A small museum depicting the natural and historic resources of Dry Tortugas National Park and historic Fort Jefferson has opened in Key West, offering visitors an easily accessible introduction to one of America's most remote national parks.
The Dry Tortugas and Key West Bight Interpretive Center is at 240 Margaret St. on the Key West Bight, a natural deep-water harbor on the island's Gulf of Mexico side. The free museum also spotlights the culturally rich history of the bight.
Dry Tortugas National Park, lying approximately 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, is made up of seven tiny coral-and-sand islands. It includes Fort Jefferson, one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1846. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a Union military prison for captured deserters and others. It's most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who conspired with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
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Museum highlights include an 11-foot-diameter scale model of the historic fort as it appeared in the 1870s, a 30-foot-long photomural depicting the bight's historic highlights, a life-sized replica of Mudd and a hands-on children's exhibit showcasing the natural resources of the park.
The center's opening is among several Florida Keys events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida and the Keys island chain. Adventurer Juan Ponce de Leon sighted the Keys May 15, 1513, according to Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas. On June 21, de Leon and his shipmates discovered a group of islands they named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) for the scores of sea turtles they harvested there.
Operated by Yankee Freedom, the only commercial boat licensed to carry passengers to Dry Tortugas National Park, the interpretive center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Visit http://www.yankeefreedom.com.
Eco-Discovery in Key West
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, located on the waterfront past the Truman Annex in Key West, is a free environmental facility where visitors can experience the Keys' underwater ecosystem without getting wet. The 6,400-square-foot center showcases the Keys' underwater and upland habitats, with an emphasis on continental America's only living continuous barrier coral reef that parallels the island chain. Info: floridakeys.noaa.gov.
Family travel help
Web and video features on the Florida Keys & Key West's official website recently debuted to cater to visiting families and can be found at http://www.fla-keys.com/familytravel. The site includes a wide variety of family-friendly activities, with featured links to Keys attractions and informative videos about them. They range from the unusual six-toed cats at Key West's Hemingway Home and Museum to water experiences appealing to adventure-loving kids and adults. Among them is one of the first family-friendly attractions in the Keys, the Key West Aquarium, which opened in 1934. The aquarium is home to tropical fish, moray eels, grouper, tarpon and more. Kids can even pet a shark or interact with small sea creatures in a touch tank.
Celebrate Florida's 500
To celebrate Florida's 500th birthday, Ocean Key Resort & Spa prepares to toast the southernmost tip of Florida in true Key West fashion with the "Old Town Get Down" package. Valid through Dec. 19 ($2,499 for two-night minimum stay), the "Old Town Get Down Package" includes luxury Harborview two bedroom suite, one day bike rentals for island adventures, one day tickets to Hemingway House, Audubon House & Gardens and the Little White House, official Conch Republic Passport per person, two tropical cocktails at Sunset Pier per person, per day, ocean view dinner for four at Hot Tin Roof. Info: oceankey.com.