Garden greeter, boat rocker, pie-master: Pursuing passions in Key West

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News,Entertainment,Robin Tierney

Around Mile Marker 0 on the Overseas Highway, working folks appear as happy as vacationers. Swaying palms, pastel houses, teal sea and funky festivities make Key West, Fla., a tempting place to start anew.

Decades after Key West vacations with his grandmother, Kermit Carpenter baked up a new career using her key lime pie recipe. Now he dashes about Key West Key Lime Shoppe in a lime-green chef's toque and matching shoes, greeting tourist trolleys with oversized pies. The former department store buyer moved from Montgomery County because "After so many cold winters, I wanted out of there!" His views include Jimmy Buffett's old parking space and Mallory Square, site of nightly sundown celebrations.

Beneath towering tropical plants, Helen Spurgeon feels worlds apart from Arlington. Having recently bought a Key West condo, she volunteers at Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden, a lush oasis in the center of Key West's Old Town. "Nancy does a fantastic job, [preserving] the trees planted by sea captains in the 1800s." The greeter calls the setting "so peaceful" -- aside from the chatter of brilliantly feathered parrots, exotic animal trade castoffs now safe in the sanctuary.

"Our cottage [at Ambrosia Inn] was just across the fence," said Cindy Freese, of Alexandria. "Every morning, my husband and I were out by the pool drinking coffee ... we listened to the parrots wake up. We could hear the caretaker go from parrot to parrot and be greeted. After a few mornings, we started to recognize voices," Freese said. "Finally, we [went] over to the garden to meet the parrots ... [we] talked to them. Some responded, some looked at us like we were out of our minds."

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Before the Fury catamaran sets sail for Commotion on the Ocean happy hour, Terry Wetmore sets up his cajon, a Peruvian percussive box. Tours with his past band took him from D.C.'s 9:30 Club to Key West, where "I fell in love." He eventually moved and now rocks the deck nightly with the Cory Heydon Band.

After Jurijs Karpejevs's Ukrainian wife lamented, "There's nothing to eat," they opened European Village Cafe, a microkitchen introducing Conchs (locals) to pierogies and borscht. A year ago, two Brits converted a gas station into Help Yourself, revitalizing Old Town with whole and raw food cuisine -- and Sunday farmers markets complete with steel drum music.

Freese hasn't yet planned a life change. But she's planning her return.

Reach Robin Tierney at robintierney@gmail.com.

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