As midnight approaches Wednesday, Dec. 31, thousands of people are expected to ring in the New Year on Key West's famed Duval Street by enjoying an offbeat island tradition dubbed the "Red Shoe Drop." Renowned female impersonator Sushi stars in the festivities, perched in a supersized red high heel shoe suspended high above the crowds at the Bourbon St. Pub/New Orleans House complex, 724 Duval St.
Just before midnight a dazzlingly gowned and coiffed Sushi, riding in the glittering shoe, is to be lowered from the balcony of the complex to the accompaniment of cheers and applause from the crowds below. Live entertainment by female impersonators and other top Keys and visiting talents adds a sophisticated spice — complemented by confetti, special lighting effects and a few surprises. VIP tickets are available to a private balcony party, but space is limited. Visit bourbonstpub.com/newyearseve.html.
Down the street at Sloppy Joe's Bar, 201 Duval St., the focus of frivolity is on a gigantic manmade conch shell, the symbol of the Florida Keys, during the 22nd annual "Dropping of the Conch Shell." Events are emceed by a rooftop host and, as a huge clock counts down the seconds to midnight, the shell begins to descend from its supports to the flat roof of the legendary bar. Inside Sloppy Joe's, live music and a balloon drop round out the festivities. No reservations or tickets are taken, but a door charge is required to party inside the bar. Visit sloppyjoes.com.
In Key West's Historic Seaport, Schooner Wharf Bar's original New Year's Eve tradition, the "Lowering of the Pirate Wench," celebrates the island's colorful seafaring heritage. Just before midnight, a pirate wench is to begin her descent from atop the mast of the tall ship America 2.0 as cannons boom. The event includes a dove release, live music day and night, dancing and festivities at the Schooner Wharf. Visit schoonerwharf.com/specialevents.
At the Ocean Key Resort & Spa, 0 Duval St. on Key West Harbor, plans call for a huge replica of a Key lime wedge to splash down into a larger-than-life margarita glass as crowds welcome the new year on the property's Sunset Pier. VIP tickets are available that include admission to a private dining area for an abundant buffet dinner, five-hour open bar and unique entertainment by Key West Burlesque. For more information, call 305-295-7005.
Revelers in the sport fishing capital of Islamorada can welcome 2015 with midnight fireworks on the beach at the luxurious Cheeca Lodge & Spa, located at mile marker (MM) 82 oceanside. Attractions include live music, dancing on the beach and a gourmet dinner. Visit cheeca.com or call 305-517-4580.
At the head of the Keys island chain in Key Largo, a New Year's Eve fireworks extravaganza is to illuminate the sky above Blackwater Sound. The sparkling display is hosted by Sundowners, Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill, Señor Frijoles, Cactus Jack's, Gus's Grille at the Marriott Key Largo Beach Resort and the Caribbean Club, all located around MMs 103-104. Visit keylargofireworks.com.
Florida Keys events calendar:
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or
Florida Bay, edged by the "inner" curve of the Keys and the Florida mainland, is referred to locally as the backcountry, home to five of the most sought-after game fish among recreational anglers: bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish (red drum) and snook.
Off the Keys' "outer" curve and nearby Gulf Stream lies the Atlantic Ocean. As close as five miles offshore, the sea reaches depths of 600 feet — and by 17 to 20 miles out, depths in some spots can approach 2,000 feet.
In these deep-sea areas are some of the greatest sport fish in the world: blue and white marlin, sailfish and swordfish. Pioneering Keys captains even successfully catch swordfish under the bright subtropical sun, a new Keys craze.
What To Catch and When
Newbie and seasoned anglers can hunt skittish, temperature-sensitive bonefish in the backcountry flats all year long (September through November is best), test their determination against a reel-emptying blue marlin April through July and land dolphin (also called mahi-mahi) for summertime dinners through September.
Yellowtail snapper, available year-round, are regarded by many as the Keys' tastiest fish, while others prize grouper, best fished November through March.
Tarpon come close to Keys bridges April through July. Permit are on the flats in the greatest numbers April through September. Redfish and snook fishing is best December through July.
Sailfish season runs November through March. Most wahoo race through Keys waters during April, May, November and December. Kingfish (king mackerel) are most active September to March.
Fishing Captains are Both Guides and Teachers
A number of fishing "party boats" dot the Keys. These large vessels typically take 20 to 45 people fishing and generally supply all the needed fishing tackle, along with bait and lots of know-how — so anglers can simply walk aboard and fish.
For visitors, hiring a backcountry guide or charterboat and captain who know Keys waters can make for a successful and educational day.
Offshore charter fleets with expert captains can be found from Key Largo to Key West. Boats range from 26-foot outboard-powered center consoles to 65-foot air-conditioned long-range sport fishers.
Much can be learned from professional guides for whom "coaching" is an almost unconscious act. Vacation anglers will find comfort in a steady stream of advice and support in experienced calls from their captains, whose job is to give anglers shots at catching fish.
The teaching goes on all day, and the lessons come in one- or two-sentence factoids.
For example, "Dolphin congregate under schools of bait fish. Bait fish seek cover, so they school up under floating weed or debris. The bigger dolphin will be below the smaller 'schoolies' near the surface."
Or "Troll fast for tuna — faster for big tuna. Drop down for wahoo and kingfish."
Some backcountry guides specialize in teaching casting technique, especially with beginning fly anglers.
Each winter in Islamorada, noted fishing authority and television host George Poveromo leads the Salt Water Sportsman National Seminar Series, the nation's longest running and most popular educational course on recreational marine fishing tactics and techniques.
Attendees learn secrets from an impressive roster of sought-after and distinguished Keys captains specializing in back country, flats, tarpon, reef or wreck fishing as well as live-baiting, daytime swordfishing and modern marine electronics. nationalseminarseries.com
Women seeking knowledge of sport fishing and responsible angling attend the "Ladies, Let's Go Fishing!" girls' getaway held each November in Islamorada. The award-winning weekend university teaches students to become anglers or polish existing skills, as they learn techniques from some of the globe's most prominent fishing captains who are based in the Florida Keys. ladiesletsgofishing.com
Keys resident Sandy Moret has been fly fishing almost all his life, and his passion and drive for advancing the sport inspired him to open his own saltwater fly-fishing school connected to his Florida Keys Outfitters emporium in Islamorada. Two-day sessions of course work include casting sessions, field exercises, slide presentations and more. floridakeysoutfitters.com
What is Required
A saltwater fishing license is required to fish independently in the Keys, even from area bridges or from shore. These can be purchased at many bait and tackle shops, online at myfwc.com or by calling 1-888-FISH-FLORIDA (888-347-4356) toll-free.
Anglers fishing on a charterboat or backcountry boat do not need a license, however, as they are covered by the captain's documentation.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (352-5397
Keys fishing information: fla-keys.com/fishing
The 10th annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival is set for 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the island city's Bayview Park, located at Truman Avenue and Jose Marti Drive.
Admission is $5 per adult including entry into a raffle for $250 worth of seafood. Children under age 12 are admitted free to the family-friendly event.
Attendees can purchase and feast on offerings that typically include grilled Florida spiny lobster, fried fish, stone crab claws, smoked fish dip, sweet Key West pink shrimp and more -- all caught, cooked and served by Keys commercial fishermen and their families.
The menu also includes favorite dishes such as conch ceviche, chowder and fritters as well as traditional flan and Key lime pie. In addition, soft drinks, beer, wine and cocktails are to be available for purchase.
Plans call for other attractions including nonstop entertainment by local musicians and bands, arts and crafts booths showcasing handcrafted wares, raffles, a performance by the Key West Comparsa Dancers, a Kids Fun Zone featuring a bounce house and giant slide, information booths and educational marine life exhibits.
Proceeds from the festival benefit the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association and scholarships for college-bound students from Key Largo to Key West.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
The novelists, journalists, poets, essayists and others scheduled to speak include Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead"; Wally Lamb, who has penned five New York Times bestselling novels including "We Are Water"; Barry Lopez, who earned a National Book Award for "Arctic Dreams"; celebrated poet Marilyn Nelson, recipient of Newbery and Coretta Scott King honors; and Pico Iyer, whose books include "The Open Road" about his annual travels with the Dalai Lama.
Most presentations are to take place at Key West's historic San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St.
The seminar begins with a keynote address by Iyer set for 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8. Following the keynote, the Paul Winter Consort jazz ensemble is to take the stage to present "Unbridled Joy," a blend of musical and literary performance that incorporates the voices of poets including seminar presenters Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield and Marie Howe. Both events are scheduled at the Tennessee Williams Theatre, 5901 College Road.
Subsequent days feature readings, lectures, informal talks, panel discussions, book signings, receptions and gatherings where seminar attendees and authors can mingle. Highlights are to include a Saturday night presentation by Robinson titled "Grace" and a Sunday session with Iyer and Lopez titled "Wonder: Entering and Exiting the Great Mystery."
In conjunction with the seminar, 11 writers' workshops are planned Sunday through Thursday, Jan. 11-15.
While the 2015 seminar is sold out, each year's program includes Sunday afternoon presentations open to the public. These include readings and commentary by several of the seminar's featured writers, and admission is free with first-come, first-served seating.
Event information: kwls.org or 888-293-9291
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
The savory treat has been acclaimed throughout the world as a perfect mix of sweet and tart, with chefs often struggling to find the exact balance between the two tastes.
Kermit Carpenter found that balance more than 25 years ago.
For a quarter of a century, the charismatic Carpenter has been coming up with creative ways to incorporate Key lime into new products.
A Maryland native, he used to work as a buyer for a major department store in Washington, D.C. Like many, he grew tired of the fast pace and hustle and bustle of city life.
As he cast about for an alternative to his Washington lifestyle, he kept coming back to his childhood memories of Key West.
"I used to come down in the 1960s to visit my grandmother," said Carpenter. "She had a house here for the winters and I loved it."
When he finally decided to make the big move to the island, he got some advice from his sister.
"My sister told me if I open up a shop, I need a theme," Carpenter explained. "So I thought to myself, what do people look for when they come to the Keys?"
The answer, he decided, was Key lime pie.
"So we dug up my grandmother's old recipe and I opened up the shop," said the man whose name is now practically synonymous with the creamy dessert.
Carpenter still uses his grandmother's recipe today — but his creativity has taken him far beyond transforming the tart yellow fruit into perfect pie.
He has come up with a seemingly endless array of products that incorporate Key lime. From shampoos and soaps to barbecue sauces and salsas, every item in his store has the unique Key lime flavor mixed into it.
In fact, he has developed so many enticing products it's hard to choose the one he likes best.
"If I had to say, the Key lime cookies are one of my favorites," he said.
With more than 120 products in his shop, many customers wonder what he will think of next.
Carpenter currently is working on several new concoctions including white chocolate Key lime popcorn, Key lime rum cake and Key lime vinaigrette salad dressing.
When the prolific chef-entrepreneur isn't crafting new ways to spotlight Key lime flavor, he enjoys traveling.
"I usually do one trip a year to somewhere out of the country, but other than that, I am at the shop every day," said Carpenter. "I basically live there."
Today, Carpenter has two shops in downtown Key West. The original Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe stands at 200 Elizabeth St. in the island's Historic Seaport district. It also features a café with a courtyard and beautiful koi fishpond where visitors can sit and enjoy Key lime treats.
The second shop is located at 802 Duval St., a great location for people looking for a quick slice of frozen chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick.
Kermit Carpenter himself usually can be found standing outside the Elizabeth Street shop, dressed in bright green chef's togs and hat, holding a Key lime pie and smiling and chatting with visitors and locals.
"In the north everyone's so cold and unhappy, you don't even know your own neighbor," said Carpenter. "But here I know everyone — besides the warmth of the weather, there's the warmth of the people and that sense of community you can't get anywhere else."
Boats ranging in size from 23 to 72 feet are to compete in the waters off America's southernmost city during the 28th annual race week. Spectators can expect five days of competitive racing as well as surrounding activities where they can interact with the participating teams in a casual island setting.
The regatta's primary attractions for race teams are the warm-water January sailing, reliable breezes, high level of competition and unique Key West atmosphere. Unlike other challenges, the regatta allows amateur sailors to test their skills against professionals.
Presented by Quantum Sail Design Group, races are slated to begin at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 19-23 on Atlantic Ocean courses just off Key West's shore and inside the continental United States' only living coral barrier reef. Plans call for 10 races on three separate courses, with boats competing in as many as 12 classes.
The 2015 regatta lineup features top international racing professionals including Olympic champion Jonathan McKee and 2006 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year and world champion sailor Jud Smith.
Among the Melges 32 registrants is Doug DeVos on Volpe, challenged by sailors including his son Dalton DeVos on Delta, Italy's Alessandro Rombelli on STIG and Bermuda's Alex Cutler on Hedgehog. Cutler will defend his 2014 Key West championship.
A healthy fleet also is anticipated in the popular Melges 24 class.
Heated competition is expected in the Mini-Maxi class as returning champion Hap Fauth on Bella Mente, paired with legendary tactician Terry Hutchinson, battles challengers including George Sakellaris' Shockwave and Gunther Burman with tactician Brad Butterworth on Numbers.
J/70s are to continue their strong class presence in Key West with early entrants from around the U.S. as well as Sweden, Italy and Brazil. Regatta organizers project a J/70 field of 40 to 50 boats.
Making their Key West debut will be an exciting GC 32 class featuring foiling catamarans with speeds that approach 40 knots. These multihulls are designed along the lines of the most recent America's Cup boats that raced off San Francisco in 2013.
Regatta headquarters, where sailors and sailing aficionados can mingle, is to be on Caroline Street between Duval and Whitehead streets.
To view the racing action, fans can book seats on spectator boats ranging from excursion catamarans to historic tall ships. Prime land-based viewing spots include Key West's Atlantic-front restaurants, resorts and beaches.
Event information: premiere-racing.com or 781-639-9545
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or
Starting at Long Key State Park and ending at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, the Florida Keys Challenge follows a 79-mile course. Overnight stays in the island chain are included.
Daily paddles average 10-11 miles, but paddlers can log up to 20-mile distances while enjoying aquatic preserves, diverse habitats and scenic beaches in both protected and open-water environments.
Itinerary highlights include visits and stopovers in selected Florida state parks including Curry Hammock and the Lower Keys' Bahia Honda State Park.
Paddlers also are given an opportunity to explore areas around Marathon including the restored buildings and museum on Pigeon Key, which is located just 2 miles off Knight's Key, one of the tour's overnight stops.
Nightly entertainment ranges from performances by musicians to educational presentations that provide insights regarding the flora, fauna, history and ecology of the coastal regions participants paddle through.
Participants must bring camping gear, kayak and paddle(s) and a personal flotation device. Boats are required to have either a skeg or rudder and spray skirts are mandatory.
Before the journey begins, paddlers can rent gear in Key Largo from Florida Bay Outfitters, located at 104050 Overseas Highway, mile marker 104 bayside. Contact 305-451-3018 or visit kayakfloridakeys.com/.
For participants who cannot commit to all eight days, a four-day or less "Paddle Florida Lite" is available as well.
Registration for the eight-day trip is $850 per person including overnight accommodations, three meals daily and pretrip shuttle service. "Lite" paddlers pay $120 per day including meals. All interested paddlers must be registered by Friday, Jan. 2, 2015.
Paddle Florida is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting paddling in Florida through annual events that promote water conservation, wildlife preservation and the protection of waterways throughout the state.
Event information: ocoos.com/me/paddle-florida-2/florida-keys-challenge or 352-377-8342
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 800-FLA-KEYS (352-5397)
Now in their 55th year, the annual tours are presented by the nonprofit Old Island Restoration Foundation, which was established in 1960 to promote the restoration and preservation of Key West's historically significant buildings. The island city's Old Town contains what is believed to be the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the United States with almost 3,000 structures.
The first tour is scheduled Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 27-28, spotlighting five Old Town homes and gardens festively dressed for the holidays. Featured properties on the self-guided 4-7 p.m. excursions include a tropical colonial residence renowned for its over-the-top holiday lights displays.
Subsequent tours are planned Friday and Saturday, Jan. 16-17, Feb. 13-14 and March 13-14. Each one showcases multiple homes chosen for being significant historic buildings, creative renovations or examples of the Keys lifestyle. Tour participants can discover unique interiors filled with art collections and antiques as well as lush gardens and imaginatively designed outdoor living areas.
OIRF volunteers serve as guides at each tour stop, informing visitors about each featured house's history, architecture and décor.
The January tours are set for 4-8 p.m. both evenings. Transportation is to be offered free aboard select Conch Tour Trains or participants can proceed from house to house at their own pace. Conch Tour Train seating is limited, so early reservations are encouraged.
The February and March tours are offered 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with visitors responsible for their own transportation.
Tickets for each tour cost $30 per person and include a list of houses and a map.
Tour information and ticketing: oirf.org or 305-294-9501
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
The procession of pooches and their human companions begins at noon at the corner of Whitehead and Fleming streets in Key West's picturesque downtown. The walking route, deliberately kept brief to cater to the diminutive dogs' short legs, is to encompass the 400 block of Fleming Street, 500 block of legendary Duval Street and entire one-block length of Appelrouth Lane.
The 2013 "wiener walk" included approximately 200 dogs, many of them costumed or wearing offbeat accessories. Among the standouts were dachshunds portraying a "cocktail wiener" in a pseudo martini glass with oversized olives, "hot dogs" in buns, superheroes, sea creatures and a pirate carrying a sword nearly as long as he was.
Canine participants typically include miniature and standard shorthaired, wirehaired and longhaired dachshunds. Some trot briskly along the route, while others ride in wagons or strollers.
Dogs are accompanied by a supply wagon carrying water for thirsty walkers and plastic bags for quick cleanup of any accidents — as well as providing transport for dogs that get tired along the way.
The procession usually draws a few dachshund "imposters" bearing a suspicious resemblance to other breeds. Since pedigrees aren't checked, even "wiener wannabes" can strut their stuff in the lighthearted annual amble.
There is no cost to participate, but donations of dog and cat food are requested for the community pet-food pantry operated by St. Mary Star of the Sea Outreach Mission.
Spectators can watch the fun and meet the canine participants on Fleming Street between Whitehead and Duval streets.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
From Key Largo to Key West, visitors can view the parades from land, bridges, watering holes or excursion boats, or even become part of the festivities by decking out their own vessel in dazzling lights and eye-catching decorations.
Saturday, Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m. Key Largo Boat Parade (Key Largo)
Boats will be the "mega-stars" on Key Largo's Blackwater Sound as the parade theme of "Hooray for Hollywood" shines a spotlight on the lively holiday procession of vessels ranging from 55-foot yachts to single-person kayaks. The grand marshal is to be film favorite "Elvis Presley," leading the parade aboard the Coral Princess skippered by local dive legend Captain Spencer Slate. The parade is free to enter; one grand-prize winner and one randomly selected lucky boat are to receive $500 each. Great viewing spots can be found at Sundowners, Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill, Senor Frijoles, the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort and Caribbean Club at mile markers (MMs)103-104. Sundowners is to host the Winner's Party at 10 p.m. after the parade. Call 305-451-4502.
Saturday, Dec. 13, dusk
Boot Key Harbor Boat Parade (Marathon) At this Middle Keys holiday event that has been a tradition for 18 years, dinghies, mega-yachts and vessels in between are to cruise the harbor in a sparkling procession. The best viewing sites include Lazy Days South, Marathon Marina, Sombrero Dockside Lounge, Sombrero Resort and Burdines Waterfront around MMs 47-50. Post-parade awards and a party are held at Dockside Lounge.
Sunday, Dec. 14, 6 p.m. (sunset)
Key Colony Beach Holiday Lighted Boat Parade (Marathon Area)
Open to all boats, the parade is set to start at the 7th Street canal and wind its way through canals and cuts, visiting city hall three times. The best viewing spots include the Sadowski Causeway at MM 53.5 and the dock area behind city hall and the post office. An after-party with awards and a free buffet and cash bar for captains and crews is to be held at Key Colony Inn. Call 305-743-7214.
Saturday, Dec. 13, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m.
Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley/Absolut Vodka Lighted Boat Parade(Key West) Festively decorated kayaks, fishing and pleasure craft, small yachts and schooners are to glitter in Key West's Historic Seaport during the 24th annual Schooner Wharf Bar Lighted Boat Parade. The Gerald Adams Elementary School Steel Your Heart Band kicks off the festivities at 6 p.m. singing holiday favorites, followed by popular family band The Doerfels. Spectators can view the dozens of participating vessels from Schooner Wharf as well as resorts, bars and restaurants in and around the Historic Seaport. Call 305-292-3302.
Florida Keys events calendar:
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or