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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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Daughter of Famed Florida Keys Captain and TV Personality Catches Her First Swordfish

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2015

The Florida Keys are known for world-class sportfishing — and for the many professional captains who have handed their passion for angling down to their children. Among them was Jose Wejebe, whose top-rated television fishing show, “Spanish Fly,” inspired a generation of viewers before his untimely death in a 2012 plane crash. This week, Keys Voices presents a personal Keys fishing tale written by Jose’s angler daughter, Krissy Wejebe-Moloney.

Jose Wejebe Florida Keys fishing

Guest blogger Krissy Wejebe-Moloney and her father, the late Jose Wejebe, shared a smile on a fishing excursion.

Years ago, the word “swordfish” was synonymous with “frustration” and some choice expletives in my father’s house. My normally kind and indulgent dad was on full tilt after investing a lot of time and money on a failed trip to video catching a swordfish.

Most recently it was my turn to fight the elusive predators.

I knew they had a special organ to warm their brains and their enormous eyes, helping explain how they can thrive at crushing depths. Their bills, used for slashing prey, are a power to be respected.

In the best fishing tradition, I shared this trip with my new husband and fishing captain Dave Moloney, childhood friend (also a charter captain) Kevin Rowley and his girlfriend Brandy. Professional photographer Kevin Dodge, who had photographed our wedding, accompanied us as well.

We had all the ingredients for a good fishing trip: good friends, skilled pros and a sense of adventure.

We headed out around noon on my dad’s old 34-foot SeaVee. While we were readying the fishing gear, we saw a deep-water rock pile on the screen of the Raymarine GPS. We marked the spot and did our first deep drop of the day with a new Shimano Beast Master electric reel that my dad had never used. I knew he would be happy it was on our boat today.

Jose Wejebe fishing

Captain Jose Wejebe was famed for his top-rated television fishing show, “Spanish Fly.”

Then we went out to the wall, an area about 20 miles off the Florida Keys. On our second drop we thought we were caught on the bottom because the reel turned, but no line was gained. We started backing up the boat to retrieve as much line as we could.

Suddenly the line started coming up quickly, going from 1,700 feet to 200 feet out. Then the line stopped and started peeling out. Clearly, a fish was on.

This had happened on previous swordfishing trips and always ended up being a shark — so no one on the boat dared utter the word “swordfish.” Kevin D. readied his photo gear, and as he did the fish came up thrashing its sword out of the water. Holy moly, we had a swordfish!

We could tell the fish had swallowed the hook, meaning release was not an option, so Dave got the gaff ready.

The sword came back up, did a circle and then headed straight for Kevin D., who had dived in for some underwater photos. We heard him scream as he realized he was now the target. He tucked his legs up, let go of the camera and with two hands grabbed the bill as the fish continued moving forward. He shoved the fish underneath his tucked-up legs, a maneuver most men would never risk. We shouted at him to get out of the water, but he wouldn’t — he wanted to get a few more shots.

Swordfish catch off Florida Keys

Since the swordfish had swallowed the hook, release wasn’t an option — so this memorable catch was destined for the dinner table.

Dave, Kevin R. and I had spent a lot of time to achieve catching our first swordfish. We tried and tried, and finally it worked.

Kevin R. lost his sister a year ago, and three years ago I lost my dad. Kevin and I have talked many times about how certain things happen, and you know that a loved one you lost had something to do with it. That moment when I saw the sword come out of the water, I looked at Kevin and we smiled. Everything came together perfectly. We were on my dad’s boat, with all his “Spanish Fly” gear and an underwater photographer, and we got our swordfish.

After a few more photos, it was back to the dock where we began the business of clean-up and filleting our catch for dinner. When Kevin R. cut open the belly of the swordfish and found the squid we had caught him on, so did a very audacious pelican that snatched it. Luckily Kevin acted quickly, grabbed the “thief’s” beak and got the squid back — along with the $10 hook.

With my job as president of the Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation, I think of my dad practically every moment of every day. It’s hard not to be sad and miss him — but catching that fish, and knowing that he was there, made me smile.

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Key West Kids ‘Juggle’ Fun and Learning at Spring Break Circus Camp

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2015

While some kids might daydream about running away to join the circus, 11 young Key Westers spent their recent Spring Break learning the skills to succeed in a circus environment.

Key West Spring Break Circus Camp demonstration

Karen “Ooo La La” Grant Margil (left) and Bounce Margil demonstrate the art of juggling pins at their Spring Break Circus Camp in Key West. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At the five-day Spring Break Circus Camp, presented by The Studios of Key West, kids age 6 through 12 learned to juggle balls and pins, spin plastic plates on long poles, twirl colorful hula-hoops seemingly forever, perform balancing acts and more.

The unique curriculum was taught by Key West residents Bounce Margil and Karen Grant Margil — also known as Ooo La La — who have spent more than three decades as professional jugglers, entertainers and teachers.

Both are lively and full of fun, happy to demonstrate intricate feats like juggling while balancing effortlessly on a rolling board, and clearly focused on mentoring the kids in their camp sessions.

Key West Spring Break Circus Camp juggling

John Jackel (left) learns how to juggle soccer balls with Bounce Margil at the lively Circus Camp.

“We always tell the children that, if you can learn how to juggle, it will improve your abilities as a baseball player, softball player, soccer player, tennis player, golfer, basketball player — because it’s all hand-eye coordination, focus and concentration,” Ooo La La explained.

And she should know. As well as performing around the U.S., Europe and Japan, Bounce and Ooo La La have taught juggling, unicycling, acrobatics, mime and movement at hundreds of schools, camps and colleges throughout the country. Bounce even spent a stint teaching at the prestigious Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College.

And for nearly 20 years, they have instructed lucky Florida Keys students in circus arts at public and private schools. For nearly a decade, their work in the schools has been supported by a Special Project Grant funded by private donations through the Florida Keys Council of the Arts.

Key West Spring Break Circus Camp making juggling balls

Karen “Ooo La La” Margil teaches kids how to make their own juggling balls during the Spring Break Circus Camp.

It’s particularly fitting that the talented duo held their circus camp in Key West. That’s because the island is known worldwide for its Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, a nightly waterfront “circus” featuring jugglers, acrobats and other performers — including, in past years, Bounce and Ooo La La.

Their energetic circus arts curriculum is enormous fun. Bounce stressed the importance of practice and repetition for successful learning, and the kids threw themselves into it — and were endearingly surprised and proud when they learned a new skill.

Yet there’s far more to the camp than fun. Practicing juggling and other circus arts can increase not only kids’ hand-eye coordination but also their balance, teamwork skills, creative problem-solving, self-esteem and enjoyment of physical activity.

For example, kids in the Spring Break Circus camp begin by juggling one ball, getting comfortable with the throw-and-catch routine and then adding a second ball and a third.

Key West Spring Break Circus camp juggle balls

A Key West girl juggles multiple balls under Bounce’s watchful eye.

“When a child can figure it out, and can actually throw three balls and keep it going, for them it’s the most uplifting, fabulously exciting moment in their lives when they go ‘I can do it — I can do it!’ And for us, as their teachers, it’s even more exciting,” Ooo La La enthused.

In fact, the camp session was alive with excitement. The Key West kids performed amazingly, juggling multiple balls and pins, twirling two hula-hoops simultaneously around slender hips and balancing on a barrel-and-board contraption called a rola-bola.

And with each skill they mastered, their smiles got bigger, their laughter more exuberant and their possibilities of success (in case that daydream of joining the circus ever becomes a reality) got brighter.

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Spring Happenings Include a ‘Grand’ Key West Vacation Giveaway

Steve Smith | April 2015

This spring, there are so many enjoyable things happening in Key West that there isn’t enough time to experience them all. This past Saturday, I attended the wedding of Oleksandr and Vladimyr, two very nice guys who have made the island their home.

LGBT wedding Key West

Grooms Oleksandr and Vladimyr enjoy a conch shell salute at their Key West wedding.

The perfect setting was the garden at the Harry S. Truman Little White House and the ceremony was officiated by Carmen Jo Rodriguez. The guests were treated to a salute from a conch shell and some delicious “black forest cherry” wedding cake created by groom Oleksandr.

Following the wedding was the annual Equality Florida Gala at the Gardens Hotel. Some 350 Key West locals met to celebrate marriage equality and bestow Equality Florida’s Voice for Equality award upon Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who successfully challenged Florida’s same-sex marriage ban. As usual in Key West, the crowd was a mixture of gays, lesbians, transgender friends and our non-gay allies. It truly represented the “One Human Family” philosophy that makes the destination so welcoming.

If you’re in town Sunday, April 5, join us for the monthly Artisan Market held outside The Restaurant Store at the corner of Eaton and White streets. This open-air market takes place from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and features locally created arts, crafts, clothing, furniture, foods, craft beers and much more. This week’s market theme recognizes the Florida Keys Ocean Festival. If you stop by, look for me since it’s a must-attend event on my schedule.

Taste of Key West presents the flavors of the island in an open-air waterfront setting.

Taste of Key West presents the flavors of the island in an open-air waterfront setting.

The 20th annual AIDS Help Taste of Key West returns Monday, April 13, from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. at the Truman Waterfront. As you stroll along the waterfront, you can sample a bounty of tapas plates from more than 50 of our finest restaurants.

Food and wine tickets are $1 each, and there are VIP packages that feature early 5 p.m. entry to the smorgasbord of foods, a commemorative T-shirt, plate and wine glass. Old Town Trolley Tours will provide free shuttle services, picking up guests from the Pier House, Westin Key West Resort, La Concha, Casa Marina and the corner of Simonton and South streets.

Are you familiar with singer-songwriter Steve Grand? If not, take a moment to watch his record-breaking music video “All American Boy.” Launched in July 2013, his self-funded music video went viral and today has over 3,972,600 views on You Tube.

Singer Steve Grand is celebrating his latest album launch with a "grand" Key West vacation giveaway.(Photo by Joem C. Bayawa)

Singer-songwriter Steve Grand is celebrating his album launch with a “grand” Key West vacation giveaway. (Photo by Joem C. Bayawa)

Several singles later, Steve, an openly gay independent artist, launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2014. This campaign became one of the top 10 most funded music projects in Kickstarter’s history.

His new album is now available — and to help celebrate its launch, Steve is offering his fans and supporters a chance to win a five-day, four-night vacation in Key West.

Co-presented by Gay.net, Orbitz and Key West, this great vacation package includes airfare for two, a wine tasting sunset sail, stand-up paddleboarding, a gourmet dinner on a secluded resort island, and much more. Ten runner-up prize winners will receive autographed copies of the CD “Steve Grand: All American Boy.”

Enter now for a chance to win the inviting Key West vacation. Good luck and enjoy the easy sounds of Steve Grand!

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

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Memories of Mallory Square

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2015

MALLORY SQUARE, 1980s. The late afternoon air smelled almost of anticipation on the crowded Key West pier, with a hint of saltwater blown off the Gulf of Mexico. Across the water lay Christmas Tree Island, fringed with scrubby trees and ringed with a necklace of liveaboard sailboats at anchor.

Key West Sunset Celebration

Will Soto, who walked a tightrope at Mallory Square’s Sunset Celebration for many years, is silhouetted against the setting son. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On the pier, a kilted bagpiper paced with steady rhythm as he piped. A cat performed intricate tricks and twirls under the direction of an exuberant Frenchman. A thin dark man sporting a long ponytail walked a tightrope, eliciting gasps and murmurs.

Guitar players, jewelry sellers and a woman hawking baked goods from the basket of a well-used bicycle stood out against the crowd. People were everywhere — visitors and Key West locals, old and young, hippies and diamond-clad matrons, small children practically vibrating with excitement — all sampling the exotic banquet of faces, sights and sounds on the waterfront pier.

In 1973, emerging entertainer Jimmy Buffett released his now-classic song “I Have Found Me a Home” about Key West. Early in his residence, Buffett absorbed the vibe of the offbeat island at the tip of the Florida Keys — whose history embraced pirates and shipwreck salvors and rumrunners, and whose inhabitants over the years ranged from literary legend Ernest Hemingway to renegade saloon-keeper Captain Tony Tarracino.

This classic Jimmy Buffett album cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

“I Have Found Me a Home” appeared on this classic Jimmy Buffett album, whose cover captures the Key West waterfront in the 1970s.

Key West changed some after Jimmy released the song, since not even an edge-of-the-continent paradise can remain the same. By the mid-1980s there were a few chain establishments, more traffic on rowdy Duval Street, and a faint sophisticated veneer over the free-and-easy mañana atmosphere.

But underneath, the island was still the same grand old lady she had always been — like an eccentric aunt who was sometimes slightly raucous, but always genuine in her warmth and welcome. And nothing exemplified that essential warmth more than the crowds of visitors, locals, street performers and vendors who gathered at the waterfront Mallory Square every night, glorying in life as the sun sank beneath the Gulf of Mexico horizon.

In those days, a visitor to the Mallory Square sunset celebration would find the air heady with the breath of humidity and the fragrance of fat exotic blossoms. Saltwater and incense added to the musky perfume, and mismatched guitar chords drifted out over the water.

Captain Tony's saloon remains a local landmark -- just as it was when he held court at its weathered bar.

Captain Tony’s saloon remains a local landmark — just as it was when he held court at its weathered bar.

Dogs wandered the pier purposefully, as if on a mission, and parrots of all hues could be spotted on bicycle handlebars or the shoulders of 20th-century buccaneers. When, inevitably, the sun went down to the accompaniment of laughter and applause, the energy of the coming night could be felt strong as a pulsebeat.

In the afterglow each evening, people scattered. Some headed for Captain Tony’s ramshackle saloon not far from Mallory, while others drifted toward Duval Street to watch the world go by from restaurant balconies. Many sought out Buffett’s favorite haunts or strolled through the tree-lined Old Town neighborhood, watching lights bloom in the windows of weathered Victorian homes.

Chances are, a good number of those veterans of the Mallory Square sunset celebration found themselves sitting sunburned and satisfied over a frosty margarita — feeling the same sense of belonging that prompted Jimmy Buffett to write, in his early anthem to Key West, “You can have the rest of everything I own, ‘cause I have found me a home …”

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Rejoice and Celebrate Life in the Florida Keys & Key West

Briana Ciraulo | March 2015

Every year, thousands of visitors flock to the Florida Keys & Key West — the continental United States’ southernmost island chain — to celebrate life and its milestones. And with sunrise on one side of the islands and sunset on the other, the Florida Keys are an ideal place to romance, celebrate and rejuvenate.

Key West sunset wedding

A bride and groom pledge their love against a glorious Key West sunset. (Photo by Karrie Porter)

For example, couples looking to say “I Do” or escape for a romantic getaway can visit the Keys for an experience that blends relaxation and a touch of adventure. There’s no shortage of ways to make a destination wedding unique in the atmospheric island chain.

At the north end of the Keys in Key Largo, certified divers can take the plunge and stage an underwater wedding (really!) — exchanging vows beside sea turtles, stingrays and the Christ of the Deep statue.

History buffs can find intriguing locales for wedding ceremonies in Key West. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Harry S. Truman Little White House and Audubon House & Tropical Gardens provide truly lovely settings for couples who want to incorporate elements of America’s past into their future together.

And animal lovers can get married with some of their favorite wildlife in attendance — from playful dolphins at Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center to hundreds of butterflies at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

Key West LGBT wedding

A happy LGBT couple celebrates after exchanging vows in Key West. (Photo by Karrie Porter)

The Keys also offer an appealing atmosphere for LGBT couples. As might be expected in one of the country’s top-rated destinations for gay and lesbian travelers, for years commitment ceremonies were performed in Key West by clergy and notaries. And since Jan. 6, 2015, same-sex couples have been able to marry legally in the island’s many welcoming venues.

With a subtropical climate and lush landscape, surrounded by gorgeous turquoise waters, the Keys are the ideal location to rejuvenate and relax. Couples can even find their Zen with Serenity Eco-Therapy, a progressive paddleboard program incorporating meditation, yoga and cardio in the tranquil waters of the Lower Keys.

And those seeking to pamper themselves in style can enjoy relaxing oceanside massages while listening to the lazily lapping waves of the Atlantic.

Couple and dolphin in Marathon

Couples can mark life’s milestones with friendly dolphins at Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

But the Keys are more than a prime spot for couples’ getaways. The island chain offers so many diverse activities that it’s a rocking location for group vacations — whether bachelor and bachelorette parties, destination weddings, birthday trips, family reunions or a much-needed break with friends.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing better than heart-pumping adventure to guarantee an unforgettable escape for groups. Surrounded by the third largest living coral barrier reef in the world, the Keys provide exhilarating underwater exploration for snorkelers and divers from beginners to experts — with seemingly endless marine life and reef tracts to investigate.

Groups also can charter a fishing boat and savor the thrill of offshore angling in Islamorada (known for good reason as the sport-fishing capital of the world), with an expert captain at the helm.

Key Largo Snorkelers

Families and groups can make lifelong memories exploring the undersea realm in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But the adventures don’t stop there. Visitors can strap on a water-powered jetpack and fly with Tiki Jet in Islamorada, or kiteboard on a two-point cable system over Keys Cable’s manmade 7-acre lake in Marathon.

And in the southernmost city of Key West, barhopping isn’t the only nightlife to experience. On Ibis Bay Resort’s nighttime paddleboarding excursion, groups can discover underwater marine life after dark with unique LED-lighted paddleboards.

To top it all off, tour the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery or visit Bone Island Brewing — both ideal locales for toasting a special event with locally made libations.

In fact, no matter what the occasion, the Florida Keys & Key West are the perfect destination for celebrating life and making memories that last a lifetime. And who doesn’t deserve to do both?

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At Sea and Onstage, Key West Savors Spring

Steve Smith | March 2015

While winter temperatures prevail in most of the United States, we in Key West have been enjoying sunny weather with temperatures in the 80s. The blue skies make for fabulous sunning, and the water activities center around the only contiguous living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S.

Key West Fury sail

Blue water, blue skies and good friends make Fury’s Tea Dance on the Sea a popular excursion. (Photo courtesy of Fury Water Adventures)

We locals love to swim, fish, snorkel, and enjoy the sunsets on the many sailboats and catamarans that travel our waters.

For example, the Fury has launched a new water activity: Tea Dance on the Sea. This two-hour sunset dance party will convene again on April 11. Local DJ Neil Chamberlin provides the sounds, and the Fury provides top-shelf premium cocktails and savory appetizers as you sail into the sunset — all for $69.95 per person!

The Tea Dance on the Sea will soon take place every week. Stay tuned for an update and I will see you on the water under the stars. FYI, another terrific Fury excursion is the “Ultimate Adventure” mixing snorkeling, parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking, rock wall climbing and even a trampoline in the middle of the sea!

Danger Charters invites all to their daily “Wind and Wine” sunset sail and wine tasting. I can often be found on one of their three sailboats tasting imported and domestic wines and great hors d’oeuvres.

Key West sailboat

Danger Charters’ new “Brunch and Bubbles” offering is a sail to be savored. (Photo courtesy of Danger Charters)

Recently Danger launched “Brunch and Bubbles” every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The cruise departs from the Westin Marina at 11:30 a.m., and you will savor champagne and a bountiful brunch under full billowing sails. What a great way to enjoy the water and make good memories with your friends and family!

The Blu Q continues to guide its passengers through the azure waters to private beach areas for snorkeling, kayaking, a picnic lunch and beverages galore. Join Captains Steve and Mo for a day of sailing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and swimming with a variety of tropical fish. You might even see a wild dolphin or two “performing” for the gang on the boat.

The Ides of March just passed and left behind an outstanding cast bringing “Spamalot” to life on the stage of Key West’s Waterfront Playhouse. Tom Luna, a colorful local actor and former king of the Fantasy Fest festival, leads this musical comedy adapted from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Key West theater Spamalot

A stellar cast of Key West characters stars in the wacky “Spamalot” at the Waterfront Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of the Waterfront Playhouse)

It tells a story about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, their dancing girls, a flying cow and a killer rabbit. Prepare yourself for the largest production ever to grace the Waterfront’s stage — including more than 150 costumes, a cast of 14 and a live orchestra. This is definitely a not-to-be-missed show! I have my tickets … do you?

Interested in learning about the coral reef and the seas surrounding Key West? Then attend the 6th annual Florida Keys Ocean Festival & Waterfront Craft Show on April 4. Starting with the 8 a.m. Smokin’ Tuna Saloon 5k Tuna Trot Race for the Reef, the day unfolds with live music by Howard Livingston & the Mile Marker 24 Band, a tour of the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center where the event takes place; an arts, crafts, and jewelry marketplace; food and an after party at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. It’s a wonderful chance to mingle with locals, find out about our reef, and dive into an enjoyable day on the island.

See you around Key West!

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Conch Honkers Rock in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2015

Maybe chart-topping rock stars aren’t abandoning their guitars to play the conch (pronounced “konk”) shell. But that doesn’t matter — because the “pucker pros” performing on fluted, pink-lined shells were treated like rock stars at the 53rd annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest in Key West.

Conch Shell Blowing Contest 2015 winner

Eddie Webb blows a winning blast on the conch shell during the 53rd annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest in Key West. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Commonly nicknamed the “conch honk,” the quirky musical challenge was held March 7 at the island city’s Oldest House Museum in salute to the Florida Keys’ seafaring heritage.

It’s not easy to be a consistently good conch shell blower, and most people can only produce feeble bleats and squawks. But that wasn’t the case for 64-year-old Key West resident Eddie Webb, who “blew” the judges away with long, loud blasts and an excerpt from a classical melody — and took first place in the men’s division of the offbeat contest.

Of course, he’s had a good bit of practice. After his victory, Eddie explained that he’s been playing the conch shell for more than 35 years. For the past five or so, he’s been a stalwart member of the conch horn corps for the Conch Republic Navy, the ceremonial navy of the Florida Keys’ lighthearted alter ego known as the Conch Republic.

Conch Shell Blowing Contest child

Three-year-old Oliver Stuardi puckers up during the 2015 contest.

“To be a good conch shell sounder, you’ve got to have good strength in your lips to get a high-pitched ‘pffft’ sort of thing while pressing against the hole,” Eddie advised.

The tradition of blowing a conch shell in the Keys began centuries ago. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging shipwreck cargoes, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the shell.

“If you can’t get it right, right off the bat, keep trying and you’ll get it,” Eddie recommended. “Once you feel that sound, and you get the right pucker on your lips to make it, you’ll know where it is — and then you can carry on for as long as you want.”

Conch Shell Blowing Contest group entry

Visitors from Ohio calling themselves the “The Infamous Ohio State Conch Marching Band,” compete in the group division of the Conch Shell Blowing Contest.

Eddie wasn’t the only standout in the 2015 contest. Nearly three dozen kids and adults competed, including a heart-meltingly cute three-year-old boy named Oliver. Winners were chosen for the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they made (and some sounds were so novel that they were downright embarrassing).

But other entrants gave absolutely stunning performances — like Key West’s Kyla Bender, the hands-down winner in the young adult division. The self-possessed 11-year-old, who wore a sparkling tiara and white t-shirt, served up a flawless excerpt from composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” And that’s a complicated melody on ANY instrument.

Groups participated in the contest too — including a gaggle of visitors from Ohio who called themselves “The Infamous Ohio State Conch Marching Band.”

Wearing a tiara, Kyla Bender plays a portion of "Sabre Dance" to wow the judges at the 2015 contest.

Wearing a tiara, Kyla Bender plays a portion of “Sabre Dance” to impress the judges at the 2015 contest.

The most engaging group, however, blended the sounds of the conch horn, ukelele and voice. Key West’s Steve Gibson, a former contest winner, paired with winsome Clementine Spohrer on a wacky original number called “Herman the Merman.” Together, the duo wowed the judges and several hundred spectators.

As in the past, the “conch honk” was presented by Key West’s Old Island Restoration Foundation — much to the delight of the “rock stars” who gathered to toot their own horns this year at the Oldest House.

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