Inside Key West Seafood

The Florida Keys are surrounded by one of the richest marine environments in the continental US, with the majority of local waters carefully managed and protected by nature reserves like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is therefore no surprise that the sea around Key West produces a world-famous bounty of delicious seafood items. It is fair to say that most visitors to the island want to taste at least one or two of the most popular delicacies, and there are many who come specifically for the great seafood.

The month of January in Key West offers a good opportunity to sample the best of island seafood local style at the annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival, put on by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. This is a reasonably priced, family-friendly way to spend a nice day in the park while enjoying some of the most well-known Keys seafood items along with beverages and a selection of sweet desserts. The 2014 festival will be held at Bayview Park on Saturday, January 18 from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, January 19 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The park is at the corner of Truman Avenue and Jose Marti Drive in Key West. Admission is free, and there is $5 parking available at the Horace O’Bryant Middle School parking lot adjacent to the park. Live music, a kid’s fun zone, marine life exhibits, and Arts & Crafts vendors will make it a full day of feasting and fun.

The seafood treats on offer will highlight freshness and simplicity of preparation in the presentation of some of our local favorites. The main menu includes deep-fried fish with lemon wedges and a side of slaw, grilled Florida Spiny Lobster, iced Stone Crab Claws, and peel & eat Key West Pink Shrimp cocktail. Complete the experience with classic island side dishes including Conch Chowder, Conch Ceviche, and Conch Fritters. Later in the afternoon, munch out on some Fried Clam Strips with a bowl of Lobster Bisque, or some Smoked Fish Dip with crackers. Beer, wine, Margaritas, and water will be available, along with Key Lime Tarts, Estella’s Famous Flan, and soft ice cream.

It really does not get any better than this – fresh seafood right from the guys who caught it, served picnic-style outside with music, kids running around, things to see, and friendly folks. If you are in Key West with a family, the festival is a perfect afternoon activity. You can sample a wide variety of the seafood delicacies of your dreams for a fraction of the cost of the cheapest sit-down seafood restaurant while the kids have a great time. There will even be hamburgers and hot dogs available to feed the youngsters if they are not as enthusiastic about seafood as you are.

The Seafood Festival also gives you the opportunity to support local business and the Fishermen’s Association. The Association puts together a seafood cookbook that generates income for their Commercial Fisherman’s Association Scholarship fund for Keys students. So it all comes together here with good food, good times, and good causes. If you are going to be in Key West in the middle of January, plan on dropping by.

Inside Key West Arts and Culture

Although Key West is a tiny city, it is home to a large creative community and a strong arts and culture scene. The good weather and beautiful environment of Key West has always drawn talented people, from Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffet and a host of other celebrities, artists, and performers. The island still offers residents and visitors alike many good opportunities to enjoy artistic work, including the dramatic productions of several community theater groups that feature a talent pool of skilled locals augmented by visiting professionals from New York and Los Angeles who come to Key West for a tropical break. If you would like to plan an evening of theatre in Key West, there are two venues in particular that will combine a taste of Key West history with easy access to live productions ranging across the spectrum of genres.

The Waterfront Playhouse

The Waterfront Playhouse has been the home of one of Key West’s original theater groups, the Key West players, since 1960. The Players, a group initially composed of locals and Navy personnel stationed in Key West during World War II, had been putting on productions in any space available, including the original 1829 carriage house that later became the Red Barn Theatre, and the U.S.S. Gilmore, a Fulton-class submarine tender that was stationed in Key West during WW II.

Searching for a permanent home, the Key West Players came across a decrepit 1880’s-era ice warehouse located on historic Mallory Square, and were aided by member Tennessee Williams in securing the property. After a complete renovation, the warehouse became the theatre home that the Players enjoy to this day. As Key West’s oldest continuously running theatre, the Waterfront Playhouse operates as a not-for-profit professional theatre that seats 150 audience members and offers a wide range of concerts, comedies, dramas, musicals, and world premieres.

The Playhouse has recently undergone several upgrades including the addition of a new lobby, new lighting and sound, and the dedication of a new stage. If you are looking to enjoy an exciting evening of high-quality theatre, perhaps after enjoying the sunset celebration on Mallory Square, grab some tickets for a production at the Waterfront Playhouse.

The Red Barn Theatre

What is now the Red barn Theatre was originally an 1829-vintage carriage house on Duval Street in old Key West. When automobiles came to Key West and carriages became obsolete, the building was adopted by the Key West Players soon after the group’s initial formation during WW II. When the Players moved to the Mallory Square Waterfront Playhouse in 1960, the old carriage house theatre sat empty until it was revived as a puppet theatre by Key West residents Ruth Guttman and her husband Yehuda. The Guttman’s presented many wonderful puppet shows there throughout the 1970s, along with concerts performed by Yehuda, who was a gifted pianist.

The carriage house officially become the Red Barn Theatre in 1980, when it was renovated and reopened by a group of actors and technicians working under the incorporated name of the Red Barn Actors Studio. Since then, theatre lovers from the Key West community and beyond have provided the support needed to keep the Red Barn thriving. In 2002, a $660,000 renovation gave the Red Barn permanent rehearsal hall space, costume storage, dressing rooms, a scenery shop, new restrooms, and a box office.

Many members of the Key West community contributed to the renovation efforts, and when the work was completed, architect Michael Miller’s design and Deal Builders’ quality construction won the Red Barn the prestigious Historic Preservation Award and a Star of Excellence for new construction from the Historic Florida Keys Foundation in 2004.

The Red Barn Theatre is a Key West cultural mainstay where you can enjoy an excellent evening of theatre put on in one of the city’s most well known historic buildings. Drop by the Red Barn to see a play during your Key West visit, and join the many celebrities and talented individuals who have been part of the history of this nationally-recognized community theatre.

 

Inside a Key West Classic – The San Carlos Institute

Key West is known as a sun-and-sand party town where Water Sports, shopping, dining, and Partying are the draws that pull millions of tourists every year. However, the island does have a more refined side that is cherished by many locals even if it is missed by most visitors: a thriving theater and concert scene that offers many opportunities to enjoy world-class performances in venues that are steeped in historical charm. The San Carlos is one such island performance hall, and a visit will surely provide a generous helping of historical interest and architectural beauty along with an enjoyable evening of performing arts.

The Key West Council On The Arts puts on a yearly series of impromptu classical concerts that gives islanders a chance to see nationally renowned artists without leaving the confines of this tiny city. Many of these events take place at the San Carlos Institute, an important Florida and Key West cultural landmark for over 100 years. Founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles as an educational, civic, and patriotic center, the San Carlos became the center point of the Cuban struggle for independence from Spanish colonial rule.

Named after Cuba’s Seminario San Carlos, a renowned institute of higher learning where Cuban educator and humanitarian Father Félix Varela planted the seed of Cuba’s independence movement among his students, the original institute was located in a small wooden building on Anne Street. The San Carlos moved to a larger building on Fleming Street in 1884, and when that building burned down in the fire of 1886 that destroyed much of Key West, Civic leader Martin Herrera led efforts that rebuilt the San Carlos in 1890 at its present location on Duval Street in the heart of Key West.

Within a few years, José Martí, Cuba’s legendary patriot and poet, and many other key figures of Cuba’s independence movement were using the San Carlos as a venue to address and gather the Cuban exile community into a coherent independence movement. Martí addressed a crowd of thousands of Cuban patriots at the Institute in 1892, leading to the formation of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, which represented the ideals and aspirations of a united exile community in planning and organizing the War of Independence that led to Cuba’s liberation from Spanish rule.

The Cuban community revered the building as a historical and cultural treasure, and after it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1919, immediate efforts were made to rebuild it. Work by community leaders and supporters and a design by Francisco Centurión, one of Cuba’s most prominent architects, resulted in the present two-story building that incorporates many traditional elements of Cuban architecture: spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, louvered windows, graceful arches, marble stairways, hand-crafted mosaics, and floors of checkered Cuban tile. The building was magnificent, and after reopening on October 10, 1924 the Institute was referred to by many as “The jewel of Key West.”

The San Carlos continued operating as a school, and its tradition of academic excellence produced graduates who assumed important posts in the private and public sectors. However, when the communist dictatorship seized power in Cuba in 1959, financial assistance from the Cuban government was cut off. The Key West local community was not able to maintain the aging building, and the school closed in 1973 after being condemned.

The building was neglected for almost two decades, and nearly lost to demolition before a last-ditch effort managed to save it as a Cuban historical landmark in 1985. After an extensive fund-raising campaign and mobilization of public and political support, the San Carlos was lovingly and faithfully restored to its original beauty and decorated with many works of art depicting Cuban historical figures. The Institute reopened on January 4, 1992, exactly one hundred years from the day José Martí gave his first address at the Institute.

The San Carlos now serves as a shrine and place of pilgrimage where Cuban people celebrate their heritage. The Institute is visited by thousands yearly, and also hosts many important cultural, historical, and artistic events throughout the year. An evening or afternoon concert at the San Carlos is two treats in one, and a highly recommended outing for anyone with a love for both classical architecture and music.

Inside Hemingway Days

Key West is a hot, humid place in the summer, and it is hard to imagine what it was like to live here in the days before widespread air conditioning. For example, during the 1930’s, when American literary great and all-around man’s man Ernest Hemingway called the island and its ocean environs home.

Obviously, Hemingway, who volunteered for the front lines in World War 1, ran with the bulls in Pamplona Spain, and safaried in Africa back in the day when real men did not shoot until the lion or elephant was charging, knew a thing or two about handling tough conditions. And it is actually quite simple – you find a dimly-lit Key West Bar and spend most of the hot part of the day (which is all day in the Key West summer) inside drinking daiquiris and mojitos. As a bonus, the bar (ideally Sloppy Joe’s on the corner of Green and Duval Streets) will nowadays have air conditioning, which if anything makes it easier to stay longer.

Unfortunately, the modern Sloppy Joe’s is such a crowded tourist stop that it may be difficult to get a serious literary drunk on, so the erstwhile Ernests of today are either forced to search for more out-of-the-way dives or out into the summer daylight to participate in activities other than drinking. If you are one of these latter unfortunates, there is a reasonable solution: Key West’s annual Hemingway Days.

This festive celebration of the author’s larger-than-life has been going on in Key West for over thirty years now, and it centers around a Hemingway look-alike contest that is quite popular among large, loud white-bearded men from around the world. Upwards of 125 such men gather yearly at Sloppy Joe’s to compete for the coveted title of Hemingway 2.0 in one of the several barrooms where the great man was fond of spending time drinking and philosophizing with his cohort of sport fishermen and generally macho individuals.

The festival has expanded to occupy 6 days of activities during mid-July including readings and book signings, an awards ceremony for the renowned literary competition directed by Hemingway granddaughter Lorian Hemingway, a one-man play exploring the literary legend’s life, an exhibit of Hemingway memorabilia, and a three-day marlin fishing tournament. There is also a 3-mile ocean paddleboard race and a 5K Sunset Run, which in this author’s opinion are questionable activities for anyone serious about following in Papa’s macho footprints. Unless of course the paddleboard race takes place in shark-infested waters and includes Drinking at Sea.

Whether you are in fact a drinker, macho, or even a man, the Hemingway Days celebration is a great reason to visit Key West in the summer. Like all of the island’s Festivals and Celebrations, a unique and quirky good time is all but guaranteed, and there is sure to be something fun for everyone to enjoy. Come on down to see the quieter summertime side of Key West, and learn why Ernest Hemingway and so many other authors and creative people have called this special town home over the years.

Inside The Key West Lighted Boat Parade

If you are going to be in Key West during the second week of December, there is one special event that you will not want to miss.

The 23rd annual Schooner Wharf Bar and Galley Lighted Boat Parade is an island tradition that will help you get the holidays started with some tropical festivities that are uniquely Key West. This is a family event that combines creativity, beauty, and nautical flair to bring out yearly crowds ready to usher in the Key West Christmas season.

Spectators can watch from the docks, or from the verandas of seaside dining establishments like the Hot Tin Roof Restaurant at the Ocean Key Resort and Spa as a diverse gathering of watercraft ranging from canoes and Kayaks to sailing yachts and Coast Guard cutters pass by in a display of amazing lighting and décor. The crew of each craft tries to outdo the rest with clever designs or shear quantities of lights. Sailboats with hulls and rigging outlined with strings of thousands of twinkling lights present a spectacular sight that children will love. Add in the beads and candies that many boat crew members toss to the crowds, and you have a good time guaranteed for all.

The evening begins at 6:00 pm with Christmas music performed by The Gerald Adams Elementary School Steel Your Heart Band on stage at Schooner Wharf, followed by more carols from The Doerfels, a talented family of singers young and old. The Boys and Girls Club of the Keys offers a giant prize wheel, holiday beverages, and handmade ornaments as charitable fundraising activities for their organization. A Conch shell blowing contest, spinning ornaments, dancing gingerbread men, and more special sights and sounds add to the flavor of this Key West maritime holiday festival. Later, you can watch Santa’s sleigh arrive at the judge’s stand at the Schooner Wharf Bar, where holiday libations and a traditional ham dinner are available to kick off the Christmas season or an evening of enjoying the Key West Nightlife.

The parade is not all fun and games, however. There is serious competition among the owners and crews of the many vessels entered in the parade, and long hours are spent in the design and decoration work that goes into preparing boats for the event. At stake are more than $20,500 in prizes and a free raffle valued at over $4000. Not to mention a year’s worth of bragging rights claimed by the lucky winners.

All of the fun takes place on Saturday, December 15, with the parade beginning at 8:00 pm as the lighted boats begin their cruise through Key West Harbor and the waters of the Historic Seaport. There are several Key West Oceanfront Hotels that provide excellent walking access to the festivities. Or take a Key West Sunset Cruise and arrive back just in time for the parade. No matter how you want to schedule it, you want to be there at the Schooner Wharf Bar and Galley Lighted Boat Parade for a one-of-a-kind Key West holiday celebration.

Inside Key West Gay Bars

A remote seaport town that has long attracted voyagers, wanderers, immigrants, and adventurers of many different stripes, Key West has historically been known for its multicultural flair and broad tolerance for diversity. This is part of the reason why the island has been a magnet for members of the LGBTA community for several decades. Acceptance and diversity are codified in the city’s official motto “One Human Family”, and it is rumored that 30% of Old Town is gay. In addition, the Key West Business Guild, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting Key West to LGBTA travelers, was formed in 1978 as the country’s first gay-oriented chamber of commerce. The Guild now includes more than 350 enterprises, representing virtually every facet of the island’s business community, and its marketing and advertising efforts help to attract around 250,000 LGBTA travelers to Key West every year.

Although Key West has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most appealing gay-friendly destinations in the world, it is still a small town of only 25,000 year-round residents, so the island’s gay scene is not really that big. It is more comparable to Palm Springs or Provincetown than to Miami or San Francisco: not a big, trendy “destination” gay scene, but some fun gay options in a place that is very gay-friendly and a great all-around vacation spot in general.

The specifically gay side of Key West consists of five gay bars, several gay shops, four exclusively gay resorts, and one male-only sauna. The center of the Key West gay scene is basically the 800 block of Duval Street, where you will see rainbow flags popping up around the intersection of Duval and Petronia streets. This area is where 2 gay fashion stores, most of the gay bars, and several other gay-oriented establishments are located. Although gay people can find a welcoming bar stool in any joint in town, let’s take a quick look at Key West’s specifically “Gay” bars.

A good place to start a Key West gay bar crawl is the Bourbon Street Pub complex. Slightly misnamed, the complex is at 724 Duval, and is the island’s largest gay bar complex. Two main bar areas and a pool in the back are open from 10:00 am until 4:00 am everyday, and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming to gay, lesbian, and straight alike.

The La Ti Da hotel is another multi-bar complex. At 1125 Duval, the La Ti Da is about a 10-minute walk beyond the other bars on the 800 block, but it is well worth the trip. The hotel offers 2 bars and a restaurant, including a terrace bar that is right on Duval Street and serves one of the island’s bigger, better martinis.

The Aqua night club, 711 Duval at Angela and Duval Streets, is the first gay bar you come to when walking up Duval from Front Street. It is known for its well-produced and sometimes raucous drag shows, as well as good late-night dancing. Aqua does not open until 3:00 pm, and only gets really busy when the shows start.

Another spot that does not really get going until the evening is the 801 Bourbon Bar. It is a popular place just opposite the Bourbon Street pub complex. Go through the doorway in the back for a little heavier scene at the Saloon 1 leather bar.

Bobby’s Monkey Bar, 2 blocks off of Duval Street at 900 Simonton Street, is the place to go for the low-key, local joint atmosphere. Bobby’s has been called the Gay Cheers, and it is not far off, with a crowd of locals, cash-only bar, low lights, strong drinks, Karaoke, a pool table, and sports on the TV. This is the place to relax and take a break from the tourist scene.

All of these spots are fine drinking establishments for tolerant straight folks as well as gay people, and the drag shows and late night partying at Aqua are great for anyone looking for a good time. No matter which way you swing, next time you are in Key West, come on out to the Key West gay bars and lift a glass to One Human Family.