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!

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

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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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Underwater with a Giant Bunny

Julie Botteri | March 2015

Rabbits are oddly popular in fiction and film. For example, there’s Bugs Bunny, the iconic animated character whose catchphrase is, “What’s up, Doc?” On the female side, there’s the sultry Jessica Rabbit from the classic “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

Underwater Easter bunny in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Spencer Slate, costumed as a scuba-diving Easter bunny, hides eggs amid eel grass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Few kids grow up without becoming familiar with mischievous little Peter from “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” penned by Beatrix Potter and published in the early 1900s. And most grownups have heard of the vintage play and film “Harvey,” which tell the story of eccentric Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible 6-foot-tall long-eared companion.

More recently, the offbeat British-American film “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” — the chronicle of a gigantic vegetable-stealing hare gone berserk — earned an Academy Award for its masterful animation.

Even the advertising world has an illustrious spokesrabbit: the slightly unnerving Energizer Bunny, who bangs a drum nonstop in battery commercials.

The Florida Keys too boast a notable example of the rabbit species. Like Harvey, he’s about 6 feet tall (plus ears). Like the Energizer Bunny, he displays notable stamina. But unlike the above characters, he’s real — and his favorite stomping grounds are underwater.

His name is Captain Spencer Slate. Each year around Easter, he dons a giant bunny suit and dive gear (picture a supersized bunny wearing dive fins as long as his ears) and hides brightly colored Easter eggs near shallow reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Underwater Easter bunny and kid diver

The Keys’ scuba-diving bunny hands an egg to Quinn Vanischak during the 2013 Underwater Easter Egg Hunt. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Why does he do it? So divers and snorkelers visiting the Keys can become deep-sea “egg-splorers” while supporting a local charity.

This year’s Underwater Easter Egg Hunt will take place Sunday, April 5, in the warm, clear waters off Islamorada. It’s a popular underwater game of hide-and-seek where participants can win prizes — including a particularly valuable goodie basket that awaits the fortunate finder of a “golden egg.”

The unique Easter event is hosted by Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures, located at mile marker 90.7 oceanside in the Upper Keys.

After Captain “Cottontail” hides the eggs (real eggs and nontoxic dyes are used to avoid negative environmental impacts), boats full of egg seekers head out to a secret location adjacent to a shallow reef area. Once the boats reach the secret spot, divers and snorkelers take the plunge to seek the hard-boiled hoard.

Captain Spencer Slate has become a legend in the Florida Keys and a well-known celebrity in both diving and non-diving circles. (Photo by Frazier Nevins)

Captain Spencer Slate has become a legend in the Florida Keys and a well-known celebrity in both diving and non-diving circles. (Photo by Frazier Nevins)

The Easter egg-citement takes place during a morning two-tank dive trip. Divers and snorkelers must pre-register to take part, and should check in at 8 a.m. April 5 at Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures. Up to three boats are scheduled to depart at 8:30 a.m.

The egg-scursion is specially priced at $65 per certified diver, including tanks and weights. Snorkelers pay $30 per adult and $25 per child, including gear. And the money raised during the undersea hunt benefits Kids In Special Situations, providing gifts and holiday cheer for needy children throughout the year.

FYI, Spencer Slate does much more than stage the Easter event. (He portrays an underwater Santa Claus too, but that’s another story.) Since 1978 he has offered dive, snorkel, underwater wedding and glass-bottom boat packages in Florida Keys waters. He also promotes ocean conservation to divers, encouraging them to be active stewards of the undersea environment.

And that’s more important than anything even the Energizer Bunny can claim.

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Pageant and Playwright Highlight March in Key West

Steve Smith | March 2015

It’s been a busy time period in the Florida Keys with our theaters running full throttle and events all over the island chain — plus getting ready for Key West’s upcoming Gay Key West Same-Sex Wedding Expo and the 2015 Miss Gay Southernmost USofA Pageant.

Gay ITB party attendees

Steve Smith (far left) and cohorts congratulate the winner of a Key West trip at the 2014 Gay ITB Party in Berlin.

Once again the Keys will be represented at the international travel show called ITB. Held each year in Berlin, Germany, this travel fair takes place in 27 halls and features more than 11,000 travel companies from more than 180 countries.

Sixteen years ago, we were the first exhibitor to display the rainbow pride flag and promote gay and lesbian travel. Today LGBT travel is listed as an official segment of travel with its own freestanding Pink Travel Pavilion.

The Keys will be promoted in both the Florida and the LGBT travel sections, as well as co-hosting the largest gay networking party ever held at ITB. And that makes perfect sense, since the Keys continue to offer a unique, welcoming and safe vacation destination for gay men, women, and their friends and families.

Back home in Key West, the Miss Gay Southernmost USofA Pageant is just around the corner on Saturday, March 28. This stellar evening competition will feature the best in female impersonation and is a preliminary for the national Miss Gay USofA Pageant that’s held each May in Dallas, Texas.

Miss Gay USofA Jenna Skyy

The reigning Miss Gay USofA will be a special VIP guest at the new Key West pageant.

The judging categories include evening gown, talent, and personal interview. In addition to the Miss Gay Southernmost USofA title, the Miss Gay Southernmost USofA Classic crown will be awarded.

Attendees can expect entertainment by the current reigning Miss Gay USofA Jenna Skyy and Miss Gay USofA Classic Chevelle Brooks. The pageant kicks of at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel with a 6 p.m. red-carpet cocktail hour. Discounted rooms are available at the Marriott Beachside until March 11.

Also this month is the Gay Key West Same-Sex Wedding Expo, beginning at 5:30 p.m. March 11 at the Marriott Beachside. The expo is presented by the Key West Business Guild and is open to the public — so stop in and meet suppliers who can assist you with your very special event.

On another note, please join me in wishing Tennessee Williams a happy birthday. This month we celebrate the famed playwright’s 104th birthday and his decades of life in Key West. Among the featured events are several screenings of Tennessee’s movies at the Tropic Cinema, a poetry contest whose topics include his loyalty to his sister Rose, and an artists’ challenge with artists invited to paint Rose Williams’ former home at 915 Von Phister St. on the edge of Old Town Key West.

Tennessee Williams in Key West

Tennessee William stands on the front porch of his Key West home with one of his dogs. (Photo from the Ida Woodward Barron Collection, Monroe County Public Library )

Attendees at the official birthday reception — set for 6-8 p.m. March 26 among the rare memorabilia and artifacts at the Tennessee Williams Center (513 Truman Ave. behind the Key West Business Guild Visitor Center) — can discover the paintings and poetry created during the two contests.

I know many of you are ready to get out of the freezing weather. I was in New York City at the LGBT expo this past weekend, and the temperature ranged from 17 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit with a fairly heavy snow shower Sunday.

Trust me, the weather is MUCH better on our subtropical island. Come down and thaw out!

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

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Diana Nyad’s Stage Show Makes Waves in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2015

What does the theme song from television’s “Beverly Hillbillies” have to do with world-class endurance swimmer Diana Nyad?

Diana Nyad swims onstage

Diana Nyad “swims” onstage during her one-woman play about her 111-mile Cuba-to-Key West swim. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

It’s one of the songs on the “mental playlist” that kept her going during her epic 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West — and it features prominently in the one-woman stage show she recently presented on the island where she completed her near-impossible athletic feat in 2013.

Picture Diana onstage, her strong muscular body prone on a platform in swimming position, arms and legs moving in time to those stirring lyrics, “Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed / A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed …”

The moment was a highlight of “Onward! The Diana Nyad Story” presented by the charismatic athlete, whose performance proved she’s almost as good a storyteller as she is a long-distance swimmer.

Diana Nyad telling stories of Cuba-to-Key-West swim

Diana told spellbinding tales of early influences, challenges and inspirations during her show. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On Labor Day 2013, an exhausted Diana walked ashore on Key West’s Smathers Beach, becoming the first person ever to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage. She was then age 64, and the grueling swim took her just under 53 hours.

“You don’t really get a better drama than that — a 35-year story, a 64-year-old chasing a dream that no one else ever accomplished,” Diana said after the opening night of her sold-out show at The Studios of Key West.

She first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old. More than three decades later, in 2011 and 2012, she tried three times but was foiled by shoulder pain, a debilitating in-water asthma attack and multiple severe jellyfish stings.

Written and performed live by Diana, “Onward” focuses on her athletic feat while showcasing her ability to spin tales often spiced with self-deprecating humor.

Diana Nyad victory sign Smathers Beach

Diana makes the victory sign on Smathers Beach after completing her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In well-paced vignettes, she recalls childhood events that put her on the road to becoming a long-distance swimmer — including a pivotal moment when her French mother told her Cuba was close enough to her Fort Lauderdale home that “you could almost swim there.” She also chronicles triumphs and failures along the way, and sings snippets of the “mental playlist” that helped power her through the arduous Florida Straits crossing.

“Onward!” was directed and adapted for the stage by Josh Ravetch, the co-creator of actress/writer Carrie Fisher’s solo show “Wishful Drinking.” Employing audio and visual effects ranging from ocean sounds to eerie lighting, it even transports audiences to the Straits with Diana during a devastatingly painful jellyfish encounter.

But the play doesn’t just tell Diana’s story. In addition, the inspirational production points out how much can be accomplished with sheer tenacity and determination, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

“Whether you’re someone up against cancer, or a disabled child you’re raising — really tough circumstances — if you want to get through it, you’ll find a way to get through it,” Diana stated earnestly. “I think that is really the message of this play.”

Diana Nyad plaque Key West

Diana displays a bronze plaque that was recently installed by the city  on Smathers Beach to commemorate her epic swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

When it came time to pick the perfect venue for her show, Diana didn’t hesitate about choosing Key West. The theater in The Studios of Key West’s Armory building isn’t far from Smathers Beach, where she made athletic history in 2013.

“Key West is my special place and the place that will forever be associated with the swim,” she explained. “It’s fitting that I take the stage on the island that was my home training base to bring the story to life in theatrical form.”

The audience loved it, giving Diana an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night. And as she took her final bow, the applause washed over her … like the welcoming waves off Smathers Beach.

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Ithaca ‘Surrenders’ to Winter and Suggests Visiting the Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2015

It’s cold in Ithaca. In fact, winter has been so brutal in the upstate New York locale that the tourism office raised the white flag of surrender. For almost 48 hours in February, the office suggested that visitors to its website travel to the sunny Florida Keys instead of the freezing Ithaca region.

Visit Ithaca Keys website

Ithaca’s tourism board came up with the offbeat concept of directing winter-weary web surfers (at least temporarily) to the Florida Keys.

When web visitors went to VisitIthaca.com, they found a popup banner with the headline “That’s it. We surrender. Winter, you win. Key West anyone?”

The offbeat concept was dreamed up by Bruce Stoff, the director of the Ithaca/Tompkins Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“It was five degrees below zero this morning when I woke up,” said the cold-stunned Bruce on Feb. 16. “Everyone in the northeast is beaten by winter now, and we’re dreaming of being someplace that is warm.”

The popup banner went on: “Due to this ridiculously stupid winter, Ithaca invites you to visit The Florida Keys this week. Please come back when things thaw out. Really, it’s for the birds here now.” The graphic accompanying the banner showed the Florida Keys website’s Key West home page.

VisitIthaca.com site surfers did have an option to get details on Ithaca if they wanted them (and many places in New York state offer terrific skiing during the winter months). But many website visitors checked out the Keys site — and either made reservations to flee to continental America’s southernmost island chain or spent hours daydreaming about it.

girls on Keys beach

Sun and fun await winter visitors to the Florida Keys — and there’s no snow in sight. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Ithaca website’s message ended with a slightly wistful request: “P.S. Send us a postcard.”

The offbeat idea got so much attention that the VisitIthaca.com site crashed and Bruce had to end the wackiness several days early.

So, for those of you in Ithaca (or anywhere else battered by the absolutely miserable winter of 2015), here are some warm-weather activities to enjoy if you can wangle your way to the Keys in the near future.

Stroll the Open-Air Old Island Days Art Festival.
Discover creations by more than 100 fine artists from around the U.S. at the 50th annual Old Island Days Art Festival in historic Old Town Key West — set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-22. Colorful booths will line Whitehead Street from Greene to Eaton streets, and spill into the exclusive Truman Annex enclave at Caroline Street. The lively outdoor festival generally features artists in watercolor, oil paint, acrylics, decorative sculpture, collage and photography — plus wearable art, jewelry, pottery, woodwork and other fine craft items.

Rock for a Good Cause at the Island Grass Music Fest.
Rock to music by renowned regional bands and entertainers — and benefit Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Florida Keys — at the 16th annual Island Grass Music Fest. The event is set for 1-6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Boondocks Grille & Draft House at mile marker (MM) 27.5 on U.S. Highway 1. The entertainment roster features musicians and bands that play a leading role in the Keys’ flourishing live music scene. Among them are “trop rock” standouts Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band, and island folk music star Terry Cassidy. Other attractions include a huge silent auction.

Howard Livingston is passionate about his Lower Keys home and keeping his feet in the sand.

Howard Livingston is among the stars of the open-air Island Grass Music Fest.

Explore Gorgeous Gardens at the Upper Keys Garden Walk.
Some of the Upper Florida Keys’ most beautiful properties are showcased during the annual Garden Walk — presented from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, by the Garden Club of the Upper Keys. Themed “Private Edens,” the Garden Walk includes lush and unique properties between Upper Matecumbe and Key Largo (from MM 80 to MM 103). Landscapes have been lovingly restored and replanted with native and exotic species, hundreds of orchids and preserved remnants of tropical hardwood hammock. You can also enjoy an outdoor garden tea party at the Garden Club’s historic Francis Tracy Garden Center at MM 94 in Tavernier, featuring local artisans, live music and complimentary refreshments.

Want to know what else is happening in the Florida Keys island chain during the next few weeks? Simply click for a full calendar of events.

And for Bruce Stoff and everyone else in Ithaca (and other frozen areas), we salute your hardy spirit and wish you were here. But if you can’t dig your way out of the snowdrifts quite yet, just click this link for some Keys videos to warm your bones and make you smile.

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Key West Abuzz Over Art, Theater and ‘Oscar’ Nomination

Steve Smith | February 2015

Mother Nature continues to blanket large sections of the U.S. with snow and frigid arctic blasts. I hope this weather has not affected your travel plans to the Florida Keys — or, if it did, that the airlines will rebook you at a later date. (Be sure to call and cancel your flights and hotel reservations. Our properties understand that we have no control over weather and will certainly accommodate you when you’re able to travel again.)

Key West Art Center

The Key West Art Center, shown in this vivid painting, presents the Old Island Days Art Festival each year. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art Center)

When you arrive here, or if you’re already here, we’ll be sure to make your getaway special with events, water activities, and theater across Old Town Key West — as well as more great restaurants to choose from than ever!

Join us in celebrating the Old Island Days Art Festival’s 50th anniversary of artistry as you stroll lower Whitehead Street and into the historic Truman Annex amongst colorful tents displaying watercolors, oil paintings, acrylics, decorative sculpture, collage and photography. Begun in 1965 and originally called the “Clothesline Art Show,” it also includes wearable art, jewelry, pottery, and pieces crafted from wood and metals.

Now a nationally acclaimed event, this open-air festival takes place from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-22. The show is juried to guarantee the finest possible selection of art.

Diana Nyad's inspirational one-woman show runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West.

Diana Nyad’s inspirational one-woman show runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West.

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad is here on the island and will present a one-woman show about her 111-mile, nearly 53-hour swim from Cuba to Key West — not far from the spot where she completed the record-setting athletic feat in 2013. “Onward! The Diana Nyad Story” runs Feb. 19-22 at The Studios of Key West’s historic Armory building. Written and performed live by Nyad, the inspirational show takes audiences to the Florida Straits with her as she endures a nighttime encounter with a swarm of dangerous jellyfish.

Fringe Theater Key West, an eclectic non-profit theater company, brings Noel Coward’s timeless farce “Private Lives” to the stage. Expect the unexpected when a formerly married couple, each on their honeymoon with a new spouse, wind up in adjacent suites. “Private Lives” takes the stage at the new Key West Theater just a block off Duval Street behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The Waterfront Playhouse presents “Next Fall,” one of the most celebrated plays in recent Broadway history. Examining the topics of faith and family, “Next Fall” introduces two very different gay men in a committed five-year relationship. Despite Luke being a conservative Christian and Adam an atheist, they make it all work — until an accident changes everything.

A Tony nominee for best play and winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for best play, “Next Fall” is a smart and sensitive evening of comedy. It plays through Feb. 28, so don’t miss it!

Key West harbor aerial

The island of Key West is a contender for “Best LGBT Travel Destination” in the British LGBT Awards. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On another note, Key West, our tiny subtropical island, has been nominated for “Best LGBT Travel Destination” in the British LGBT Awards. Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Royal Air Force, Barclays and Societe Generale, these awards have been dubbed “the British Oscars” by the U.K. media and are hosted by celebrities Charlie Condou and Sophie Ward.

Our island is vying against destinations including Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris and Canada’s Vancouver — and it’s immensely exciting that we are being recognized in this prestigious international competition. Voting is open now, so cast a ballot for your favorite subtropical island here.

Stay tuned for more information … and stay warm!

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

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Seven Reasons to Fall in Love With the Florida Keys

Jo Thomas | February 2015

The Florida Keys & Key West offer a rich tapestry of cultural experiences, culinary delights, colorful festivals, authentic and adventurous activities, inviting accommodations and natural wonders — all of them reasons to fall in love with the enticing island chain. Because February means Valentine’s Day (what better time to fall in love?), here are seven that top guest blogger Jo Thomas’s list.

Girl with Key Largo Chocolates

Guest blogger Jo Thomas shows off one of the things she loves about the Florida Keys: Key Largo Chocolates.

1) Keys Cuisine – Crab, Cuba and Chocolate
The warm Keys waters produce seafood delicacies including stone crab, clawless spiny lobster, yellowtail snapper, hogfish, grouper and mahi-mahi. In addition to offerings from the sea, Keys cuisine reflects a multitude of cultural influences — particularly Cuban.

And for sweets, seek out master chocolatier Kristie Thomas at Key Largo Chocolates, where she manufactures, produces and sells high-quality chocolates (including delicacies shaped like tiny crocodiles!). Speaking of sweets, no visit to Key West is complete without tasting Key lime pie at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.

2) Year-Round Warm Weather
Where else can you relax on the beach or enjoy outdoor activities on the water 365 days a year? The subtropical year-round climate of the Florida Keys means glorious warmth always welcomes visitors. In fact, wherever you are right now, chances are the weather is better in the Keys!

3) Underwater Wonders
The 125-mile-long island chain is home to the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef. The U.S. government established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to protect the breathtaking marine habitat, and preserving the reef is a top priority for a good reason.

Florida Keys underwater environment

The Keys’ shallow-water snorkeling sites allow for maximum viewing of the wonders along the reef line. (Photo by Pat Taylor)

There’s no more versatile marine destination in the world, with elements ranging from fascinating shipwreck sites to intricate natural coral formations. Both divers and snorkelers can find the perfect spots to immerse themselves in underwater beauty.

4) Luxurious Spas
In the Florida Keys, rejuvenation and wellness are a way of life. Throughout the island chain, you can find rejuvenating day spas and resort enclaves offering massage therapies, yoga classes or alternative healing treatments — whether you’re traveling solo, sharing a romantic couples’ getaway, seeking a pre-wedding bridal party treat or looking to reconnect mind, body and spirit. Among the most popular are Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada, Spa Terre at Little Palm Island in the Lower Keys, and Ocean Key Resort and Spa in Key West.

5) Stunning Sunsets
Florida Keys sunsets are so spectacular that crowds gather every night to enjoy the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square in Key West. An hour or two before sunset, residents and visitors flock to the water’s edge to experience a multicultural happening featuring artisans and performers — ranging from jugglers to acrobats — and to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset sail Key West

Sip a cool drink and watch tall ships and excursion vessels sail by as the sun goes down over Key West Harbor.

There’s always a sunset celebration at the Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant in Islamorada too. “The Pulse of Islamorada” puts on nightly music shows to complement its delicious seafood and lovely bayside sunset views.

6) Wild Watersports
An abundance of turquoise water and warm year-round temperatures make the Florida Keys the perfect vacation destination for watersports enthusiasts. Ways to get the adrenaline pumping include flyboarding, nightboarding, eco-kayaking, kite-boarding, sportfishing and more.

7) Astounding Arts
For many years, the Keys have been a source of inspiration for authors and artists. The quirky, laid-back creative community includes scores of galleries, art walks that promote local artists, live music, quality theatrical performances and cultural events such as Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival.

sand sculpture Key West beach

Beachside artistry is another reason to love the Florida Keys. (Photo courtesy of Sand Isle)

In Key West, the Casa Marina (a Waldorf Astoria Resort on the Atlantic Ocean) and Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting even offer beachside workshops where you can explore your own artistry — by crafting a sculpture in the sand!

Obviously, there are WAYYYY more than seven reasons to fall in love with the charismatic Florida Keys. Using the ones offered here as a start, why not plan a trip so you can compile a list of your own?

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