Crafted in the Florida Keys
In the Florida Keys, the day-to-day business of living is easy. Since Keys residents’ minds aren’t cluttered with mundane concerns, there’s time and head space for extraordinary creativity to thrive.
It’s possible to develop everything from the perfect hot pepper sauce to handcrafted fishing gear. In the Florida Keys you’ll find artisan-made sandals, jewelry, other wearables as well as foodstuffs, breweries and distilleries — all a feast for the senses.
There are scores of freethinking spirits who, in the island chain’s nurturing atmosphere, indulge their talent for crafting wares as individualistic as they are.
Wares To Display Or Wear
Caleb Goins Designs are striking representations of indigenous pelagic fish, the coral reef, game fish and spearfishing action, all in hand-forged and custom-burnished pierced metals. Goins creates original pieces, conceptualizing a marine theme with a series of sketches and drawings on paper. Using a soapstone pencil, he then transfers the outline to a sheet of metal such as high-grade aluminum, stainless steel or copper and cuts the design.
Two of Marathon's lifelong residents, Joshua Gratton and James McCabe, both passionate divers and spear fishermen, developed the Onboard Band-It spear band repair and replacement kit to include replacement band material, cutting and insertion tools. Everything is packaged in a waterproof box necessary to make repairs while on the water without ending a fishing trip because of broken equipment. The duo also designed their own line of apparel including face buffs and dry-fit shirts for sun protection and snapback hats. They are available online and at Marathon's Formula Freediving store.
Captain Randy Towe’s Signature Series Handmade Rods, developed and built by the Islamorada captain, are well known to dedicated anglers. He makes everything from fly to heavy offshore trolling rods, coordinating all elements with each individual customer. Crafted to last a lifetime, his rods are all about fit, finish and top-quality parts.
Designer Karen Moore quit her corporate job five years ago and has been creating her positive energy ZEN Jewelry line since. Her love for the Keys’ native beauty is evident in her designs, which use only natural elements consisting mostly of semi-precious gemstones and shells — including her signature collection based on the conch shell.
Ask many locals where they got their sandals and the answer is likely to be Kino's , a family-owned sandal factory in downtown Key West. For over 50 years, the Cuban-born Kino has employed traditional techniques to assemble the island's iconic handmade leather shoes, creating more than 20 different styles of sandals.
Textile artisan Kim Wallen takes fishing to an entirely new level, using her family's fresh catch to make what she calls "Fish Printz," otherwise known as Gyotaku, a Japanese art form of pressing fish onto rice paper using ink. Using fabric paint, Wallen presses the fish onto fabric that is sewn onto shirts, hats and tote bags, creating designs that are swimmingly fun and beautiful. Find her KDub Designz at Mellow Ventures in Key West and Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon.
Cornelia Hoover, seaglass crafter, pieces together different gauges of wire, sea glass and tumbled recycled glass to craft creations that are both whimsical and elegant. Hoover's work can be found at DK's Beach Boutique in Marathon, the Hurricane Grille and Key West's Guild Hall Gallery.
Judi Bradford designs dramatic and sophisticated one-of-a-kind hats and Arashi Shibori silk scarves with a color palette inspired by the local landscape — turquoise and jewel tones that shimmer like the sea itself. Many of her scarves and hats have made their way to "hat heaven" — the Kentucky Derby and the Ascot races in England.
David Gard crafts vessels and furniture using indigenous tropical woods whenever possible and keeps a natural edge on his tabletops, trunks, and bowls. Gard's bowls and cutting boards are sold at SALT Island Provisions in Key West.
Fused glass artisan Stephanie Martin of Seaside Glassworks creates ocean-inspired glass, jewelry and art in her Islamorada working studio, which is open to visitors for tours. Browse her signature line of handcrafted fused glass pendants of scallop shells, turtles, dolphins and fish in a rainbow spectrum of colors, as well as lamps designed with Florida Keys colors in mind.
Eat, Drink, Savor & Smell
The Florida Keys' premier chocolatier can be found at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Key Largo Chocolates is the brainchild of Kristie Thomas, who infuses local flavors into handmade chocolate confections. Standouts include luscious truffles, fudge, specialty chocolate bark with Key lime and pistachios, and offbeat "chocodiles."
Enjoy an indigenous taste of the Keys, with raw and unprocessed small-batch honey whose distinct flavors can't be found anywhere else in the world. Grab some of Key Largo's renowned Bees N The Keys honey, or red mangrove honey from SALT Island Provisions.
Bob's Bunz is a friendly Islamorada "comfort food" restaurant and bakery that features tiny Key limes in sweet temptations including Bundt cakes and yummy bite-size cookies. No trip to the Upper Keys is complete without visiting the emporium, whose name comes from the legendary (and gigantic) cinnamon and sticky buns created by owner Robert “Bob” Spencer.
At Keys Fisheries try the Keys' own stone crab claws, peel-and-eat Key West shrimp or the famed Lobster Reuben that makes even stubborn New Yorkers abandon traditional corned-beef Reubens for their seafood "cousin." The eatery also ships seafood to those craving a taste of the Keys.
Smilin' Bob's smoked fish dip is made with wild caught, local Kingfish and Amberjack, over a three-day process. The result is a honey brown fish with a mild, smoky flavor. Bob's team then adds other carefully chosen ingredients to make a creamy dip that's practically addictive.
Tucked into Islamorada's arts and cultural district, the craft production outfit Florida Keys Brewing Company produces tasty seasonal and barrel-aged beers including light, reds, ambers and browns. Owners Craig and Cheryl McBay, the latter born and raised in Islamorada, infuse local flavors such as Key lime, citrus and local honey into their brews. Among the most popular are FlaKeys, a Belgian-style beer made with Key limes, and Hogfish beer with a note of local citrus flavors.
For the local brewers at the Islamorada Beer Company, the islands are home. The No Wake Zone offering exudes the Keys' weekend lifestyle of wading in the water with a cold one. Others such as Islamorada Ale and Channel Marker IPA, are available Keyswide at grocery stores, bars and eateries.
The nanobrewery Bone Island Brewing serves different styles of craft beer, from pale ales to Irish stouts — sold only on-site. Visitors can enjoy tours of the operation and beer tastings, including flights of their own handcrafted smooth, drinkable and not "over the top" flavors such as the Calusa Pale Ale.
The Waterfront Brewery in Key West's Historic Seaport offers American cuisine, homebrews — including the award-winning Key Lime Witness and Crazy Lady honey blonde ale — and a variety of other drafts from Florida breweries. The highly recognizable nautical-inspired space features a main bar, restaurant, game room and bar in the brewery and tasting room, as well as an upstairs deck.
Largely distributed in South Florida and Key West, restaurants can purchase Key West First Legal Rum Distillery products in wooden barrels (each is cured in the seawater surrounding the island), and visitors to the distillery have the option to buy up to two 750-milliliter bottles at a time. Currently there are at least a dozen different styles and flavors of the Legal Rum brand, including vanilla brûlée and other white rums flavored with coconut or Key lime.
The products at Key West Distilling in historic Old Town include the island's first distilled vodka and whiskey as well as a variety of rums, all produced entirely in-house. Batches are small — typically five cases for each batch of rum, on average — yet the distillery produces every day. Several flavors are available, and they may soon produce a gin.
Islamorada Distilling creates on-site spirits branded as Islamorada Distilling gin, vodka and dark barrel-aged and spiced rums. The 450-square-foot distillery also has a 400-square-foot gift shop and tasting room, with daily tastings. Two of five founding partners grew up in Islamorada and attended college together. On a fishing trip, the partners developed the idea of (Islamorada Beer Co.) beer to complement the Keys’ boating, fishing and island beach lifestyle.
Want to take the magical fragrance of the islands home with you? Dorthe Thure merges her passion for natural skin care with her Danish design aesthetic, creating luxurious oils for the body and hair. The Night Blooming Cactus, Heartwood, Mermaid, Key Lime and Sea Citrus blends are made from an alchemic combination of organic oils that include sunflower, almond and avocado along with a variety of pure essential oils. SALT Island Provisions in Key West carries her line, as well as other intriguing products from Florida Keys artisans.
Key West designer James Garvey creates his own essential oils for his Fireside Candle all-natural line of wax container candles. Nearly 20 aromatherapy scents range from Island Hibiscus, Key Lime Coconut, Night Blooming Jasmine and Sea Mist to more rustic Cedar Wood Vanilla, Antique Sandalwood and Blackberry Sage.
The Keys Salt Scrub is available in a variety of island fragrances, including coconut, mango, Key lime and lavender. Salt scrubs exfoliate, rejuvenate, soothe and moisturize skin, as well as disinfect and promote healing. Hand crafted in small batches, the formula contains a blend of salts, coconut oil and essential oils. Several luxury Keys hotel accommodations also provide the scrubs in washrooms for patrons. Scrubs are all-natural, chemical free and cruelty free.
Why does it matter that something — whether Key lime jelly or hand-shaped pottery — can be called "Keys crafted?"
It means it's made by someone truly invested in their creations, who works with care and takes pride in quality. A "Keys crafted" piece is as different as possible from the mass-produced items that are all too available today — and it should be enjoyed. After all, it’s a tangible reminder of the Florida Keys.