classics — including the four pairings with Bacall as well as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “Casablanca,” “The African Queen” and (of course) “Key Largo.”

Bogart Fest film screening

Bogart Fest attendees can view classic Bogart and noir films, attend special events and meet Stephen Bogart and other celebrity guests. (Photo courtesy of the Bogart Film Festival, LLC)

Plus attendees can take a “starring role” in special events including the Costume or Casual Cocktail Reception, Bogart Block Party with island music, and Seaside Soirée with dancing and dining outdoors beside Florida Bay. In addition there’s a student short film competition for entries in multiple categories.

Throughout the weekend, fans can view Bogart memorabilia, find festival collectibles and book canal cruises on the African Queen. The venerable vessel is docked at the Holiday Inn Key Largo, located at mile marker 100, and it’s a true thrill to step aboard.

Eager to attend the cinematic showcases and surrounding events? All-access and single-event passes can be purchased here.


Why the Seven Mile Bridge is Awesome

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2015

The Florida Keys’ Seven Mile Bridge is awesome. That’s not news to those of us who live in the Keys — or to visitors who have driven over the majestic span, which stretches above turquoise waters that unroll to a vast faraway horizon on both sides.

Seven Mile Bridge

The Seven Mile Bridge (left) and its historic counterpart span a breathtaking stretch of water. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And it’s certainly not news to the 1,500 athletes who test their strength and stamina on the bridge each April in the grueling yet stunningly beautiful Seven Mile Bridge Run.

But thanks to a recent Orbitz Travel Blog posting by Jason Heidemann, more people than ever understand the truly awe-inspiring nature of the bridge between Marathon and the Lower Keys — because it’s included in Jason’s “Crossing Over: 10 Awesome Bridges Around the World.”

Driving across the Florida Keys landmark, Jason writes, “gives motorists the feeling of floating in the middle of azure Caribbean waters.” He goes on to recommend that visitors to the Keys walk part of the Old Seven Mile Bridge that parallels the contemporary span.

So what makes the Seven Mile Bridge so fascinating?

A field of 1,500 runners crosses the "hump" of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

A field of 1,500 runners crosses the “hump” of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For one thing, it’s one of the longest segmental bridges in the world and the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway that winds throughout the entire island chain.

Purists might be amused to note that, despite its name, the Seven Mile Bridge isn’t seven miles long. It’s only 6.79 miles — but the difference, though it isn’t huge, is no doubt significant for those 1,500 runners as they struggle to reach the finish line of the annual bridge race.

And then, of course, there’s the bridge’s history.

The original span, today called the Old Seven Mile Bridge, was built more than a century ago as part of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, a unique railway sometimes referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Completed in 1912, its tracks stretched more than 100 miles out over open water (yes, they really did!), connecting the Keys with each other and mainland Florida for the first time.

Pigeon Key has recently adopted solar power for its energy needs -- using today's technology to enhance the historic setting. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Pigeon Key, which now uses solar power for its energy needs, lies beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In 1938, the bridge was converted to carry automobiles instead of trains, and crossing it became a fascinating adventure for motorists. By 1982, prompted by deterioration caused by the saltwater environment, the federal government had built a new Seven Mile Bridge — the one Jason praised — paralleling the historic one.

Today the Old Seven Mile Bridge, sometimes called “Old 7” is retired and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge’s center section was removed to facilitate boat traffic, but a portion of the structure is now a well-known walking trail leading to the restored railroad camp and museum on tiny Pigeon Key, which lies beneath the old span.

In fact, “Old 7” is reportedly used by more than 100,000 people every year for walking and biking. And parts of it are also utilized as a fishing pier.

walking Old Seven Mile Bridge

Middle Keys residents enjoy early-morning walks across a landmark 2.2-mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

The 2.2-mile segment leading to Pigeon Key is a favorite of early-rising Middle Keys locals, who often stroll along it (some accompanied by their dogs) for an unrivalled view of the sunrise. And in 2014, state and local officials agreed to begin a 30-year project to restore and maintain the famed segment.

“Folks come from all over the world to see this iconic structure,” said Roman Gastesi, administrator of the Keys’ Monroe County, about the bridge. “I call it a linear park. It’s a gem of the Middle Keys.”

Or, as Jason Heidemann might say, the venerable old bridge — and its newer counterpart — are BOTH simply awesome.


Taste Your Way Around Key West

Steve Smith | September 2015

It’s already the middle of September and Key West is still hopping with parties and events. Our Labor Day holiday and Womenfest have passed, and around Sept. 17 we roll out the pavement for the 43rd annual Poker Run.

Every day, locals flock to 5 Brothers for Cuban sandwiches, cafe con leche and other treats. (Photo courtesy of 5 Brothers)

Every day, Key West locals flock to 5 Brothers for Cuban sandwiches, cafe con leche and other treats. (Photo courtesy of 5 Brothers)

Estimates predict between 10,000 and 14,000 bikers will participate in this annual fundraising event. The idea is to ride your Harley (or the equivalent) down and through the chain of islands we call the Florida Keys. During the “run,” riders have time to snorkel, swim and sightsee as they traverse the Overseas Highway that stretches some 125 miles and crosses 42 bridges.

Check out the thousands of incredible “bikes” that will be parked on lower Duval Street this weekend. Poker hand winners compete for cash or a new Harley; the fun is spending time on Duval looking at and photographing bikes more unique than any you’ve ever seen before.

As you wander through Old Town Key West, explore some quaint cafés tucked around the neighborhoods. On the corner of Southard and Grinnell streets is 5 Brothers Grocery & Sandwich Shop operated by the Paez family. In 1996, Pepe Paez took control of the espresso machine from his father Heriberto. Like a symphony conductor, Pepe orchestrates cups of creamy sweet café con leche and the famous strong sweet Bucci — a tiny cup of rich, almost-black espresso and sugar. Add a Cuban bread cheese toast, and your morning treat is complete.

Cuban Coffee Queen Key West

Key West’s popular Cuban Coffee Queen serves eager customers in the Historic Seaport. (Photo courtesy of Cuban Coffee Queen)

Other Paez family specialties include a great Cuban Mix sandwich and my favorite, the Medianoche (which means “midnight” in Spanish). So named because it was served in Havana nightclubs after midnight, the sandwich includes layers of ham, salami, fresh Cuban pork, swiss cheese and pickles stacked on sweet egg dough bread and toasted in a press.

A few blocks away in the Historic Seaport is the Cuban Coffee Queen. This tiny oasis next to Mac’s Sea Garden serves iced café con leche and huge Cuban sandwiches to enjoy as you stroll along the harbor. Recently the Queen opened a second location off Duval Street in Key Lime Square, adjacent to the Southard Street intersection.

Key West Kermit Key lime pie

Kermit awaits visitors to his shop with a fabulous Key lime pie. (Photo courtesy of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe)

Across the road from the Seaport, at the corner of Elizabeth and Greene streets, you’ll find Kermit Carpenter’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe and Kermit’s Kitchen Café. Known around the world for his famous Key lime pie, Kermit opened his café to serve breakfast, lunch and light fare. The menu offerings are prepared using Kermit’s own marinades and sauces (available to take home from his shop) and can be packaged to take to the beach or on a water adventure.

Take a short trip down Simonton Street to discover Deuce’s “Off The Hook” Grill, an intimate bistro-style seafood grill on the corner of Petronia Street. Rated 4.5 stars by TripAdvisor, this café serves fresh seafood, plus Greek and American dishes. A favorite is their Gobbler, consisting of freshly roasted turkey uniquely served over bacon “smashed” potatoes on a sage–stuffed waffle. Reservations are recommended since the cozy eatery only has six tables and six counter seats.

Taste your way around Key West, where you’ll find world-class food in the most remarkable places — and have a great trip to the island we locals call paradise.

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


Fresh Fish and Friendly Locals

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2015

A visitor exploring the Florida Keys might praise anything from the blazing sunsets to the variety of watersports to the “anything goes” vibe. But two elements are praised by almost everybody: the fresh fish and the friendly, creative locals.

Fish dinner in the Keys

For many visitors, the yummy fresh fish available in local restaurants ranks as one of the Keys’ most appealing elements.

As a longtime resident myself, I can tell you that both are well worth the acclaim they receive — and encountering both can add tremendously to your enjoyment of your Keys vacation.

Regarding that succulent fish, it’s well known that restaurants throughout the island chain pride themselves on serving local fish and seafood prepared in ways from classic to strikingly innovative. So where can you get the best?

Some of my favorite spots are the Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West’s Historic Seaport, the Stoned Crab at Ibis Bay Beach Resort (also in Key West), the easygoing eatery at Geiger Key Marina in the Lower Keys, Marathon’s Keys Fisheries, Chef Michael’s in Islamorada and the Fish House Encore in Key Largo.

Look for local selections like Key West pink shrimp and stone crab in season, yellowtail snapper, hogfish or even lionfish — a delicacy recently added to numerous menus — and you can’t go wrong.

Speaking of fish, some “fishy” creations are being crafted in a Lower Keys art studio. And they’re all dreamed up by the talented August Powers.

Underwater band

Costumed characters play “fishy” instruments sculpted by August Powers during the annual Underwater Music Festival. (Photo by Bill Keogh)

August, one of the Lower Keys’ most creative residents, might never have discovered his calling if his mother hadn’t wanted a fountain. But she did — so she sent him to a metal arts class at the Keys’ junior college, sparking a career that has lasted some 25 years.

Sculpting that initial fountain and others inspired August to begin crafting different types of leaves to decorate them, grasshoppers and other bugs, snails and birds, and ultimately fish and denizens of the deep.

Working in bronze, steel and copper, fusing hammered pieces together with a torch, he sculpts creatures ranging from life-size to gigantic. His favorite subjects include marine life such as barracuda and flying fish, wahoo and prehistoric-looking crabs.

August is particularly well known for the “musical instruments” he creates for the quirky Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, an undersea broadcast each July that promotes preservation of the Keys’ living coral reef.

turtle release Key West

Keys locals include those passionate about protecting sea turtles — like the staff and volunteers from Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, shown here releasing a rehabilitated turtle back into the wild. (Rob O’Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau)

His skillful pieces combine elements of marine creatures and traditional instruments — resulting in whimsical hybrids like a “manta-lin,” “sitarfish,” “clamborine” and “trombonefish” that are “played” by the festival’s participating divers on the ocean floor.

August Powers certainly isn’t the only Keys resident who’s passionate about his work. In fact, locals who have made their passions into professions can be found virtually everywhere along the island chain — whether chefs experimenting with new fish and seafood recipes, dolphin researchers and “turtle whisperers,” eco-adventure guides, hoteliers and innkeepers, or dive operators and fishing captains who share their love of the Keys waters with clients every day.

Seeking out these friendly, passionate people is guaranteed to enrich your vacation experience. You can even “meet” them, and discover their favorite pastimes and hangouts, before your visit — by clicking on the “Local’s Choice Vacation Guide.”

Keys Meet the Locals logo

“Meet” some friendly Florida Keys locals in the Locals’ Choice Vacation Guide.

This section of the Keys’ visitor website contains in-depth insights into residents’ favorite attractions, watering holes, restaurants and more. You’ll also find a top 10 list of locals’ must-do activities, their tips on enjoying the Keys and profiles of residents with intriguing lifestyles or pursuits.

In fact, whether you’re looking for super-fresh fish dishes or free-spirited new friends, you’re likely to find them in the Florida Keys. So whet your appetite by exploring the Locals’ Choice “menu” of information, and start making travel plans (today!).


Tim Borski: ‘Angling’ for Artistic Satisfaction

Briana Ciraulo | September 2015

“When I decided to move down here,” said Tim Borski, “I ripped up my plane ticket home, threw it in the trash, called my dad and told him, ‘Don’t wait up — I’m not coming back.’”

Tim Borski Keys artist

Tim Borski’s passion for fishing Florida Keys waters inspires much of his popular art.

Tim came to the Florida Keys in 1986, when he was in his early twenties, with two passions: fishing and art. After growing up in Wisconsin and studying fine art at a local university, he took a vacation to South Florida to soak up some sunshine.

Like many who experience the Florida Keys, he never went back.

Tim started his South Florida life working at an arts and crafts store in Miami. After realizing he was spending most of his time fishing in the Keys, the 26-year-old packed up, moved to Tavernier and started working for a fly-fishing shop, painting and making art for the shop.

What began as a simple vacation for some much-needed sun almost 30 years ago has since turned into a career and lifestyle for the Keys artist.

“People say I’m lucky to live in the Keys, and I get why they say that,” Tim said. “But it was by choice. I put one foot in front of the other and it led me straight to this doorstep.”

Tim Borski fish art

Tim’s contemporary wildlife art includes distinctive images of Keys fish species — like this vivid mahi-mahi.

Professionally, Tim focuses on contemporary wildlife art. Though he creates marine art, he also depicts other aspects of the wild, including birds and full nature landscapes. His work is in such demand that some of his canvases have been transformed into T-shirts and sold through fishing websites.

Tim works and paints out of a private studio in his home in Tavernier. His canvases have become a staple of the Keys art scene — featured at the famous Redbone Gallery and during the popular Morada Way Third Thursday Art Walk.

When he works, Tim doesn’t rely on “inspiration.” If he wants to paint, he goes out and finds something to paint.

“If I go looking for something specific, do it correctly and then succeed, that gives me the greatest reward possible,” he explained.

Tim's vision and talent bring even seemingly commonplace wildlife scenes to vibrant life.

Tim’s vision and talent bring even seemingly commonplace wildlife scenes to vibrant life.

He also exhibits a hunter’s mentality. Growing up in the Midwest, Tim spent many years fishing and hunting in his hometown. Those pastimes translated easily to a Florida Keys lifestyle where he could spend most of his days out in the backcountry, “hunting” for fish.

“I just have a great time going out and searching for anything,” he admitted. “It doesn’t matter what it is, even if it’s for the ketchup in the back of my fridge!”

An avid outdoorsman, Tim appreciates his surroundings in the Keys every day.

“I really like having water on both sides of the road,” he enthused. “The big vistas and big open spaces — it’s something we take for granted sometimes.”


Music, Merriment and Magic Await September Visitors to Key West

Steve Smith | September 2015

Labor Day for many means all the fun and relaxation of summer have come to an end, white clothes are out, sales begin, the kids have been in school for a week or so, and a Monday holiday kicks off what’s likely to be a very busy month.

Randy Roberts Key West entertainer

Randy Roberts displays mega-talent during September performances at beloved Key West landmark La Te Da.

How did it begin? Labor Day can be traced back to an organized parade in New York City in 1882. Union leaders wanted a “monster labor festival,” which started off rather slowly but later grew to attract massive crowds to celebrate a day of the people. It has now become a national holiday — and Key West, of course, always makes the best of it.

Here in Key West, we know that Labor Day means a holiday for some, “no vacancy” signs on hotels, and a busy three-day weekend for our friends and family working in the hospitality industry. Look for themed parties at the local pubs including a Labor Day Luau at Bourbon St. Pub complete with a barbecue and eye-opening special effects, Randy Roberts and Christopher Peterson live and a rocking Tea Dance at the newly remodeled La Te Da, gay Bingo with QMitch Jones, and snorkeling on the BluQ.

When the Labor Day partying ends, Womenfest Key West kicks off with shows ranging from burlesque to drag, sunset sailing and much more — including performances by the all-female rock band Sister Funk (who I met years ago at Atlanta Pride), singer-songwriter Jennifer Corday (who is known for her passionate vocals and has opened for Cher and the Dave Matthews Band), and DJ Citizen Jane (who headlines Pride festivals across the U.S.).

Singles, couples and groups of women flock to Key West each year to enjoy parties, performances and camaraderie. (Photo courtesy of Womenfest Key West)

Singles, couples and groups of women flock to Key West’s Womenfest each year to enjoy parties, performances and camaraderie. (Photo courtesy of Womenfest Key West)

During the weekend, Sunset Watersports is hosting a sunset “concert on the sea” with Sister Funk and Alexander’s Guesthouse is hosting a hip-hop pool party. Plus Fury Water Adventures brings the music of Jennifer Corday to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as the sun sets, complemented by margaritas, draft beer, wine, sodas and appetizers.

The Gardens Hotel invites the Womenfest attendees to a wine tasting at the boutique hotel, which has earned repeated kudos and awards from Conde Nast Traveler among many others. Guests can stroll among an acre of tropical gardens, enjoy live entertainment and sample fine wines.

The Gardens Hotel was once known as the first tourist attraction in Key West and is the former home of Peggy Mills, who wanted a garden retreat for visitors. The property transports guests back to a time when one-ton earthenware jars, called tinajones, were used by Spanish settlers of Cuba to catch rainwater for drinking.

Gardens Hotel Key West

Huge water jars called tinajones add historic flair to the grounds of Key West’s Gardens Hotel.

There are four on the property, and a winding pathway is lined with century-old bricks from Cuba, the Honduras and England.

There’s still plenty of time to plan your visit during Womenfest, and many of the great events are open to everyone. After all, we are all members of “One Human Family” and we encourage you to share your time and space with each other. Spending time on a tiny island brings us all together in a magical way — and yes, the magic of Key West is still alive and well.

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Five Ways to Enjoy Key West Like a Local

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2015

One of the reasons so many people visit Key West each year is the island’s casual, quirky atmosphere. And the best way to absorb that atmosphere is to forget you’re a visitor.

Key West picket fence house

Walk or bike through Key West’s Old Town and discover charming historic homes with exuberant blossoms spilling over their picket fences.

Instead, adjust your mindset. Stop thinking of yourself as a “tourist” and instead self-identify as “temporary local.”

Why? Because if you adopt the “tourist” mindset, you’re all too likely to limit your experience to typical “tourist” activities. But if you think of yourself as a local — even if it’s only for a few days — you’re more likely to search out and embrace off-the-beaten-path pursuits that longtime residents enjoy.

For example, here are five pastimes that the average visitor might not find out about or choose to spend time and energy experiencing. But trust me … they’re genuinely rewarding if you want an out-of-the-ordinary vacation that creates lasting memories.

1. Bike or stroll through Key West’s Old Town neighborhood, the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the entire United States, as evening falls. It’s a simple activity, but a very worthwhile one. Allow yourself to get lost and simply wander, discovering lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages along narrow lanes, while enjoying the fragrance of luscious flowers drifting from behind white picket fences.

Hogfish Bar Key West exterior

Just outside Key West on Stock Island, the hard-to-find Hogfish Bar & Grill features great seafood and a wonderful funky vibe.

2. Try smoked fish dip at the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island just off Key West, sitting outdoors at a weathered picnic table. The smoked fish dip combines a creamy texture with a satisfyingly hearty taste, and the picnic tables overlook picturesque vessels moored along the dock — everything from houseboats decorated with exuberant island art to a schooner with a fascinating history.

3. If you’re looking for a Key West locals’ hangout with great live music, stop by the Schooner Wharf Bar. Standing on the waterfront in the Historic Seaport, it’s the kind of funky open-air place where you can bring your dog, your girlfriend and half a dozen fishing buddies — and everyone will have fun. Try to get there in time to hear eccentric troubadour Michael McCloud, who plays most afternoons. His tales, and his songs, are spiced with irreverent humor.

4. Immerse yourself in creativity during neighborhood art strolls held monthly in Key West. One of the best is staged on Upper Duval Street on first Friday of each month, while another (held on the third Thursday of each month) features White Street and a portion of Truman Avenue. At both you can find unique visual art, meet the Florida Keys artisans who create it, and explore intriguing galleries alongside residents who are passionate about the island’s lively cultural community.

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is Key West locals' favorite for its clear Atlantic Ocean waters and near-shore snorkeling.

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is Key West locals’ favorite for its clear Atlantic Ocean waters and near-shore snorkeling.

5. Head to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park for a tranquil afternoon swimming and lazing beside the Atlantic Ocean. “Fort Zach,” as the park is affectionately nicknamed, is renowned for its shady picnic area cooled by ever-present breezes — and its 1,000-foot beach that Key Westers regard as the island’s best. Spend some time snorkeling in the relatively deep near-shore waters, spotting colorful tropical fish around rocky promontories, or explore the weathered Civil War–era fort that gave the park its name.

Every year, countless visitors flock to Key West for a vacation escape from the stresses of the “real world.” When it’s your turn to travel, do it the right way — by adopting the “temporary local” outlook, enjoying away-from-the-mainstream offerings, and embracing the easygoing vibe that makes the island so appealing.