FLORIDA KEYS — A new artificial reef is open to sport divers and anglers following the May 27 scuttling of a 523-foot-long former U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship.

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the second-largest vessel in the world ever purposely sunk to become an artificial reef, now lies about seven miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The bottom of the ship’s hull rests on sand at depths that average 145 feet, but the ship is so massive the superstructure begins about 45 feet below the surface.

Rich in history, the Vandenberg once tracked the U.S. space program’s launches off Cape Canaveral, monitored U.S. defense missile test launches and eavesdropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War. Its successful sinking concluded 13 years of effort by project organizers.

The sinking also completes the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, a series of intentionally sunk vessels that begins off Key Largo with a former Navy landing ship dock, the Spiegel Grove, and ends with the Vandenberg.

To learn more about diving the Vandenberg and other Keys shipwrecks, visit www.fla-keys.com/diving.

Driving along the scenic Overseas Highway has become more informative and enjoyable with the release of the audio CD “Florida Keys Road Trip,” the brainchild of Keys resident Harry Bowman.

Meticulously created and narrated to follow the highway from mile marker (MM) O in Key West to Florida City on mainland Florida, the 2.5-hour travelogue accurately guides drivers on their journey north through interesting attractions, public parks and little-known sites unseen from the highway. Facts and trivia keep listeners tuned in, complemented by sound effects and background music by local musicians.

Narrator Bowman takes listeners through Keys history from their geological formation through today’s lifestyles and culture. He emphasizes tourist sites, points of interest and attractions in advance so the traveler can plan to stop and visit. For example, listeners know when and where to walk on the Bahia Honda beach and stroll along the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge.

Priced at $20, the CD can be purchased at many attractions and lodging properties or by e-mailing floridakeysaroadtrip@gmail.com. A southbound version, following the drive from Miami to Key West, is expected to debut this fall, in addition to a shopper’s Web site with iPod downloads.

Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Center, located at MM 104 bayside in Key Largo, now offers wireless Internet to guests of the resort.
Amoray Dive Resort features Caribbean plantation-style rooms and one-bedroom villas, including some fully equipped with kitchens and screened porches. All accommodations are air-conditioned and have ceiling fans and cable television. Other resort features include a bayside pool and small sandy beach.

Private charters can be arranged at Amoray for eco-tours aboard a 26-foot, six-passenger catamaran boat, as can scuba instruction, diving trips, snorkeling, sunset cruises and weddings.
For information, call 1-800-4-AMORAY or visit www.amoray.com.

Key Largo’s Ramada Resort & Marina, located at 99751 Overseas Highway, and Holiday Inn Resort & Marina at 99701 Overseas Highway recently became certified members of the Green Lodging Program.

The program was created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to recognize and reward environmentally conscious lodging facilities in the state.

The resorts were awarded “one-palm” certification for their environmental commitment after meeting DEP guidelines for adopting cost-saving practices that reduce waste and conserve natural resources, as well as demonstrating goals for continued improvements that can earn them “two-palm” and “three-palm” certification.

For a complete list of green properties in the Florida Keys, visit the Green Travel section of the Florida Keys Web site at http://www.fla-keys.com/greentravel/designated-properties.cfm.

Bicyclists have a unique opportunity to learn about the history of the Upper Keys while getting some exercise and sunshine. An Islamorada Historical Bicycle Tour is scheduled each Saturday and Sunday through the summer and early fall months. The free tour, set for 10 a.m. to noon, starts next door to the famed Hurricane Monument at MM 81.6.

Highlights along the six-mile tour include Matecumbe Methodist Church, the first church established in Islamorada, information about three pioneer families — the Russells, Pinders and Parkers — and how they homesteaded Matecumbe Key in the 1800s, island life during the era that led up to the development of the Overseas Railroad and how the railroad established Islamorada as a tourist location.

Among other attractions, participating riders tour two local homes, stop at the historic Green Turtle for refreshments, visit the first location in Florida where a fishing tournament was held and learn about Ponce De Leon’s discovery of the Florida Keys.

Each tour is limited to 16 riders, and participants can bring their own bikes or arrange for rentals. To sign up for the tour, contact Mark Terrill at (305) 879-0390. To rent a bike, contact Backcountry Cowboy at (305) 511-4177.

Just in time for the summer dolphin season, the Marathon Bait & Tackle Shop has opened at 3740 Overseas Highway, across from the Marathon Community Park near mile marker 49 in the Middle Keys.

Norman and Sue Moore, avid anglers for decades, partnered with Donna Vankirk, who has been a local captain and guide for 25 years, to design a “complete fishing center” offering bait, tackle and available charters for flats, backcountry and offshore fishing. Coming soon is a fly department, filling a needed niche in the Middle Keys for a sport that appeals to people of all ages, according to Vankirk.

Marathon Bait & Tackle is customer-oriented and personalized, and owners and staff share their experience with anglers looking for Key Largo rods, Billy Bait or even sage advice.

Open seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., the emporium can be reached at (305) 289-BAIT (2248). A Web site is set to premiere soon.

Exhilarating thrill riders now have another adrenaline outlet in Marathon. 7 Mile Watersports opened in March 2009 with three-man waverunners available for half-hour and hour-long rentals starting at $60 and $85, respectively, including all safety gear and personal watercraft briefing.
Located at 1090 Overseas Highway, behind Rum Bum’s Bar & Grille in 7 Mile Marina, the rental tiki shack is open for business seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., or until dusk if visitors make reservations for sunset jet ski cruises.

Jet skis can hold up to three people — two adults and a child — and riders have complete, unguided access to a 12-mile radius of Florida Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico.

Military, group and multicraft rental discounts are available, and persons age 14 and up qualify to pilot jet skis. For renters age 14 to 21 with a guardian, a temporary boater’s certificate is issued after a Safe Boating Test is completed.

To make reservations (recommended but not required), stop by the rental shack, call (305) 743-2015 or e-mail sevenmilewatersports@hotmail.com.

The beach area at Bahia Honda State Park has been ranked second in a listing of the United States’ best beaches by TripAdvisor. The list was determined by the TripAdvisor Popularity Index and TripAdvisor editors.

TripAdvisor-branded Web sites provide online travel reviews and feature more than 25 million monthly visitors and 10 million registered members.

The 524-acre state park is located on Bahia Honda Key between MM 36 and MM 37. One of the Florida Keys’ most popular camping and recreation areas, Bahia Honda is known for its extensive sandy beaches and deep near-shore waters for swimming and snorkeling.

Visitors to the park also can enjoy camping, picnicking, birding, watersports, fishing and sunning. Amenities include a marina, watersports concession, nature center and rental cabins.
Bahia Honda earned Green Lodging designation for its cabins from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for implementing cost-saving practices that reduce waste and conserve natural resources.

For information about Bahia Honda State Park, call (305) 872-2353 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda/default.cfm.

Parmer’s Resort, located on the water at 565 Barry Ave., off U.S. Hwy. 1 at MM 28.5 gulfside on Little Torch Key, recently earned Green Lodging certification in recognition of its pro-environmental practices that save energy and reduce waste.

Parmer’s offers moderately priced accommodations that include traditional guestrooms, efficiencies and one- through three-bedrooms suites, many with fully equipped kitchens. Located in a tranquil residential neighborhood, the five-acre waterfront property features a swimming pool, three lighted boat basins and dockage. A complimentary continental breakfast is served daily.

The resort’s green practices include recycling, water rationing, energy conservation, use of environmentally friendly cleaning products and “at your request” towel and linen exchange. In addition, the lush grounds incorporate native vegetation and landscaping.

The Florida Green Lodging Program was created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to recognize environmentally conscious lodging facilities.

For more information about the resort, visit www.parmersresort.com. For reservations, call (305) 872-2157.

For the first time, certified divers can work alongside professional treasure salvage experts excavating the wreck site of the legendary 1622 Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Approximately $400 million in Atocha treasure and artifacts was discovered in 1985 by the late shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher in approximately 55 feet of water 35 miles off Key West. The weeklong Atocha Dive Adventure was created by Fisher’s descendents, who are still seeking the rest of the rich cargo listed on the vessel’s manifest.

The Atocha Dive Adventure includes training in commercial treasure salvage techniques, behind-the-scenes tours of Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and the Fishers’ artifact conservation laboratory, a day of diving on the new Vandenberg artificial reef and two full days of diving the Atocha wrecksite.

Any participating diver who discovers gold, silver or artifacts will receive a previously conserved Atocha piece of equal value, up to $2,500, from the Fisher family’s private collection.

The package, whose $2,500 per person cost includes accommodations in an Old Town Key West vacation home, can be booked through August 2009. Available dates for the summer 2010 season are to be announced in early November 2009.

For more information, e-mail scowles@melfisher.com or visit www.melfisher.com.

The 74-foot gaff-rigged schooner WOLF, which has been headquartered in Key West for 25 years, is returning to the island’s Historic Seaport to offer day sails, sunset cruises and starlight sails through November 2009.

Known as the flagship of the Conch Republic, the WOLF is patterned after the 19th-century blockade runners that plied the waters of the Florida Straits.

The classic schooner has appeared in numerous films, is a mainstay of the annual Pirates in Paradise Festival and is known for its humanitarian relief sails to needy Caribbean and Bahamian island communities.

The WOLF is docked at the foot of William Street in the heart of the Historic Seaport.

Ticket prices for day, sunset and starlight cruises are $39 per person for adults, $19.50 for children ages 6-12 and free for younger children. Fares are valid through November 20 and include soft drinks, water, ice and mixers. Guests are welcome to bring their own beer and wine. The vessel also is available for private charters and nautical excursions.

For trip times and reservations, call the WOLF at (305) 296-9694 or Sebago Watersports at (305) 296-9992. For more information about the WOLF, visit www.schoonerwolf.com.

Key West’s nightly Sunset Celebration has been named America’s best unheralded free attraction by TripAdvisor.
The accolade was determined by the TripAdvisor Popularity Index and TripAdvisor editors. TripAdvisor-branded Web sites provide online travel reviews and feature more than 25 million monthly visitors and 10 million registered members.

For more than 30 years, Key West’s Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square has drawn large nightly crowds to applaud the talents of colorful street performers, view local artisans’ handmade wares and watch the sun sink beneath the horizon beyond Key West Harbor. Highlights include a tightrope walker, jugglers, mimes, quirky animal acts, fortune tellers, musicians, foodstuffs including “Pretty Good Popcorn” and unobstructed views of the setting sun.

In its announcement of the designation, TripAdvisor lauded the nightly event as “a celebration of dazzling Key West sunsets.” For more information, visit www.sunsetcelebration.com.

Key West’s Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum, Florida’s only presidential museum, was recently rededicated following an $850,000, seven-year, research-intensive restoration that brings a new level of historical authenticity to the structure that was once Truman’s working presidential headquarters.

From 1946 to 1952, Truman spent 11 working vacations at the 20-room West Indian residence on the Key West Navy Base that became known as his Little White House.

Elements of the restoration included repainting all interior walls to match the 1949 colors revealed by a detailed paint analysis; replacing living room draperies and upholstery with fabric that matched the original; re-creation and installation of the foyer’s original wallpaper; finding and reproducing 18 oil paintings and prints that were displayed in the 1949 Little White House, and replicating the 1948 gardens based on site plans and their appearance in vintage photographs.

The restoration provides a fitting setting for the original furnishings and Truman belongings, including the former president’s piano and poker table, displayed at the Little White House since it opened as a museum.

The museum is located at 111 Front St. on Key West’s Truman Annex. For more information, call (305) 294-9911 or visit www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com.

Visitors to Key West can set sail for afternoon, sunset and stargazing cruises on the elegant Schooner Halie & Matthew, operated by Calypso Charters and docked in front of the Schooner Wharf Bar at 202 William St.

Overnight trips also are offered, as are corporate and group excursions and adventure cruises to Dry Tortugas National Park, located approximately 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.

The gracious vessel, whose trips are designed to create a windjamming experience, can carry up to 90 passengers for day and evening sails and up to 36 passengers for overnight trips. Amenities include 10 staterooms with private baths, mahogany and marble accents, a spacious galley for cooking gourmet cuisine, full bar and attentive crew.

Costs for day and evening sails begin at $40 per person for a two-hour afternoon excursion with complimentary drinks.

For more information, visit www.calypsosailing.com or call (305) 896-8004.

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.