Inside Winter in Key West

Winter in Key West is the busy season as frozen northerners flock to the island for a tropical respite to tide them over until the spring thaw hits. With arctic blasts and record cold spells covering much of the continental US this winter, and even reaching down into Florida, there is more reason than ever to plan an escape to paradise. But good weather is not the only thing happening on the island in January. Several large-scale special events run through the latter part of January and offer Key West visitors a chance to add some special highlights to their island trip.

The 2014 Key West Food and Wine Festival runs from January 22 to the 26th, and is the event of the season for those who revel in excellent wine and delicious food. From the kickoff in the hospitality suite on the morning of the 21st, to the 20th annual Master Chef’s Classic on the afternoon of the 26th, this festival is nothing but 5 days of feasting, friends, and fun as you walk about, talk about, learn about, and enjoy great wine, amazing cuisine, and incredible vintners and chefs in the kind of party atmosphere that only Key West can put on. Wine, beer, and liquor tastings, gourmet food and wine seminars, competitions, parties, and feasts all vie for participants’ time in a packed schedule that fills each day from (not too early!) morning until late night. From barefoot beach parties to Cuban-style pig roasts, Key West shrimp boils, and Duval Street wine tasting crawls, this is a true tropical bacchanalia and is a perfect excuse to spend a week thawing out and unwinding in Key West.

Sailing fans and wannabe yachties alike can have a ball at the 27th annual Quantum Key West Regatta, in town from January 19 – 24.  Beginning with the skippers’ meeting and welcome reception on the 19th, the event features 5 days of racing with some of the most amazing yachts and crews in the world starting daily out of Key West harbor. The big 70-foot boats of the Mini-maxi class will inspire awe with their speed, power, and sheer size, while action will be fast and furious in the 52-foot class with an international fleet of 6 boats manned by some of the world’s top racing professionals.  This US SAILING-sanctioned event sponsored by high-performance sailmakers Quantum Sails includes the IRC 1, 2, and 3 classes along with the exciting J-classes, which draw some big fleets, like the 62-boat flotilla in the J/70 class, and promise some spectacular racing action. The racing will be conducted offshore under permit in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, but there are plenty of options for fans who cannot be out on the racecourse. Live twitter, blog, and video coverage will follow the action, and of course just being on the scene, checking out the boats and sponsors, and mingling with the crowds will offer some great nautical fun.

If you still have time in your Key West schedule, the Stock Island Marina Village King Mackerel Tournament runs from January 24th to the 26th. A fleet of elite anglers will go out after the big King Mackerel that migrate to Key West waters each winter, with each fisherman looking for the biggest fish and the $10,000 dollar purse that goes with it. Charter a boat and join the fun on an amateur basis, or follow the action at the daily weigh-ins and dockside parties. Non-fishermen may want to set aside January 25 – 26 for a visit to the 29th Annual Key West Craft Show. This free event features more than 100 jury-selected artisans and crafters who display the fruits of their talents in historic old Key West on lower Whitehead and Caroline Streets. Expect beautiful displays of pottery, fabric, glass, wood, jewelry and other colorful handmade works to be on display from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

From wind to wine, fine arts, fair weather, friendly folk, and fishing fun, Key West has got it going on in the depths of winter. Come on down out of the chill and be a part of it all!

 

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 Classic Key West

A major part of Key West’s charm is the colorful mix of quaint and historical buildings on the island. In fact, Old Town Key West and the surrounding environs contain over 3,000 structures that are on the National Historical Registery. These buildings reflect both the incredible carpentry skills of sea-faring ship wrights turned homebuilders and the broad mix of cultural and aesthetic influences that have been at play throughout the history of Key West. It’s great fun to walk or bike the streets and check out the beautifully restored tropical-style Victorians, New England/Bahamian cottages, and Cuban shotgun houses.

It is even more fun to stay in an architectural gem during your time in Key West. The best way to do this is to stay at a Key West Bed and Breakfast, or maybe in one of the retro renovated small hotels on the island. You can enjoy unique accommodations, local flavor, and good locations in walkable residential neighborhoods. Many of the B&Bs and other small accommodations have themes that add to their charm. For example, Authors Key West is a collection of historic conch-style houses, suites, and rooms in a private compound. Each of the accommodations at Authors is dedicated to a specific literary great who made Key West a full or part time home. Each room is individually decorated and contains artifacts and works from the author for whom it is named.

Another great spot is the Artist House, probably my favorite B & B on the island. It is one of the most photographed houses in Key West, and is also the former home of Robert the Doll, the central character in one of Key West’s most famous ghost stories. The Artist House combines the historic charm of a carefully restored 1890 Victorian mansion with modern amenities, local art and elegant, interesting décor. This B&B is also in a great location, just a mile from the Southernmost Point and 3 minute’s walk from Duval Street. The included continental breakfast and complementary happy hour are nice bonuses as well.

One thing I really like about these small accommodations is the human interaction. The hosts at a B&B can be a great source of local knowledge and insider tips. They are going to know the Best Beaches, great spots for food and drink, and happening events that are off the tourist radar. It is also nice to chat with your fellow guests, and a small accommodation is a lot more conducive to that than some huge resort property. If you are of the mind for it, you can easily make some new friends to have dinner with, hit the nightlife, or share some daytime activities.

The savvy traveler knows that being open to new people paves the way to fresh experience and adventure. If you want to really immerse yourself in island life and Key West culture, the small accommodation is the only way to go. This type of stay will get you down at street level, and you can experience Key West in a whole new way. Unique architecture, interesting décor, and friendly people – what is not to like about classic, quaint Key West?

Five of the Best Kept Key West Secrets

When you arrive in Key West as a final destination or just stop by as part of a larger Florida Keys trip, you’re bound to be immediately bombarded by two distinct contradictions of atmosphere. Between the gorgeous beaches and enough Old Florida charm to live up to the well-deserved reputation of “Sunshine State,” you’ll be at no loss of places to eat and shop–and you’ll have more than enough places to go see.  There will certainly be more places to have fun than you’ll know what to do with, especially if you’re looking to have a quality Key West vacation in a short amount of time. So in the interests of having the best vacation, here are five of the best kept Key West Secrets in no particular order:

The Unmarked Home of Tennessee Williams

If you go check out Williams’ cottage at 1431 Duncan St., you’ll not only get to  miss the lines of visitors who line up everyday to see Ernest Hemingway’s digs, you’ll get pass by the compound he build around the place that included a swimming pool and a writing room he called the “Mad House.”  Other less-traveled sites to check out on a Key West vacation for the literary inclined could include Elizabeth Bishop’s clapboard house that she once owned on 624 White Street and several of the other properties Hemingway was known for frequenting.

Garbo’s Grill

Marked one of  Yelp’s “Best of Key West” by locals, this permanent-fixture food truck is operated by a husband and wife team who serves up the best mahi and Korean beef tacos in town. Located on Greene St. just down the road from Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, you might not find a place to sit down, but you’ll enjoy the food and the inspiring “Van Sharkson” artwork on the van.

Epitaphs at Key West Cemetery

Okay, so it might seem odd that anyone would recommend  a cemetery outing while you’re on a laid-back beach getaway, but some one-time residents of Key West took their morbid senses of humor with them to the grave, and had it carved in as an epitaph. You’ll want to see such gems as “I told you I was sick,” “Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias,” and “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight” in person. Bonus sights to see include three pink-granite gravestones for someone’s beloved Yorkshire terriers, and a pet deer that has been forever immortalized alongside them.

The Old Town Parking Garage

At the corner of Caroline and Grinnell Streets, you’ll find one of the best places to see all of Key West after nightfall. From the top of this location you can look down and see several historical sights in all their glory without all the hustle and bustle of the Lighthouse Museum or the La Concha Hotel. If you enter from the rear stairwell on James St., you can just head over after having a few drinks at Finnegan’s Wake.

Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden

Whether you have children, or don’t, this location is a wonderful destination if you need a few moments to collect yourself around a tremendous collection of parrots, macaws and cockatoos among lush fruit trees and orchids on your getaway.

That said, it may also be tempting to simply meander in and out of all the haunts on Duval Street, often referred to as the “longest street in the world” since it runs across the island from the Gulf of Mexico. You don’t want to have too many plans, right? Keeping it laid back and simple is why you’re here. It’s your Key West vacation, you can always do that  if you want to. If spending time weaving out of expensive souvenir shops and  bars filled with tourists and expensive main attractions is your idea of a laid-back keys getaway, then by all means have at it. But if you’re like us, and you want to hit some of the best “off-the-beaten-path” locations, you’ll have to journey a little further inward, be a little more adventurous, and be ready to meet some locals who can give you a real taste of Key West’s amazing flavor.

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