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.


50 Years Beneath the Sea

Julie Botteri | August 2015

One of the Florida Keys’ most iconic landmarks celebrates its 50th “anniversary” in late August 2015 — the “Christ of the Deep” statue, which was placed in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on Aug. 25, 1965.

Pennekamp Christ of Deep snorkeler

The “Christ of the Deep” sculpture has been an iconic part of the Florida Keys’ underwater landscape for 50 years. (Photo by Stephen Frink, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The 9-foot bronze has become a symbol for Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is part of the sanctuary.

Located about 90 minutes from Miami by car, Pennekamp was dedicated Dec. 10, 1960, as America’s first underwater preserve — capping efforts by a farsighted group, including the late “Miami Herald” editor John Pennekamp, to create it.

These days, the park that bears Pennekamp’s name draws more than a million visitors annually. They come to explore its nature trails and beaches, and observe the fascinating underwater wildlife that lives within its 70 nautical miles.

Many visitors recognize the park’s mission of protecting and preserving the natural resources inside its boundaries — particularly a section of the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

Among the park’s most inspiring attractions, alongside the natural ones, is the large-scale bronze.

Visitors on the Spirit of Pennekamp tour boat peer through viewing ports above the coral reef. (Photo by Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Visitors on Pennekamp’s glass-bottom tour boat peer through viewing ports to observe the underwater realm. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Key Largo sculpture is a replica of an Italian original called “Il Christo Degli Abissi” or “Christ of the Abyss.” Its arms uplifted in a gesture of invitation, the statue is considered a symbol of peace and understanding among mankind.

Visitors from around the world come to snorkel, dive or cruise aboard glass-bottom boats to view and photograph the majestic statue — which rests in less than 25 feet of water. It can be found about five miles off the island of Key Largo at a site called Key Largo Dry Rocks, a box canyon that rises around beautiful coral formations.

Created by artist Guido Galletti, the original was placed in the shallow San Fruttuoso Bay near Portofino, Italy, in 1954. Galletti also crafted the mold for a Christ statue that was cast for Egidi Cressi, a well-known diving equipment manufacturer, who donated it to the Underwater Society of America in 1961.

“Christ of the Deep” traveled 6,000 miles from Italy to Chicago, where it was placed in storage. Although state dive councils in Illinois, Michigan and other locales petitioned to have the bronze, it was decided that the clear waters of Pennekamp Park should be its final resting place.

Christ of Deep Key Largo couple

The “Christ of the Deep” sculpture “welcomes” a couple with outstretched arms. (Photo courtesy of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park)

In late 1963, the statue was transported to Orlando and placed on display.

It was later exhibited at Florida’s St. Petersburg and Palm Beach, and subsequently arrived in Key Largo — where it was stored outdoors at Pennekamp Park.

Finally, with the help of local dive operators and park officials, a small budget and donations of concrete for its 20-ton base, “Christ of the Deep” was lowered beneath the surface and secured to the seabed.

Today, as well as an internationally renowned landmark, the 4,000-pound bronze is a famous Upper Keys spot for celebrating underwater weddings. During its 50 years beneath the waves, the compelling statue has become one of the most photographed sub-sea sites in the world — and its timeless features and welcoming arms, seemingly raised in eternal benediction, make it a perfect place to exchange “I do’s.”


Burlesque, Brews and More in Key West

Steve Smith | August 2015

As the dog days of summer draw to a close, we Key Westers continue to find fun things to do while watching the hours drift by. For example, Saturday, Aug. 22, will find me at 1605 N. Roosevelt Blvd. for the Death by Tako and Key West Burlesque Late Summer Luau.

Key West dogs

“Blog dog” Giulio and his new sister Rosa enjoy the “dog days” of summer in Key West.

If you have not discovered Death by Tako, a waterside gastronomic experience, this evening will be a unique Key West highlight. And if you’ve been there, you’ll understand why the luau is a don’t-miss treat. Chef Andrew Nguyen pairs a three-course Hawaiian flair dinner with a lusty luau performance by Key West Burlesque.

The following weekend, pack a blanket and a chair and head to historic Fort East Martello for a concert under the stars. Pro surfer turned singer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter will wow you with his unique style of music, which has evolved over the last 10 years and comes from his heart and soul.

Australian pop singer Cody Simpson is Donavon’s special guest performer. The evening includes food from some great local purveyors and (of course) a cash bar. Sponsored by the Key West Art & Historical Society, the event is a feature of the organization’s music series.

Key West concert poster

Don’t miss the sure-to-be-great concert by Donavon Frankenreiter at Fort East Martello.

Blink your eyes and September will be here — kicking off with the sixth annual BrewFest set for Labor Day weekend. Fans of beers and ales can sample more than 150 varieties including unique microbrews.

Beers range from intriguingly named offerings such as Purple Haze lager and Hemp Ale to our local favorite Key West Sunset Ale. The schedule includes dinners, cigar and beer gatherings, a beach festival, pool parties and even a “beer run” with medals for those participating — plus the Signature Tasting Festival followed by a lively Second Line March.

The weekend event, sponsored by the Key West Sunrise Rotary Club of the Conch Republic and the Southernmost Beach Resort, benefits Rotary charities.

Just when you think there’s time to slow down and relax, Womenfest Key West arrives. For well over three decades, we have opened our doors to women from around the world for a fun-filled weekend of frolic. This year’s schedule features pool parties, sunset sailing, wine tastings, burlesque shows and the annual “King of Womenfest” pageant featuring Spikey Van Dykey, King Nick Xanders, Frenchie and the 801 girls.

Key West restaurant

Hungry for a unique Key West experience? Then head for Death by Tako for some amazing tacos.

If you haven’t made plans to visit us during the next few weeks, jump online and find that perfect place to stay and play. The Florida Keys & Key West website contains a wealth of information about all the Keys as well as Key West. You’ll find insights on accommodations, events, attractions, how to get to the welcoming island chain and much more.

Next time I will share updates on transportation into the Keys, as well as some great stops if you choose to drive the Overseas Highway across our 42 scenic bridges. Stay tuned!

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‘Most Wanted’ Mystery Writers Staging Summit in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2015

A group of unusual suspects has reportedly converged on Key West — a gang of “perps” accused of penning the contemporary world’s top thrillers and mystery fiction.

Mystery Writers Key West Fest

Suspicious characters are converging on Key West this week for the annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest.

That’s right, some of the decade’s “most wanted” mystery authors are gathered for a sinister meeting in the island city, a locale whose edgy atmosphere makes it a natural haven for renegades. Inside sources believe they’re holding clandestine discussions with book lovers, editors and publishers, and perhaps even law-enforcement professionals.

As a respectable citizen, should you be worried? Absolutely — if you’re not registered to attend the second annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest. But if you are registered, please remain calm … because the 2015 event, themed “Murder & Mayhem in Paradise,” continues through Sunday, Aug. 16.

It’s no mystery why, after last year’s inaugural event, organizers were allowed to remain at large to plan a follow-up caper. After all, the festival brings together readers and writers seeking clues about crafting and enjoying suspenseful fiction — and gives them a chance to meet and learn from notable American authors.

The scene of the crime is the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel (coincidentally located near the local sheriff’s Detention Center).

Mystery Writers Key West Fest Jenna

Keys resident Jenna Stauffer gets immersed in a novel by Mystery Writers Fest star Jeffery Deaver. (Photo by Carol Tedesco)

The star of the dastardly doings is world-renowned suspense thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, whose highly acclaimed Lincoln Rhyme books include “The Bone Collector.” (Those in the know will recall that the book became a first-class film featuring Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington.)

“When I write, I will sit in a dark room and visualize, and hear, exactly what happens,” said Jeffery in an interview with photographer/writer Carol Tedesco, who has chronicled countless scenes of mayhem (and merriment) in Key West. “I can also do this in better-lit rooms by closing my eyes. Don’t try this at home, though, unless you position your fingers on the correct keys — otherwise you’ll write the scene in code!”

The festival’s other prime suspects include award-winning Florida author and former undercover agent James O. Born, Chicago crime writer Libby Fischer Hellmann, action-adventure novelist Chris Kuzneski, Irish thriller writer Laurence O’Bryan and bestselling novelist Heather Graham — a repeat “offender” at the festival whose “The Cursed” details the haunting happenings at a fictional Key West bed-and-breakfast.

Mystery Writers Key West Fest logo

Mayhem ensues at the annual festival — much to the delight of attendees.

But that’s not all. The participating “perps” also include Florida Keys authors Mike Dennis, Shirrel Rhoades, Jonathan Woods and Michael Haskins — whose series protagonist, Liam “Mad Mick” Murphy, has seemingly stumbled across more illicit activities in Key West than a palm tree has coconuts.

During closed-door sessions, this gang of miscreants is discussing crime scene investigation, character versus plot, whether sex sells and many other shady topics. There’s even a rumored summit with law enforcement and military experts on crime in the Florida Keys and Florida Straits.

Plus, attendees can sleuth out their favorite watering holes during an evening bar stroll and receive clues to good writing at buffet meals with featured authors.

Mystery Writers Key West Fest founders

Key West authors and Mystery Writers Fest founders Michael Haskins (left) and Shirrel Rhodes display “the Jerry” award. (Photo by Carol Tedesco)

Other highlights include the presentation of the inaugural Jeremiah Healy Mystery Writing Award. Dubbed “the Jerry,” the award honors the late thriller author who mentored many aspiring writers. The winner receives a book-publishing contract with Absolutely Amazing eBooks among other prizes.

Obviously, organizers won’t file a “BOLO” if you miss this year’s Mystery Writers Key West Fest. But only the truly clueless would repeat the offense — so keep checking here for details of 2016’s “criminal” proceedings.


Go Crazy for Keys Lobster

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2015

It might sound strange to people who don’t live in the Florida Keys, but melting butter has become a seasonal hobby along the island chain. Early in August each year, island foodies start stocking up on the stuff — for a very good reason.

Betsy lobster Rain Barrel Islamorada

This 30-foot-tall lobster, which stands in front of Islamorada’s Rain Barrel Artisan Village, is one of the few crustaceans that doesn’t need melted butter. (Photo by Bob Care)

That’s because early August marks the start of the Keys’ annual commercial lobster season, and purists know those savory crustaceans taste best when each bite is bathed in butter.

Florida Keys lobsters, BTW, are quite different than their northern cousins. For one thing, they don’t have claws (also called “grapnels”). Instead, they’re known as spiny lobsters and their meat has a slightly chewy sweetness that’s absolutely unmistakable.

If you’re a faithful reader, you may recall that Keys Voices has covered this tantalizing topic in the past. But let me assure you, this is not a mistake. Instead, it’s a testament to the passion for lobster that’s practically an obsession for Keys residents. In fact, for dedicated foodies along the island chain, the start of lobster season generates more enthusiastic thanks-giving than the actual holiday of Thanksgiving does.

lobsters grill Florida Keys

Keys lobsters, whether whole or tails, are often served grilled and accompanied by fresh corn and potatoes. (Photo by Steve Panariello, Florida Keys News Bureau)

So how is this stellar seafood served? In Keys households and restaurants from Key Largo to Key West, the most popular way to serve lobster is steamed, boiled or grilled with the aforementioned melted butter. Traditional trimmings include corn on the cob and boiled potatoes or potato salad.

Speaking of butter, when you’re serving lobster, make sure you melt a LOT of it (trust me, it will not go to waste). Some people add garlic or garlic salt during the melting process, and some add a spritz of Key lime. But whatever your additions, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT skim off the white salty froth that forms when the butter reaches the bubbling point — the saltiness adds an extra zip to every buttery bite of luscious lobster.

While some Keys chefs are purists when it comes to the sensational crustacean, others serve it topped with traditional stuffing. Still others blend lobster meat with exotic sauces incorporating tropical fruits such as mango.

Keys fishermen harvest lobsters -- large enough to startle this attendee at a recent Lobsterfest celebration.

This super-sized crustacean stopped a seafood fan in his tracks at one of the Keys’ outdoor festivals for foodies. (Photo by Steve Panariello, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In reality, it’s hard to conceive of a lunch or dinner dish that wouldn’t taste better with the addition of lobster. You’ll find Keys restaurant menus that feature lobster pot pie, lobster macaroni-and-cheese, breaded and fried lobster bites, lobster tacos and even a bodacious Lobster Reuben (made famous by Marathon’s Keys Fisheries).

If you’re lucky enough to obtain your own stash of Florida Keys lobsters, first savor them simply with melted butter. Then experiment a little by trying the following easy-to-prepare treats.

LOBSTER SCRAMBLED EGGS: Break six eggs into a bowl, add ground pepper to taste and stir vigorously. Meanwhile, finely dice the steamed meat from one Keys lobster. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a frying pan and add the eggs, whisking to give them a fluffy consistency. Add the lobster meat and continue whisking until it’s properly mixed but not overcooked. Divide the egg-and-lobster mixture between three plates, and sprinkle with parmesan cheese and paprika. Serve with toasted Cuban bread. (Serves three.)

LOBSTER PARTY NACHOS: Cut the steamed meat from one Keys lobster into smallish chunks. Dice one small tomato. Then spread a single layer of tortilla chips on a microwaveable dinner plate. Sprinkle the lobster chunks and diced tomato onto the tortilla chips, making sure both are evenly distributed. Top the chips with shredded cheddar cheese (ideally sharp cheddar) and microwave until the cheese is melted (probably 30 to 60 seconds). Grind pepper over the plate, and let the party begin.

Keys Fisheries lobster tail

Most foodies agree that few dishes beat a Keys lobster tail simply served with melted butter. (Photo courtesy of Keys Fisheries)

LOBSTER GREEK SALAD: Cut two tomatoes in bite-sized chunks. Thickly slice half a cucumber and quarter the slices. Put the mixture in two large salad bowls. Chop the meat from a large steamed Keys lobster into medium-sized chunks, and divide it between the two bowls. Top each with a small amount of crumbled feta cheese and sliced Kalamata olives. Drizzle each salad with olive oil, squeeze lemon juice over it to taste and sprinkle with oregano. (Or, if you prefer, use a bottled Greek salad dressing.) This serves two for lunch.

If the suggestions here awaken your appetite for lobster, then dream up some of your own recipes. Or, even better, make plans for a Florida Keys vacation — and meander throughout the island chain sampling chefs’ crustacean creations.


Summer Heat and Luscious Lobster Await Key West Visitors

Steve Smith | August 2015

Summer is here and, yes, in Key West we experience Tropical Heat — though perhaps it’s not exactly what you think. We’re set to sizzle with a long weekend of all-male grownup fun Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 13-16. It will be hot, but you can chill with four days of revelry and more than a dozen events on the island whose openness and respect for diversity have made it a world-renowned gay vacation destination.

Island House Key West

A party a Key West’s famed Island House kicks off Tropical Heat.

Start the weekend with a kick-off party at the Island House, voted the number-one guesthouse for men worldwide. During the weekend, enjoy sunset sailing on the Blu Q as well as a snorkel trip and a sunset sail for the guys during Fury’s Sunset Tea Dance on the Sea — with a DJ, top-shelf libations and hors d’oeuvres included.

Complete the weekend on a paddleboard excursion with Nomadic SUP, pool parties at Bourbon St. Pub, the 10th annual toga party at the Equator Resort and much more. Yes, there’s something for everyone during August’s Tropical Heat weekend!

If you’re visiting this weekend, be sure to spend some time at Key West’s Lobsterfest events. Friday night’s Duval Crawl benefits the Key West High School Scholarship fund. The crawl goes from sunset to midnight and includes a collectors’ T-shirt, lanyard and drink specials. On Saturday, Duval Street is closed from Front to Fleming streets for a street fair featuring arts and crafts, unique island merchandise, live entertainment and, of course, lots of lobster!

Bingo games on Sundays, directed by the lovely and talented Mitch, are among the reasons to come to Key West in any season.

Sunday bingo games, directed by the lovely and talented QMitch, raise funds for local charities while entertaining scores of residents and visitors.

On Sunday, you might relax with brunch at the Hot Tin Roof, located at the Ocean Key Resort & Spa at Zero Duval Street. Upstairs you can sit on the patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico while you sample Key West pink shrimp, oysters on the half shell, benedicts and omelets, and a selection of tapas-sized entrees. Free-flowing mimosas and bloody Mary’s top off your brunch — and it all costs under $50 per person.

After brunch, head to the fabled La Te Da for Sunday Tea Dance. Locals and visitors mingle while dancing poolside to music spun by Key West’s own Rude Girl and Molly Blue. The music is great, and the socializing is even better.

If you’re not into dancing, check out Sunday Bingo at the 801 Cabaret. Emceed by the fabulous QMitch Jones, bingo has been raising dollars for local charities for more years than I can count. Be prepared, however … this is not your grandma’s bingo and you’ve never seen a caller quite like QMitch!

Till next time, have fun, enjoy Key West, make new friends and discover why we choose to live at the end of the rainbow.

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Quest for Innocence: The Mudd Family’s Pilgrimage

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2015

Although Dr. Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, a Gulf of Mexico fortress 68 miles west of Key West, scores of his descendants are still trying to prove his innocence.

Mudd family enters Fort Jefferson Tortugas

Descendants of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd walk into Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park on the 150th anniversary of Mudd’s arrival at the isolated Gulf of Mexico fort. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That’s why 80 of them descended on the fort recently — on the 150th anniversary of Dr. Mudd’s July 24, 1865, arrival at the isolated outpost.

Wearing colorful key-lime-green “Free Dr. Mudd” T-shirts, they toured Fort Jefferson, a former Union military prison in remote Dry Tortugas National Park, and even viewed one of the cells where Samuel Mudd spent four years.

“We are still in irons,” Dr. Mudd wrote in December 1865, “compelled to wash down six bastions of the Fort daily. However, we are allowed to purchase articles of food, etc.”

Dr. Mudd was convicted and imprisoned after treating the broken leg of Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth. But his great-grandson Tom Mudd, who spearheaded the family journey to Fort Jefferson, believes the doctor was unaware of Booth’s crime when he splinted his leg.

Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson stands on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.

“History is not cut in stone,” said Tom Mudd during the visit to the iconic fort. “History is flexible, it’s pliable — and we sincerely believe that Dr. Samuel Mudd was innocent. That’s why we’re here today.”

The Mudd family arrived at the Tortugas by excursion ferry, as do many visitors to the pristine national park. After vast vistas of blue water, they saw the Dry Tortugas appear low against the horizon.

The seven undeveloped islands were named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) by explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. They soon became known as “Dry Tortugas” because they had no fresh water.

Tom Mudd (left), great-grandson of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, speaks to other Mudd family members at Fort Jefferson in one of several cells where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned.

Tom Mudd (left), great-grandson of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, speaks to other Mudd family members at Fort Jefferson in one of several cells where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned.

The massive 19th-century Fort Jefferson stands on Garden Key, an island hardly larger than its exterior walls — and entering it is like stepping 150 years back in time.

The fort’s construction was begun after American leaders realized that fortifying the Tortugas was essential to control navigation in the Gulf of Mexico. But just a few years after serving as a Civil War-era Union prison, it was abandoned by the Army.

In 1908, the area was designated a wildlife refuge. Named Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, it was proclaimed Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992 to protect its environmental richness.

As their T-shirts proclaim, the Mudd family is still trying to prove the doctor's innocence and have his conviction overturned.

As their “Free Dr. Mudd” T-shirts proclaim, the Mudd family is still trying to prove the doctor’s innocence and have his conviction overturned.

Samuel Mudd left Fort Jefferson, called the Gibraltar of the Gulf and believed to be one of the largest masonry structures in the Western Hemisphere, after being granted a pardon in 1869 — primarily because of the medical work he did in stemming the spread of a yellow fever outbreak at the fort. But his conviction was never overturned.

Tom Mudd, his father Richard Mudd and other family members have spent nearly 100 years trying to clear their ancestor’s name without success.

“The real champion of the Mudd family was my father, Dr. Richard D. Mudd,” said Tom Mudd. “Dad was 102 years old when he said, ‘Tom, we’re never going to win this judicially, but in the court of public opinion, we can keep trying — and as long as there is a Mudd alive, we’re going to continue.’”


Sarah Sullivan: Living a Serene Dream in the Lower Keys

Briana Ciraulo | July 2015

Spending every day on the soothing turquoise waters of the Florida Keys, and exploring the surrounding natural environment, sounds like a dream job. For Sarah Sullivan, that dream has become a reality.

Lower Keys Sarah Sullivan

Sarah Sullivan helps her clients immerse themselves in Lower Keys serenity.

Born and raised in Vermont, Sarah spent her college years working at a ski shop and competing on the freestyle snowboard team for the University of Vermont. Then the international business major decided to take a break from her studies and move to Mexico to become a snorkel guide.

“It was being a snorkel guide that really inspired me to change my life,” explained Sarah. “I firsthand saw a change in everyone’s psyche after snorkeling, and I knew there was something going on there.”

After observing these changes, Sarah returned to school to study eco-psychology and received her Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Vermont.

In 2012, she decided to make the move to the eco-friendly Florida Keys.

“I came down here with a lot of focus and needing more experience,” Sarah said. “I was really ready to change people’s lives through eco-therapy.”

Of all the island destinations in the world, why did she choose the Florida Keys?

Sarah's classes blend paddleboarding, yoga, Pilates and more in the tranquil waters off Bahia Honda State Park.

Sarah’s classes blend paddleboarding, yoga, Pilates and more in the tranquil waters off Bahia Honda State Park.

“The Keys are the only place in the United States where you can leave society behind and immerse yourself in the mangroves in a near-shore environment,” she enthused. “It’s a really special ecosystem here. It’s really complex, diverse and it’s right at our fingertips.”

Sarah started out in the Keys working as a camp guidance counselor for kids with ADHD, teaching them to kayak and fish as a therapeutic technique. After one summer counseling children, she became a rehabilitative mental health counselor at the Guidance/Care-Center of the Middle Keys.

While doing her day job, she also began working alongside Captain Bill Keogh as a kayak guide with Big Pine Kayak Adventures — a leader in the Lower Keys for more than 20 years.

“I’m so grateful for my partnership with Captain Bill,” Sarah stated. “I’ve learned a lot from him over the years and I feel like I am following in his footsteps.”

Sarah Sullivan Lower Keys

Sarah says much of her success is due to the support of her Big Pine community and her mentor, Captain Bill Keogh.

Her ultimate goal was to start her own eco-therapy practice. With a lot of hard work and dedication, in spring 2014 she launched Serenity Eco Therapy, a progressive paddleboard program that practices mental balance through nature.

Based at picturesque Bahia Honda State Park, the program combines meditation, yoga, Pilates, cardio and paddleboarding to give participants a therapeutic water experience.

“The paddleboard becomes a platform for relaxation,” Sarah said. “It really helps a lot with the burnout people feel of the everyday world.”

Her experience as an educator has made her a great teacher and facilitator to connect people with nature.

“Most of my clients are beginners who have never gone paddleboarding or done yoga before — and they’ve fallen in love with the program and find true relaxation,” she said.

Certified by the World Paddle Association, Sarah offers her Bahia Honda classes daily. She attributes her recent successes, and ability to do what she loves, to her small island community of Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys.

Paddleboards Lower Keys

The paddleboard becomes a platform for relaxation during Sarah’s unique classes.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do all of this without my community’s ongoing support, without the support of Captain Bill and, of course, without the beautiful Florida Keys ecosystem,” she advised.

Sarah intends to continue her practice throughout the Keys and has begun making plans to open her own Serenity Eco Therapy Adventure Outpost — a place where visitors can come to learn about the program and book trips. In addition, she hopes to expand and work with different causes, including collaborating with local artists and musicians to promote youth paddleboarding.

Coming from a small town, Sarah (dubbed “Sarah Snorkels” by many locals) calls herself lucky to have found a supportive community that can offer so much encouragement as she pursues her dream.

“Everyone knows me on Big Pine — I feel like everyone’s daughter when I go around town,” she said. “I feel truly blessed to have been welcomed into everyone’s circle and to get all of their ongoing support.”


Summer at the End of the Rainbow

Steve Smith | July 2015

As our days continue to be awash in sunshine, blue skies and perfect warm seas, it’s the ideal time to “dive” into a variety of water-based activities — which makes me think of my friends who live on the east and west coasts of the U.S. While the water temperatures surrounding the Florida Keys are in the mid to upper 80s Fahrenheit, many of my friends swim in seas that range from the mid 60s to the mid 70s Fahrenheit. Brrrr!

Florida Keys dive boat and divers

Florida Keys dive centers offer programs for divers from beginner to expert — guided by professional instructors who are passionate about their craft.

If you have ever wanted to snorkel or dive the Keys, summers are great times to indulge your dreams and don a mask and flippers. There are several dive centers around Key West that offer instruction in both snorkeling and diving. And after your training, they take you to the reef.

For example, Dive Key West has been helping our visitors enjoy the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for over 40 years. CeCe Roycraft and Bob Holston, co-owners of Dive Key West, offer a variety of programs for water enthusiasts ranging from beginner to open-water certification to dive master, rescue and specialty courses. Their one-day resort course will quickly have you under the water and experiencing a bold new world.

Not everyone wants to go deep beneath the waves, and there are great activities available to make a day on the water a memorable experience. Fury Water Adventures offers an “Ultimate Adventure” that lets you experience a variety of activities including snorkeling, jet skiing, parasailing, and kayaking.

Danger Charters takes you snorkeling and sailing on shallow-draft schooners. Their “Wind and Wine” sunset sail is perfect for a sunset wine-tasting experience. Danger also offers brunch sailing and can customize a trip for your wedding party or honeymoon.

Keys sunset

View a stunning Key West sunset over the water while enjoying a beautiful tall ship or catamaran sailing excursion.

I know a lot of people want to observe wild dolphins frolicking in the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Gary Stanyer has been offering dolphin experiences for over 14 years. Captain Gary will guide you through the flats and backcountry to areas he knows are populated with these gentle mammals. He’ll also take you to the shallows for snorkeling and swimming.

If fishing is on your radar, Captain Karen has offered charters to women and select groups for many years with her Venus Charters, awarded a TripAdvisor 5-Star rating. Captain Karen customizes your experience to include light-tackle fishing, dolphin watching, swimming, sunsets and weddings.

After your fun on the water, enjoy one of our colorful drag shows. Both the 801 Bourbon Cabaret and Aqua offer daily shows. Aqua’s “Reality is a Drag” delights audiences with talented entertainers known as the Aquanettes, wearing stunning outfits as they perform for and interact with the crowds.

Sushi in shoe Key West

The dazzling Sushi, who stars in the New Year’s Eve “drag queen drop” in Key West, takes center stage at the 801 Bourbon Cabaret. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The show at the 801 Bourbon Cabaret is led by the grande dame of Key West’s drag community: Sushi. Sushi is renowned internationally for her annual appearances on CNN’s New Year’s Eve show as she “drops” in a giant red high heel at the stroke of midnight. Her girls will have you whooping, and on the stage showing your talents — if you let them.

Don’t let the thought of summer keep you away from this southernmost island — come down and see why we love the Conch Republic and choose to live at the end of the rainbow!

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Submerged Songfest Encourages Reef Protection

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2015

Hundreds of divers and snorkelers explored part of the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef on July 11 — while rocking to a subsea concert during the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival seahorse

“Seahorse” Jeff Wright rocks beneath the waves at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (All photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Created to encourage coral reef protection and environmentally responsible diving, the festival was staged by Florida Keys radio station WWUS 104.1 FM and the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. Each year, it draws several hundred divers and snorkelers to enjoy the sound of music along the Keys reef — the third largest in the world.

The intriguing festival took place at Looe Key Reef, one of the most spectacular areas of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, lying about six miles south of Big Pine Key.

“This is a celebration of the coral reef,” said Bill Becker, the event’s founder. “It’s a way for people to appreciate the reef while at the same time listening to an environmental message about reef protection.”

Superheroes and mermaids played "underwater instruments" crafted by a local artist during the festival.

A superhero and a mermaid played “underwater instruments” crafted by a local artist during the festival.

Music broadcast by the radio station was piped underwater via Lubell Laboratory speakers suspended beneath boats above the reef.

“Sound underwater is five times as fast as it is in the air, and as a result, you hear the music and the sound coming from all around you,” Bill explained. “You can’t tell any direction — it just comes at you and you feel it through your head, through your ears, through your jaw.”

Swimming among colorful tropical fish and coral formations, divers and snorkelers swayed to sea-focused offerings that included humpback whale songs and melodies like the theme to “The Little Mermaid,” the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins.”

Diana Nyad Underwater Music Fest

Famed endurance swimmer Diana Nyad joined the divers and snorkelers participating in the 2015 festival.

Some even wore costumes — dressing as everything from a mermaid and a bright yellow seahorse to a winsome female superhero — and pretended to play mock musical instruments beneath the sea.

Those enjoying the underwater concert included famed endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who in September 2013 became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage.

Diana, who kept focused during the 111-mile marathon swim by singing a mental “playlist” to herself, said actually hearing music underwater was incredible.

“It’s so precise,” she marveled during the submerged songfest. “I would think that underwater there’d be a distortion, but I’m hearing every tiny little harmonica, every tiny little strum of the guitar.”

Underwater Music Festival mermaid

Sarah Brunner, costumed as a mermaid, pretends to play a starfish guitar to entertain Underwater Music Festival attendees.

Festival organizers made a point to broadcast some of the songs from Diana’s personal Cuba-to-Key-West soundtrack — including “Me and Bobby McGee” — in her honor during the event.

“To be immersed in the sea and feel the music coming from underneath instead of through headphones — it’s very magical and distinct,” Diana said. “You couldn’t hear it this well if you were in a concert sitting in the front row.”

While the participating divers and snorkelers clearly enjoyed the unique aquatic experience, they also received valuable insights into preserving the Keys’ rich coral reef ecosystem. Diver awareness announcements throughout the broadcast emphasized ways to experience the reef, yet minimize environmental impacts.

“We are committed to preserving the coral reef and keeping it safe for our future generations,” Bill Becker summed up. “It’s an amazing resource that we want to protect and have everybody enjoy, and this is the way to celebrate it.”