Cover photo by Katrina Zoe Norbom, Ocean Mountain Media.
STOCK ISLAND, KEY WEST’S frequently overlooked little sister, is just a hop, skip and a short bridge crossing away and yet, much like poor Cinderella before her glass slipper transformation, it rarely ever gets the recognition it deserves. Despite the opening of two high-end hotels, the Perry and Ocean’s Edge, Stock Island seems to remain in Key West’s shadow – a travesty when you consider its long seafaring tradition, vibrant creative community and boundless culinary riches.
According to The New York Times, Stock Island is where locals go to show out-of-towners what Key West used to be like, back in the days before the blaring voice of a trolley tour guide became as ubiquitous as the early morning call of a rooster in Old Town. For many who live here — and who have lived here for years, generations, even — Stock Island is less an exhibition of what was then a reminder of what can endure, even when your town becomes a tourist destination and its streets teem with visitors hurrying to and from cruise ships, umbrella drinks in hand. Stock Rock, as it is (sometimes) affectionately called, is proof that family businesses can survive, that a con leche doesn’t need to cost $5 and that working fishermen can still make a living on the same island that recently broke new records for the most expensive entry-level rental apartments in Florida (take that, Miami). Proof that the Key West of Hemingway, of Tennessee Williams, even of Buffett and Chesney, a live-and-let live place of cheap rum and prolific fishing, is alive and well. But to use Stock Island as a foil to Key West’s increasing Disneyfication greatly underestimates the neighborhood’s hidden charm and worth.
But for all its affordable housing options for residents priced out of the neighborhoods in which they work, its funky roadhouse eateries, its utilitarian aesthetic and its street cred for being the only place a working artist can afford to, well, work these days, Stock Island has also been steadily gearing up for a renaissance of sorts. The neighborhood’s Bernstein Park is currently undergoing a $7.9 million renovation, the completion of which will offer residents new fields, a playground, basketball court, exercise trail and 5,500-square-foot community center. Brick oven pizzerias, luxury hotels, and French bakeries that wouldn’t look out of place in a tony Connecticut suburb are becoming more commonplace, and a pervasive sense of overall sprucing up make Key West’s industrial sidekick much more than just a sepia-toned memory of the days before Duval Street could be reached via direct flight from Chicago. It’s a neighborhood overflowing with the buzzy, frenetic energy that begets a slew of Travel & Leisure articles calling it the new authentic place for your next hip vacation. Unlike the try-hardiness of Key West’s souvenir shops, chain restaurants and two-for-one happy hour specials, Stock Island doesn’t seem to care if you give it a rave review on TripAdvisor. It’s grittier — less interested in courting the attention of tourists, less desperate for jet-ski bookings. It’s not trying to be cool, and thus in hipster logic, it’s deeply cool. To hear those who remember the town before there was a CVS on every corner tell the story, it’s how Old Key West used to feel.
But according to some of Stock Island’s longtime champions, it’s time we celebrate this lively neighborhood for everything it is and not everything that Key West was. Time to carve out a couple days for a festival centered exclusively on Stock Rock (and really, if Key West has room to cram another festival into its already swollen calendar of keylime-celebrating-power-boat-racing-Parrot Head-carousing festivals, you know it must be for something really important).
Beginning on Dec. 8, the I Love Stock Island Festival aims to offer everything that is great about Stock Island packaged into three family-friendly days of nonstop food, live music, rum and seafood so fresh you should watch out for lingering hooks. The idea is to mix a series of ticketed and free events across the neighborhood, with some obvious participants (Hogfish Bar & Grill, the first to snag a The New York Times rave) and some not-so-obvious ones (Stock Island Chevron, we had no idea you cared).
To kick off the weekend, Friday night’s Taste of Stock Island (technically the festival’s original focus, before so many local businesses expressed interest that the founders decided to expand the event to a three-day affair) will offer a ticketed, six-stop small plate experience for those looking to experience Stock Island’s burgeoning foodie scene. $75 nets you a trolley tour of Stock Island’s best eateries for specially selected small plates and beverage pairings. Since the trolley is limited to 35 people, Taste of Stock Island presents a unique opportunity to interact with the chefs and owners of Stock Island’s finest culinary establishments. Tickets can be purchased online at www.showclix.com/event/taste-of-stock-island and, although the rest of the weekend is exceedingly family friendly, for obvious booze-related reasons the Taste of Stock Island tour is limited to guests 21 and over.
Want to taste Stock Island on your own schedule? Friday’s all-day Food Truck Finds will allow you to foodtruck hop all over the neighborhood, with each mobile culinary wonder offering $5 samples of what they do best. Participating food trucks include Taco Grilla (U.S. 1 North next to We Cycle), Taco Express (Cross Street next to the bus stop behind Sandal Factory), Hoss and Mary’s (Cow Key Marina), DeLuna’s Bar and Grill (Stock Island Marina), Yahman’s Authentic Jamaican Jerk Shack (COAST), Grimal Grove Latin Fusion and Milkshakery (1st Avenue beside Roostica), and Island Thyme Subs (U.S. 1 North next to Stock Island Chevron). To really get a feel for the island, feel free to rent a bike from We Cycle and pedal your way from truck to truck. Bonus: all that cycling will ensure you still have an appetite after you’ve stopped at four or five trucks. Two birds, one stone.
Once the sun sets (a gorgeous sight from any of the marinas on Stock Island), the boats participating in the Stock Island Lighted Boat Parade presented by Sunset Watersports will fire up their twinkliest lights and set sail. Beginning with a pre-party dock walk at 6 p.m., guests will get to ooh and aah over every manner of vessel, from tri-masted schooners to dinghies to the shrimp boats that call Stock Island home. The parade’s convenient location inside the Stock Island Marina Village (with additional viewing potential at Safe Harbor Marina) means that parade goers will have the option of noshing at Matt’s at the Perry Hotel, the Perry’s Salty Oyster bar, and DeLuna’s, as well as other concessions and bars throughout the extensive marina property. Hogfish Bar & Grill will host the official after-party at 8 p.m., with a special performance by local Trop Rockers the Howard Livingston Trio, so plan on donning your brightest Hawaiian shirt and dancing the night away, the stars (and boats) twinkling in your eyes.
On Saturday, a free, day-long Discover Stock Island scavenger hunt will allow those in possession of a special pirate map the chance to tour the island’s 50-plus participating businesses via trolley for a chance to find “treasure” in the form of prizes, freebies, and discounts. Businesses, restaurants, galleries and attractions will host open houses with specials all day long. Participants will get to choose the track they identify with most — art lovers, foodies, history buffs and families. In addition, Up the Keys Tours will offer $10 history tours and Sunset Watersports will offer $10 banana boat rides. While the scavenger hunters scour the neighborhood for hidden treasure, Stock Island Marina Village will host a vendor village highlighting local artisans — a fantastic opportunity to stock up on those unique holiday gifts. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Ocean’s Edge Resort & Marina will have a traditional low-country shrimp boil, featuring Key West Pink Shrimp fresh off the boats, smoked sausage, new potatoes and sweet corn on the cob. Tickets for the shrimp boil run a mere $19.99 and can be purchased at www.showclix.com/event/oceansedgeshrimpboil.
On Sunday, the Stock Rock & Roll Bike Brunch Ride will pair two of Key West’s most beloved pastimes, bicycles and boozy brunches, with a self-guided tour of local restaurants, many of which will offer special brunch menus, discounts and live music from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. And if you get a little mimosa-tipsy and just want to pet something fluffy or whisper sweet nothings into a llama’s ear, the annual Christmas at the Sheriff’s Animal Farm will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Have enough mimosas and you might even start moving as slowly as Mo the Sloth, arguably the farm’s most famous (and definitely most sedentary) resident.
If Stock Island is experiencing something of a Renaissance, it is due in large part to Bobby and Michelle Mongelli, the powerhouse duo behind many of the island’s much-lauded eateries like Hogfish Bar & Grill, Geiger Key Marina & Smokehouse, and Roostica. As Stock Island’s reigning king and queen, the Mongellis know a thing or two about celebrating the Key West of then and now. Michelle is a born and raised Conch, while Bobby can trace his Key West linage back to the late ’70s, when he arrived to work at the Casa Marina Hotel in his late teens. The two developed the “I Love Stock Island” tagline, had bumper stickers made, and ramped up interest in forming a nonprofit aimed at preserving the culture and history of Stock Island for generations to come. Then, they tapped Sean Krikorian and Jill Snodgrass, who together run the event management company Daily Plan-it, to help market the event and bring a cohesive voice to the organization’s dreams.
“The response to the ‘I Love Stock Island’ initiative has been overwhelmingly supportive,” says Snodgrass. And the festival has grown exponentially since last year’s inaugural endeavor.
“In addition to the 50 artists and businesses participating in Discover Stock Island, we expanded the I Love Stock Island Festival this year by adding a Trap Tree Lighting Ceremony at Fishbusterz, a second trolley for the Taste of Stock Island tasting tour, a Lighted Boat Parade and a Vendor Village at Stock Island Marina Village and the Perry Hotel, an after-party at Hogfish Bar and Grill, and a Shrimp Boil at Ocean’s Edge Key West Hotel Resort and Marina. Last year’s favorites Taste of Stock Island and the Stock Rock and Roll Historic Bike Ride and Brunch have also returned,” Sean explains.
As the I Love Stock Island Festival grows its profile and expands its offerings, the festival itself takes on a different significance for both its organizers and the community it celebrates. “This year, we hope to increase awareness of Stock Island as a destination by highlighting the world-class hotels, R/V parks, restaurants, golf, and water sport activities available,” Sean articulates. “Through funds generated from ticket sales for the Taste of Stock Island and contributions from local businesses and attendees, we will continue our mission goals to make Stock Island a better place to live, work, and visit.
“Next year,” Sean continues, “with the newly-completed Bernstein Park becoming available, we have plans to add more activities — including concerts, the Stock Island Mariner’s Olympics, and a Little Mr. and Miss Stock Island contest.” (Olympics, you say? Sean, if you’re reading, I sincerely hope one of the events is the Floating Buoy Shotput. I’ve been dying to channel my inner Miss Trunchbull ever since I saw Matilda as a kid.)
Jill is also optimistic about the future of the initiative, but acknowledges that the community will decide how the festival grows or changes in the coming years. “The future of the initiative and the festival are in the hands of the community,” she says. “We’ve worked to help get this off the ground, and where it goes from here depends on the level of involvement and commitment from the people who care about making Stock Island a better place to live, work and play.” Both Jill and Sean work on Stock Island and are deeply invested themselves in the program’s success. They’ve had a front row seat to much of the neighborhood’s recent changes, the so-called rejuvenation of many locally owned businesses and homes, and what some concerned residents fear is simply a push to rebrand Stock Island as a new Key West. When asked if the recent increase in development makes them worry about the neighborhood losing its coveted “authentic” reputation, Jill is diplomatic but realistic. “The Initiative is an opportunity for all interested parties — homeowners, business owners, neighbors and workers — to come together to have a voice and help shape the future of Stock Island,” she says. “It’s because of the boom that this is so important.”
The full schedule of events, participants, and ticket prices are all listed on the event’s official website, www.ilovestockisland.org which also outlines the initiative’s official mission statement: That they are dedicated to preserving the cultural history of Stock Island by promoting its healthy future through outreach, marketing, and special events to make our community a better place to live, work, and play. ¦