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.

Comments

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.)

Comments

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.

Comments

Pride 2015 Features a Cocktail Competition and a Rainbow Crosswalk

Steve Smith | May 2015

It’s mid May and many communities are in the final stages of planning their Pride celebrations. Most of us celebrate Pride in June, reflecting on the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. The month-long Pride celebration that is defined by parades, picnics, parties, concerts, festivals and workshops was originally celebrated as Gay Pride Day on the last Sunday of June.

Rainbow flag

The rainbow flag so beloved in Key West will inspire a permanent rainbow crosswalk to be unveiled during Pride 2015. (Photos courtesy of Key West Pride)

The world has certainly changed the way Pride is celebrated — and here in Key West, we celebrate on a 2-mile by 4-mile island.

Our Pride starts Wednesday, June 10, with the unveiling 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 to be imprinted permanently on the pavement connecting all four corners of the intersection.

The schedule of events also includes a Wednesday kickoff cocktail party at the acclaimed Island House Resort. The all-welcome party (one of only two times each year that the Island House opens to the general public) includes appetizers and champagne served by the resort’s charming (and attractive) serving staff.

Your $20 donation at the door raises funds for Key West Pride and the Key West Business Guild, and features a two-hour open bar serving Stoli flavored vodka, well spirits, domestic beer and house wines.

dog on Key West beach

“Blog dog” Giulio ponders his plans for Pride on a Key West beach.

You can also expect appearances by celebrities including Emmy Award-winning comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch, Broadway actor and “Queer Eye” television personality Jai Rodriguez, singer and actress Latoya London and famed Key West female impersonator Sushi.

Also included is a meet-and-greet with the 14 winners of the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic’s regional North American competitions, along with photo opportunities. These regional winners will compete Friday, June 12, at both Aqua Nightclub and the 801 Bourbon Bar — determining who will be on the Duval Street stage Saturday, June 13, for the grand finale cocktail mixoff.

The 2015 champion will serve as honorary grand marshal of our Pride Parade, scheduled Sunday, June 14, and proceeding up Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

The lineup of Pride events also includes a Saturday street fair; Mr., Miss, and Ms. Pride contests; the Tutu Relay 10k walk and run; a beach party at Key West’s Higgs Beach and special church services.

Key West Pride Parade

Blog author Steve Smith celebrates Key West Pride during the island city’s annual parade.

Sunday also brings 801’s legendary Gay Bingo featuring QMitch. For many years, Drag Bingo has raised funds for local charities such as Hospice, AIDS Help, the Sister Season Fund, the Xena Fund and One Human Family. A riotous afternoon of fun (complete with free pizza) may result in your winning the bountiful “Cover-All.” Bring your grandmother if she doesn’t mind a few colorful characters and shout-outs.

Other fun activities include snorkeling adventures on the Blu Q for the guys and on Danger Charters for everyone; stand-up paddleboarding with Nomadic SUP and nightly drag shows at Aqua Nightclub and the 801 Cabaret.

Look for more Key West Pride events in my posting on May 27!

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

Comments

‘Miley’ Makes Waves in the Florida Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2015

When she was first spotted in the Florida Keys, Miley was “twerking” — and naturally, she drew a crowd.

Miley, shown here in a pensive moment, earned many new "fans" during her Florida Keys stay. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Miley, shown here in a pensive moment, earned many new “fans” during her Florida Keys stay. (Photo courtesy of the Turtle Hospital)

When she was last spotted, paparazzi were snapping photos wildly, trying to get a few final shots of her shapely posterior as she headed back where she came from.

Was this pop singer Miley Cyrus, indulging in a secret getaway to the subtropical island chain as Khloe Kardashian and French Montana did recently? Or maybe the paparazzi’s darling was inspired to check out the Upper Keys locations where the new hit Netflix series “Bloodline” was filmed?

Ummm … not really.

Actually, the “celebrity” wasn’t Miley Cyrus at all. Instead, she was a sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle named after the pop princess — because she was “twerking” when originally discovered off the Keys in March.

When Miley the turtle was encountered floating off the Upper Keys, the rescuers who found her noticed that her rear end was gyrating. The motion resembled the dance moves Miley Cyrus once dubbed “twerking” — so, clearly, there was only one logical name for her.

Turtle Miley release begins Islamorada

“Paparazzi” snapped photos of Miley wherever she went in the Keys. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Following her rescue, the 120-pound Miley was admitted to the sea turtle version of rehab (otherwise known as the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital). Located in Marathon in the Middle Keys, this amazing facility is one of the few veterinary centers in the world dedicated solely to treating sea turtles.

Since 1986, hospital founder Richie Moretti and his associates have been treating injured turtles and, whenever possible, returning them to the wild. The hospital’s other goals include working toward environmental legislation to make beaches and oceans safer and cleaner for sea turtles.

The place even has a pair of “turtle ambulances.” And while they’re not as fancy as the limousines Miley Cyrus and other pop stars are accustomed to, they seem to function just fine for the patients who need them.

Turtle Miley release in process Islamorada

Following her successful “rehab,” Miley prepares to depart as Bette Zirkelbach (right) says farewell. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Miley the turtle, diagnosed with an intestinal impaction, was treated at the hospital for nearly two months. According to hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach, her regimen for recovery included antibiotics, lactulose, vitamins and a healthy diet of squid and fish.

On Saturday, May 2, hospital staff and volunteers held a “farewell party” for Miley at Islamorada’s Islander Resort. While the aforementioned paparazzi shot scores of photos and videos, “fans” celebrated her return to health and wished her well as she made her way into the Atlantic Ocean.

“Miley is swimming strong, is healthy and is no longer ‘twerking,’” reported Bette gleefully.

Turtle Miley swims away Islamorada

No longer “twerking,” Miley departs Islamorada for new adventures, watched by a crowd of well-wishers. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Miley is far from the only patient to make a full recovery at the world-class Turtle Hospital. In fact, since it opened, the facility has treated and released more than 1,500 lucky sea turtles back into their oceanic environment. It’s so highly acclaimed that airlines have been known to fly turtles injured in the Caribbean to Miami, where hospital staffers meet them and transport them to the facility for care.

Each time a “patient” is returned to health, its release is a joyful occurrence. Even former President Jimmy Carter and Florida’s former governor, Charlie Crist, have helped send a couple of the recovered creatures back to their watery homes — including, for the former governor, a 140-pound green sea turtle that was serendipitously named Charlie.

Comments

John Schaefer: One Funny Character

Julie Botteri | April 2015

When the curtain rose on the Marathon Community Theatre’s busy 2015 season of productions, local thespian John Schaefer marked a decade since the first time he walked onto a stage.

Elvis impersonator Marathon

Elvis is alive in Marathon — as portrayed by skilled actor John Schaefer.

John has always been quick with a laugh and a joke — but once he caught the acting bug, theater fans began eagerly anticipating the jovial postal worker’s upcoming roles.

With his signature white hair, boisterous laugh and toothy smile, John dedicates himself to his characters. He morphs his physical appearance to assume roles and memorizes lines during walks with his wife Kathryn and their labradoodle rescue dog, Shadow — and while delivering mail on his daily route.

He ditched frigid Ohio for the mail delivery job, despite never having visited the Florida Keys before, when a fax advertising an open position in Marathon arrived in his postmaster’s office.

“I thought I’d drive down to the Keys on vacation and see what it’s like,” John explained. “I came to Fort Lauderdale, drove to Founders Park in Islamorada, went to the beach and said, ‘Yeah, I can live here.’”

Now the engaging 52-year-old is nearing 25 years with the U.S. Postal Service. He also has a bachelor’s degree in physics and thinks he might teach physical sciences again one day, perhaps at a community college.

Marathon wedding

John married Kathryn in 2010 and she remains his favorite “audience.”

His fellow postal workers in Marathon were instrumental in getting him to join the not-for-profit Marathon Community Theatre. With more than 200 members, the organization is dedicated to enhancing the cultural life of the Middle Keys.

For John, it’s the love, the laughter, the challenge and the oneness of the Middle Keys troupe that keep him coming back each season for more adventure, drama, skits and music at the tiny theater. He regards it as a good place for people to soak up art and culture when they’re not fishing, enjoying water sports and sampling Marathon’s other attractions.

“It’s more intimate than going to the movies,” advised John. “You’re literally feet from the actors and you’re seeing them become other people.”

In his first-ever production, he played a MacArthur-style general in “Kiss Me Kate.” He was so nervous that the corncob pipe in his mouth shook, and he had to remove it.

“In my first lead role, I didn’t want to screw it up for everybody else in the show,” John recalled. “I’m out there on stage so much, I was thinking I could really make this show suck — and all the work that these guys are putting in could be for nothing, you know? I was so nervous about that.”

Marathon Theatre actor

Though best known for his comedic talent, John took a serious role in the Marathon Community Theatre’s “A Few Good Men.”

Yet the shows continued, and lead comedic roles have become John’s strong suit. Among his recent endeavors was “A Tuna Christmas,” a 22-character, two-man play in which each actor assumes 11 different character roles in a hilarious dose of Americana.

John also sits on the theater’s board of directors to help ensure the community organization remains a unique, valuable part of the region and the overall Keys experience.

“As actors, we love it when people laugh,” he said. “It’s why you do it; it’s your only payment — when you can get your audience to erupt in laughter, it’s a high.”

Keys life also is a “high” for John Schaefer. An avid tennis (and most recently pickleball) player, he admits he’s prone to seasickness so doesn’t venture out deep-sea fishing if it’s too rough. However, like most Marathon residents, he said enjoying the good life in the Keys is all about the water.

In fact, John continues trying to convince his twin brother Jim, a frequent visitor from Ohio, to relocate to Marathon. He particularly appreciates the small, tight-knit community and the response his postal customers have to his performances.

“When I’m delivering mail for people and they’re asking me when my next show is, that makes me feel good on behalf of the theater — that I can represent them well enough that somebody wants to come see a show just because I’m in it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “But it’s also a lot more pressure.”

Comments

Kudos, Connections, ‘Kamp’ and a Visit from Bette

Steve Smith | April 2015

As April winds down to usher in May, we have had a busy final week. A group of Key West residents was in Washington D.C. for the Supreme Court hearing on marriage equality — including Aaron Huntsman and his husband, William Lee Jones. With them was a section of the island’s famed sea-to-sea rainbow flag.

Key West rainbow flag Washington

A section of Key West’s famed sea-to-sea flag drapes a historic former Catholic rectory in Washington. It’s now the home of Dan Bready, who hosted the Key West group.

As many readers will recall, Aaron and William Lee were married in Key West Jan. 6, 2015, when Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage was lifted. The SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality may pave the way for marriage and marriage recognition for same-sex couples across the U.S.

Last Friday was the British LGBT Awards ceremony in London. Driven by consumer voting, Key West was the only U.S. city to be chosen as a finalist for Best LGBT Travel Destination. Congratulations to Stockholm, the city that won the award.

In Key West, Bette Davis aficionados can get their power fix with the Waterfront Playhouse production of “Me and Jezebel.” Local master of impersonation Christopher Peterson stars as Bette and delivers powerful and priceless lines while paired with actress Carolyn Cooper.

The show transports audiences to a day in 1985 when they become part of playwright Elizabeth Fuller’s family. With New York hotels on strike, Bette comes to the Fuller home for a night or two, which turns into a month. “Me and Jezebel” runs through May 16, so there’s still time to reserve your seats for this can’t-miss performance.

The Red Barn Theatre brings to the stage “Venus in Fur,” a smash Broadway hit billed as “a study of the politics of sex that’s guaranteed to mesmerize.” The production runs through May 23 and stars local actors Erin McKenna and Matt Hollis Hulsey, who deliver 90 minutes of fun.

Key West LGBT contingent in Washington DC

Key Westers (from left) Sunshine, Aaron, Susan and William Lee traveled to Washington D.C. for the history-making SCOTUS hearing.

Music lovers are sure to enjoy the Keystock Music Festival set for this Saturday, May 2, at the Truman Waterfront and featuring Grand Funk Railroad. Local musician Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band, an all-original tropical island band, are to open for Grand Funk. Bring a chair or blanket to relax with some of the Florida Keys’ best live music. Active military members and their families receive complimentary general admission; doors open at 4:30 p.m.

Finally, Kamp Key West kicks off Thursday, May 14. Remember spending lazy days at summer camp as a kid? Kamp Key West brings an adult summer “kamp” to our island. Enjoy sun and fun on the beach, poolside and on the water. The schedule of events is up, so book your Key West weekend now and plan to be a “happy kamper.”

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

Comments

Quirky and Colorful Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2015

Anyone who knows much about Key West is aware that it was once the home of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, that Jimmy Buffett created his Margaritaville empire on the island, and that former President Harry Truman ruled the United States from a vacation getaway known today as the Little White House.

Key West Southernmost Point

Visitors love to snap photos at Key West’s Southernmost Point marker, which delineates the southernmost spot of land in the continental U.S. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But beyond those well-known facts lie a wealth of lesser-known tidbits and tales about the island city that’s located closer to Havana than it is to Miami.

And speaking of Key West’s location, it really IS the southernmost city in the continental United States. It’s 755 miles south of Los Angeles and only 24.5 degrees above the equator.

But “southernmost” isn’t the only moniker the island city has earned. It’s also nicknamed Bone Island. According to local lore, when the Spanish discovered the island they found the landscape littered with bones from the victims of a war between two native tribes. The Spaniards dubbed the place “Cayo Hueso,” which can be loosely translated as (yes, you guessed it!) Bone Island.

Since that early discovery, Key West has grown considerably — not just in population, but also in land mass. Once a diminutive 1,575 acres, it’s now significantly larger. Part of the new acreage was deliberately created in a manmade dredge-and-fill process, but some can be credited to Mother Nature’s unique red mangrove. It seems the mangroves trap sand, leaves, sediment and other debris in their tangled aerial roots, and that natural blend eventually solidifies into new land.

Paddleboarders Key West

Racers will circumnavigate the entire island of Key West during the during the 2015 Key West Paddle Classic.

These days, in fact, the distance around Key West is approximately 12 miles. Each May, the island’s circumference becomes a saltwater racecourse for competitors during the annual Key West Paddle Classic.

Presented by Lazy Dog Adventures and the Turtle Kraals Restaurant & Bar, the challenge is open to watersports enthusiasts on standup paddleboards, prone boards, outrigger canoes, dory boats, surf skis and kayaks. They navigate past island landmarks such as the Southernmost Point marker and Mallory Square, site of the nightly sunset celebration, while trying to post the fastest paddling time.

Speaking of Key West landmarks, the fine old building that houses Bagatelle Restaurant, bedecked with porches and dining decks, was once the home of local fire chief Hiram Fulford. Built in 1890, the gracious home stood next to the public library on Fleming Street until it was transported to its current location at 115 Duval St. Both for its history and cuisine, the place is well worth a visit.

Louie's Backyard Key West

The lovely Louie’s Backyard serves fine food and cocktails overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy of Louie’s Backyard)

Another home that became a legendary restaurant stands at 700 Waddell St. Now the gourmet Louie’s Backyard, it was once the residence of wrecker James Randall Adams. (The profitable industry of wrecking, or salvaging shipwrecked vessels and their crews and cargoes, helped make 19th-century Key West the wealthiest city per capita in the entire United States.) According to legend, Captain Adams boasted that everything in his gracious Classic Revival house had originally been salvaged from ships that foundered on the offshore reefs.

In the early 1970s, the lovely oceanside dwelling was first opened as a restaurant. One of the place’s notable customers was a locally infamous mutt named Ten Speed, whose favorite cocktail was Kahlua and cream.

Dog Beach dogs

Dog Beach draws denizens like these happy canines. (Photo by Joanne Denning)

Next door to Louie’s lies a pocket-sized hideaway beach on the Atlantic that’s dedicated to people and their pooches and, quite reasonably, is called Dog Beach. Around cocktail hour each day, it’s the norm to see tail-wagging dogs and their owners hurrying down the street together — the dogs headed for the beach to meet their canine friends for a rollicking game of coconut chase; and the people making their way to Louie’s cocktail deck, where they can sip island-style libations and watch their pets at play.

Do these small nuggets of knowledge and lore make you want to find out more about quirky and colorful Key West? Then start your exploration by clicking here.

Comments

Fire a Cannon, Raise the Colors, Celebrate (Conch) Independence!

Steve Smith | April 2015

In April of 1982, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a blockade at the top of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway in Florida City ostensibly seeking illegal immigrants and narcotics that created long traffic delays for motorists leaving the Keys.

Not to sit back and take this assault on locals (Conchs) and our visitors, the Key West mayor and city commissioners declared Key West’s independence from the U.S. on April 23, 1982.

We immediately declared war against the U.S. by bopping a real U.S. Navy officer with a loaf of stale Cuban Bread and then surrendered asking for something like a billion dollars in foreign aid. This mock secession — though many will tell you we DID secede — gave birth to the Conch Republic.

Great Conch Republic Drag Race features female impersonators instead of drag cars. Image: Rob O’Neal

Each year we celebrate our independence with a week of fun, pageants, a re-creation of the battle against the U.S. and the world’s longest parade.

Kicking off the 33rd annual celebration at high noon Friday, April 17th, is the raising of the colors at Fort Zachary Taylor and the firing of a cannon.

Conch1 BLOG

The fluted, pink-lined conch shell was used by early Keys seafarers as a signaling device.

Later that evening we gather at the Schooner Wharf Bar for the kickoff of the anniversary as the ‘People Who Seceded Where Others Failed’. These festivities include a Conch Shell blowing contest and the appearance of the Caribbean Queen Junkanoo Band.

As the celebration moves forward, patriots can watch the Great Conch Republic Drag Race beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18. The event is held in the 700 block of Duval Street and features a gaggle of drag queens wearing high heels doing their best to navigate the obstacle course while being rewarded with chilled libations.

Thursday, April 23, brings the Worlds Longest Parade which steps off on Duval Street at 8 p.m. from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a live theater production, called “Conch Republic, the Musical,” a pirates’ ball, a bed race billed as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on,” and a sailing race commemorating the Florida Keys’ historic shipwreck salvage tradition.

The 2014 "Cow Key Bridge Zero K Race" attracted about a thousand participants who traversed the 360-foot-long bridge. Image: Rob O'Neal

The 2014 “Cow Key Bridge Zero K Race” attracted about a thousand participants who traversed the 360-foot-long bridge. Image: Rob O’Neal

Also, if you are here this Saturday, April 28, several thousand costumed participants will “compete” in the Cow Key Channel Bridge Run beginning at noon. It’s one of the shortest bridges of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway and it’s the only Zero K bridge run.

Last year I crossed the finish line in 6.49 minutes, delayed as I paused at the hydration station for a bottle of water. The winner finished in 25 seconds.

There is still time to register to win the Steve Grand Flyaway vacation to Key West. The prize includes air transportation, four nights in a luxury hotel, meals and more! Registration closes April 28.

 

 

 

Comments

33 Years of the Conch Republic

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2015

Some people may not realize the significance of April 23, 1982, to the Florida Keys and Key West. But believe me, the date was, (and still is!) supremely significant.

That’s the day the island chain seceded from the United States and formed the Conch Republic.

For more than 30 years, the flag of the Conch Republic has flown proudly in the Florida Keys.

For more than 30 years, the flag of the Conch Republic has flown proudly in the Florida Keys.

Seems the U.S. Border Patrol was determined to apprehend illegal immigrants entering America through the Keys. Earlier that month, on a Sunday and without warning, agents set up a roadblock in the northbound lane at the junction of U.S. Highway 1 and Card Sound Road in Florida City on the mainland. Inspection of every car leaving the Keys took time and resulted in a huge traffic jam that stretched from Florida City down to Key Largo.

At the time, Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow, other officials and business owners began to really worry. With tourism the lifeblood of the Keys economy, would visitors tolerate being subjected to such abuse and delays leaving the Keys, which are, of course, part of Florida and the United States?

Among the many calls that Mayor Wardlow made was one to Stuart Newman, owner of the public relations agency that supports the Florida Keys tourism council.

Stuart recalled that during the Civil War Key West refused to join the rest of Florida in the Confederacy and proclaimed its allegiance to the Union. The real reason: Union troops were already garrisoned at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West.

Harking back 150 years, Stuart suggested that this time Key West should secede from the Union. Mayor Wardlow was shocked until Stuart explained this would be a mock secession.

Supporters chant "Long live the Conch Republic!"

Supporters chant “Long live the Conch Republic!”

“Secession” was only undertaken after all other attempts to relieve the situation failed. But on April 23, upon that ceremonial secession from the union, the Keys and Key West became the Conch Republic. The well-attended event was held on Front Street adjacent to Key West’s popular Mallory Square.

The late Wilhelmina Harvey, then an active 70-year-old and mayor of Monroe County, was appointed admiral of the Conch Republic Navy. Other officers included attorney David Paul Horan as secretary of the Conch Republic Air Force, and Mayor Wardlow as prime minister. War was declared against the United States, and stale Cuban bread was whimsically “pounded” over the head of real U.S. Navy officer. News media and hundreds gathered to watch the historic secession ceremony and birth of the independent Conch Republic.

The Conch Republic surrendered, and immediately requested $1 billion in foreign aid. Additional officials were appointed ambassadors to such places as Miami, Texas, and Hawaii. Soon citizens of the Conch Republic even had border passes and passports.

No foreign aid ever came, but the border patrol realized the embarrassing situation it had created and the blockade soon was quietly removed.

Of course, because Keys residents love any kind of festival, the Conch Republic Independence Celebration became an annual celebration.

This year’s celebration, which begins Friday and continues through April 26, has special significance in that it will be the first without the late Peter Anderson, who in 1990 was appointed the official secretary general of the Conch Republic.

A good-natured sea battle featuring historic tall ships is among the event highlights. Image: Rob O'Neal

A good-natured sea battle featuring historic tall ships is among the event highlights. Image: Rob O’Neal

Festival highlights include the great battle for the Conch Republic, when Key West’s tall ships fire water balloons and other offbeat “weapons” at U.S. Coast Guard vessels, and the Conch Republic

Drag Race, where drag queens race down Duval Street adorned in high heels, among other events. You can find a full schedule at conchrepublic.com.

Comments

Google

couk