FLORIDA KEYS — The official tourism website of the Florida Keys & Key West, located at www.fla-keys.com, now has a fresh new look with a more pronounced emphasis on social media sharing capabilities and high-definition videos. The video components enable website visitors to explore featured attractions, take virtual dives on reef and shipwreck sites spotlighted in all regions of the Keys, meet Keys personalities and find out about special events more conveniently than ever before.
Located on the site’s home page, a Florida Keys “Video of the Week” presents brief features on enticing, quirky and informative aspects of the destination. These mini-features answer a demand from Web users for more multimedia and streaming video content. Videos are produced and streamed in conjunction with the destination’s own FloridaKeysTV channel on YouTube.
To view the current Florida Keys “Video of the Week” segment, access a video archive and explore the redesigned website, visit www.fla-keys.com.
Ongoing coral restoration efforts with marine scientists from Key Largo’s Coral Restoration Foundation enable recreational sport divers to learn about environmental impacts on Florida’s reefs through education and hands-on dives to restore endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals — two reef-building species with the best chance to propagate and create new habitats.
Volunteers go on working dives to coral nurseries to clean and prepare corals for planting, and an orientation dive at one of the restoration sites shows firsthand the evolution of corals over time.
Upcoming coral restoration events include a weekend workshop with Keys Diver & Snorkel Center, located at 99696 Overseas Highway, set for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24-25. Cost is $390 per diver including accommodations, diving, lunch and social events. For information, call 888-289-2402 or visit www.keysdiver.com.
Amoray Dive Resort, located at mile marker (MM) 104.2, is to host a workshop Tuesday through Thursday, Oct. 11-13. The per-person cost of $456.50 includes three nights’ lodging, classroom sessions and dive trips. For details, call 800-426-6729 or visit www.amoray.com.
For more volunteer opportunities, visit www.coralrestoration.org or call 305-767-2133.
In recognition of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the completion of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, a new exhibit featuring 17 historic items and memorabilia is on display at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center at MM 106.
Celebrations commemorating the railroad’s centennial anniversary already are under way in the Florida Keys, with many highlights scheduled the weekend of Jan. 22, 2012.
On that date in 1912, the first Over-Sea Railroad train rolled from the Florida mainland through the Keys to Key West, connecting the previously isolated islands with the mainland and each other for the first time.
The artifacts, on loan from railroad historian Seth H. Bramson and the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, include an original official souvenir program from the first train’s journey, a Florida East Coast Railway steam whistle and several other railroad items circa 1900-1935.
Visitors can view the exhibit through the end of January 2012. The visitor center is open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, call 800-822-1088 or visit www.keylargochamber.org. For information about the railroad centennial celebrations, visit www.flaglerkeys100.com.
Keys visitors can help the ocean while dining on a deliciously mild white fish that has gained popularity in Florida Keys restaurants. Lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific species, has found a place as a regular menu item at the Key Largo Conch House, now serving lionfish tacos for lunch, and a soon-to-be-introduced daily dinner special.
Key Largo’s Fish House Encore serves fried whole lionfish as an appetizer and prepares the succulent filets, likened to hogfish and snapper, in a variety of ways.
Although not yet a regular menu item, a Southwestern-style lionfish chowder can be found at Kev’s Café, located in Islamorada at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina.
Unlike lobster or stone crab, two of the Keys’ seasonal seafood resources, lionfish can be captured year-round. There is no season and no size or bag limit. In addition, local commercial fishermen sell the lionfish by-catch to restaurants.
Tavernier Dolphin Cruises, located at the Tavernier Creek Marina, MM 90.8, invites visitors to the Florida Keys to immerse themselves in a new environmentally friendly travel experience focused on conservation and appreciation for natural resources.
Offerings include a series of two- and four-hour eco-adventure cruises as well as a 1.5-hour sunset cruise aboard a custom-built Corinthian catamaran.
Passengers board the 40-foot Mystic Blue for narrated snorkel tours, wildlife cruises and, for a fun experience in Islamorada, visitors can enjoy retail therapy during the Eco Tour, Lunch & Shopping excursion. The excursion features an island-style lunch enjoyed beneath a tiki.
Tavernier Dolphin Cruises’ reservations office is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For details and tour availability, call 305-852-4243 or visit www.tavernierdolphincruises.com.
Islamorada is closer to becoming a focal point for Florida Keys history since work has begun on the much-anticipated Irving R. Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History.
To be located at the Islander Resort, MM 82.1, the structure is expected to be complete by spring 2012. A nearly 7,000-square-foot museum exhibition space is to share the building’s overall 15,300 square feet with a conference center for the resort.
The museum’s namesake, archeologist and historian Irving Reade Eyster, is called “Mr. History” in Upper Keys circles. Now almost 93 years old, he is busy chronicling his personal cache of thousands of artifacts and valuable materials slated to fill the museum.
“There’s history on every island, and we’re trying to save that,” said Eyster, who settled on Lower Matecumbe Key with his wife Jeane nearly 60 years ago.
Museum exhibits are to include interactive displays depicting the Florida Keys’ early explorers, pirates, settlers, native Indians, Spaniards, shipwreck and lighthouse memorabilia. Its entertainment centerpiece is to be the “Eye of the Storm” theater where visitors can view historical documentaries and films.
The Eysters and daughter Barbara Edgar created the Matecumbe Historical Trust, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education, history and preservation of the Florida Keys and a driving force behind developing the Upper Keys museum.
For more information, visit www.matecumbehistoricaltrust.com.
Key West’s newest accommodations property is the Ibis Bay Waterfront Resort, 3101 N. Roosevelt Blvd. With 78 guest rooms and a lighthearted island atmosphere, Ibis Bay combines the luxuries and amenities of a large resort with the personalized appeal of a boutique property.
The resort is decorated in “island chic,” combining a vivid color palette with Deco-esque neon accents, tropical hammocks, engaging local artwork and offbeat nautical touches such as a small vintage boat adapted into a front desk.
The Ibis Bay “fun desk” can provide booking assistance for everything from kiteboarding lessons with world-renowned instructor Paul Menta to ghost tours, fine dining, on-property sand-sculpture classes and much more.
The resort’s open-air Lighthouse Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering fresh-caught seafood and other fare as well as live entertainment.
Other attractions include more than 600 feet of white sand beach, visiting water birds and resident macaws, wild iguanas and two giant tortoises.
For more information and reservations, visit www.ibisbayresort.com or call 305-296-1043.
Visitors interested in pairing water-based adventures and waterfront dining can do so with two sail-and-dine packages offered by Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa in partnership with the sailing yacht Floridays.
Tranquility seekers can enjoy a relaxing champagne sunset cruise on the 60-foot Floridays, viewing the famed Key West sunset while sailing Gulf of Mexico waters, followed by dinner at Hyatt Key West’s SHOR American Seafood Grill.
For vacationers seeking an active adventure, the snorkel-and-lunch package features a three-hour excursion to explore the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef. Snorkel gear and liquid refreshments are provided. After working up an appetite, passengers savor lunch at the Hyatt’s Blue Mojito Pool Bar and Grill.
Both restaurants are just steps from Floridays’ dock at the 118-room Hyatt Key West, 601 Front St. Each guest room features a private gulf-view balcony and Hyatt’s signature Grand Bed, while the property’s other attractions include Jala Spa, a 24-hour gym, a variety of watersports options and a spacious pool and sundeck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico beach.
Menu choices for both sail-and-dine packages are selected and prepared by the Hyatt’s culinary team. Cost is $74 per person per trip.
To book a package, call 305-809-4099. For information about Hyatt Key West and reservations, visit www.keywest.hyatt.com or call 800-233-1234.
History buffs can learn about Key West’s past through its firefighting heritage at the soon-to-be-opened Key West Fire House Museum. The museum is housed in Fire House No. 3 at the corner of Virginia and Grinnell streets, which was an active fire station from 1907 until 1998 and is one of the oldest in Florida.
Spearheaded by retired second-generation Key West firefighter Alex Vega, the museum contains artifacts from the island’s firefighting history. Notable items include a 1929 American La France fire engine, a bell dating back to 1906, historic photos and an early alarm system that communicated a fire’s location.
Uniforms, helmets and other items belonging to men once stationed at Fire House No. 3 — among them Vega and his father — are displayed in what was once the firefighters’ sleeping quarters.
The station also contains what is believed to be one of the only two remaining coal pits in America, which dates back to the days when fire engines were horse-drawn steamers.
The Key West Fire House Museum is projected to open in early 2012. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A historic U.S. Coast Guard cutter is now available as a unique setting for events ranging from weddings to corporate gatherings. The 327-foot Ingham, when retired in 1988 after 52 years of service, was the oldest serving and most decorated naval vessel.
Now a floating museum and a registered National Historic Landmark, Ingham is docked on Key West’s Truman Waterfront. Its historic significance, nautical ambiance, large deck space and unobstructed view of the island’s famed sunset over Key West Harbor makes it an ideal venue for cocktail parties and catered dinners, military reunions, weddings and receptions, fundraising events, corporate functions and more.
Launched in 1936, Ingham is one of only two preserved Secretary-class cutters. According to Coast Guard historical records, it is the only cutter ever awarded two Navy Presidential Unit citations.
The ship served during World War II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War. In 1980, when thousands of Cubans fled Mariel, Cuba, the vessel performed search-and-rescue missions in Florida Keys and South Florida waters and saved many Cuban lives.
Ingham visitors can tour areas ranging from the ship’s radio room and engine room to the mess deck and commanding officer’s quarters.
Artifacts on display in the exhibit room include code bags for transporting classified messages, telescopes, weapons, uniforms and helmets, navigational equipment and photographs documenting Ingham’s construction and long years of service.
Event pricing varies based on the type of gathering. For more information, contact Katie Powell at 305-896-5338. For overall information about Ingham, visit www.uscgcingham.org/.
Buccaneers and wenches, or any other couples in love, can find an appealing venue for rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions at Pat Croce’s Rum Barrel. Located at 528 Front St. in Key West, the Rum Barrel evokes the atmosphere of a 17th-century pirate tavern.
Rum Barrel owner Pat Croce is a New York Times best-selling author, former part-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and longtime pirate aficionado. The pirate theme is apparent in the Rum Barrel’s décor and its food and drink offerings, creating a comfortably casual atmosphere for destination wedding festivities.
The Rum Barrel’s 60-seat dining room and adjacent bar area features Caribbean stucco walls, antique maps, wrought iron “treasure chest” strapping and pub-style furniture. Events are held on the second floor, where the open-air 70-seat Quarterdeck offers a scenic view of historic downtown Key West and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Quarterdeck can be booked for wedding-related festivities or other group events, with exclusive menu options customized by Chef Patrick Dunn.
For more Florida Keys & Key West travel information, explore the destination’s website at www.fla-keys.com or call1-800-FLA-KEYS (800-352-5397) toll-free in the U.S. and Canada. Keys social media sites include facebook.com/floridakeysandkeywest, twitter.com/thefloridakeys and youtube.com/floridakeystv.