Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ponce de Leon discovers the Florida Keys

Did you know that Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the Florida Keys?  While there is no definitive proof that he actually walked the shores of Key West, recorded history tells us that 500 years ago this month, he was exploring the neighborhood.

Most think of Key West’s history as beginning in 1822.   The island, then known as Cayo Hueso, was purchased by Mobile, Alabama, native John Simonton from Juan Pablo Salas, who had acquired it through a Spanish land grant in 1815, in recognition of services rendered the Crown.   But, of course, there’s more before that.

Rewind to the year 1492, shortly after the end of the Crusades.  A certain Genoese mariner by the name of Christopher Columbus conceived the idea of searching out a new trade route to China by sailing westward around the world.  He went from one European court to another until King Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife, Queen Isabella, of Castile, agreed to sponsor him.  Basking in the heady success of the Christians at Grenada recently wresting back control of Spain from the Moors, they were willing to take a chance on the seafarer’s hunch.

Stumbling upon the New World while thinking it to be India, Columbus’ accidental discovery caused a sensation in Europe, whetting the appetite of every power to plunder the imagined treasures of the strange new frontier.  The Pope being in charge of such things at the time, divided the newly-discovered lands between Spain and Portugal and the rush was on, Ponce de Leon at the forefront of a long line of conquistadores to follow. 

On Easter Sunday – late March of 1513 -- Ponce first sighted land near present-day St. Augustine, while searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth.   On April 2, he claimed it for Spain.  Not realizing that it was a peninsula of a much larger continent, he thought he had discovered an island. 

Sailing south, he avoided the swift northerly-flowing Gulf Stream by clinging to the coast.  He subsequently came to the crystalline basin of reefs, marshy shallows, and mangrove-tangled islands that we now know as the Florida Keys.  By June, he reached another archipelago of islands that he named “Tortugas” (Spanish for “turtles”).  Birds and sea turtles captured at what we now call the Dry Tortugas replenished his three tiny ships’ food supplies.
Upon his return to Spain, the notes and maps of Ponce’s discoveries in the New World became the first recorded history of Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Dry Tortugas.  Along with Cuba, they collectively became a colony, to be ruled by Spain, almost without interruption, for the next 270 years.

This year, Florida is celebrating the rich dynamic that our Spanish heritage has brought to our lives here in the State of Florida.  Placing our home in the Keys amongst the larger context of European exploration of the Caribbean and the New World enriches us with a deeper appreciation of our multi-cultural heritage and allows us to comprehend that our nation is a mere fledgling on the world stage.

When next in Key West, stay at the Tropical Inn and let your friendly hosts book an unforgetable day trip to the Dry Tortugas for you!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Goombay & Fantasy Fest

The first hints of Fall (yes, we do experience "seasons", here in our subtropical Paradise) ... arrived this week:  a blessedly fresh front of cool, crisp air  ... and banks of haphazardly-painted yellow barricades, fresh from the Public Works storage yard, scattered randomly along Duval Street.  Must be the Party of the Year can't be far behind:  Goombay is next weekend, kicking off the ten days of annual madness known as Fantasy Fest.  Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio, it’s a legendary party that should be on everyone's Bucket List!
In 1978, on Halloween Day, local entrepreneurs/Key West icons, Joe Liszka and his partner, the late Frank Romero, found themselves at what is now perhaps the busiest intersection in Old Town, Front and Duval Streets. On a typical day of warm, brilliant sunshine, lay before them a distressingly deserted scene: nothing moving, no traffic, no tourists ... shuttered storefronts because there was no business to support the shops during “off season”.
They decided that what was needed was “a fest, a carnival, a celebration, something that will entice people to change our moribund season to one of great fun; a party that will bring many people to understand that this season is one of our best.”  The shared vision and inspiration created on that day proved to be the incubation of the concept that would become Fantasy Fest, a celebration of good-natured debauchery and zany, ribald merriment.
Junkanoo band:  leading the way to Goombay ...
the kick-off to Fantasy Fest each year! 
Each year, Fantasy Fest grows, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to Key West for the days leading up to the Duval Street spectacular: the grand finale parade.   This year, the Conch Republic's characteristic irreverence focuses on the theme, portending the coming of the "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" on December 21 (according to the Mayan calendar), Aconchalypse!  There is something for all persuasions, from a child-friendly pet masquerade, to dare-to-be-bare body painting, to decidedly adult, edgy adventures, not for the feignt of heart!
The Tropical Inn’s strategic location right at the midpoint of Duval Street means that all the zaniness passes right by our front doors.  Our porches provide “ring side seats” to the pageant that becomes progressively more colorful and outrageous with each passing day of Fantasy Fest "week". 
On Saturday night, our guests enjoy the grand finale parade while indulging in a  complimentary open bar of top-shelf libations and a gourmet buffet (no need to scramble for that mass-produced street food for dinner!), which starts early and continues throughout the parade.  Everyone is assured an uncrowded place on the Duval Street porches for parade viewing, from which they revel in being an integral part of the extravaganza, caught up in the  visceral, pulsing vibe of Fantasy Fest.  The upstairs veranda is especially popular, with guests throwing and catching airborne strings of beads with each parade entry as it passes by, ”close enough to touch”.  All the while, they have the convenience of their rooms near at hand and the ability to freshen their drinks and take in the festivities just above the crush of the crowd.
Each year, more than half of our attendees stake their room claims for next year’s festivities before this year’s revelry comes to an end.  These are our “Fantasy Fest regulars”, who return year after year.  And each year we add a few new friends, many of whom, in turn, become repeat guests, both during Fantasy Fest and at other times throughout the year.
We’re sold out this year, of course, but we begin taking reservations for Fantasy Fest 2013 (we're not buying that stuff about not being around this time next year) on November 1.  Our loyal regulars have “first dibs” until then.  But we have an e-mail ready to go that we can send you now, with rates and a description of the special Fantasy Fest reservation procedure, to get you planning!  As you might imagine, we have a wait list, so get on it early so you’ll be near the top and come join us for next year’s fantastic fantasy, fun, and frivolity!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Elusive Sawfish in the Florida Keys

Sawfish, one of the rarest of marine oddities, are almost never spotted in the Florida Keys – even though the seagrass beds so extensive here are prime habitat.  But earlier this month, an Ohio family snorkeling in shallow waters off Sugarloaf Key, spotted an immature specimen that was estimated to be around ten feet long – and documented the close-enough-to-touch moment in photographs.  A juvenile at its size, adults of the species can reach 25 feet.
As part of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, scientists solicit reports from the public for inclusion in the first International Sawfish Encounter Database, hoping for insight into the elusive creature. 

The sawfish is actually a unique type of ray, sporting a distinctive saw-like snout with protruding tooth-like scales (which are not replaced if lost), called a rostrum.  Like both sharks and rays, it belongs to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, having cartilaginous skeletal systems, no swim bladders, and reliant on their oil-filled livers for buoyancy.
Though many species of sawfish are distributed worldwide, Largetooth and Smalltooth Sawfish are the only two inhabiting US waters.  Overfishing, habitat destruction, and naturally low reproductive rates have resulted in their decline.    In 2003, they were placed on the federal endangered species list.  Since then, researchers at the museum have made an active effort to educate the public to the database compilation program, encouraging every sighting to be reported. 

There is no estimate of the number of sawfish remaining in the wild, and harvest is strictly prohibited.  Southwest Florida and the Keys is significant habitat for the animals, and when captured, they are tagged by either traditional or more sophisticated – and costly – satellite-tracking devices.  George Burgess, Director of the shark research program, reports that the tagging of sawfish in the seagrass beds of the Keys “can be very important for the adult fish” – as borne out in this month’s sighting.
Commenting on the rarity of such an encounter, he said, "These guys have always been fairly rare because that's the way the marine world works -- larger predators are always found in lower numbers because they need more territory.  As scientists, we never did a good job recording where and when sawfish are found. Then we discovered they were disappearing on us."                 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Love Locks: a new Tropical Inn tradition

When we restored the Pineapple Lane Cottage, expanded the garden, and installed the hot tub a few years ago, we brought in lots of landscaping and covered the open spaces with brick pavers, blending the newer section with the older one, where the pool is located.  At the time, it still looked sparse, so we planted a Ficus tree (F. benjaminia, the common houseplant variety) that we "had on hand" between the cottage and the spa, to sort of break up the expanse and create some private areas.

Since then, the Ficus has outgrown its space, putting down aerial roots, its canopy spreading to shade out the understory plants.  It has truly "gone to banyan", as is said colloquially, prompting a re-thinking of its role in the lower garden.  (A banyan tree can grow up to about 100 feet tall and spread over several acres -- what were we thinking???) 

In recent days, we were discussing with our Czech “maintenance engineer”, Jiri, the logistics of bringing down the Ficus and replacing it with some "found art" elements that have been collected here and there, to create a garden sculpture, of sorts.  Upon noticing that one of the components, a rusty old parrot cage, had a lock but no key, he inquired as to whether to cut it off before repainting. 

He shared with us a quaint European tradition in his home country:  love locks.  Couples, in an endearing gesture of devotion to one another, attach padlocks to public edifices, most commonly bridges, fences, and gates.   In Europe, this is a tradition that emerged in the early 2000s, but the practice is said to harken back to China, many centuries ago. Symbolically, when the lock snaps shut, closed forever, it captures an emotion ... a location in time, binding that part of the participants' biographies, shared and sealed forever in that moment.

In Paris, perhaps the most romantic city on Earth, the custom persists, in spite of city officials’ repeated attempts to discourage it (removal by bolt cutters) in the name of aesthetics.  In Moscow, the legislative council has given up, providing couples with metal trees on Luzhkof Bridge to declare their devotion.  The practice has even spread to the Wild Pacific Trail, near Vancouver, Canada, where there has been some dissention between those affixing the locks and those declaring that the practice mars the natural environment.

So ... you can see where this is going.  Since the Tropical Inn is all about romantic getaways with that Significant Someone … it’s a “natural” -- the beginning of a new tradition!  From now on, guests at the inn are invited to symbolize their own everlasting love by attaching a lock to the newly renovated bird cage that houses a pair of “flying pigs” -- positioned "just so", to replace the banyan tree!  

Bring along the most distinctive, vintage or new padlock you can find.  We have some marking pens here, to affix your names.  Or you may prefer to attach one of those heart-shaped pet ID tags to your lock, engraved with your names and date.  You can make those on the spot at larger pet supply stores.  Some good places to look for unique old locks are and – or if you’re of a more contemporary inclination, a shiny new Yale might be more to your liking.   Any will accomplish the purpose and be a welcome addition.  See you in the garden!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

World Book Night is April 23!

Do you love books?  Me too.  Do you think it's a real shame that technology is taking reading in an electronic direction, rendering the printed word a relic?  I agree.  Do you feel as if one of life's simple pleasures has slipped away, as neighborhood book stores have shuttered, one by one? Decidedly.

I recently wrote a blog about losing our book stores, here in Key West. Now we're down to just one.  Used to be, guests asked about the town's book stores as a tourist attraction.  Sadly, no more.

But wait!  There's a glimmer of hope!  Have you heard of World Book Night, when the national effort (it's actually a worldwide event) to promote reading is slated to give away a half-million books in 5000 communities "from Kodiak to Key West"?  If your home includes a bookshelf, you'll want to know more ... and maybe even sign up to participate in next year's event. Until then, I hope one of the Givers finds you -- they have some great titles to hand out!

Have a look at the World Book Night website, like them on Facebook, spread the word ... and tell everyone that you READ about it on the Tropical Inn's blog!

Monday, April 16, 2012

World Sailfish Championship in Key West

Excitement is building, and locals have been “practice fishing” for weeks now.  April 17 through 21, Bass Pro Shops sponsors the World Sailfish Championship right here on the Key West waterfront. Featuring a million dollar prize purse, the privilege of joining the competition comes with a threshold entry fee of $7700.00.   Over 400 amateur and professional anglers are anticipated to take part in the contest.
The tenth anniversary of the world-class event kicks off Tuesday evening at Mallory Square, attracting a global array of anglers. With payouts exceeding $1,000,000 to the top tournament winners, it is the world’s richest fishing competition, benefitting not only the coveted prize winners, but a variety of worthy charities, as well.
The serious fishing kicks off with some serious partying.  As the sun sinks over the horizon, the Keys’ own beloved “troprocker”, Howard Livingston, and his Mile Marker 24 Band will take the stage to entertain the crowd with a “Free Concert for the Keys”.   The public is invited to join in the festivities.
Then, bright and early Wednesday morning, the anglers will be headed to sea to test their mettle, while event spectators indulge in a multitude of shoreside diversions.

You've been looking for an excuse for a spontaneous getaway to Paradise.  Check for last minute lodging and event details, then head for the Keys! 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Conch Republic Independence Days Celebration in Key West

April 23rd will mark the 30th anniversary of The Conch Republic.  For those unfamiliar with the story of the Conch Republic, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.  

In 1982, the drug trade was booming in South Florida.  A good amount of the contraband was making its way into the US via the Florida Keys.  In response, the US Government imposed a checkpoint on US1 just north of Key Largo.  Every person and vehicle entering the mainland was searched. 

This was only a minor inconvenience to the drug traffickers, because word quickly spread and they simply revised their game plan.  However, it was a major inconvenience for residents of the Florida Keys, who quickly grew tired of the searches and began to feel they were being treated like non-citizens.  Dennis Wardlow, mayor of Key West at the time, petitioned the Federal courts to have the road blocks removed.  They refused, so a plan was hatched.  

“If they’re going to treat us like another country, we will become another country”, proclaimed Wardlow on April 23, 1982, announcing that the Florida Keys were succeeding from the Union and that he would now be known as Prime Minister Wardlow of The Conch Republic.  Thereupon, he declared war on the United States by symbolically breaking a loaf of Cuban bread over a nearby Navy officers head.  Then, just as quickly, he surrendered to the same officer and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.  Since then, the Conch Republic has lived on in spirit, and we’re all happy to hold dual citizenship.  However, we could still use that billion in foreign aid.

The military, tongue in cheek, indulgently recognizes our independence from the US, often flying the American flag, as well as that of the Conch Republic, on the front of their official vehicles during military exercises.  The US Coast guard annually participates in a mock marine battle with the Conch Republic Navy, the reenactment a highlight of each year’s Conch Republic Days celebration.  Boiled eggs and water cannons are the weapons of the day.  

There will be a week-long celebration in Key West to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Conch Republic from April 20th-29th, with hotels and guest houses expecting to be filled to capacity.  The high point of the Conch Republic Independence Celebration week will be a mock Navy battle in the harbor, pitting civilian sailing vessels of every description against the Coast Guard.  Inevitably ending with the Coast Guard’s surrender, the victory party has already been scheduled to commence at 9 PM.