For many, the end of one calendar year and beginning of the next is a time of deep reflection. Was the past year a success? What did we accomplish in those fleeting 12 months that we can be proud of? Did we stick to last year’s resolutions even a little bit? Are we happier, fitter, more fulfilled than we were this time last year? And every year on the first of January, approximately 75% of us resolve to be more mindful, to finally learn a foreign language, to spend less time on social media and more time on self-care.
While it’s only natural to focus inward, especially in the age of self-improvement, much of 2020 already has found most of us with more than enough time to get in touch with ourselves. Since March, we’ve baked the country dry of flour, read all of the books collecting dust on our nightstands, filled up every page in those coloring books everyone on the planet got for Christmas three years ago and tie-dyed every piece of white clothing we’ve ever owned. And though our hands have been busy kneading and knitting, our thoughts have been unprecedentedly free to wander, to take a deep dive into our mind palaces and figure out just what it means to live a good, productive, fulfilling life.
If at this point in the year you, too, feel like you’ve exhausted the realm of your psychic potential, or like you’ve spent the last nine months making a series of New Year’s-style resolutions to be the best you can be, perhaps this is the year to try something radical come January. Instead of coming up with a list of new skills to master or bad habits to break, turn your gaze outward. Look around and find opportunities to give back. If you’re traveling (a luxury precious few of us are able to indulge in this year, but we’re so happy you’ve chosen to visit Key West!), prioritize activities and businesses who do good for the local community. Not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right publication.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to the Florida Reef, the only barrier coral reef in North America. The organization’s mission is to protect the tropical and subtropical species that inhabit the approximately 2,900 nautical miles (about 3,800 square miles) of coastal and ocean waters that make up the Sanctuary. Since 2014, Florida’s coral reefs have experienced an extended outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, as well as increasing threats from global climate change, land-based pollution and unsustainable fishing practices.
One man, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot reverse years of coral bleaching, but he can visit the fascinating (and free!) Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in the Dr. Nancy Foster Florida Keys Environmental Complex on the Truman Annex waterfront (35 E. Quay Road). The Eco-Discovery Center, which is closed for the time but will hopefully reopen in 2021, features over 6,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, including a replica of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory, and the Mote Marine Laboratory Living Reef exhibit, which includes a 2,500-gallon reef tank with living corals and tropical fish that gives visitors an up-close look at our unique coral reef environment.
Inside the center, you’ll learn about the ecology of the habitats found in the Florida Keys, explore the seagrass flats and catch “Reflections of the Florida Keys,” a short film by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot about the diverse ecosystem of the Florida Keys. Entrance to the center is free, but stop by the gift shop on the way out — a portion of the net proceeds is returned to the center to support its educational programs.
Reef Relief, a local nonprofit organization, also is dedicated to improving and protecting the local coral reef ecosystem. Formed in 1987 by Craig and Deevon Quirolo to educate divers and boaters about the need to safeguard the Florida Keys Barrier Reef, the organization has become globally recognized for its environmental outreach efforts. Reef Relief’s environmental educational and advocacy programs are essential in cultivating the active support of citizens for coastal resource protection in the Florida Keys and beyond.
As part of this effort, the Reef Relief Environmental Center (631 Greene St.) introduces visitors, school groups and community members to the coral reef ecosystem, the threats it faces and what can be done to protect our coastal and marine resources. Reef Relief has a diorama of a healthy reef juxtaposed with a damaged reef, a Google Earth Oceans exhibit that enables the viewer to visit coral reefs around the world and a theater that shows films related to coastal resource issues.
In 2001, Reef Relief and the city of Key West established the Key West Marine Park, a 40-acre area on the south side of the island stretching from Higgs Beach to South Beach. The park encompasses diverse ecological communities, is home to a variety of hard and soft corals, seagrasses, fishes and invertebrates and provides a shore-accessible protected snorkeling area populated by colorful corals, crabs, starfish and snapper. The Key West Marine Park is accessible to the public at four locations: South Beach at the southern end of Duval Street, Dog Beach at the end of Vernon Street, the beach at the end of Seminole Street and Higgs Beach from Reynolds to White streets. Read up on Reef Relief’s conservation efforts at www.reefrelief.org.
If you want to experience the real deal, get out on the water with one of our environmentally conscious local eco tour companies, like Honest Eco Tours.
Founded in 2014 by biologist Billy Litmer, Honest Eco was formed to “spread the value of conservation.” To further its mission, the company provides sustainable nature tours to guests and engages in community outreach to educate the masses on how important it is to preserve our local ecosystem. Honest Eco is perhaps best known for their dolphin watch and snorkel trips, which stand out because of their equal attention to dolphins and dolphin watchers.
In 2019, Honest Eco built, from the ground up, the first lithium-ion hybrid electric boat for charter in the U.S. The boat, named SQUID, has increased the quality of the Honest Eco experience while decreasing their environmental impact, a win-win for guests and for the reef. Learn more about Honest Eco’s offerings and book a charter at www.honesteco.org.
Aquatic environmental conservation efforts are necessarily plentiful in Key West because of our unique geographical challenges, but terrestrial opportunities to start the new year on a charitable foot also abound. Consider participating in the Key West Home Tours, which support the Old Island Restoration Foundation and the Oldest House Museum & Garden. The Old Island Restoration Foundation’s tireless efforts to preserve the architectural heritage of Key West have resulted in the protection of 188 buildings, ranging from tiny cigar makers’ cottages to spectacular gingerbread laden Victorian mansions.
For visitors who wonder how Key West residents live — and what lies behind their houses’ white picket fences, striking facades and gleaming front doors — home tours scheduled for December, January, February and March offer a rare chance to find out. Visitors can enjoy the first tour of the season Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 28-29. The intriguing self-guided exploration, scheduled for 2-5 p.m. both days, shows off beautiful examples of older homes and more recent gems — each one decorated inside and out for the holidays.
Following the December tours, three more home showcases are planned. They’re set for Friday and Saturday, Jan. 15-16, Feb. 12-13 and March 12-13. All feature dwellings illustrate Key West’s early architectural tradition, creative renovations and contemporary structures. And all proceeds from the tours stay in our local community, fulfilling the Old Island Restoration Foundation’s mission to preserve and promote Key West architecture, history and culture.
After your tour, be sure to stop at the Oldest House & Garden Museum (322 Duval St.). Not only is it a mere $5 to enter, the property boasts a fabulously shady garden out back, perfect for resting your tired limbs after a few hours of sightseeing. The property recently opened the Old Island General Store, which showcases unique gifts not found anywhere else in Key West. And you can feel virtuous knowing that your purchases directly support preserving Key West’s architectural integrity. More information on the Old Island Restoration Foundation can be found at www.oldesthousekeywest.com.
While the Old Island Restoration Foundation maintains the island’s historic exteriors, the Key West Art & Historical Society (www.kwahs.org) has resolved to protect the precious things you can find inside those buildings — the art and cultural and historical artifacts that make up Key West’s rich history.
Beginning with the restoration of Fort East Martello in the 1950s, KWAHS has been at the forefront of historical preservation. And as one of the oldest nonprofits in the Florida Keys, the Society has a long history of educating the local community and visitors about Florida Keys culture. KWAHS’ operating philosophy is to inspire a sense of place and historical understanding of the Florida Keys by exhibiting the region’s cultural heritage in her multifaceted glory.
KWAHS manages four museums dedicated to regional art, architecture and history: the Custom House Museum (281 Front St.), the Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters Museum (938 Whitehead St.), Fort East Martello Museum (3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.) and the Tennessee Williams Museum (513 Truman Ave.). The Custom House once was home to the island’s government offices, with its Richardsonian Romanesque-style architecture typical of other late 19th-century federal buildings. Today, the museum offers two floors of exhibitions that weave together two centuries of history, art, people and events of the Florida Keys.
Once a beacon for the island with its Fresnel lens that shone 11 nautical miles out to sea, the Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters Museum has been restored to its early 1900s appearance, with historic furnishings, photos and original artifacts depicting the life and times of generations of lighthouse keepers and their families. Climb the 88-step, circular, iron stairway of the 170-year-old lighthouse for a breathtaking view of Key West from above.
Fort East Martello, a Civil War-era fort constructed to provide protection against enemy assault from the sea, is now one of the finest preserved examples of Martello-style military architecture in the U.S. Today, the fort houses two permanent exhibits: “Stanley Papio — Junkyard Rebel,” over 100 sculptural objects and three-dimensional constructions that pay tribute to the American folk artist who saw art where others saw junk, and “Ghosts of East Martello,” starring the infamous haunted Robert the Doll.
The Tennessee Williams Museum, a destination for Williams enthusiasts and scholars, displays objects from his life and work from 1949 until his death in 1983. The collection of historic, archival materials keeps alive the importance of his legacy and offers the largest collection of Williams’s memorabilia and literary artifacts available to the public. Aside from providing a deeper understanding of what makes Key West’s cultural landscape so eclectic, admission to the museums and all donations support the society’s collection, programming and preservation efforts, which in turn allows them to provide more enrichment to their visitors.
In the alternative, you could just engage in all of the above activities without considering the good you’d be putting out into the universe, but why not reap the karmic benefits of resolving to support local organizations whenever possible in 2021? You might just find that it gets you closer to being the happier, fitter, more fulfilled person you’ve always resolved to be. ¦