Quest for Innocence: The Mudd Family’s Pilgrimage

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2015

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

Mudd family enters Fort Jefferson Tortugas

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sarah Sullivan: Living a Serene Dream in the Lower Keys

Briana Ciraulo | July 2015

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

Lower Keys Sarah Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Sullivan Lower Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddleboards Lower Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer at the End of the Rainbow

Steve Smith | July 2015

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

Florida Keys dive boat and divers

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

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

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

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

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

Keys sunset

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

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

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

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

Sushi in shoe Key West

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

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

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

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

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Submerged Songfest Encourages Reef Protection

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2015

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

Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival seahorse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Nyad Underwater Music Fest

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

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

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

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

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

Underwater Music Festival mermaid

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

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

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

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

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

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Vacations That Give Back

Julie Botteri | July 2015

Want to do something good or add an enriching element to your next Florida Keys vacation? Then spend some time volunteering with an area charity or nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the unique Keys environment or animal inhabitants.

Grimal Grove Florida Keys plants

The Lower Keys’ Grimal Grove is looking for volunteers to help maintain the fascinating enclave of tropical fruit trees and plants.

As well as benefiting the picturesque island chain, volunteering provides a special benefit for visitors — because it’s a great way to meet Keys residents ready to share their passion for (and insights into) their home.

Here are some upcoming and ongoing opportunities.

An emerging volunteer and ecotourism program is underway to restore the Historic Grimal Grove Garden, located at 285 Cunningham Lane near mile marker (MM) 30.5 in the Lower Keys. A microclimate for rare tropical fruit trees, the two-acre site was developed by Adolf Grimal, who became acclaimed for his achievements in working with tropical fruit. The volunteer effort is led by the nonprofit Growing Hope Initiative and groups, families and individuals are invited to help revive the grove. For details, click here.

Wondering how you can possibly enjoy a vacation (even in the Keys) if your plans call for leaving your canine or feline BFF behind? Florida Keys animal rescue organizations welcome volunteers to assist with simple tasks such as walking dogs for exercise. Safe Harbor Animal Rescue of the Florida Keys, the Florida Keys SPCA and the Upper Keys Animal Shelter each can accommodate volunteers.

Staghorn coral fragments cut in the coral nursery will continue to regenerate and develop more branches on the reef.

Staghorn coral fragments cut in the coral nursery will continue to regenerate and develop more branches on the reef.

If you’re a recreational sport diver, you can help restore and protect Florida Keys reefs by joining working dives with marine scientists from Key Largo’s Coral Restoration Foundation. The organization’s one-acre coral nursery off Key Largo is likely the world’s largest — with more than 23,000 clippings ranging from the length of a knuckle up to 15 inches.

As a volunteer, you’ll learn about environmental impacts on Florida’s reefs through educational lectures, and go on hands-on dives to restore endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals. The two are among the reef-building species with the best chance to propagate and create new habitats. Volunteers help clean and prepare corals for planting — a fascinating opportunity. For more information, click here.

Or you might consider helping the Keys environment by going after lions — lionFISH, that is. Capturing and removing lionfish helps prevent the invasive Indo-Pacific species from preying on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grunts and hamlets — and stealing resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper along the Florida Keys’ reef tract.

Divers can help remove invasive lionfish during a derby scheduled Sept. 10 in Key Largo waters.

Divers can help remove invasive lionfish during a derby scheduled Sept. 12 in Key Largo waters.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation, whose mission is to conserve marine ecosystems, partners with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the dive community to educate divers on how to capture and remove lionfish from local waters. The organization also stages lionfish derbies where divers can earn cash and prizes — and sample the tasty edible fish during post-derby parties. A derby is scheduled Saturday, Sept. 12, at Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. For information, click here.

Underwater enthusiasts can also have positive impacts without going on “safari” for lionfish. Simply practice everyday conservation actions that leave an area cleaner than you found it. For example, cut and remove monofilament fishing line to eliminate a potential entanglement for other divers. Or pick up lost fishing tackle (especially hooks, beads, swivels, and sinkers) or remove cans, bottles, plastics and refuse from the reef. Even small efforts can make a huge difference over time.

If this whets your appetite for “voluntourism,” check out some additional Florida Keys opportunities by clicking here or here.

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Special Events and Celebrations Heat Up Key West Summer

Steve Smith | July 2015

When I moved to Key West more than 25 years ago, summers were slow and quiet. We picnicked at Fort Elizabeth Taylor (which some people STILL call Fort Zachary Taylor) and walked down a pretty much deserted Duval Street, passing our favorite restaurants that were closed for their summer break.

Celebrants wave a circular rainbow flag on Duval Street in Key West following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Celebrants wave a circular rainbow flag on Duval Street in Key West following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Times have changed and summers are no longer weeks of siesta-like leisure. Instead, they’re filled with fun things to do and visitors come down to spend balmy days and nights on our safe, welcoming island.

June 2015 will go down in LGBT history books as the month we celebrated the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court. The historic 5-4 ruling was met with joyous revelry around the country.

Here in Key West, our community gathered at the new rainbow crosswalks on Duval and Petronia streets for an evening of cheering, tears, celebrating marriage equality, and just feeling grateful to live in a community that has for years recognized that we are truly “One Human Family.”

If you haven’t yet visited our two-mile by four-mile island, lying closer to Cuba than to the United States mainland, it’s time to make your way to a place where life slows down, warm Caribbean breezes caress the palm trees, and being gay is just a part of the fabric of the community.

Hemingway Days Key West

Ernest Hemingway look-alikes kick off the Running of the Bulls during Key West’s Hemingway Days 2014. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

I always recommend arriving in Miami or Fort Lauderdale by air, and driving the spectacular Overseas Highway through the entire Florida Keys island chain to the end of the rainbow. And later, when you have to depart, you can take the “last flight out” of Key West International Airport — allowing yourself time to enjoy an extra day on the water, in our galleries and museums, or just relaxing at a an inviting poolside or beach.

July in Key West means the annual Hemingway Days festival. It kicks off Tuesday, July 21, with a celebration of Ernest’s 116th birthday at the historic Custom House Museum, where a fascinating exhibition of Hemingway memorabilia is on display.

While many people travel to Spain for the annual Running of the Bulls, later in the festival you can walk to Sloppy Joe’s Bar and watch past winners of the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest in full regalia re-creating a wacky version of the adventure on our Greene Street. Other Hemingway Days events include a 5k run, the annual look-alike challenge and a great Caribbean street fair.

Mel Fisher lab tours Key West

Tours of the Fisher family’s private artifact conservation lab are among the Mel Fisher Days highlights. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

If you’re in town this weekend, you can enjoy part of the annual Mel Fisher Days — celebrating the treasure hunter who, in July 1985, found nearly $500 million in artifacts and treasures from the 1622 Spanish galleon Atocha in the waters off Key West.

The festival runs July 9-12, with highlights including VIP tours of the Fisher family’s private conservation laboratory. The tour takes you behind the scenes to marvel at millions of dollars’ worth of authentic treasure, and learn how experts carefully restore and protect these priceless artifacts.

On Friday afternoon, be at Key West’s Tropic Cinema for the first-time public showing of video from the Fisher family’s video archives. Titled “Memorial Day to Mother Load; Who Could Ask for Anything More,” the footage takes you back to the 1985 discovery of the Atocha treasure — a bounty of silver, gold, emeralds, artifacts and more.

Until next time … have a great and peaceful summer.

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

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Celebrate a Legendary Key West Shipwreck Find

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2015

Whether you’re a shipwreck fan, adventure lover, treasure seeker, history buff or simply enjoy a good party, you’ve got a world-class reason to be in Key West Thursday through Sunday, July 9-12.

Mel Fiosher Key West

Adventurer Mel Fisher discovered the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Atocha in the waters off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

Why? Because those are the dates of an exuberant event celebrating the 30th anniversary of salvager Mel Fisher’s discovery of the sunken Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The find was so incredible that press around the world dubbed it “the shipwreck of the century.”

Mel and his crew uncovered the $500 million “main pile” of the Atocha’s treasure and artifacts in July 1985 after an exhaustive 16-year search. The galleon sank during a 1622 hurricane in approximately 55 feet of water 35 miles southwest of Key West — and the search’s tragedies, triumphs and perseverance displayed by Mel and his key crewmembers quickly became nearly as legendary as the fabled galleon itself.

During Mel Fisher Days, you can tour the salvage boat J.B. Magruder (which, by the way, is still used to seek a significant number of Atocha artifacts and treasures that are listed on the vessel’s manifest but haven’t yet been found), explore the Fishers’ fascinating conservation lab, hear tales from the crew that found the Atocha riches, and even undertake a land-based treasure hunt whose prize is $5,000 in silver dollars. While Mel died in 1998, it’s exactly the kind of event he would have enjoyed.

Mel Fisher Magruder Key West

The venerable salvage vessel Magruder will be on display during Mel Fisher Days. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

The fun begins with a dock party at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 9, at the Schooner Wharf Bar, a beloved waterfront watering hole located at 202 William St. in Key West’s Historic Seaport. The 100-foot Magruder will be berthed there and open for tours guided by Fisher crewmembers — who are practically guaranteed to share stories of salvage practices and unbelievable-but-true treasure finds.

Thursday and Friday’s schedule includes limited-admission behind-the-scenes tours of the Fisher family’s private conservation laboratory (go in the side entrance at 200 Greene St.), where objects found at the Atocha shipwreck site are conserved and studied.

While you’re there, discover scores of the galleon’s artifacts and treasures on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. You’ll see highlights including gold and silver bars and coins, a massive 77.7-carat emerald, religious objects, rare navigational instruments and weapons — all conserved and displayed under the auspices of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society that the man himself established in 1982.

The mariner's astrolabe, a highlight of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum's exhibit, was likely the inspiration for Hermione's time-turner. This one was made in Portugal and recovered from the Atocha site. (All photos cournesy of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

This rare mariner’s astrolabe, recovered from the Atocha site, and gold chains and bars are among the  highlights of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum’s exhibit. (Photo courtesy of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

Viewing all those amazing items is likely to awaken a craving for some treasure of your own — but don’t worry; the festival has that covered. Simply grab some cohorts and join the Amazing Mel Fisher Treasure Hunt, where teams follow clues and solve riddles while competing for a chest filled with silver dollars. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday and the hunt starts at 7 p.m.

From noon to 10 p.m. the following day, you can rock in the 200 and 300 blocks of Key West’s Duval Street during a high-energy block party. Explore and enjoy attractions including food booths, a classic car show, a silent auction featuring more than $20,000 in “plunder” up for grabs, games for kids and adults (including a dunk tank!) and a free concert starring popular regional bands.

And remember that treasure hunt? The winner will be announced at the block party and receive a treasure chest overflowing with $5,000 in U.S. silver dollars.

Win a treasure chest filled with silver dollars during Mel Fisher Days -- like this lucky couple did in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher's Treasures)

Win a treasure chest filled with silver dollars during Mel Fisher Days — like this lucky couple did in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

If you want to ratchet the festive spirit up a notch, spring for VIP backstage passes to the block party’s exclusive “Mother Lode” bash. You can party with musical headliner Sueñalo, Fisher family members and the crew that found the Atocha’s main pile in 1985.

Other 30th anniversary events include a pirate ball, a first-time showing of rare archival footage (including interviews with the crew that made the historic 1985 discovery) and the presentation of the prestigious Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award.

Don’t miss this opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of an iconic moment in Key West’s history — and one of the island’s legendary characters. Chances are, you’ll “treasure” every minute of it.

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Alan Newman Makes Life a Special Event

Briana Ciraulo | June 2015

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

Alan Newman at Amara Cay Islamorada

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amara Cay lobby Islamorada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Islamorada Amara Cay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Smith | June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating ice cream in Key West

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

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

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

Until next time … enjoy summer 2015!

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Wandering Off the Beaten Path

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Flower in Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

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

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

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

West Martello Garden Club Key West

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

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

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

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