FLORIDA KEYS — Officials with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise plan to introduce an all-electronic system Feb. 19 to collect tolls from motorists who travel Florida’s Turnpike between Exit 1 and Exit 47.
That segment of the turnpike, known as the Homestead Extension, is a primary route to the Florida Keys.
The new system affects four toll plazas between mile posts 0 in Florida City and 47 at the Miami-Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale line. It eliminates driver stops at booths to pay tolls and officials say electronic toll collection is safer, more efficient and seamless.
Tolls are to be collected only with SunPass, a prepaid toll program, or with TOLL-BY-PLATE, a system that photographs each vehicle’s license plate and mails a monthly bill for tolls to the vehicle’s registered owner.
For complete details about the new electronic tolling system, visit www.fla-keys.com/news/news.cfm?sid=7989).
The Pegasus Thruster, the world’s first hands-free diver propulsion unit, recently was tested and adapted to use in the waters of the Florida Keys — a fitting “first” for the island chain known as the dive capital of continental North America. The device’s creator, aerospace engineer Dean Vitale, tested the underwater scooter on dives out of Spencer Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo.
The only one of its kind in the world, the Pegasus Thruster is tank-mounted, hands-free and allows the diver to replace its battery underwater. It reduces diver fatigue and increases dive time, with a battery that lasts 45 minutes when used continuously or two tank dives if used intermittently, making it suitable for massive Keys wrecks such as the Spiegel Grove and Vandenberg.
The Pegasus is operated by the touch of a button, which can be pushed by the chin for divers with limited use of their limbs, affording disabled divers more exploration opportunities.
The Pegasus Thruster currently is available for rent on dive trips with Florida Straits Diving in Key West (http://floridastraitsdiving.com/) and Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center (www.captainslate.com) in Key Largo.
Key Largo visitors seeking fun, free activities in the area can participate in a new tarpon feeding station off the dock at Sundowners on the Bay, located at mile marker (MM)103.9 bayside. Each afternoon at 4:30 p.m. Sundowners provides bait along with an informational piece about the types of fish that can be found in Blackwater Sound.
One of the Keys’ most popular natural attractions is a sunset celebration. For a complimentary experience, visit the Bayside Sunset Bar, MM 99.5 bayside, where hearty sorts sound the “Conchdown to Sunset,” by blowing a conch shell and live music is featured each night.
Pontunes Marina, Tiki Bar & Grille offers the Keys’ only free sunset cruise aboard the 105-foot-long schooner Queen Anne’s Revenge II, where guests can learn how to hoist the sails or be captain for a day. Weather permitting, the cruise is scheduled each evening. Departure time coincides with seasonal sunsets. For information call 305-453-5007, visit www.freesunsetcruise.com or e-mail info@FreeSunsetCruises.com.
Marathon’s Island Hoppers helicopter tours has added to its menu of aerial adventures. Located at the Marathon Airport, 9850 Overseas Highway, Island Hoppers offers charters and sightseeing tours including the new Scenic Shoreline Flight and Lunch at Cabbage Key.
The tour lifts off from Marathon Airport and soars over the azure waters along the middle Keys and Islamorada before heading on an adventure over the backcountry of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands for lunch at the Cabbage Key Inn at Pine Island Sound, Fla. Total tour time is approximately 4.5 hours, including lunch.
Shorter adventures also are available, such as a one-hour Key West Adventure to see the Conch Republic from a bird’s-eye perspective, and a Keys Discovery Tour over the Seven Mile Bridge, Pigeon Key and the waters around Marathon, Bahia Honda and Big Pine Key.
For more information visit www.ravenair.net or call 305-619-9603.
Pearl’s Rainbow, for 20 years a Key West guesthouse for women, recently opened its doors to male guests as well. The award-winning property offers 38 rooms and suites in five distinctive buildings at 525 United St., with two swimming pools, two hot tubs, The Strand restaurant serving complimentary full breakfasts, Pearl’s Patio Bar featuring live entertainment and tropical landscaping with secluded areas for quiet enjoyment.
According to Pearl’s longtime owner Heather Carruthers, the change was prompted by a waning demand for all-women accommodations and guests’ increasing desire to vacation with male friends or children. Plans call for the property to continue offering special women’s weeks throughout the year and family weeks when children are welcome.
For more information and reservations, visit www.pearlsrainbow.com or call 800-749-6696 or 305-292-1450.
Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, 1500 Reynolds St. in Key West, has introduced a “fish concierge” at the property’s Sun-Sun Beach Bar & Grill beside the Atlantic Ocean. Executive Chef Erik Malzahn will identify, fillet and cook guests’ catch at the restaurant, located in an open-air wood pavilion and specializing in tantalizing seafood and tropical salads.
Based on optimal ways to prepare each species and size of fish, Malzahn advises diners about the best cooking method, such as pan-fried, deep-fried, blackened or grilled, to bring out the flavor of the catch. He also will answer questions and provide tips on cooking with fish.
For visitors who enjoy pursuing prime food fish such as yellowtail snapper and mahi-mahi, consulting the Casa Marina’s “fish concierge” means they can enjoy the fruits of their angling and savor an expertly prepared dinner.
Recently joining Waldorf Astoria Resorts, Casa Marina dates back to 1920 and includes more than 300 elegantly appointed guestrooms and suites, two tropical swimming pools and 1,100 feet of private Atlantic Ocean beach.
For more information and reservations, visit www.casamarinaresort.com or call 888-303-5717.
On Jan. 22, 1912, the first Oversea Railway train steamed from the Florida mainland through the Florida Keys to Key West, marking the completion of the railroad connecting the previously isolated islands with the mainland and each other. Ninety-nine years later, the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, 281 Front St., is debuting an exhibit and yearlong series of events honoring the Oversea Railway’s upcoming centennial.
Conceived by Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler, the $430 million rail line was begun in 1905. It was known as the Oversea Railway because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water, with bridges and viaducts, including a seven-mile-long bridge at Marathon in the Middle Keys.
The museum’s exhibition and special event series, titled “Speedway to Sunshine, Flagler’s Ocean Railway,” is to kick off Jan. 22, 2011. The exhibition includes a re-created Florida East Coast railcar, a large-scale replica of the Seven Mile Bridge, vintage footage of the journey from tiny Pigeon Key to Key West, rare artifacts and memorabilia that bring alive the fascinating story of the railroad that went to sea.
Celebrations honoring the railroad, which eventually was converted into the Florida Keys’ renowned Overseas Highway, are to continue through Jan. 22, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the inaugural train’s arrival in Key West.
For more information, visit www.kwahs.com.
The Truman Hotel, a boutique property at 611 Truman Ave. just a block from Key West’s famed Duval Street, now offers rooms and suites decorated with a bold contemporary color palette and a lively Key West flair.
Accommodations range from stylish guestrooms to suites that sleep up to four people. Large platform beds, tile floors with zebra rugs, tile and glass showers, built-in desks and tables with leather chairs and wireless Internet access ensure guests’ comfort and convenience. Some rooms also feature balconies.
Other attractions include a landscaped courtyard and pool area for lounging, sundecks on each of three floors, covered parking and daily complimentary continental breakfast featuring local pastries and treats.
For more information and reservations, visit www.trumanhotel.com.
The initial phase of construction on a memorial marking what is believed to be the United States’ only African refugee cemetery is now complete.
The 1860 African Cemetery, located on Key West’s Atlantic-front Higgs Beach beside the Civil War–era West Martello fort, was virtually forgotten until historical research and a 2002 ground-penetrating radar analysis revealed the presence of graves.
Experts believe the graves are those of Africans who died in 1860 after being freed by the U.S. Navy from three American-owned slave ships captured near the Cuban coast and brought to Key West for sanctuary.
More than 1,400 African men, women and children were housed and cared for in Key West after being rescued from the slave vessels. Most eventually were returned to Africa, but nearly 300 died in Key West, probably from illnesses resulting from the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships. They were buried in unmarked graves along the island’s southern shore.
The memorial, whose recently completed phase was funded in part by a $118,500 grant from the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council, includes a series of pedestals adorned with African Adinkra symbols and topped with engraved bronze plaques, a concrete base with a rendition of the slave trade’s maritime route, a tile mural inlaid into the platform riser and ornamental fencing that encloses the site on three sides. These elements combine to reflect the cultures of the people buried in the cemetery and how they came to be so far from home.
The final phase of the memorial project is to center on the construction of a traditional African-inspired shrine structure and an obelisk that functions as a sundial. Other components include a landscaped meditation garden and informational panels.
Gay and lesbian travelers interested in the Florida Keys & Key West now can get insights and information via the island chain’s official LGBT travel blog. The blog offers personal, authentic accounts from the internationally acclaimed gay and lesbian visitor destination.
Steve Smith, the longtime gay-market destination sales manager for the Keys tourism council, is the blog’s primary writer. Smith is a multiterm board member and former president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and an award-winning leader in promoting LGBT tourism.
The LGBT blog, a facet of the successful “Keys Voices” mainstream blog, is written in a friendly tone with feature-style content. Topics include festivals and events, atmosphere, water activities, attractions, favorite hotspots, unique characters and more.
The blog can be accessed at www.keysvoices.com/lgbt, or through links on the www.keysvoices.com home page and Keys website’s gay-market splash page at www.fla-keys.com/keywest/gaykeywest.cfm.
To showcase the fine arts, music and culinary nuances of the Purple Isles, a group of Islamorada galleries, restaurants and shops have formed the Morada Bay Art & Cultural District, whose mission is to feature monthly casual gatherings for residents and visitors to enjoy.
One highlight of the newly formed coalition is a monthly Art Walk to be held the third Thursday of each month. The cultural stroll features the national and local artisans who are showcased in galleries at Morada Way between MM 81 and 82, as well as live music from 5-9 p.m. Participating galleries include the Redbone Gallery, Gallery Morada and the Pasta Pantaleo Signature Gallery that opened in September.
A schedule of music and culinary events sponsored by members of the Morada Bay Art & Cultural District is to be developed over the coming months.
Rounding out Islamorada’s artistic flair, nearby Gallery 84 also opened recently at MM 84.7 oceanside on Windley Key. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the gallery specializes in fine art and offers art classes for kids and adults beginning in January. Classes are to be scheduled Saturday mornings as well as Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings through season. For details, call 305-735-4596.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation has released “The Lionfish Cookbook,” designed to encourage the removal and consumption of the invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish. It features 45 recipes for preparing the mild-flavored white meat of the lionfish, considered a delicacy.
Authored by personal chef Tricia Ferguson and REEF’s director of special projects, Lad Akins, the cookbook describes how the rapidly growing populations of this non-native marine fish are out-competing native fish for food and territory due to lack of predators and its prolific, year-round reproduction. Many countries are encouraging consumption of lionfish to create demand and incentive for lionfish removals.
REEF is a nonprofit marine conservation organization based in Key Largo, whose mission is to conserve marine ecosystems for their recreational, commercial and intrinsic value by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active stewards and citizen scientists.
To learn more or to purchase a cookbook, call 305-852-0030 or visit www.REEF.org.
Key West’s Tropic Cinema, a 10,000-square-foot film center and multipurpose theater in historic Old Town, now features a redesigned lounge and café, and an iconic sculpture by renowned American artist Seward Johnson.
Outside the entrance to the 416 Eaton St. cinema, film buffs encounter a life-size sculpture of Marilyn Monroe. “Forever Marilyn” is Johnson’s depiction of the legendary actress in a white dress with a flirtatiously blowing skirt.
Inside, the Zabar Café offers an expanded selection of popcorn and seasonings, beverages ranging from gourmet coffees to beer and wine, healthful and/or indulgent snacks and even Key lime pie. The Sussman Lounge has been redesigned to feature a curving banquette, seating areas and an art-deco living room ambiance.
Tropic Cinema is a nonprofit independent film multiplex dedicated to showing new, independent, alternative and foreign films. Its lobby and theaters also are the site of community cultural events ranging from jazz concerts to theatrical performances.
For more information, visit www.tropiccinema.com.
For more travel information about the Florida Keys & Key West call, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, 1-800-FLA-KEYS (800-352-5397) or explore the destination’s website at www.fla-keys.com. Facebook: The Florida Keys & Key West. Twitter: twitter.com/thefloridakeys.