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Monday, December 15, 2014

Folk Art of Barefoot Stanley at Fort East Martello Key West

As I was exploring Fort East Martello over by the airport, I was delighted to discover the collection of found-object metal sculptures Stanley Papio inside the citadel. The vast open room of the Civil War-era structure was the perfect spot for his large whimsical creations like Bowlegged Bride, which sports a wire-net veil and a brass ring on her finger. Her chrome slippers are made from auto bumper guards and breasts from bumpers. Papio was a local legend in Key Largo known as “Barefoot Stanley,” an eccentric character who never wore shoes — anywhere.

 Papio started his salvage and welding business at mile marker 101 along Highway U.S. 1 in Key Largo in 1949. He collected junk, including discarded metal appliances and cars. At the time, his property was relatively isolated, but soon nosy neighbors arrived. They took issue with having an "eyesore" in the neighborhood. Papio’s first major work, the 8-foot-tall Two-Faced Woman, was created from metal fence scrolls and tin scraps as a parody of a neighbor who was nice to his face but reported him to the county. He was ultimately arrested six times for violating zoning codes.

Art aficionados and tour buses soon started stopping by to visit his “gallery.” Admission: a quarter. His pieces were exhibited throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, but he refused to sell his sculptures. Instead he hoped to donate the entire collection to a museum. He got his wish after his death in 1982 when the Key West Art & Historical Society put the sculptures on permanent display at Fort East Martello. While it may be a little off the beaten path, Papio's collection is a must-see and captures the spirit of a true Keys character.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Seaplane adventure to the Dry Tortugas

As our plane from Key West Seaplane Adventures taxied down the runway at Key West International Airport, Lenny Kravitz started crooning through my heavy headphones, “I wish that I could fly/into the sky/so very high/just like a dragonfly.” It seemed the pilot, Johnny, had an appropriate playlist for the 40-minute flight to the Dry Tortugas — seven remote islands 70 miles to the west of the Florida Keys. With his bare feet and scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, he looked the part of a Keys native and summer Alaskan bush pilot. The sturdy 10-passenger De Havilland DHC-3 Otter aircraft was in the air so quickly that my heart was pounding in a combination of terror and excitement. Key West grew small, and the striped buoy planted at the Southernmost Point stood out like a beacon. One of the World Championship Powerboat Races was in progress below, and brightly-colored speed demons rocketed through the water at 125 mph with helicopters buzzing above.

Once at the cruising speed of 130 knots, Johnny banked to the east and west to show us points of interest like the shadowy outlines of shipwrecks, remnants of Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse and the curving mangroves of the Marquesas Islands. The sunlight shimmered on the water broken only by the shadows of towering clouds that seemed close enough to touch. The sea floor was a swirl of dynamic blues reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Nightwith turtles and stingrays gliding through. Soon the impressive red brick outline of Fort Jefferson — America’s largest 19th-century coastal fort — appeared on the horizon. The water landing was a bit bumpier than I anticipated, but we were quickly floating to the deserted white sandy beach for an afternoon of snorkeling and exploring.

Originally published on

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Keys Fisheries Stone Crab Mustard Sauce Recipe for October

Who's ready for stone crab season to open on October 15? About 40 percent of Florida’s stone crabs (nearly 3 million pounds) comes from Florida Keys' waters. The local fish houses like Keys Fisheries in Marathon have mounds of the sweet, succulent crustacean steamed, cracked and ready for purchase by the claw or by the pound. If you’re not in the Keys, don’t worry. They deliver. Grab your mallet and pair the crab meat with their signature spicy mustard sauce.
Keys Fisheries Stone Crab Mustard Sauce
2 oz. of Colman’s English Dry Mustard
1 qt. of Mayonnaise (Use ¾ of it)
½ cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce

Half and half cream
Directions: Blend ingredients slowly (about 3 to 5 minutes) and add a small amount of half and half until the mixture has a nice creamy consistency. Mustard may be adjusted to individual taste. Refrigerate no longer than 5 days due to the half and half. Caution: the spice in the mustard will gain strength when refrigerated.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Florida Keys Signs That Say It All

The Florida Keys live up to their quirky reputation. 
The signs are all there.

You're on Keys Time at Marker 88 in Islamorada.
Over 100 years and still going strong--Pepe's Cafe in Key West.
In the Florida Keys, it's always 5 o'clock somewhere!
At the Pilot House in Key Largo.
Follow this sign to complete bliss at the Casa Marina Spa, Key West.
Zombies exiting the "Freakin' Gate" at Blue Heaven in Key West.
Follow this sign to the drag show at 801 Bourbon Bar in Key West.
Key West Island Books--80,000 books...
An unfortunate place for the Shark Week crew to leave their prop
at Breezy Palms Resort in Islamorada. Photo by Penry Archer.
The official flag of the Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic
at Bayside Grill in Key Largo.
Caffeine-lovers, this is your Mother Ship--outside of Key West.
Yes, this sign is serious--in the Everglades.
Apparently there are some people who don't know--
don't pet the alligators in the Everglades.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Everglades Adventure in Key Largo

Photo by Claudia Miller
Capt. Joyce Little expertly guided the hard-bottom Zodiac across the shallow waters of the Florida Bay. We passed into Everglades National Park just minutes after leaving Key Largo. As our guide on the Caribbean Watersports Enviro-Tour, she encouraged our group of five to fine tune our vision to the subtleties and nuances of nature. It wasn't long before we spotted a brown-and-white osprey chasing a dark Turkey Vulture in the morning sun. We followed it back to its nest above the mangroves. Binoculars were passed, and the heads of two fluffy babies came into focus. Across the channel, I felt the fierce gold eyes of its other half watching from a high perch. Living up to its nickname, Fish Hawk, something silver twitched in the black talons. I had a feeling this bird wouldn’t hesitate to chase us away either. 

Drifting into a shaded mangrove tunnel, Little used her underwater flashlight to spotlight the vibrant sponges, worms and algae living among the mangrove roots. Juvenile snapper and barracuda darted in and out of the shadows. On the other side of the tunnel, she dipped a blue net into the seagrass bed and gently pulled out two Cassiopea jellyfish that live upside down on the ocean floor. Perfectly camouflaged to match the silt-covered bottom, they pulsed gently, looking like a sea anemone with dark yellow plumes waving. I wondered what else was lurking below. As if reading my thoughts, Little pointed down and said, “That’s not just muck; it’s home.”

Originally published on

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Key Largo Pops on 4th of July

Key Largo denizens take Independence Day celebrations seriously, starting bright and early at 10:00 a.m. with an old-fashioned parade. Now in its 39th year, the event draws thousands of locals and visitors. When I went to my first 4th of July Parade in Key Largo, I was impressed with the fervor of the locals, who stake out a shady spot along the northbound lane of U.S. Highway 1 at least an hour before the parade starts. Tents and umbrellas were pitched, lawn chairs unfolded. Barbecues were lit and bloody marys passed. Adults, kids and even dogs were decked out in red-white-and-blue attire, including pompoms, leis, necklaces, hats, and of course, American flags.

A procession of fire engines, wrapped in bunting and balloons, kicked off the parade with sirens and lights from mile marker 98 to mile marker 100. Floats and trailered boats were decorated to the theme, “Flagler’s Railroad to the Sea,” and included a train engine, caboose and costumed characters from 1912. This year’s theme, "Salute to Patriots of Liberty," should prove equally entertaining. 

In the evening, an old-fashioned Community Picnic, with activities for kids and adults, is set for 6:30-10:30 p.m. at the Rowell's Marina (mile marker 104.5 Bayside). The Fireworks start at 10:00 p.m. over Blackwater Sound. Boat owners can watch the pyrotechnic display just feet from the floating fireworks barge. On land, the best seating can be found at Sundowners and Senior Frijoles restaurants, Caribbean Club and Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort.
Travel tip: If you drive through Key Largo on July 4, keep in mind that the northbound lane of U.S. Highway 1, from mile marker 98.2 to mile marker 100, is closed from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. Traffic will be rerouted onto the southbound lane. If you get stuck, just pull over and enjoy the parade. You won’t regret it.

Related articles:
Top 10 Money Saving Tips for Travel in the Florida Keys
Travel Tips: What to do in Key West with Kids

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Florida Keys Sunset of the Week: Idle Speed

This is one of those sunset pics that almost didn't happen! The sun had already gone down; I put away my camera. Then, I looked up to see that the water had turned into a glowing orange reflection of the sky. I grabbed my phone, and got the shot. It turned out to be the perfect cover image for my friend and local musician, Scott Youngberg, who recently released a new album, "Idle Speed." 

"Floating nowhere, feeling fine
No destination on my mind
Where I'm at is where I'll be
All I need is idle speed."
© Scott Youngberg 2011

Click on the album cover below, and listen to the song. You'll wish you were out on the water!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nashville's Top Artists Migrate South for Key West Songwriter's Festival

Photo: Nick Doll / BMI
Key West is going country this May, as Nashville’s finest artists embark on their annual pilgrimage to the "Southernmost City" for the Key West Songwriter's Festival. Trading in its usual tropical tunes, the island will host more than 180 songwriters from "Music City," who will take to the stage for over 50 shows in May.

Presented by international performing rights organization BMI, the lineup is stronger than ever this year. Big names like Sara Evans, Anders Osborne, Kacey Musgraves, Robert Earl Keen, Kree Harrison, Matraca Berg, Tony Joe White, Dean Dillon and many more round out a packed schedule. Shows run May 7-11 this year. Bonus: Most of them are free. Read More...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Photo Essay: Technology in the Florida Keys

I'm co-hosting #FriFotos--a weekly photo forum centered around a theme--today on Twitter. Today's theme is technology. At first I was stumped. People visit the Florida Keys to enjoy the stunning waterfront vistas and abundant wildlife in an effort to escape technology. But after searching through my photos, I realized that the Florida Keys were pretty high-tech back in the day.

Key West has a strong maritime history as the "Gibraltar of the West," and the technology used in wrecking made it the largest and richest city in Florida by 1860. Henry Flagler even went so far as to develop new technologies while building his Overseas Railroad, which was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Here are some of my favorite photos featuring technology in the Keys past and present.

Today sun-worshipers enjoy the beach underneath the Bahia Honda Bridge,
once part of Flagler's Overseas Railroad.
The first Key West lighthouse is a 65-foot tower that was completed in 1825.
It had 15 lamps in 15-inch reflectors.
Hemingway used this old-school technology to write
some of his finest works in Key West.
In a nod to Key West's wild rum running era during Prohibition:
copper still at Key West Legal Rum Distillery
Photo technology allowed me to catch this dragonfly in action.
Technology makes it easy to visit the remote Dry Tortugas these days.
The Florida Keys today: No technology required.
Related Posts:

Rooms With a View in Key West Photo Series 

Photo Essay: Exploring Key West Architecture


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Build the Perfect Tropical Wardrobe at These 10 Best Key West Clothing Stores

Packing for a Key West vacation can be a bit of a challenge. If you've never been to the Southernmost City, you may be scratching your head and staring at your empty suitcase. In the Florida Keys, the year-round sizzling temps and the laissez-faire attitude call for loose comfy clothes with a touch of tropical panache. Luckily, the island is packed with expertly curated boutiques, which focus on natural fabrics and figure-flattering, flowy styles. Colorful accessories inspire ideas for layering with chunky necklaces and graceful scarves. Read more for the 10 best clothing stores in Key West.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Backcountry Fishing in Islamorada with Capt. Ken Knudsen

Dressed in his de rigueur khaki fishing gear, Capt. Ken Knudsen navigated the 18’ Action Craft flats boat through waters where bright lobster-trap buoys dot the Florida Bay like pushpins. We were in the shallow flats of National Everglades Park, and I could see the green sea grass swaying just underneath the surface.

Farther along we spotted tarpon holes in the tangles of mangrove roots on the edge of Lower Arsnicker Key. On neighboring Upper Arsnicker Key, a lone double-crested cormorant stood perfectly still as we listened to birdsong coming from inside the island, a hint that more feathered beauties were nesting within.

Like a fortune-teller reading tea leaves, Knudsen interpreted each swirl, ripple and splash in the water, instantly knowing what was lurking beneath. We saw a school of permit and a barnacle-covered, 200-pound loggerhead turtle. We crossed paths with a lemon shark, its fin and tail cutting the surface. A spotted eagle ray, churned up the sand, as it flapped its wings and disappeared.

With the patience of Job, Knudsen taught me everything from the proper casting technique to tricks for landing the fish in the boat. Just as he was telling me how his boat, Hubba Hubba, got its name (fishermen are a superstitious lot, and "hubba hubba" is his magic fish call), I felt a sharp tug on my line. Nothing beats the heart-pounding excitement as the rod bends and the fight begins. “It’s a grouper,” he announced. After a rush of adrenaline, a lot of sweat and a few choice words, I felt the thrill of the catch.

On the way back to Bud N' Mary's Marina, a pod of three dolphins formed a “V” in front of the boat, guiding us for a short distance. Water slid off their sleek skin as they playfully dived and leaped before departing. Any good captain knows luck abounds when dolphins swim with the ship.

Previously published on

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Foodies Follow in the Culinary Footsteps of Chef Norman Van Aken

It won’t take foodies long to fall in love with Key West with its multi-cultural blend of vibrant flavors from Cuba, the Bahamas and other far-flung locales. Award-winning chef Norman Van Aken credits his years of living and working in Key West as the foundation for developing his revolutionary New World Cuisine. Recently he and his son Justin wrote My Key West Kitchen, a cookbook that features recipes inspired by some of their favorite people and eateries on the island. Follow this itinerary to discover some of the dishes that inspired this notable chef. ...Read more.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hurricane Donna: Irving Eyster's Harrowing Trip to Islamorada

Longtime resident and Keys historian, Irving Eyster, passed away earlier this month at the age of 95. A few years ago I was able to spend an afternoon with Eyster and his lovely wife Jeanne, and he regaled me with tales from his past in the Florida Keys. One of my favorite stories was his harrowing tale of trying to get back to Islamorada after Hurricane Donna in 1960 despite the washed out bridges. It was published in Keys Sunday, and I'd like to share it again. 


Irving Eyster recalls the trip back home

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Keys Sunday contributor

Posted - Sunday, July 13, 2008 03:00 AM EDT

At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 10, 1960, the Keys were hit by Hurricane Donna, which had a force comparable to that of Hurricane Andrew. It made landfall in the Marathon area, centered on Key Vaca as a category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It had estimated maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph with a storm surge of 13 feet.
Longtime resident and Keys historian, Irving Eyster, moved to the Keys with his family in 1947, and he vividly remembers the aftermath of Donna as he tried to make his way home to Lower Matecumbe once the hurricane had passed.
Before the hurricane, Eyster evacuated to Vero Beach with his family. That night, they didn’t sleep. Instead, they stayed up listening to the radio.
“They were giving reports from the lighthouse out at Alligator Reef,” he said. “They were moving up to the top of the tower with their equipment because of the waves. The winds got on up to 165, and the next advisory said that the winds were 60… and they went off the air. They lost their equipment, so we never knew what the top was.”
The next morning, Eyster headed back to his home, anxious to see how his property had fared in the storm. The police had stopped all traffic at Florida City because no one knew the extent of the damage to the highway and the bridges.
“We waited, pleaded with the guys to let us through,” Eyster said. “I told them if we come to a place where the bridges are washed out, a friend of mine right here has got a boat. They let us go ahead.”
The water was about a foot to 18 inches deep across the first few miles south of Florida City, but he and his friend Buck Sloane made their way down to Key Largo moving pieces of cars, houses and other debris out of the road. They finally came to a dead stop when they came across an entire house sitting in the middle of the road.
“We were debating what to do about that, and then there was a whole convoy of trucks coming. It was the National Guard and all the utility trucks that were coming to see what damage was done. I told them to go ahead because I didn’t want to have to break ground for them.”
Driving all the way down to Harry Harris’ restaurant in Tavernier, where the new electric building is now, they finally had to put the boat in the water. They went down the bayside and promptly ripped off the prop of the boat hitting a house. After floating about a quarter of a mile, they ended up in Snake Creek.
“It was just like a big suction tube, and we were barreling through. We were wondering where we were going, and I said, well, we would probably be found quicker out on the ocean than we would here on the bay. And Buck agreed there wasn’t anything we could do.”
When they reached Snake Creek Bridge, the boat landed in a net of fallen telephone wires. They tied up the boat about 100 feet from the bridge, walked across and sat down on Windley Key.
“Almost everything on Windley Key was out on the highway except for this bait shack owned by Bill Clyde down where Smuggler’s Cove is now. Everybody talked for years about that shack. That it would blow down the first wind we had. It was still standing, and all those other buildings were gone. I said I’ve got to clean my glasses and my flashlight.
There was so much water. It was just beginning to get dark. Buck asked, 'Who’s your friend?' About six feet away from me was a rattlesnake curled up. He wasn’t bothering me, and I wasn’t going to bother him. I was just glad to see something alive.”
When they reached Theater of the Sea and Holiday Isle, both were washed out, and there were some large planks on the road. At Whale Harbor, they saw that a portion of the bridge was gone, but that there were some big stones out in the water. They got to the other side by putting the planks across the stones.
By this time it was midnight, and a police officer stopped and gave them a ride down to the coast guard building, which is the Islamorada Library today. They walked further down to Fowler’s Restaurant, now Papa Joe’s. Tea Table Relief Bridge had been taken out by the water.
There were boats and motors from a local boat distributorship owned by George Weed piled across the highway and into the woods. Eyster’s friend decided to see if he could find a boat they could use.
“I was tired, so I lay down on the first hunk of bridge that was left and went to sleep,” Eyster said. “A little while later I was awoken by someone saying, hey there’s a body. I woke up real quick and said, but I’m still using it.”
They eventually got together a boat and a motor. As they got in to cross, a man came out from behind Fowler’s Restaurant carrying a gun.
“He told us that we weren’t going anyplace. I asked him what was his interest in the thing. I know this isn’t your boat, and I’m going to return it as soon as I can. He said, 'I was told that the bank in Marathon was blown wide open, and I intend to get my part of it.' I told him to come and go with us. He said, 'I’m not that drunk.'”
After being forced to relinquish the boat, they went up to the Fish House where Islamorada Fish Company is today next to World Wide Sportsman, and after some serious negotiations talked the man in charge into to taking them in his boat to Lower Matecumbe for $100. They hit several things along the way and had to stop numerous times to take wires out of the props. They got to Lower Matecumbe just as it was beginning to get light.
The road there was down to the bedrock. When they went to his friend’s house, it was gone. They walked down three more blocks to see if Eyster’s house was still there. It was still standing, but it was completely gutted. Eyster also owned eight hotel units, and the end two were partially knocked down where a wave had hit them.
“We left Florida City one morning and got to Lower Matecumbe noon the next day,” Eyster said. “We made good time.”

Related story: Irving Eyster: Preserving Indian Key

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kenny Chesney's Former Key West Estate for Sale

Key West has long been an inspiration to country crooner Kenny Chesney. In fact, he even used a photo of the Half Shell Raw Bar in the West Bight for the cover of his single "When I See This Bar." Now Chesney's former Key West estate in historic Old Town is for sale, and it can be yours for a cool $5.8 million.

Just minutes from Duval Street, this six bedroom, eight bath estate on Caroline Street has traditional conch style Key West architecture with spacious porches that overlook the manicured grounds, swimming pool and two guest houses. The second floor features a master bedroom suite including a coal burning fireplace, separate dressing room, morning kitchen with refrigerator, stunning white marble bathroom with a luxurious glass shower enclosure for two. A private balcony runs the width of the house, accessible only from the master bedroom. Also on the second floor is a guest suite, sitting room and bathroom with steam enclosure and a private balcony. There's even a custom designed wine cellar that can house up to 1,500 bottles. Outside an array of outdoor living spaces surround a large pool with several seating areas spaced around rear yard.

Take a virtual tour of Kenny Chesney's former Key West home and dream of winning the lottery.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tropical Escape: Mojito Dreaming Desktop Wallpaper

Dreaming about a cool minty mojito in the Florida Keys while you're at work? Fight the urge to yell, "It's 5 o'clock somewhere!" and run out the door. Instead, indulge virtually with this desktop wallpaper. Simply download onto your computer for that "ahhh" moment to get you through until your next tropical escape. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Discount Code for the 2014 Key West Food & Wine Festival

Don’t have your tickets yet for the upcoming Key West Food & Wine Festival January 22-26? Well, I have a treat for you—a discount code for 10% off Duval UNCORKED or the VIP Pass. If you know me well, you won't be surprised that I managed to find a “coupon” for the festival, and I have permission to share it with you!

The signature event on Saturday night, Duval Uncorked, will be a gastronomical experience like no other. An upscale twist on the popular pub-hopping Duval Crawl, Uncorked is a mile-long food and wine tasting down the main drag in Old Town. Hundreds of participants stroll past the historic Keys’ architecture and through chic boutiques, eclectic art galleries and hidden inns.

Each of the 40-plus stops on the route holds a surprise from conch chowder to cabernet sorbet to shots with the local drag queens. On-hand to answer questions will be visiting winemakers like Hugh Chapelle from Quivira Vineyards and owners such as Norm Yost from Flying Goat Cellars, Teri Kight from Quivira and Chuck Easley from T-Vine Cellars. It’s one big adventure, and I’m counting down the days.
The VIP Pass is the golden ticket to the long sun-soaked weekend of festivities. It includes the Kick Off Your Flip Flops Barefoot Beach Party, the Save the Turtles Grand Tasting, Coconut Bowling at Blue Heaven,  Pop Up Wine Tastings (VIP only), Seminars (VIP only) and Duval UNCORKED. New this year, the Pop Up Wine Tastings offer VIPs a chance to sample limited-production wines from Santa Barbara County California paired with local cuisine. Central Coast Wine & Food is collaborating with several Key West restaurants to bring you these enticing treats.

VIPs will also be able to choose from one of these exclusive seminars: How to Prepare Peruvian Ceviche, Key West “Legal Rum,” History of the Original Key Lime Pie or A Taste of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. Mike Cohen, a Certified Sommelier from Charleston, will be overseeing these fun educational opportunities. Reserved strictly for VIPs, these seminars will not be open to the public.

Now, how do you save 10% off UNCORKED and the VIP Pass? Just enter the code KWFWF in the promotion code box once you select how many tickets you would like. Buy them now before they're gone! See you in Key West on the 22nd!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Key West Food & Wine Festival 2014 Sneak Peek

Are you ready for the 2014 Key West Food & Wine Festival? Here's a sneak peek of what's in store this year! The three main events are back this year: Kick Off Your Flip Flops Beach Party, Grand Tasting and Duval "Uncorked." These popular soirees have sold out in the past, so make sure you've got your fingers ready to click "buy now" on your faves as soon as they're up for grabs. 

This year, the 5th Annual Grand Tasting will be held on the pier of the Fort Jefferson Museum between Turtle Kraals and Half Shell Raw Bar. Located on the Historic Key West Bight, this deep-water harbor was once the heart of the working waterfront.

Here in the turtle kraals (watery corrals) green sea turtles were kept near the Thompson turtle cannery before being exported as delicacy around the world. While the booming turtle industry helped build Key West, the rate of harvest wasn't sustainable. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 made it illegal to remove a green turtle of any size from U.S. waters.

Honoring the island's rich and complex history, the festival has partnered with the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy for this year's Grand Tasting. They'll be sampling the recently-released Sea Turtle Reserve Red and Sea Turtle Reserve White wines, a special-edition series by the Weibel Family Vineyards of Lodi, California. 

The winery worked in conjunction with the Sea Turtle Conservancy to raise awareness and support for the protection of threatened and endangered sea turtles. Part of the proceeds from the Sea Turtle Selections will be dedicated to the conservancy. The festival also be donating a portion of the proceeds from the Grand Tasting to this worthy non-profit.

If you want to get all the insider info on the festival, sign up for their Juiced Newsletter.

Related Posts:

Weekend Getaway: Island Party at the Key West Food and Wine Festival

2012 Key West Food & Wine Festival

Friday, January 3, 2014

What It's Like to Live in the Upper Florida Keys

Once you reach the end of the 18-mile stretch of asphalt tethering the Florida Keys to the rest of the world, you’ll find that life moves to the tempo of a reggae song. The archipelago is perched on an ancient coral reef, nestled between the aquamarine waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay. Small-town island living is both what initially draws people here  and, later, what anchors them. Most residents, after they tell you how they came and fell in love with the Keys, will conclude: “I just never left.”

The enchantment starts in Key Largo and Islamorada. Known as the Upper Keys, these islands sit at the top of the chain, which is connected by a series of 42 bridges. Needless to say, water is the attraction. “The cusp of our community either boats, fishes or dives, so water amenities and access are important,” says Joy Martin, broker and owner of Marr Properties and American Caribbean Real Estate. The 33-mile-long island of Key Largo is bordered by John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to the east, which is home to North America’s only living  barrier reef and is a big draw for divers. To the west is Everglades National Park, easily accessible to boaters. A look in the canals that weave around the islands reveals manatees, spiny lobsters and mangrove snappers.

Bill and Kim Cook, dive enthusiasts from California, came looking for a second home. Key Largo’s status as the diving capital of the world drew the couple in — it was perfect for pursuing their underwater-photography hobby. “We dive here regularly and looked at homes several years ago,” Bill says. “Last year, the prices dropped dramatically, so we thought it would be a good long-term investment, as well as a fun place to live.”

An airy four-bedroom home, with 20-foot-high pine ceilings and a mosaic outdoor bar, proved too much for the Cooks to resist. One of the selling points that sealed the deal was the home’s location on Adams Waterway, a man-made shortcut from ocean to bay called “the cut.” “We enjoy watching the boat traffic going by,” Bill says. “We’ll go out for a sunset cruise and catch some fish for dinner.”

Spread over four lots in Angler’s Park, a community known for homes perched atop 15-foot coral walls, the property was a bargain at $1 million.

Located an hour south of Miami, Key Largo is the epicenter of the Upper Keys. Chain supermarkets, discount stores, pharmacies and professional offices are all centrally located. “We have everything we need, but if you’re expecting Neiman Marcus, you’re not going to find it here,” Bill says. “It’s a very casual lifestyle.”

Most of the restaurants are still funky independents. The Fish House is a mainstay for the daily catch. At lunchtime, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen causes mini traffic jams with its down-home cooking that’s easy on the wallet, and  Snapper’s oceanfront tiki bar is a favorite local gathering spot every Thursday.
With the Florida Keys’ tourism-driven economy and temperate climate — the Upper Keys have never hit 32 or 100 degrees — most buyers are shopping for second homes. Northerners want winter residences, and Floridians seek summer getaways. Smart homeowners rent the properties out the rest of the year for upward of $2,500 a month for a waterfront unit.

However, Key Largo is also part bedroom community for Miamians who work in the city; it has more full-time residents than neighboring Islamorada. A single-family home on a dry lot — not on the ocean, bay or canal — in the Key Largo Beach neighborhood (a mix of old and new homes) starts at $240,000. The price more than doubles for a three-bedroom canal-front home in the prestigious Port Largo community, to $600,000.
Neighboring Islamorada is a village with four narrow keys: Plantation, Windley, Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe. Known as the sport-fishing capital of the world, the area is extremely popular with anglers, who find ocean and bay access via a series of eight bridges. “Islamorada is a bit more upscale with more valuable properties,” Martin says. “You have the area called Millionaires Row on Plantation Key, where award-winning Hollywood producer Jon Landau [of Avatar fame] purchased the four-acre oceanfront estate Bali Hai for $5.8 million.”
Two years ago, Rick and Cindy Freeburg relocated from Miami to Plantation Lake Estates when Rick became CEO of Mariners Hospital. They bought a three-bedroom home on a lagoon for just under $1 million. “We used to visit the Keys regularly, so when the job opportunity came, I felt like we hit the lotto,” Rick says. “We love being in a small-town atmosphere. The servers know our names at the Islamorada Fishing Club, and it’s been the source of many of our closest friends.” He insists that being on the water is what made the deal so sweet, adding, “We’ll boat to restaurants, especially Island Grill. We snorkel and fish, or we’ll just go out for a picnic, anchoring at Alligator Lighthouse.”
Laurie Wickham, owner of Gallery Morada, and her husband, Dick Hagood, a backcountry fisherman, are 29-year residents living on Upper Matecumbe — Islamorada’s downtown.
The village’s former ban on chain stores resulted in one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and upscale restaurants. Although the law was recently overturned, square-footage allotments for new developments remain scarce. “It’s not as commercial as Key Largo. I drive 20 miles every week to Publix, but I’d rather live here,” Wickham says.
She is often spotted bicycling or walking along the pedestrian-friendly Old Highway, which runs parallel to U.S. Highway 1. The shade of old-growth poinciana and buttonwood trees creates a quiet refuge, interrupted by the occasional wild peacock call. “Islamorada feels more like island living to me.”
This laid-back Upper Keys lifestyle has tempted homeowners for years, yet few get to indulge. Since the area is environmentally sensitive, building during the housing boom that peaked in 2006 was mostly limited to redevelopment of existing properties. For anyone shopping the real-estate market now, Martin says, “There’s confidence buying where there’s not a glut of inventory.” However, “As the inventory is absorbed, there will be fewer deals.”
Real Estate: What Your Money Can Buy Now + The Upper Keys

$375,000 — This four-bedroom single--family home on Plantation Key has a sunroom, fenced yard, outdoor deck and quick access to a boat ramp. Recent renovations include a new metal roof, custom cabinets and granite countertops.
$1,200,000 — Located in the private Port Antigua development in Islamorada, this four-bedroom single--family home is on the main canal, minutes from the bay or ocean. The wraparound porches, concrete dock, chickee hut and community beach make it perfect for outdoor living.

$2,500,000 — This three-story, 3,874-square-foot estate in Key Largo offers sunset views of the Florida Bay and a 40-foot dock with two boatlifts. It overlooks a large pool, grand patio, hot tub and sandy beach.

For more details, contact Joy Martin, American Caribbean Real Estate and Marr Properties, 305.394.7866,

Originally published in Florida Travel + Life magazine