FLORIDA KEYS — While leaves are falling across the country, visitors will be falling in love this fall with new and exhilarating adventure activities, expanding flight options, enhanced accommodations and more in the Florida Keys & Key West. Explore the highlights here. 

Keys Experiences

Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center at mile marker (MM) 59 bayside now is offering an exclusive Fantasy Dolphin Day experience for groups of up to 20 participants. 

The Fantasy Dolphin Day experience begins with a private tour of the facility, which includes introductions to the resident family of bottlenose dolphins and sea lions, narrated behavior sessions tailored to the group’s interests and hands-on interaction with the dolphins. Following the facility tour, participants take part in a Dolphin Encounter swim, a signal session where they experience what it’s like to be a trainer, and a unique enrichment session with the dolphins. 

After their active afternoon, participants feast on an elegant four-course dinner featuring fresh local seafood and signature dishes prepared by a local Florida Keys restaurant and are entertained by the dolphins once more with a musical sunset celebration. At day’s end, they receive a commemorative CD of high-quality photographs taken during their dolphin experiences.

This exclusive Fantasy Dolphin Day, with its private access for the afternoon and evening to Dolphin Research Center, is offered for groups of up to 20 people for $20,000 with limited availability throughout the year.  

For more information, call 305-289-1121, ext. 229, or visit  www.dolphins.org. 

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Dolphin Research Center recently established the College of Marine Mammal Professions, a fully licensed academic institution where students can acquire an Associate of Science Degree in Marine Mammal Behavior, Care and Training. 

Headquartered at the center’s Marathon facility at MM 59 bayside, the college program provides students with practical knowledge and hands-on training. Skills taught include the ability to assess marine mammal behavior, provide appropriate husbandry care and apply positive training techniques for the wellbeing and enrichment of marine mammals under human care. 

In addition, graduates learn presentation techniques to prepare them to educate a variety of audiences. 

Classes for the first College of Marine Mammal Professions program are to begin in September 2013. Applications are to be accepted beginning Nov. 1, 2012. 

For more information, contact Dolphin Research Center’s education department at education@dolphins.org or 305-289-1121, ext. 225, or visit  www.dolphins.org. 

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Middle Keys visitors can take flight with Conch Air Hang Gliding, a seasoned Keys business that recently switched from running biplanes to hang-glider towing. 

Conch Air can accommodate participants of almost all ages, with no prior experience necessary to fly at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,500 feet. 

Experiences range from a fast-paced joyride to a peaceful look at the eco-offerings of the Florida Keys waters. 

Conch Air Hang Gliding is a boat-towed hang gliding experience captained by a U.S. Coast Guard–certified boat captain, with flight instruction taught by a certified instructor who has logged more than 10,000 flights.  

Hang gliding prices begin at $99 for an introductory flight. The company also offers packages for becoming a certified hang glider pilot. 

Conch Air Hang Gliding operates daily by appointment out of Edgewater Lodge on Long Key at MM 65.5.

For more information, visit  www.conchair.com. 

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AKA Dive Charters and Supplies, Tavernier’s newest dive charter, has set up shop at Mangrove Marina, 200 Florida Ave. 

AKA Dive Charters and Supplies offers two-tank dive and snorkel trips twice daily, night dives several times a week, eco-kayak tours by appointment and retail dive, snorkel and kayak supplies. 

A family-owned business, the new dive operation focuses on personal attention and care for its customers from PADI-certified dive instructors. Each of the operator’s dive and snorkel trips is tailored specifically to the participants’ preferences, visiting reefs and wrecks accordingly. 

Two-tank dive charters are $75 per participant and are available for up to six guests to ensure individual attention and a family-oriented atmosphere. 

AKA Dive Charters and Supplies offers a 10 percent discount to law enforcement and military personnel with proper identification.

For more information, visit  www.akadiving.com or call 305-906-0514. 

Keys Travel

Beginning Sunday, Nov. 4, visitors to Key West can take advantage of Southwest Airlines’ nonstop jet service between Orlando and Tampa, Fla., and the island city. Southwest Airlines will assume the flights to Key West currently operated by its subsidiary AirTran Airways. 

Beginning March 9, 2013, Southwest also is to offer daily flight service between New Orleans and Key West.

Southwest plans to operate one daily nonstop round-trip flight between Key West and Orlando, and one daily nonstop round-trip flight between Key West and Tampa on Boeing 737 aircraft.

Southwest Airlines currently serves 73 cities in 38 states. The Key West route is to be the first of many the airline plans to take over from AirTran.

For more information and to book a flight, visit  www.southwest.com.  

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Running and biking enthusiasts in the Florida Keys soon will have more miles to travel because the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Department of Transportation and Monroe County have begun work on some of their $13 million construction projects to expand the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail by 30 miles. 

The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail currently features more than 70 miles of trail paved in segments along a planned 106-mile corridor from Key Largo to Key West. Envisioned as a multi-use bicycle and pedestrian facility, the trail serves as a recreational and alternative transportation corridor for the Florida Keys.

Paralleling U.S. Highway 1, Florida’s only All-American Road, this recreational pathway incorporates 23 original Flagler Over-Sea Railroad bridges, offering a scenic venue for hiking, running, bicycling, in-line skating, sightseeing, fishing and kayaking. 

Crews recently began work on six separate Overseas Heritage Trail projects throughout the Keys including new sections of trail from Stock Island to Big Coppitt Key, the south end of Lower Sugarloaf historic bridge, from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Summerland Key, from Big Pine Key to the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge, from Layton to Channel 5 Historic Bridge and Grassy Key to Long Key Channel south.

For more information on the progress of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, visit www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/state/keystrail/. 

Keys Accolades

Marathon’s Curry Hammock State Park was awarded third place in the America’s Favorite Park 2012 contest after a six-week online challenge that involved more than 16,000 national, state and local parks across the U.S. 

Curry Hammock State Park garnered more than 8.2 million votes to earn the third-place slot. The park received a $25,000 recreation grant from the Coca-Cola Live Positively initiative to help enhance its activity areas.

Located at mile marker 56.2 in the Middle Florida Keys, Curry Hammock State Park offers canoeing, kayaking, hiking and opportunities for wildlife viewing. 

The park’s full-service campground has 28 sites and the 1,200-foot sandy beach is popular for kiteboarding and windsurfing. Picnic shelters overlooking the Atlantic Ocean are available for family and group picnics. 

The America is Your Park campaign is a collaborative effort between Coca-Cola, the National Park Foundation, America’s State Parks and the National Park and Recreation Association.

For Curry Hammock information, visit  www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock/.

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Key West’s St. Mary Star of the Sea, the oldest Catholic church in South Florida, recently was designated a minor basilica by the Vatican

According to archdiocese officials, “basilica” is a title of honor bestowed on a church of historic and spiritual importance. Established in 1846, St. Mary Star of the Sea is the 73rd minor basilica in the United States and the fifth in Florida.

The process of becoming a basilica involved responding to 120 questions in Latin and demonstrating the church’s historical significance, architectural uniqueness and spiritual characteristics.

As well as its other attributes, St. Mary Star of the Sea is renowned for the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, erected in 1922 and said to protect Key West from serious hurricane impacts. The church is located at the intersection of Truman Avenue and Windsor Lane in the island city.

The coat of arms for the new basilica incorporates elements including a conch shell that is a traditional symbol of the Florida Keys.

For more information, visit  www.keywestcatholicparish.org. 

Keys Cuisine

Roostica, a new pizzeria and Italian restaurant, has opened on Stock Island just outside Key West. Its name is a play on the Italian word “rustica,” describing a natural simplicity, and a tribute to Stock Island’s free-roaming roosters. 

Roostica serves authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza as well as pastas, salads, freshly baked bread, baked Italian dinners and a long list of beers and wines. 

The restaurant features happy hour specials and nightly pasta specials including Sunday’s family-style spaghetti and meatballs. 

With the friendly atmosphere of a locals’ hangout, Roostica seats 150 guests and features both inside and outside dining. 

The restaurant is located at 5620 McDonald Ave. and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. 

For more information, visit  www.roostica.com or call 305-296-4999.

Keys Technology

An interactive Florida Keys Photo Adventure is just a finger tap away with a recent enhancement to the Florida Keys App. Created to mirror the Florida Keys’ Photo Adventure website, www.fla-keys.com/photoadventure/, the Photo Adventure tab is a feature available on the Florida Keys’ free smartphone app. 

The enhanced version of the Florida Keys App is available on the iPhone or the iPad. New features include the capability to upload photos directly from users’ iPhone or iPad onto the Keys Photo Adventure website, fast access to iconic images from each area of the Keys, tips from local photographers and more. 

The app’s fully loaded database also includes information on accommodations of all types, restaurants, attractions, diving and fishing, boating, marinas and watersports, eco- and kayaking tours, dolphin encounters and even where to stroll the best art galleries or relax in an outdoor park. 

The free app can be downloaded from the App Store as part of iTunes, or by visiting http://floridakeysapps.com/.

Keys Culture

Three landmark Florida Keys marine life murals are to receive a facelift Oct. 12-21 from their creator, internationally recognized artist and environmental advocate Wyland.

All three mammoth outdoor murals depict marine life along the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, which parallels the Keys. 

The murals are located in Key Largo at MM 99.2, in Marathon at MM 50 and in Key West’s Historic Seaport at 201 William St. The public is invited to observe their restoration Oct. 12-14 in Key Largo, Oct. 16-17 in Marathon and Oct. 18-21 in Key West. 

A part-time Upper Keys resident, Wyland has spent nearly 30 years diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and credits the Keys’ underwater world for inspiring much of his art. 

He is best known for his 100 large-scale marine life panoramas, painted in cities around the U.S. and the world, to promote ocean conservation.

For more information, visit www.wylandkeywest.com.

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There’s wizardry afoot at Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St., with the recent installment of an exhibit titled “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine.”

Featuring highlights from the museum’s priceless collection of Renaissance-era shipwreck antiquities, the exhibit focuses on the blockbuster books by J.K. Rowling and films about young wizard Harry Potter to explore authentic Renaissance traditions of alchemy, astrology, medicinal potions and herbs, the search for immortality and more. 

Museum visitors can explore a re-creation of the fictional wizards’ lair of Diagon Alley, containing apothecary shops and emporiums offering magical paraphernalia such as cauldrons, mandrake plants, healing herbs and protective poison cups.

On display are rare medical instruments, navigational tools and talismans salvaged by the late Mel Fisher’s divers from the Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, sunk off Key West in 1622. The exhibit relates each one to Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.

“Harry Potter’s World” and the museum’s associated Renaissance programming are expected to continue through July 2013. 

Visit  www.melfisher.org for more information. 

Keys Accommodations

The Historic Key West Inns collection has added a sixth guesthouse to its list of Old Town Key West properties. 

Cypress House, located at the corner of Caroline and Simonton streets, was built in 1888 and has been a lodging property since the 1960s.

Since its recent acquisition by Historic Key West Inns, the property has undergone a top-to-bottom renovation costing more than $600,000. 

Enhancements include completely new furnishings, bathroom modernization and eliminating shared bathrooms so that each room has a private bath, landscaping and interior painting. While the property’s distinctive unpainted facade has been retained as it was constructed in 1888, the renovations create a blend of historic Key West architecture and modern elegant hotel amenities.

For more information about Cypress House and Historic Key West Inns, visit www.historickeywestinns.com. 

 

Florida Keys visitor information: www.fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)  

Social: facebook.com/floridakeysandkeywest • twitter.com/thefloridakeys • youtube.com/FloridaKeysTV

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