ECOTOURISM IN ISLAMORADA IN THE FLORIDA KEYS

Fun Attractions, Sophisticated Dining Enhance Experience

By Karen Rubin

Each of the places we visited in the middle and upper sections of the Florida Keys – the Dolphin Research Center and Crane Point Preserve in Marathon, the Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, the Keys Diver Snorkel trip to the John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park out of Key Largo – had a story to tell about preserving heritage, conserving habitat, and creating opportunities for life-changing experiences.

In a very real way, we visitors and our hosts create a symbiotic ecology – a kind of social and economic environmental balance. Our participation helps support the activities that protect the land and the creatures, while we emerge the richer for our newly gained knowledge and experience.

This part of our trip focused on Islamorada, a section in the upper Keys composed of six islands situated between the saltwater wilderness of Everglades National Park on one side and North America’s only coral barrier reef and the deep blue waters of the Florida Straits in the other, making for some extraordinary experiences simply by crossing the highway that forms a spine linking the 1,700 islands of the Florida Keys.

Theater of the Sea

Theater of the Sea's thrilling dolphin show helps inspire people to protect marine habitat (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

Theater of the Sea is one of the oldest attractions in the Florida Keys, and yet, is up to the minute in its lively, interactive and engaging presentation and its important message.

Seeing the lush tropical gardens and habitats that have been created for dolphin, sea lions, tortoises, parrots, sting rays, sharks, crocodiles, alligators, it is hard to imagine that the site was originally a quarry excavated to supply rock for Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s.

After the 1935 hurricane destroyed Flagler’s railroad (resulting in the rail track being converted to highway), the McKenney family established a park in 1946, making Theater of the Sea the second oldest marine mammal facility in the world. Now owned and operated by the second generation, the McKenney family has always put the welfare of the animals first.

In fact, all the animals in the park have been saved from some calamity; they are brought here to live out their life. Their stories are central to the message about the consequences of human development and the importance of individual responsibility; we all need to become better citizens of the planet.

Quasimoto, a tortoise, was born with scoliosis – a curvature of spine and shell – which happens when people touch the egg at its nest on the beach. In Quasimoto’s case, the curvature produced an air bubble so it could not swim properly; an employee created a floatation vest to level out the turtle. Now Quasimoto can do whatever turtles do.

Princess, an alligator, wandered out of the Everglades and was shot and blinded, and would die without human care.

There is Indiana Jones, a big iguana – one of hundreds of iguanas that were saved by employees when a condo development took over their habitat.

You learn their stories on a guided walk through the park to the various exhibits and aquariums, created to mimic natural habitat as much as possible, all kept as pure as possible with 12 million gallons of fresh ocean water flushing through each day.

Taking the guided tour, we are astonished to learn about the magnificently colored Parrot fish, for example. We learn that without them, there would be no Florida beaches, no crashing surf, no sand. This is because their powerful beaks – like parrots – grind away at coral reef to get at algae and polyps, digest some of limestone, excreting it as sand; one adult produces one ton of sand in average year.

The centerpiece of the visit is three different live animal shows – dolphin, sea lion, and parrot. They are designed to encourage audience participation, and integrating conservation issues, natural history, anatomy, and husbandry into an entertaining and educational format.

The highlight is the dolphin show, held in Dolphin Stadium, with a pirate ship motif. The show is fast-paced, thrilling and exceptionally entertaining for any age.

Swimming in Theater of the Sea's lagoon brings you close to a parrot fish(© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

Theater of the Sea has eight dolphins – all of them either rescued or born here. Here too, the intent is to demonstrate the intellectual and physical abilities of these marine mammals with a message that encourages conservation and protection.

Julia’s parrot show is as entertaining as it is enlightening, as we come to learn about “the most colorful, charismatic, intelligent, and one of most endangered group of animals.” Parrots, she says, “are in double jeopardy – through loss of habitat and poaching.”

Julia created the Parrot Department for Theater of the Sea with the parrots she had as pets for years. Each day, Julia brings her parrots to the park and puts on an amazing display of their intellectual capacity – demonstrating, for example, an ability to actually add numbers.

All of her parrots have been domestically bred – none taken from the wild. “They are here because of the pet trade – people who bought them as pets and learn quickly how demanding and challenging it is to have them at home.” Just how demanding? Parrots are monogamous and bond with one member of family, perceiving the rest as intruders and defend the territory loudly and even violently. Spouses and children have come to resent the parrot living in their midst. They also tend to outlive their owners, living 50 even 100 years.

Parrots, considered the smartest birds after crows and ravens, have the intelligence of a two or three year old child. “They are like a toddler – loud and intelligent to 90 years. Most people can’t handle that.” As a result, her collection of 13 birds has grown to 28.

Her training is enriching and stimulating – showing us how they master games and puzzles designed to challenge them, and to make decisions based on experience.

We watch as a Scarlet macaw does math problems. Asked to come up with 12, she first counts 8 rings and adds 4 more to make 12.

Enjoy a relaxing ride on a pontoon boat at Theater of the Sea (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

Next, we stroll into the sea lion show and see 21-year old Mimi do her comic antics. This show too is very amusing and actually interesting.

You can also take advantage of opportunities to interact with dolphins, sea lions and rays – in fact, Theater of the Sea pioneered many of the interactive programs we have come to take for granted. Swim with the Dolphins, a program it has offered since 1987 ($165 pp) and Swim with a Sea Lion ($125 pp) both consist of a 20-minute orientation with 20 to 30 minutes in the water, where you get to request behaviors and snorkel or swim around the lagoon with them.

There is also a Swim with Rays (since 1997), where you feed and touch rays in shallow water, and snorkel with rays and Parrot fish in a natural lagoon setting. The rays are not de-barbed, but you need not fear. “13 generations of sting rays have known nothing but living here,” says Maureen Lamarra. “They are comfortable with people; they are gentle. You can only be stung if you step on one.” It is amazing to see how Parrot fish also are friendly and curious with people ($50 pp).

More modest programs include Meet a Dolphin and Meet a Sea Lion – spending 20 minutes getting up close and requesting behavior from outside the water ($50 pp).

Another option is Wade with the Dolphin, where you get to interact with a dolphin while standing in 3 to four feet of water and requesting behaviors ($155 pp).

The newest program is a painting with a dolphin or sea lion painting (limited to only two people per day).

Among the interesting special activities include Star Light tours and nighttime events.

The lush tropical gardens and flowing water offers an Eden-like atmosphere. It is all very relaxing (not the frenetic pace of rushing around some of the larger theme parks, especially since everything is relatively close by and just about whenever you arrive, there is some show going on). You need about 2 1/2 hours to see all the shows, but you can easily and enjoyably wile away the better part of a day here – with the shows, the guided tour, “bottomless” boat ride, and an extremely pleasant sand beach and lagoon, where you can sunbathe or swim with the fishes and rays. For refreshment, Nicky’s Grill cooks selections to order.

Notably, even though we visited on a hot summer’s day, the use of misters – fans which spray misted water – cool the temperature some 10 degrees and make it very comfortable, and there are plenty of shaded areas.

The environment is so pleasant, it is easy to see why it is also used as a setting for weddings and special functions.

The dramatic Christ of the Abyss statue at John Pennekamp is a popular lure for snorkelers (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

An interesting add-on is a four-hour Adventure and Snorkel Cruise that covers 13 miles on the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay. The trip visits Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, once a private island, where you can tour the Matheson House built in 1919 (closed on Tuesday and Wednesday) and Indian Key Historic State Park. At Robbie’s Marina, you can feed wild Tarpon (this is a colorful place almost next door to Theater of the Sea, which you should try to visit). You get to snorkel the coral reef (you can rent an AquaFM snorkel to listen to a narrative about local fish species you may encounter).Fins and snorkel vests are required for snorkeling (rentals available); snorkel vests are provided ($adults/69, children/$45; children have to be at least three years old).

Theater of the Sea is open 365 days of the year; the ticket counter opens at 9:30 a.m. It is located at Mile Marker 84.5 in Islamorada, $25.95/ages 11 and up; $18.95 for 3-10; 305-664-2431, www.theaterofthesea.com.

Snorkeling in the Sanctuary

The 120-mile long Florida Keys island chain is home to North America’s only living-coral barrier reef. This teeming backbone of marine life, now protected by the U.S. government as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, runs the length of the Keys about five miles offshore – but one of the best access points is Key Largo, in the upper Keys.

I signed on for Keys Diver’s afternoon trip that made three stops with about two hours in the water.

The boat leaves from the Marina Del Mar Resort in Key Largo – you should bring snacks and drinks, though bottled water is provided, as well as sunscreen, hats, towels, sweatshirt, and waterproof camera (there are inexpensive one-shots, but I found you could buy an inexpensive reusable film camera). The boat has two sundecks, freshwater shower, coolers, cold drinks, ice water and onboard restroom. Our trip was full and there was not much room to move around.

One of our stops was about four miles out, to a part of the reef where the depth is only eight feet and (on this day at least) got relatively fewer snorkel boats. I was conscious of the parrot fish grinding at the coral – something I wouldn’t even have thought about before learning about how this process produces sand, at Theater of the Sea.

I had always been intrigued about the Christ Statue which I heard was submerged in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. My curiousity was finally satisfied when our third stop brought us right above this dramatic statue, looking so eerie and mystical.

See the planet from a different perspective when you snorkel in the Florida Keys (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

The nine-foot bronze sculpture is the third casting of Il Christo Degli Abissi (Christ of the Abyss) made by Professor Guido Galletti, according to Jerry Wilkinson. The first was placed in the Mediterranean Sea at San Fruttuoso Bay near Genoa, Italy in 1954. The second was placed in St. George’s Harbor in Grenada in 1961, to commemorate those saved from the Italian ship Bianca C. which caught fire and sank in the harbor.

This one is the third casting and was commissioned by Italian dive equipment manufacturer, Egidio Cressi, and donated to The Underwater Society of America, It was placed here in1965 (for more, see Wilkinson’s article atwww.keyshistory.org/artchristofthedeep.html)

I am not the only one who is curious and fascinated by the statue. It is incredibly popular – the site was actually crowded with snorkelers and boaters who hovered around, their propellers dangerously close to where people were snorkeling.

Keys Diver offers a 9 a.m. snorkel tour that makes one stop and spends one hour in the morning ($26); the afternoon trip that departs at 12:15 p.m., makes three stops and spends two hours in the water ($32), and a sunset tour (available seasonally) that departs 5:30 p.m., makes one stop and spends one hour in the water ($26); children 13 and under are charged $3 less; prices include mask, fins, snorkel, safety vest and instruction. Park in the lot behind Coconuts and purchase tickets dockside, rather than at the shop, located at Mile Marker 100, 305-451-1177, www.keysdiver.com.

History of Diving Museum

Considering how important scuba diving is in the Keys, a new museum, History of Diving Museum, is a natural.

Located very near the Theater of Sea, the History of Diving Museum, which opened in 2006, features artifacts and ephemera covering 4,000 years of mankind’s quest to explore under the sea. The museum’s galleries are designed to appeal to the young, the novice or the historian through collections and interactive displays.

Artifacts and rarities include spectacle-sized hand-carved bamboo goggles used by pearl divers in Asia in the early 1900s and a gigantic 1940 Galeazzi-made “Iron Duke” diving armor that weighs nearly a ton.

A new exhibit, Parade of Nations, displays a helmet from every nation that ever made diving helmets throughout the world. Housed in a red-draped theater-like room with comfortable benches, the helmets are presented with a light display and narration by the museum’s late co-founder, Dr. Joe Bauer. In the narration, Bauer describes the mechanics and applications of some of the rare and obscure helmets in the collection.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ticket price is $12 per person for adults, $11 for seniors, $6 for children 5-12 and free for children younger than 5 (Located at Mile Marker 82.9, bayside, 305- 664-9737, www.DivingMuseum.org).

5 Star Dining Under the Stars

Dinner at Morada Bay Beach Café on the sand, watching the sunset, brings out romance (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

Being an ecotourist does not mean you give up self-indulgence and appreciation for the finer things of life.

One of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had was awaiting us at Morada Bay Beach Café, in Islamorada. This restaurant isn’t just recommended for people visiting the Keys – it is worth it to make the 60-mile trip from Miami, and many people do.

Herbert Baudoin, a fascinating character who was a professional windsurfer, created the restaurant to evoke the feel of a beach café where the Hawaiian and Californian surfers and sailboarders would relax after a day on the water, The Café is an outdoor Mediterranean bistro set in the sand (which he created on land that had been a garbage dump). It is funky and fun, artful and whimsical.

The atmosphere is spectacular – a white, powder sand beach with tables facing the bay with a perfect front-row seat for the sunset (come 30 to 60 minutes before the sunset to enjoy the gorgeous colors). At night, what light is not provided from the moon and stars comes from flaming torches. Their monthly Full-Moon Parties are renowned.

You can also dine inside in a lovely room with a Keys/Caribbean/surfer feel.

Adding to the atmosphere is the delightful live entertainment on the beach (nightly in season, or Thursday-Sunday from July 4-December).

As spectacular as the ambiance is, the cuisine – an innovative blending of American/Caribbean – is equally exciting and enjoyable – five stars in my book.

As we study the menu, we indulge in an appetizer of black and green olives prepared with celantro, garlic, olive oil with bread.

We move on to Tapas – Day Boat Group Ceviche, marinated in fresh citrus and served with avocado plantain crisp; grilled marinated shrimp with tropical fruit salsa and Tzatziki sauce; and fried calamari shrimp and zucchini.

The entrées of Salmon with dill, onions, and avocado; filet mignon done to perfection; and herb-crusted local black grouper were sensational.

This is a place for romance, and a place for fun. You would feel as wonderful to propose marriage as to have your kids run around with glowsticks.

The beach at The Moorings (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

Morada Bay Beach Café, Mile Marker 81.6, bayside, Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036, 305-664-0604.

While the Morada Bay Beach Café is whimsy and fun, be prepared to be utterly transported just next door at Pierre’s, named for Baudoin’s father.

The restaurant’s exterior – a sparkling white two story plantation house with blue shutters and an outside veranda facing the Florida Bay – resembles the old colonial style residences found in West Africa (where Baudoin was born and raised), but its interior reflects the different cultures he discovered throughout his travels.

If you enter from the beach, you come into The Green Flash Lounge magnificent with its beautiful mahogany bar, leather chesterfield sofas, comfortable beige banquettes and rattan chairs and lighting.

Most of the furnishings and artwork comes from the Baudoin’s private collection. Both the lounge and the upstairs dining room feature dark planked wood floors, an eighteenth century Indian arcade, natural textured walls, and smooth teak tables on kilim rugs, surrounded by Moroccan, Indian, and African artifacts. Each entryway highlights a nineteenth century richly carved monastery door from India.

Carved walls, Moroccan lamps, and banquettes strewn with colorful pillows create an ambiance of mystery, adventure, sophistication, and yes, romance.

It is like stepping into “Casablanca.” You have the feeling you could take on any persona you want, in this place.

The cuisine is nouveau French fine dining and Americanized French.

Pierre’s Restaurant, Mile Marker 81.6, bayside, Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036, 305-664-3225.

The Moorings Village Resort

Hubert Baudoin is also the creative genius behind The Moorings, an idyllic, picture-perfect hideaway on the Purple Isle of Islamorada, located just across the highway from his restaurants, with 18 cottages set among 700 palms along 1,100-feet of white sand beach.

Once a coconut palm plantation, Baudoin, a professional windsurfer, bought the 18-acre property in 1988 to save it from development into a 250-unit complex, with the eye of making it a windsurfing hideaway. (In the same way, he created the gorgeous sand beach that is the setting for his restaurants out of what had been a garbage dump.)

One of the 18 Key West-style cottages tucked into the lavish landscaping at The Moorings Village Resort (© 2008 by Karen Rubin).

An actual sand beach is unusual in the Florida Keys. Baudoin trucked in crushed coral rock to create one of the prettiest beaches anywhere.

The four original cottages date from the mid-1930s; the new ones were completed in 1992. Most of the cottages have plantation-style porches, tin roofs, colorful Bahama shutters and cypress interiors; each has its own personality and décor. All of the bathrooms have hand-painted tiles.

Baudoin who also had connections in fashion photography, brought all his artistic and aesthetic sensibilities to play here.

What impresses you is how artful it is – you feel you have stepped into a painting – the colors are gorgeous, the composition exquisite. It is no wonder that so many fashion shoots take place here (he has a private studio with props for shoots and a screening room, which is also used to shelter guests in the event of a hurricane).

You can get a massage in a tent on the beach, swim in the 25-meter heated pool or play tennis, and then feel the cozy comfort of your private cottage.

There are kayaks and windsurfing equipment as well, or relax in the hammocks strung from the palm trees.

The Moorings Village Resort, 123 Beach Road (Mile Marker 81.6, ocean side), Islamorada, FL 33036, 305-664-4708, www.mooringsvillage.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 Web site at www.fla-keys.com.

Wednesday, 27 February, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

This entry was posted in U.S. Travel by Travel Features Syndicate. Bookmark the permalink.

About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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