Alan Newman Makes Life a Special Event

Briana Ciraulo | June 2015

With a creative mind, a knack for planning and a passion for connecting with people, Alan Newman has been shining in the sales and catering industry since he moved to the Florida Keys five years ago.

Alan Newman at Amara Cay Islamorada

Alan Newman has found a professional “home” as sales and catering manager at Islamorada’s new Amara Cay. (Photo by Bob Care)

Born and raised in Miami, Alan was introduced to the Keys by his parents, who are part-time residents. But after graduating from the University of Florida, he wasn’t sure what his future would hold.

“I thought I wanted to go to law school, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy and it really was not the career for me,” Alan said.

He tried a graduate school program and even moved to North Carolina to become a mortgage broker, but nothing made him truly happy.

So he picked up and moved to a place that was familiar to him — the Florida Keys.

Alan began his Keys career in 2010 handling the front desk at the world-famous Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada. During his tenure there, he became deeply interested in the specialized area of events, catering and weddings.

Amara Cay lobby Islamorada

Amara Cay offers guests a unique Keys experience — beginning with the imaginatively designed lobby.

“I found myself peeking around the corner of the events and offering help whenever they needed it,” he admitted.

Alan eventually joined the sales and catering team, and later became manager of that department.

“It all happened so quick,” he said. “I had to learn a lot in a short amount of time, but it all clicked for me.”

In 2013 Alan left Cheeca Lodge — and through Kara Lundgren, a longtime friend and general manager of the Hampton Inn, started working at the resort in Islamorada as a sales director.

Just a year later, the Hampton Inn was purchased and underwent a $30 million renovation. It eventually was rebranded as the Amara Cay Resort, which opened in late spring 2015.

Currently Alan is the resort’s sales and catering manager — and he’s frankly delighted with where he is and the work he’s doing. He finds a personal satisfaction and gratification in helping others create a perfect setting for their special occasions.

Alan Islamorada Amara Cay

Alan indulges his passion for arranging special events by creating memorable occasions for Amara Cay guests. (Photo by Bob Care)

“There’s this second right before everyone walks into an event, where everything is set and perfect, when you see months of work cumulating into one moment, and that is really the true beauty of events to me,” he explained.

Alan believes he has found his calling in his life — something many people never get the chance to discover.

“Years earlier, when I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my career, I felt uninspired,” he said. “I didn’t feel any sort of personal connection with what I was doing, but now I feel that I finally found something that incorporates everything I love.”

When he isn’t planning couples’ dream weddings or other exciting events, Alan enjoys spending time in and around Islamorada, sampling local cuisines and meeting new people. He particularly likes the wide range of personalities to be found in the Keys.

“You could be sitting next to a billionaire in shorts and flip-flops on one side and a regular working-class fisherman on the other side,” said Alan. “No one is trying to out-do the other; the world just converges here — and it’s rare to find that in a home.”

With joys from tranquil sunrises to perfectly-prepared seafood, the Florida Keys merit FAR more than a single visit. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

With joys from tranquil sunrises to perfectly-prepared seafood, it’s no wonder Alan loves Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Alan brings a young, vibrant energy to Islamorada and appreciates every day in the “Village of Islands.”

“Even on the worst of days here, you look outside and it’s still absolutely beautiful,” he enthused.

With much of his life ahead, Alan Newman sees himself staying in his current industry for many years to come.

“I know I’m always going to be in a business where I’m dealing with people, where I can be creative, be visual and interact with others,” he stated. “I don’t think there’s just one road in life — there are a lot of turns you can make, and right now I’m enjoying the road I’ve taken thus far.”

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Flags, Fireworks and Feasting (and Key Lime Pie!)

Steve Smith | June 2015

Though many of June’s Pride events are completed, Key West’s famed sea-to-sea rainbow flag is still celebrating. Recently a section of the iconic banner graced the Pride parade in Pennsylvania’s New Hope and Florida’s Palm Beach, draped a building in Buffalo, N.Y., and has been touring Ohio (after a stint in Columbus, it will be carried in the Cincinnati and Cleveland parades).

Gilbert Baker savors the moment as his 1.25-mile rainbow flag is unfurled down Key West's Duval Street. (Photo by Mike Hollar, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Gilbert Baker savors the moment as his 1.25-mile rainbow flag is unfurled down Key West’s Duval Street. (Photo by Mike Hollar, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Flag creator Gilbert Baker and a team of volunteers sewed the 1.25-mile flag for Key West’s 2003 Pride week. Weighing over three tons, the flag contained approximately 18,600 linear yards of fabric.

Some 2,000 volunteers of widely varying ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations carried the flag the entire length of Key West’s Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in a sea-to-sea showing of openness and pride. It was a magical day!

If you’re visiting us over the July 4 weekend, you can enjoy our fireworks and the annual Hospice Picnic at the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria Resort. For more than 30 years, our community has celebrated the July 4 holiday by gathering on the grounds and Atlantic Ocean beach at the Casa (as we call it) for an old-fashioned picnic complete with burgers, hot dogs, performances by local musicians, the island’s largest silent auction and libations. After the sun dips below the horizon, the sky above Key West’s White Street Pier explodes with a fireworks display.

Admission to the gala picnic starts at $10 per person — $25 with food included. You won’t find a better place to meet and mingle with locals, enjoy an adult beverage and watch the fireworks display seemingly right over your head.

Offbeat author David Sloan, who penned "The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook" and created the Key Lime Festival, decorates a  pie. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Offbeat author David Sloan, who wrote “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook” and created the Key Lime Festival, decorates a pie. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

As much fun as the picnic is the annual Key Lime Festival. Conceived by Key West author and baker David Sloan, who penned “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” this festival is sure to WOW your taste buds. And if you want to, enter the Key Lime Talent Show — it will be wonderfully wacky.

For those who don’t know, Key lime pie features a creamy yellow filling flavored with the juice of tiny yellow Key limes and nestled in a graham cracker crust. Enjoy it plain or topped with whipped cream or a mile-high meringue.

Try your hand at making a pie for the festival’s cooking championships, or attempt to devour a whole meringue-topped pie faster than other speed-eating competitors — without using your hands.

If you aren’t into making or eating a pie, then sample locally-distilled Key lime rum or join the Key Lime Cocktail Sip & Stroll for libation lovers.

Eating ice cream in Key West

As blog author Steve can verify, you’ll find a wide variety of flavors to enjoy in Key West.

Speaking of taste treats, while you’re here take the Southernmost Food Tour and eat like a local at multiple restaurants and emporiums as you stroll through Old Town Key West. On this entertaining three-hour walking tour, you’ll also learn about the island’s history, architectural wonders and cultural roots.

We all live a fast-paced life — but the Southernmost Food Tour will relax you and slow you down as you learn what island life is really about … while tasting some amazing island delicacies. Where else can you eat your way across a historic island?

Until next time … enjoy summer 2015!

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Wandering Off the Beaten Path

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2015

Some of the most intriguing spots in the Lower Keys and Key West lie in out-of-the-way places that seem worlds away from popular attractions and emporiums. Lesser known and less visited, they’re wonderful settings for exploring, relaxing and discovering the quiet wonders of the Florida Keys environment. For example, check out the following.

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

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

Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Now a beautiful and historic part of the 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park, located between mile markers 36 and 37 in the Lower Keys, this trestle bridge is a relic of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Begun in 1905 and completed in 1912, the railroad stretched from mainland Florida to Key West and its bridges were widely regarded as architectural marvels. Today, though much of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge is closed to pedestrians, a portion remains open — and strolling along it, you’ll get a panoramic vista of the lush acreage and ever-changing blues and greens of the surrounding waters.

Blue Hole. You’ll find this secluded oasis off Big Pine’s Key Deer Boulevard at mile marker 30.5 bayside. With a layer of fresh water floating over salt water, the Blue Hole is attractive to a wide variety of wildlife. Tiny Key deer drink there, and the watering hole’s denizens include alligators, turtles, wading birds and fish. There’s a great view from the observation platform — or venture along the walking trail that leads deeper into the wild. Beyond the Blue Hole lie the hardwoods and subtropical foliage of Watson’s Hammock.

Flower in Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden features beautiful trees and foliage in a peaceful, secluded setting.

Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. This beautiful 15-acre garden — a haven for nature lovers or those simply seeking a place for relaxing, reading or quiet contemplation — is situated at 5210 College Road just across Cow Key Channel from Key West. The garden is a paradise for bird watchers, particularly during the spring and fall migration seasons. It features two wetland habitats, national and state champion trees, a one-acre butterfly habitat, seasonal flowers, a music garden, an amazing waterfall wall of tropical plants and much more. The property also contains two of the last remaining freshwater ponds in the Florida Keys. It’s sometimes described as a living museum — and once you see it, you’ll understand why.

Indigenous Park — Located across from Key West’s Rest Beach past the intersection of White Street and Atlantic Boulevard, this park is a natural delight. Its attractions include the Key West Wildlife Center that’s dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of Keys birds and wildlife. A native hardwood hammock contains a variety of trees and vegetation indigenous to the island. The 8-acre park is on the “flyway” for migrating birds in the spring and fall, attracting countless species to rest and feed before they reach open water. Popular with visitors and area school groups, the park even contains courts for bocce ball in an open area adjacent to Atlantic Boulevard.

West Martello Garden Club Key West

Plants and trees are set against weathered brick at West Martello. (Photo by Lynne Bentley-Kemp; courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

West Martello Tower. Just steps from Indigenous Park, beside Key West’s Higgs Beach, stands a never-used Civil War-era fort that became the home of the Key West Garden Club. The club has maintained and planted the gardens in the ruins of the fort — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — since the 1950s. Today, the fort’s brick arches are the backdrop for beautiful orchids and bromeliads, rare palm trees, indigenous plants and a peace garden. The fort and gardens overlook the Atlantic Ocean, and from a narrow pathway you can see clear blue water stretching to the far horizon. Scattered benches invite you to stay for a while and soak up the site’s serenity.

The locations outlined here are undeniably appealing, but the Florida Keys & Key West also offer scores of other lesser-known spots that are well worth discovering. So start your off-the-beaten-path adventure by exploring one (or all) of these, and then find your own favorites.

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Two Women Divers Benefit the Keys

Julie Botteri | June 2015

Many people journey to the Florida Keys each year to dive or snorkel the region’s rich underwater environment — which features attractions ranging from fabled shipwrecks to the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef. While discovering these underwater wonders, they also can discover and be inspired by two Keys women acclaimed for their diving accomplishments.

Amy Slate diving Florida Keys

Amy Slate, a new member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, explores the City of Washington wreck site at Elbow Reef. (Photo by Frazier Nivens)

The first is Amy Slate, the founder and owner of Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, who was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in March 2015.

“I feel so blessed that my life’s work has been involved with providing a comfortable, safe dive resort for divers of all ages,” Amy said, “an environment conducive to sharing and teaching them about our amazing underwater world — to love and admire the precious creatures, protect them and help our oceans thrive for future generations.”

Amy’s love of the underwater environment blossomed before she was 10 years old, during a Keys visit and a swim with Flipper the dolphin that forever cemented her connection to the oceans and marine life. She became a certified diver in 1976 and never looked back.

Over the years, Amy studied dive resorts in French Polynesia, Bonaire, Mexico’s Cozumel and the Caribbean — and in 1994 she opened Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort. The property and its name, “Amoray,” were born from Amy’s affinity for the ocean and a play on her Italian family roots in the province of Sant’ Agata di Puglia.

Amy Slate still dives as often as possible along the reefs and wrecks of Key Largo. (Photo by Frazier Nivens)

Amy still dives as often as possible along the reefs and wrecks of Key Largo. (Photo by Frazier Nivens)

Amy is actively involved with the Florida Keys’ Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Coral Restoration Foundation and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — and Amoray has been designated a Blue Star Operator, a program that promotes conservation of the marine environment.

The pioneering diver believes the Florida Keys are still the best place to dive.

“Not everyone can live their passion,” Amy advised. “But if you do what you love, the rest will follow.”

That same passion drives Marathon resident Rachel Bowman to achieve milestones that other recreational divers envy. Rachel moved to the Keys from North Carolina 14 years ago and has been certified to dive for less than five years. Yet in that time she has become a dedicated lionfish huntress, and has speared nearly 7,500 lionfish in the past year alone.

With the help of a small handful of fellow divers, she’s committed to depopulating the reefs of this invasive predator — one that reportedly can live for up to 15 years and grow up to 19 inches in length, eating smaller fish within two inches of its own size.

“With every lion[fish] I spear, I’m saving the juvenile fish around it and I’m preventing that lion from breeding,” Rachel said.

female lionfish hunter Florida Keys

Rachel Bowman uses a Zookeeper containment device in her mission of removing lionfish from Keys reefs and wrecks. (Photo by Kristen Livengood)

She recently ventured into the commercial sale of lionfish, whose filets are white and flaky like hogfish, a favorite of Keys diners. Hurtful spines containing venom (not poison) are removed during cooking preparation, and lionfish can be broiled, baked, sautéed, fried or prepared as ceviche. The tasty fish can even be found in supermarkets and on the menu at local restaurants.

Rachel spears in waters ranging from 80 to 150 feet deep, working along reefs and wrecks. She also collects and submits lionfish population data to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We have noticed a decline in lionfish this year in the areas we work,” she stated. “Our reefs here in the Keys are basically the nursery for the entire ocean; it is extremely important to keep the lionfish out of it.”

A licensed boat captain, Rachel is committed to furthering her dive training. She’s already certified in specialties including Nitrox and rescue diving, and is pursuing divemaster leadership and technical diving accreditations.

Keys woman diver with lionfish

Rachel, shown here with a spear full of lionfish, is dedicated to eliminating the invasive species from Keys waters.

“I’m so lucky to live in an area with multiple, awesome dive shops that offer classes, and I like having different instructors for different things,” Rachel enthused. “You always learn more than you signed up for.”

Want to know more about diving the Florida Keys’ fascinating underwater realm? Just click here to immerse yourself in intriguing information.

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Key West Crosswalks, Cocktails and Pride (Oh, My!)

Steve Smith | June 2015

Whoa — Key West Pride week is here and what a terrific lineup of things to see, things to do, and people to meet! When I am asked, “What is Pride like in Key West?” … I have to honestly answer that it is an embracing community-wide event.

Key West Rainbow Flag

Each year, Key West’s Pride parade features a 100-foot section of the island’s historic rainbow flag. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Some people don’t realize that our regular population is only about 25,000 — the size of a neighborhood in bigger cities. But rest assured, if you are here or chose to come down, you will be welcomed and soon feel you’re a part of a diverse community that has been described as “Close to Perfect; Far from Normal.”

Visitors can celebrate equality, applaud the dedication of a permanent rainbow crosswalk on Key West’s iconic Duval Street and attend the final rounds of a nationally renowned cocktail competition at Key West Pride 2015. Set for June 10-14, the festival salutes diversity on the subtropical island internationally known as a top gay and lesbian vacation spot.

The five-day schedule includes daytime pool and beach parties, late-night drag shows, on-the-water adventures ranging from snorkeling and kayaking to glass-bottom boat tours, a street fair, a 10k relay for tutu-wearing runners and walkers, and pageants to select Mr., Miss and Ms. Key West Pride.

Conch Train and Key West Rainbow Crosswalks

A Conch Tour Train turns at Duval and Petronia streets, giving passengers a ride “over the rainbow.” (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The festival’s focal events include the dedication of a rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Duval and Petronia streets, the heart of Key West’s LGBT entertainment district.

Co-sponsored by the City of Key West and the Key West Business Guild, the rainbow crosswalk is imprinted permanently on the pavement connecting all four corners of the intersection. The dedication is scheduled for noon Saturday, June 13, during the Key West Pride Street Fair.

Other Pride highlights include the 2015 Stoli Original Cocktail Challenge’s Wednesday night kick-off gala, Friday night run-offs and Saturday night final round. The contest features regional winners from LGBT bars in 14 North American cities, all competing to create an original Key West cocktail that communicates the island’s creativity and spirit.

Key West cocktail contest

Sean Fitzpatrick shows his enthusiasm as he creates the winning concoction during Stoli’s 2014 Key West cocktail competition. (Photo by Steve Panariello, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The final round is set for 7-10 p.m. Saturday on an open-air stage in the 700 block of Duval Street.

Eight finalists are to concoct their libations for a judging panel that includes Broadway actor and former “Queer Eye” television personality Jai Rodriguez, Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and actor Bruce Vilanch, clothing designer Andrew Christian, actress and singer Latoya London and famed Key West female impersonator “Sushi.”

The winner becomes the honorary grand marshal of the 2015 Pride Parade alongside celebrity grand marshals Rodriguez and Christian. The all-welcome procession, featuring a 100-foot section of Key West’s famed sea-to-sea rainbow flag, begins at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 14, and proceeds up Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

Blog writer Steve Smith really sinks his teeth into Key West's activities and attractions!

Blogger Steve Smith wants to see you in Key West!

Following the parade, the grand marshals are to entertain attendees at a Sunday night showcase at the historic San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St.

I hope to see you at one of the great events during our Pride festival — or later this year on our welcoming island.

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

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‘Over the Rainbow’ in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2015

If you’ve ever shared Dorothy Gale’s longing to stroll “somewhere over the rainbow,” you don’t have to channel the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” or travel to the elusive Land of Oz to do it. Actually, all you need to do is take a trip to Key West.

Couple Key West Rainbow Crosswalk

Gary Salazar (left) and Maria Walden were the first to cross Duval Street on a new rainbow crosswalk. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That’s because, on May 28, the City of Key West installed four permanent rainbow crosswalks at the intersection of Duval and Petronia streets — and people have been walking happily “over the rainbow” ever since.

The crosswalks span all four corners of the intersection and feature wide bands of all six colors of the rainbow flag, an internationally recognized symbol of gay and lesbian unity. And their location, appropriately enough, is in the heart of Key West’s LGBT entertainment district.

Key West is very happy to be putting in the first thermoplastic permanent rainbow crosswalks in the state of Florida,” said Mayor Craig Cates, who stopped to watch city workers installing the colorful crosswalks. “It means so much to Key West to show our diversity, and also it goes perfectly with our One Human Family motto.”

Spearheaded by the city and the Key West Business Guild, the rainbow crosswalks are composed of pre-formed thermoplastic color blocks alternating with white stripes. Workers from the city’s Community Services Department carefully laid the blocks on the street, patiently trimming the corners by hand so they would fit properly without any overlap.

Key West Rainbow Crosswalks being installed

The four crosswalks were carefully installed and heat-treated by hand to ensure their quality.

To make sure the rainbows — and their message — would remain vibrant and welcoming for many years, the blocks were then heat-treated with propane torches (again by hand) to affix the colors permanently on the pavement.

Passersby watching the creation of the crosswalks could see, by the care the workers took, how important it was to them to make the iconic rainbows look just right.

Of course, the rainbow crosswalks are only the latest manifestation of Key West’s longstanding embrace of diversity. “One Human Family” was adopted as the city’s official philosophy in 2000, proclaiming equality and acceptance for everyone, and the island is internationally known as a leading LGBT vacation destination.

And most who witnessed it can still recall the magic day in 2003 when Gilbert Baker, creator of the original rainbow flag, supervised the unfurling of a 1.25-mile rainbow flag — believed to be the world’s longest — that he had sewn in the island city.

Conch Train and Key West Rainbow Crosswalks

A Conch Tour Train turns at Duval and Petronia streets, giving passengers a ride “over the rainbow.”

Supported by approximately 2,000 volunteers of widely varying ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations, the magnificent banner was spread out to stretch the entire length of legendary Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in a sea-to-sea showing of openness and pride.

“Accepting diversity has been going on for generations in Key West, mainly starting back when Key West was an island with no access but boats,” said Mayor Cates. “Everybody learned to live together, accept one another, so that has continued on through generations and is very evident today.”

While the rainbow crosswalks opened to traffic May 28, their official dedication is scheduled Saturday, June 13, as a highlight of the June 10-14 Key West Pride festivities. Don’t miss the chance to be part of it — and, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” take your turn to walk “over the rainbow.”

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Florida Keys Diving: From Hobby to Intriguing Career

Julie Botteri | May 2015

Fortunately for sport divers, it’s rare to get bored with scuba diving — especially in the unique underwater ecosystem of the Florida Keys. Not every dive is the same, and it’s virtually certain that you won’t see the same fish or microcosms of marine life that live on reefs.

Florida Keys divers

The Florida Keys are an ideal place to learn new skills or perfect abilities as a scuba diver, or even become an instructor to teach others the sport. (Photo courtesy of Hall’s Diving Center)

But diving in the Keys is far more than an exciting and rewarding sport for recreational enthusiasts. It also can serve as a career-changing step for people who find their passion lies in the undersea realm. Why? Because in the Keys they can become dive instructors — learning how to teach their favorite sport to others and make money doing what they love.

In fact, some of the first businesses offering recreational dive training in America were opened in Florida Keys island communities. Dozens of dive operators, staffed with working professionals, actively teach and train each day — not just intermittently or seasonally as is the case in places with less friendly climates.

Specialty dive courses include navigation, night diving, wreck diving, digital photography, coral reef conservation and, for divers who want to take their sport to a higher level, professional career training as a dive instructor.

Florida Keys dive boat and divers

Dive instructors in the Florida Keys are respected professionals who turn their passion for the underwater world into a satisfying career. (Photo courtesy of Hall’s Diving Center)

Eric Billips, owner of Islamorada Dive Center, trains divers from entry level to dive master, complementing the online eLearning standards of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors training agency with hands-on teaching in the Keys.

“We have fantastic weather down here year-round. We also have incredibly clear waters, and we’re still in the United States,” Eric advised. “You can stay in your own country and still be in a drive-to, Caribbean-type setting … which is great.”

Instructor training in the Florida Keys means learning in a dive destination that’s unparalleled anywhere in the U.S. — and one that features the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

To maintain the Keys’ status as a highly popular dive destination, the region’s offshore environment has been the focus of conservation efforts for decades. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, encompasses the coastal waters of the entire island chain.

The Keys also are one of the few places in the country where divers can receive training year-round at instructor training facilities (also called career development centers).

Florida Keys Sombrero Reef dive

The shallow Sombrero Reef off Marathon is among the island chain’s most popular dive spots. (Photo by Beth Pittman)

These establishments include the Upper Keys’ Ocean Divers, Florida Keys Dive Center, Horizon Divers, Rainbow Reef Instructor Development Center and Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures.

In Marathon, the vocational school at Hall’s Diving Center & International Career Institute offers several immersion courses. Hall’s courses even include student lodging accommodations and specialized Veterans Affairs funding for military veterans seeking a post-service career change.

“We accept students who have no prior dive experience and train them for up to 14 weeks, after which they are equipped with the tools they need to work in the field as a professional dive instructor,” said Randy Botteri, the general manager of Hall’s. “There is no waiting period to become a student.”

What happens once students complete their course work?

Florida Keys artificial reef

Diving Key Largo’s Spiegel Grove is an adventure in a mysterious subsea realm. (Photo by Frazier Nivens, Florida Keys News Bureau )

Newly graduated instructors from Keys-based career centers can either work fulltime in the island chain, find exotic jobs on cruise ships or live-aboard dive vessels throughout the world, or independently teach their own students the mechanics, safety and all other aspects of recreational scuba diving.

“The Florida Keys is a very fortunate, diverse spot where we can teach every level of class that scuba diving offers,” Eric Billips said. “We’ve got shallow patch reefs, intermediate reefs and deeper shipwrecks. It’s really endless as far as scuba diving training goes.”

For a complete list of professionally staffed dive operators in the Florida Keys, click here.

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Pride Brings Performances, Parties and a Participatory Parade

Steve Smith | May 2015

Summer is here on the island of Key West, and while at one time it was a slower period, that’s no longer the case. It’s true that our theaters end their “season,” but they continue to offer special performances.

Michael Walters as Dame Edna

Don’t miss the supremely talented Michael Walters as Dame Edna at the Waterfront Playhouse.

Prime among those special attractions is “Purple Reign: A Loving Musical Parody of the Diva from Down Under!” (Australia, for those who aren’t her “possums”). Dame Edna, portrayed by actor and vocalist Michael Walters, comes to the stage at the historic Waterfront Playhouse Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13. In celebration of Key West Pride, Michael struts his stuff with glittering gowns, outrageous comedy and original musical numbers — culminating in a flurry of Dame Edna’s signature gladioli.

Michael’s Dame Edna has been hailed as “spectacular” by Dame Edna’s original creator, Barry Humphries. In addition, Emmy Award-winning actor Leslie Jordan calls him “one of the most talented men I know.” Be sure to reserve your seats for one of his performances, as I’m certain they’ll sell out fast.

Pride week begins Wednesday, June 10, with three great events. First, be on Duval Street in the afternoon to see the unveiling of permanent rainbow crosswalks at the intersection of Duval and Petronia Streets, the heart of Key West’s LGBT entertainment district. Co-sponsored by the City of Key West and the Key West Business Guild, the rainbow crosswalks are to be imprinted on the pavement connecting all four corners of the intersection.

Key West Pride kickoff Jai Rodriguez

Blogger Steve Smith (top row left) and his husband Paul (bottom row center) are surrounded by friends — including “Queer Eye’s” Jai Rodriguez (bottom row right) — at the 2014 Pride kickoff party. (Photo by Peter Arnow)

Then head to the week’s kickoff festivities at the Island House. A $20 donation secures you a spot to meet the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic finalists from 14 cities across North America. Attractions at the resort’s party include champagne, an open well bar, and passed hors d’oeuvres.

Finally, get ready for competition at the famed 801 Bourbon Bar, 801 Duval St., during the Ms. Pride contest. This annual contest celebrates the women of Pride, and locals and visitors are invited to enter.

Thursday brings the annual Miss Pride competition at the 801 where our “local girls” will compete at 8 p.m. for the title — and Friday the Bourbon St. Pub complex hosts the Mr. Pride contest at the Garden Bar. Each year under the stars and the giant mango tree, contestants are judged on appearance, talent, and overall presence and vie for the title and $1,000 in cash and prizes.

rainbow flag Key West Pride parade

A section of Key West’s famed rainbow flag is displayed each year in the island’s Pride parade. (Photo by Peter Arnow)

Have you ever wanted to be part of a parade? Dress up with your friends and walk in a group, or decorate bicycles or your car, for Key West’s lively Pride parade that takes place Sunday, June 14. The lineup begins at 3 p.m. at the Truman Annex across from the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. The parade steps off at 5 p.m. sharp on a route across Key West from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. FYI, participants’ registration and details need to be completed in advance and received by the Key West Business Guild by June 5.

Check the Pride website for other events including Alexander’s Guesthouse Pride Beach Party from noon until 4 p.m. Friday with volleyball, music, libations, sun and great fun.

I’ll see you at Key West Pride!

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

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Setting Sail into History: Beginning the Key West-to-Cuba Regatta

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2015

Even the dogs seemed excited as they trotted among the 150-some people milling around on Key West’s South Beach just after sunrise Saturday, May 16. And it’s no wonder, because they were about to witness a truly historic event: the start of the first U.S. government-sanctioned sailing race between Key West and Havana for more than 50 years.

Key West Cuba Hobie Cats on beach

The five 16-foot-long American Hobie Cat sailboats line Key West’s South Beach before the historic Havana Challenge. (Photo by Bert Budde, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Havana Challenge featured five teams of American sailboat racers, most consisting of Florida Keys-based sailors, racing 16-foot Hobie Cat catamarans more than 90 miles across the Florida Straits to Cuba.

Key West is unique in its location to Havana. We’re closer to Havana than Miami, and living and growing up in Key West, you just look that direction,” said race organizer and participating sailor George Bellenger. “It was a challenge that I couldn’t resist — so put the sails up and sail down to Havana.”

As the sun rose, heralding a blue-sky morning, the racers were intent on preparations: raising white and multicolored sails on their beached Hobie Cats, donning wetsuits and life vests, and stowing minimal gear. But they weren’t too busy to exchange greetings and hugs with well-wishers, pose for cell-phone photos and pat dogs including an engaging beagle named Marley.

Sailors push their Hobie Cats into the Atlantic Ocean off Key West just before the start of the 90-plus-mile race to Havana. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Sailors push their Hobie Cats into the Atlantic Ocean off Key West just before the start of the 90-plus-mile race to Havana. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Just after 7:30 a.m., the racers’ focus changed. After a brief team meeting on the beach, they pushed their Hobie Cats into chest-deep water and jumped aboard. Onlookers cheered and applauded, someone blew a few piercing blasts on a conch shell, and at 7:41 a.m. the race to Havana officially began.

Despite its lighthearted island-style start, this was not a casually-conceived affair. George and co-organizer Joe Weatherby worked closely with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Department of Commerce to get the necessary licenses for the teams to participate.

“The special part of our event today is that we have all the permits that make it legal for us to go, so we’re going to be setting a precedent today for others to follow,” George said before the race began. “We’ve gotten the Treasury Department permits, the Commerce Department permits, the Coast Guard permits — and permission from my mom.”

Hobie Cats Key West Southernmost House

Hobie Cat racing teams pass Key West’s landmark Southernmost House at the beginning of their adventure. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And the Hobie Cats didn’t sail alone. They were accompanied by support boats that brought the total fleet to 19 vessels.

“We’re taking down schooners to bring in the historical aspect, tying the knot with the traditional maritime heritage that’s been shared between Havana and Key West,” George explained.

The racing event also featured activities in Cuba, highlighted by a May 19 regatta between the U.S. sailors and elite Cuban racers off Havana. According to George, plans called for Cuban Olympians and members of the country’s national sailing team to participate.

The historic Havana Challenge is the latest manifestation of a cultural connection between Key West and Cuba that dates back more than 180 years.

In the early 1830s, Cuban people including scores of skilled cigar-makers began migrating to Key West, seeking personal freedom. By the mid- to late-1800s the island city was known as the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, and many Cuban traditions had become a vital part of its cultural mix.

Three of the five American Hobie Cats, accompanied by a support boat, jockey for position on their historic race to Havana. (Photo by Bert Budde, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Three of the five American Hobie Cats, accompanied by a support boat, jockey for position on their historic race to Havana. (Photo by Bert Budde, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In recent years, the waters between Key West and Havana have been seemingly irresistible to athletes and adventurers eager to test their limits. The most famous is endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who successfully swam the distance in September 2013 after four previous attempts.

For George Bellenger, the Havana Challenge means far more than a pivotal ocean crossing. Just before leaving Key West May 16, he recalled a line from Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” that reads, “Brother, don’t let anybody tell you there isn’t plenty of water between Havana and Key West.” As he and his fellow racers made their final preparations to cross that water, George stated his purpose quite simply.

“We’re going out here today to show everyone that Key West and Havana are a lot closer than you might expect,” he said.

(Editor’s Note: Not all the Hobie Cats made it the entire way to Cuba, but all the sailors did. And by beginning the race, all five boats truly sailed into history.)

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Tom Smith’s Passion Sparks Tasty Career

Briana Ciraulo | May 2015

With a supersized passion for the food and beverage industry, Tom Smith has worked hard over the last 10 years to bring a new flavor to the Florida Keys — and it’s savory, delicious and exceptionally unique.

Tom Smith and chef Islmaorada restaurnats

Tom Smith (left) and Chef George Patti are the talented duo behind Islamorada eatery M.E.A.T. (Photo by Jannette De Llanos)

Originally from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Tom has been in the restaurant industry since his teenage years. And since then, he’s held nearly every gig in the industry — including dishwashing, bussing tables, cooking, serving and managing.

After holding all those jobs, Tom decided to become a sommelier. He moved to Colorado where he studied and learned the art of wine, eventually owning his first restaurant in the Denver area.

He stayed there for 10 years. But once the lease ran out on his Colorado eatery, he packed up and moved to Islamorada, where he has lived and worked for the past 12 years.

“I had never even been to Islamorada before moving there — my only Keys experience was stopping in Key West on a cruise stop,” Tom admitted. “But it just seemed like the right fit for me.”

Tom began working at Islamorada’s Marker 88, where he developed the legendary restaurant’s wine program. At one point during his time there, Marker 88’s wine list was the longest in the Florida Keys — with an amazing 525-plus selections of wine.

diners at Islamorada restaurant

Specializing in fine homemade meats, M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room has become an Islamorada hotspot. (Photo by Jannette De Llanos)

Tom then moved on to start the Upper Keys Tasters Guild, a nonprofit organization that focuses on educating and promoting fine food and wine in the Keys.

Within a year it became the fifth-largest tasting guild in the country, growing to 200 members in just nine months.

The guild’s activities include wine classes, wine tastings, staff training, consulting for businesses and designing wine programs.

It was then that Tom teamed up with Chef George Patti to start their own cooking and sommelier classes. People hired the pair to do wine tasting dinners at their homes.

In 2009, the duo opened their first Keys restaurant — Tasters Grille in Tavernier.

Tom Smith Islamorada restaurateur

Tom’s passion for fine cuisine and unique concepts has proved to be a tasty combination for Islamorada.

And by 2012 they had launched a style of restaurant the Keys had not seen before — M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room, focusing exclusively on homemade fine meats.

“We make our own bacon, our own sausage, our own ketchup and mustard,” said Tom. “We even serve special micro-brewed sodas without high fructose corn syrup.”

While many Florida Keys restaurants focus on seafood, M.E.A.T.’s menu is a meat lover’s dream. It includes everything from burgers made from Japanese wagyu beef and chorizo sandwiches to fresh homemade pork rinds and bratwurst.

With innovative restaurateurs like Tom Smith leading the way, it’s clear that the future outlook for Islamorada is tasty indeed.

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