Tag Archives: Visit Florida Keys

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular: A Podcast for Keys Fans

a pickup truck that's been bedazzled, Florida-keys style.
Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular — bonus podcast content for Florida Keys fans!
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Do you love podcasts? Do you love the Florida Keys? Do you already listen to the Florida Spectacular podcast, co-hosted by me and Rick Kilby?

Well, then, this is your lucky Thursday. Why? Because, as of today, Florida Keys historian Brad Bertelli and I have a biweekly podcast about the Florida Keys.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast.

It’s no secret I love the Florida Keys.

One of the things I struggled with when I started visiting the Florida Keys regularly? Finding non-touristy things to do. Oh, yes, I swam with a sea lion (something I loved, but feel bad about now) and yes, I’ve eaten at Margaritaville. But… those things aren’t really the Florida Keys I love.

The Florida Keys really opened up to me after I met Brad Bertelli in 2015, when a stroke of serendipity sent me to the Florida Keys to get interviewed by a Canadian television station. At the time, Brad worked for a Florida Keys museum, I didn’t have this website, and my book was not-yet published. Brad, already a published author, was really nice to an unknown Florida writer. Throughout the years, we became friends as well as colleagues. (When my book, Florida Spectacular, comes out later this year, you’ll read one of my favorite Brad stories in the introduction.) During the pandemic, Brad and I had virtual cocktails for people playing the Florida Keys home game (which was everyone, really).

Photo of Brad Bertelli, co-host of Florida Keys Spectacular podcast. A bald-ish man with black frame glasses, smiling at the camera. Man is wearing a white tee.
There’s no better co-host for the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast than Brad Bertelli.
Photo courtesy Brad Bertelli.

Today, Brad has a few more books, a column about Florida Keys history in Keys Weekly, and a Facebook group about Florida Keys history that has more followers than a small town.

A few years back, I started the Florida Spectacular podcast.

The show has gone through several iterations. Right now we hit a sweet spot. Rick Kilby (another amazing Florida author) co-hosts. Rick and I have a lot of fun taking listeners across Florida every week. We talk about history, environment, and, of course, things to do in each part of Florida.

While Rick spends a lot of time traveling the state, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the Florida Keys as I do. And, honestly, there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State than Key West, Florida Bay, and the upper and middle keys. It’s a different world, honestly.

Which is why it makes sense to have a different podcast. Every Thursday, Brad holds court at Robbie’s in Islamorada. Anyone who wants to talk Florida Keys history can hang out with him, ask history questions, or share memories. I found myself, as I so often do, in the Florida Keys recently, so I found Brad at Robbie’s, bought him a beer, and told him I had a proposition. Why not take his knowledge about the Florida Keys and create an off-shoot of the Florida Spectacular podcast? This one would be only for Keys fans, and we’d cover everything from where to buy sandwiches for a picnic lunch at Windley Key (Episode 1) to the original route of the Oversea Highway (Episode 2).

Brad was all in immediately. While I plowed my way through a piece of fish at the Hungry Tarpon, we planned. Back home, the planning continued. Brad taped a commercial. Brad drafted some scripts. We chose topics. And, finally, today, the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast goes live.

Subscribe to Florida Keys Spectacular today and support us!

Florida Keys Spectacular is bonus content, available to anyone who supports the podcast at the $5/month level. For that $5, you get two episodes a month. Each one will take a deep dive into the Florida Keys. We’ll give you Florida Keys history, suggestions on things to do, and the ability to see the Florida Keys like a local does. No podcast explores the Florida Keys like we do. Take a listen — you won’t be disappointed!

I’d love to do the Sally Struthers thing and say, “for the cost of a cup of coffee” but, well, inflation. Also, aside from Joffrey’s, some of my favorite coffee in Florida is Baby’s Coffee, and since it’s a bit of a drive to Baby’s, it costs me a whole lot more than $5 to get a cup (but so worth it!).

Florida Keys Thanksgiving, American Crocodiles, and Sharks

Feet and legs in a white hammock with the sea in the background for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
No turkey in sight from my hammock. This year we celebrated a Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

It’s been a hard year. Barry and I started 2023 with four parents, three close uncles, and one longtime-friend; by November 1, we had one parent and one uncle left. Needless to say, neither of us felt like giving thanks at a table with so many empty chairs.

Fortunately for us, Past Cathy — not expecting any of the death that chased summer into fall — had booked us a cottage at our favorite place in the Florida Keys: White Gate Court. We were going to have a Florida Keys Thanksgiving this year.

We did this once before, in 2020. COVID-19 meant we had to cancel our annual May trip to White Gate because everything was (mostly metaphorically) on fire. By November, when they called us to reschedule, we were desperate to get back to the Keys. Since no one was having a big family Thanksgiving that year, we had our first Florida Keys Thanksgiving.

Red dachshund wearing a holiday tie for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Seeing Fred, White Gate Court’s canine ambassador,  always makes me smile. Here he’s decked out for his Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I called our Florida Keys Thanksgiving “FloridaKeysGiving.”

That moniker still applies, and, while I’m not sure we’ll do this every year, I wouldn’t complain if we did. We arrived at twilight the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the sky was streaked with pinks, oranges, and purples. We’d missed sunset — getting out of town took forever — but watching the afterglow as we pulled onto Matecumbe  offered us a magnificent welcome. The first thing we did after we unloaded the car was take a glass of wine down to the water and take a few slow breaths. That’s pretty much all I accomplished Monday, too, which was exactly what I needed.

reef formation that has grown on a step in saltwater in the Florida Keys. Florida Keys Thanksgiving photo
The steps to the water from the beach at White Gate have an entire ecosystem happening.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Tuesday we’d scheduled a half-day fishing charter. The forecasted 11 MPH winds kicked up to about 22, and when we arrived at the dock, the captain offered us a refund. We instead rescheduled for Thanksgiving morning. I spent Tuesday reading in a hammock and trying to convince myself to get in the water.

Wednesday I braved the cold water — it was below 80º and I’m not built that way, usually, but once I submerged myself, the water became more than tolerable. I snorkeled a bit, and finally — after roughly seven years of coming here — caught sight of the resident nurse shark.

My love affair with sharks is well-documented, and those of you who know me will believe me when I tell you I swam up to him. Or, rather, when I tried to swim up to him. He swam away as soon as I started his way, proof that they’re more scared of us than we are of them.

Thanksgiving morning, we went fishing.

That’s probably one of the best sentences ever written about Thanksgiving. On my bucket list: tarpon and bonefish. I’ve never caught either. Of course, this may be because I don’t fish nearly enough and barely know what the hell I’m doing when I do go, which is why it’s always a pleasure to have a great guide.

The last fishing charter I did in the Keys was with Capt. Casey (Sea Monkey Charters), and we fished off — I swear this is true — Dildo Key near Flamingo (do browser history a favor and don’t Google that; here’s a link).  This time, though, we stayed farther down the chain of islands and wanted a charter closer to White Gate.

Until I wrote about Robbie’s for a series of articles about the Florida Keys six months after Irma,  I dismissed the entire enterprise as a tourist clip joint. I was wrong, and that’s another post for another time, but when we wanted a good captain, I asked my friend and fellow Florida-phile Brad Bertelli for help. Every week he hosts a “learn Florida Keys history” at Robbie’s and has never failed to disappoint with his Florida Keys travel suggestions. He suggested Capt. Rich Hastings, and once again, he failed to disappoint.

a live bonefish in a net, caught on Florida Keys Thanksgiving
The bonefish, right before her return to the water. We killed no fish on this trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I’ll spare you the cast-by-cast of the fishing charter, but I will say that  as we made our way south from Robbie’s, we passed an American Crocodile in the mangrove cut, I caught a bonnethead shark, and I also caught my first bonefish. If there’s anything that compares to the thrill of catching a bonefish, seeing a croc in the wild is right up there. As for catching the shark? I felt bad. Sharks, as I’ve mentioned, are among my favorite things. The shark — and the bonefish — are, to my knowledge, still swimming happily around the flats where we fished, talking about that time they got away.

Man fishing off skiff for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Bonefish? Nope. A bewildered and not-at-all-happy stingray.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Fishing isn’t about the fish.

That all said, if I’d caught nothing, it wouldn’t have mattered. The morning started with rain and clouds, but by about 8:30, the sun peeked through and the water reflected the colors of the sky. Fishing is — or should be, at least — a mostly-quiet sport, so in between catching fish, I had plenty of time to watch the water. As I did, I breathed in and out, and remembered that, after a year I could have done without, I still have so many reasons to be thankful.

A small red mangrove surrounded by saltwater; taken during Florida Keys Thanksgiving

Photo by Cathy Salustri

Stock Island: The Key West You Never Knew

a white fence painted with the words "I ❤️ Stock Island"
It’s not fancy, but that’s what I love about Stock Island.
Cathy Salustri

To call Stock Island “the Key West you never knew” may sound dramatic, but it’s the way I’ve always pictured Key West before, as my husband likes to say, Dunkin’ Donuts came to town.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love about Key West (its history, art, and architecture come to mind) — but there’s also a lot I cannot abide (the Duval Crawl, the cruise ships, and the drunken smell that tends to linger well after the bars close, to start).

However, right before you get to Key West, there’s an overlooked key that has all the trappings of a truly special place: Stock Island. With not too many places to stay but a lot of gritty reality — not to mention some fantastic artists who live and work there, Stock Island’s easily one of my favorite places in the Florida Keys.

History

I’ve read several accounts of the origin of the island’s name, but the only Florida Keys historian I trust — Brad Bertelli — tells me the island gets its name from the one-time practice of keeping livestock penned on the island. Brad has a wildly popular Facebook group devoted to Florida Keys history. He posts about history throughout the Keys, and has a few posts showing historic images from Stock Island.

In more recent history, Stock Island has some interesting lore. In popular culture, it gets a bad rep as a place to dump a body. The late Tom Corcoran placed at least one body there (in his books, not in real life), and he’s not the only one. Compared to Key West, Stock Island isn’t pretty — at least, not in the conventional sense.

But, as Key West fell victim to its own popularity and the slices of genuine Keys life grew smaller and smaller, something happened on Stock Island: it took up where Key West left off. I have no idea whether this is a well-planned marketing campaign, something organic, or a little bit of both.

And you know what? I don’t care. While I realize this isn’t 100% true,  Stock Island reminds me of the Key West that once was. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it the Key West that could have been.

What to Expect When You Visit Stock Island

If you visit expecting a smaller, less-crowded version of Key West, you will be disappointed. While the island has no shortage of things for tourists to experience, it’s largely populated by working class people. In the lower Keys — especially close to Key West — working class lifestyles look nothing like working class lifestyles in the rest of the country.

  1. Most of the homes here are mobile homes with little or no yard.

    Real estate costs money and money isn’t something the people serving your food, making your bed, and selling you t-shirts have in abundance. (Consider that the next time you tip, too — will it really hurt you to leave 25%?) If you really want to pull back the veil on what living in the Florida Keys looks like for the average person, take a look at the neighborhoods on Stock Island (but remember, this isn’t Disney World — these are people’s homes. Show respect and don’t walk onto anyone’s property or take a bunch of photos.)

  2. You might think some of the neighborhoods look like a third-world country. They aren’t.

    Odds are, many people reading this can’t afford to rent one of these trailers on what they make (2023 rates hover around $3,000/month for a one or two bedroom).  Even when you do own, when you know it could get washed away every August, you don’t have a lot of incentive to go full Property Brothers.

  3. The tourist areas don’t look like tourist areas.

    Case in point: one of the best restaurants on the island, Hogfish Bar and Grill, is right by a bunch of those trailers that may make some people clasp their pearls, swoon, and double-check the locks on their Lincoln Navigators. El Siboney — one of my favorite places to eat here — has a sign that looks as though it could be one of the first neon signs, anywhere, ever. And, while The Perry and adjacent marina don’t look like most of the rest of the island, the drive to get there is decidedly un-touristy. This is what makes Stock Island worth the visit. This is pure Florida Keys, warts and all — and remember, every home you pass is someone’s iteration of paradise.

But hey, you want to see the real Florida Keys, right?

This is it, baby. Stock Island is as real as it gets. Soak it in. It could be gone before you know it.

Things To Do in Stock Island

  • The I Love Stock Island Festival (in mid-July this year)
  • Walk behind Hogfish to meet the locals (and see some great art)
  • Take your morning run through the neighborhood, where you can see how locals without a gazillion dollars really afford to live in the Florida Keys
a plate of roast pork — when you visit Stock Island, stop by El Siboney and get some!
This roast pork, or puerco asado, which I order pretty much every time I visit Stock Island’s El Siboney, is some of the best I’ve had outside a private kitchen.
Cathy Salustri

Places to Eat

  • El Siboney. This place has fantastic puerco asado, among other things. They have a full liquor bar, plenty of seating, and a cadre of locals who eat here.
  • Hogfish Grill. If they have kingfish and grits on the menu, get it. Trust me.
  • Matt’s Kitchen. The only bad thing about this is that it’s a fantastic restaurant in a hotel, so, yes, it’s a little more tourist-oriented. But the marina at The Perry has liveaboards aplenty, so you’ll still get local flavor here.
the interior of a restaurant called El Siboney, a must-do when you visit Stock Island
El Siboney is definitely not your average tourist eatery.
Cathy Salustri

Places to Stay

  • The Perry’s one of the nicest, newest hotels on the island, and I love staying here.

    Stock Island Perry Hotel by Cathy Salustri — visit stock island and stay here
    Even the sign for The Perry Hotel (on Stock Island in the city of Key West, not on the Key of West) pays homage to Stock Island’s history with its bow shape and propellor light.
    Cathy Salustri
  • Boyd’s Key West Campground is popular (including with fellow road tripper, Jon Kile) for its proximity to Key West. If you don’t mind a lot of people in a relatively small space, this may be a great option. It comes at a price, though: Camping shouldn’t cost this much. Ever.

Like this article? Love the Florida Keys? Check out my Top 10 Things To Do in the Florida Keys (that most people don’t)!