By Lane Nieset
On Christmas Eve, I did what most former Floridians do: I hopped in my Corolla that’s been sitting in my parents’ driveway since college and mapped out the trip from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, which passes through 44 islands along the Overseas Highway. Over the years, I’ve crisscrossed the state several times by car, driving through the Everglades and Central Florida, along the Gulf and up to the Panhandle. While Florida is one of the most biodiverse states in the country—and it’s part of the North American Coastal Plain, which has been listed as one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots—there are few drives that can top the trek to Key West.
I’ve made the four-hour journey several times before, but this trip felt different. When I pulled in to Bahia Honda State Park, the popular Sandspur Beach was still closed to the public for 15 months after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, one of the few reminders of the Category 4 storm. Just five days after the hurricane, the 113-mile-long Overseas Highway and its 42 bridges were deemed safe for driving, and by December 2017, over three-quarters of the lodging in the Keys was up and running. “It takes far more than a climate event to handcuff Key West,” says Mayor Teri Johnston. “We were up and welcoming guests mere weeks following Irma.”
Now, a new wave of hotels, restaurants and roadside attractions are once again beckoning visitors to make the scenic drive down the 125-mile-long Florida Keys island chain. State parks and institutions like the Caribbean Club, the backdrop for the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall 1948 film, “Key Largo,” still stand strong in the Keys’ longest—and northernmost—island. But pineapple plantation-turned-boutique hotel Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, the first Curio Collection by Hilton property to debut in the Keys, is positioning Key Largo as the ultimate snorkel staycation spot. Pack your fins and spend the day in the “diving capital,” swimming around John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s underwater statues (like the landmark Christ of the Abyss, which stacks up at nearly 9 feet tall) before taking in views of the water from another vantage point—the wraparound terrace of your oceanfront suite.
“The definition of luxury has shifted; now it is all about enjoying the best in life through experiences that resonate with each individual,” says Joy Michelle Boyd, the resort’s general manager. “It is the embodiment of luxury for us to see a family fishing on the dock together for the first time or to see a couple getting engaged in front of one of our spectacular sunsets.”
The 200-room Baker’s Cay Key Largo takes a cue from its surroundings with a beach bungalow-style design heavy on teak and tropical motifs, outfitted with hammock-lined paths, handcarved wood furniture and white wicker patio chairs. Guest rooms are stocked with raw honey-infused bath amenities from KeezBeez, which tends to over 500 hives around the Keys. The menu at Creole-tinged Calusa (the brainchild of New Orleans transplant chef Andy Papson) is just as Florida-focused, serving locally caught seafood and farm-fresh produce—as well as a few homegrown ingredients plucked from the rooftop garden. Expect playful spins on classic shrimp and grits with green onion, smoked gouda and andouille sausage, as well as a twist on traditional Key lime pie, where classic graham cracker is switched out for a pecan and white chocolate crust that’s topped with a toasted coconut meringue cookie and guava glaze.
At the end of the year, another resort just a quick drive down the street will open: the 12-acre, adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, a luxury all-inclusive property featuring 135 garden and oceanfront bungalows. Picture private verandas sporting outdoor soaking tubs (and views of the Atlantic), poolside craft cocktails served at the Sunset Tiki Bar, and six-course, seasonally driven dinners at fine dining restaurant Bogie & Bacall’s.
If you drive an hour south, you’ll come across one of the hottest new marinas in the boating hub of Marathon. The catch is that this harbor is exclusive to Isla Bella Beach Resort, a sprawling, 24-acre waterfront hotel located on Knights Key—the first to open in this stretch since the storm. One of the latest projects from Florida Keys developer Pritam Singh, whose portfolio also includes The Marker Waterfront Resort and Oceans Edge Key West Resort & Marina, the 199-room, three-story Isla Bella Beach Resort looks everywhere from Bermuda to the Greek islands for architectural inspiration (think reclaimed French herringbone wood floors and chiseled marble, with archways framing picture-perfect shots of the sea).
After catching the sunrise from your terrace, set off from the marina with father-and-son fishing guides Jack and Austin Carlson to troll for tarpon near the Seven Mile Bridge or hunt for tuna in deep waters. For a more laid-back experience, snag a kayak and paddle through the surrounding mangroves. Of course, you can also relax in true Keys fashion by sunbathing at one of five pools (which transform into dive-in theaters come nightfall) or on the mile-long private beach—a rarity in the island chain. After taking part in the resort’s spin on Key West’s nightly sunset celebration, post up for dinner at Naples-inspired eatery Il Postino, where you can indulge in house-made Italian specialties (wood-fired pizza, fresh pasta) from patio seats perched along the water.
“The resort doesn’t look like something typically found in the Keys, since most hotels here don’t have beaches,” says Simon Mais, executive vice president of operations for EOS Hospitality, which owns Isla Bella Beach Resort. “This hotel brings a level of luxury that hasn’t come to the Keys in a while.”
Signs of new life trickled all the way down to the southernmost tip of Key West, the last leg of my trip. The nightlife-heavy locale is typically favored for its lack of change, with partiers pouring into the Hemingway haunts lining Duval Street. But the culinary scene has been shifting in Key West for the past few years, and a local friend (and fellow foodie) recommended I reserve a seat at the shoebox-sized Little Pearl, the latest from the team behind beloved raw bar Thirsty Mermaid. I sidled into the denim-colored booth along the wall and ordered a glass of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from the wine list, which varies just as frequently as the catch of the day. The next day, I would indulge in Key West classics like conch. But this night, as I dug into a plate of steaming seared diver scallops drizzled with tahini soy vinaigrette, I couldn’t have been happier.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 Issue.