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Guest: Key West
Key West:
There’s a WHAT in the Backyard???

Story & photos by Fyllis Hockman

tropical plants including a palm tree at Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden in Key West, FL
Large green foliage
he beautiful parrots were bantering back and forth; giant palms obscured light from above; large leaf exotic plants obstructed the path. I felt like a Lilliputian in a land of overlapping green giants, each one poised to grab me should I dare to slow down a bit to gawk. Yet the diversity and unfamiliarity of the plants and trees make it hard not to gape. The only question remained: How did this tropical rainforest end up in Nancy Forrester’s backyard in Key West, Florida?

Billed as Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden –- and indeed located as it is at the end of a hidden, narrow dirt lane, it well deserves its moniker -– the story behind its creation is as intriguing as a stroll among its many trails. It all started some 40 years ago, when painter and photographer –- and currently self-described eco-artist -- Nancy Forrester’s keen eye saw some promise in the then-undesignated city dump. Once she and her family moved in, “we just cleared up the debris and started gardening. It evolved into a rainforest almost by design, as my artist friends and I planted mostly tropical exotic shade plants at random.”

Asserting that “the natural world has always been my teacher and the theme of my art,” she credits her love of nature and a simple basic style of living as inspiration to protect the land from overdevelopment.

colorful croton leaves in Nancy Forrester's garden
Colorful leaves

As the last remaining undeveloped wooded acre in the town, it now houses 100 different species of palms, ferns and orchids and vast quantities of lush aroids (the afore-mentioned giant foliage), set amidst 100+-year-old fruit trees. Many are rare and endangered, and have developed into a select gene pool that can keep a species alive. And although I don’t know what an angiopteroius fern is, I was impressed when Nancy claimed she has five different varieties and that hers is the only garden in the country to have them. Not to mention that her endangered cycads date from the time of the dinosaurs. That’s good enough for me.

The plants are not the only endangered species around; so are some of the 22 parrots that call the forest home. Many of them are being lovingly nursed back to health from a variety of parrot ailments. The garden doubles as a non-profit humane society, at one time housing 100 birds, although Nancy has since limited her brood to 22: “We have to make sure we can safely evacuate them all in the event of a hurricane,” she explains.

Mr. Peaches - a white cockatoo rescued from New York City
Mr. Peaches

And these are no ordinary birds; they each boast a definitive personality of their own. Imaginative write-ups list their origin, vocabulary -- some of which is quite extensive -- their history, favorite treats, likes and dislikes, foibles and frailties. Well, okay – maybe not so much. But beautiful Ara, for example, sings opera, eats pizza, and loves shoes and dancing, and happily spreads her wings upon request. Mr. Peaches, a handsome screaming white cockatoo, is a rescue from New York City where he frequently rode the subway, likes broccoli, dislikes pecans and is especially fond of salsa and chips. Choo Choo, formerly Chatsworth whose favorite meal is breakfast, actually sneezes just for fun, and Rock, a high-energy Hawk-headed parrot, is the star entertainer who flirts with everyone, whistles, sings, does a fabulous wicked witch impersonation, and insists on bathing in his water bowl even on the coldest days of the year. His “Hi Baby, whatcha doin’?” is a frequent refrain.

As Nancy entertains visitors with tales of her garden and animal escapades, her prized blue Brazilian parrot, Baby, often hangs upside down on her perch, swinging and doing calisthenics. Nancy’s devotion to her pets and plants is contagious, and her conviction that we are “morally obligated” to save “Earth’s life forms” heartfelt. “Here, art is experience,” she enthuses. “Come to be inspired. Draw, paint, and write poetry. Sing and dance. Help celebrate 40 years of green living and sustainable behavior.” The fact that it’s in the heart of Key West is an added bonus.

Nancy Forrester, a friend and Baby - a prized blue Brazilian parrot or Lear's Macaw
Nancy, Baby and friend at a photo shoot

As Amanda Albert of New Orleans crowed: “It makes me so happy to come here. I return every year. It’s so rare to see such wonderful birds –- and to think, you saved them all.”

But given the expense of maintaining such a special world, and the fact that the few visitors who are actually able to find the garden have diminished recently due to the downturn in travel everywhere, pleas for donations are in evidence at almost every turn. But the sense of imposition is offset by their sense of whimsy.

Upon entry, where the admission is $10 per human, one is greeted by a sign proclaiming: “If I am not in the garden to greet you, it is because I am underfunded, short-staffed and working to stave off development.” Further down a small graded nook: “Imagine this area gone and in its place 9.1 residences each with a parking space for 2 cars.” And intermingled among the parrot lairs: warnings not to pay attention to the ‘screaming’ white parrots: “No eye contact; No smiling; Turn your back and walk away” -– but essentially, please leave something behind for their care.

thick tropical foliage surround a path inside Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden
Meandering path through the garden

There is much to see in Key West itself, a city where anything goes, where everyone feels comfortable. It's a city of contradictions. It's a city that's part New Orleans, part island getaway. A town where honky tonk sits comfortably with tropical vegetation on the same barstool. Where man-made tourist attractions thrive beside the intrinsic culture, history and lifestyle of the island. These are the things that draw people to Key West.

And Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden provides a private haven of its own, a chance to reflect upon the history that is still Key West today. Let the serenity transport you to another era when life was a lot simpler, streets a lot safer, and the pace of living a lot slower. And you'll also want to return, as so many others have, year after year. I just hope it continues to survive long enough for that to be possible. For more information, call 305/294-0015 or visit www.nancyforrester.com.

Related Articles:
Kauai Hawaii, New Orleans, Dominica, Costa Rica wildlife

(Posted 3-3-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy


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