On a recent foray to the Florida Keys, we got a glimpse of the rebirth the destination is undergoing, with a decidedly upscale twist.
The most exciting and closely watched reopening has been the Bungalows Key Largo, one of the very few all-inclusive hotels in the United States and the only adults-only one in the Keys.
What we love: The 135 oversized private bungalows come with two Huffy cruiser bikes for getting around, a Bougainvillea-draped veranda and an outdoor soaking tub in a private attached garden. For the best view, ask for waterfront bungalows No. 129 or No. 130.
The Waterfront Bungalows at Bungalows Key Largo have a private veranda with soaking tub and outdoor shower.
The “all-inclusive” rate includes premium beverages and water toys, but it’s the food that really defines “luxury” at an all-inclusive resort. For daytime, the Bungalows has the airy Fish Tales, serving three meals a day, and Mexican on the beach at Sea Señor. For finer dining, head to Bogie & Bacall’s, where dinner comes in five courses — starting one recent night with little neck clams; including lobster profiterole, risotto, churrasco and snapper; and ending with a deconstructed Key lime pie.
Breathe the salt air outside or in the only Himalayan salt room in the Keys at the full-service Zen Garden Spa or try a bamboo or magnesium massage in the outdoor Tiki Hut overlooking Buttonwood Bay, a CBD soak, or the Relaxation Room overlooking the black bamboo forest. Spa coordinator Susan Johnson ([email protected]) suggests booking these when you make your reservation.
As the sun sets, ride one of the onsite tiki boats down Buttonwood Sound, where the warmer waters attract manatees and dolphins.
Cynthia Costa ([email protected]), travel advisor liaison, can arrange private planes, seaplanes or boating experiences with exquisite dining and beverages.
Floating Tiki Boats at Bungalows Key Largo take guests down Buttonwood Sound at sunset.
For more back-to-nature luxury, Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, Curio Collection by Hilton layers the lush feel of Ben Baker’s mid-1800s pineapple plantation, which once sat on this spot, with fine dining and a focus on the environment.
The bones date back to the 1980s, but everything else, from the three treehouse-like floors of event space to the oversized and cuddly manatee pillows on the beds, has been lovingly restored post-Irma.
There’s the only soft sand beach in the Keys and a New Orleans chef will stand by your side as you clean and cook your catch of sustainable fish, caught in the morning in partnership with the Docks to Dish program.
Conservation has an emotional appeal in the Keys, and Baker’s Cay serves as the benchmark for sustainability within the Curio family. There are no single use plastics; the laundry bags are reusable; the rooms sport pencils instead of pens; many of the vegetables and peppers used in the restaurant are grown on the roof.
Come bedtime, retire to any of the 10 one-bedroom waterfront suites with their views of Florida Bay — but opt for the corner rooms, 400 (in the quieter Hammock Wing) or 456 (in the more vibrant Coconut Wing), which have wrap-around terraces. For families, consider the Baker’s Cay Suite, which has a kitchen.
The food is hot in more ways than one; executive chef Andy Papson brews 100 bottles a week of his famous hot sauces, makes his own seafood sausage and decorates his Key lime pie wedding cakes with edible flowers. Grab a swing at one of the tables overlooking the beach and try the short ribs with vanilla beans and honey.
If you’re a Hilton Honors member, check out the special reception every Thursday.
With 100 brides a year coming to Baker’s Cay, the onsite Aveda salon offers hair, massage and full bridal styling. Advisors can reach out to spa director Melissa Wood ([email protected]).
The Perry Hotel Key West
If you watch reality TV, you might have caught a glimpse of The Perry Hotel Key West.
Opened in 2017 and undamaged by the storm, the Perry just completed Phase 3 of its construction. The marina, the deepest in the Keys, now has larger slips, for boats up to 430 feet. There is also an event lawn with a raised stage and VIP terrace, a restaurant, a pool, two dog parks, an onsite distillery brewing privately branded rum, and adorable little Arcimoto vehicles for tooling around town.
Ask for a Grand Suite, where you can host a private reception on the 700-plus-square-foot furnished balcony if you’d like. And don’t miss the signature seafood towers, with stone crab claws, ceviche, tuna tartare, Key West Pink Shrimp and oysters, served in vintage tackle boxes, at the marina-side restaurant — you just might catch a glimpse of a TV or sports celebrity sailing up from Miami.
For in-room spa services or VIP experiences like exclusive tours of Hemingway’s House with dinner on the lawn or seaplane charters with caviar and champagne, contact Corinne Dean ([email protected]), travel advisor liaison.
She or sales and events manager Carolyn Butiste ([email protected]) can also arrange private-island dinners, seaplane charters or helicopter tours with champagne and caviar, or other one-of-a kind experiences. Key West Airport does not offer access to private small aircraft, but you can arrange to land helicopters, sea planes or private jets at the Fixed Base Operator private airport next door.
The all-new Isla Bella Beach Resort opened in April 2019 near the Seven Mile bridge in Marathon. It’s a lush 24-acre resort with five pools — including one you can reserve for your group, complete with a private bar, bartender and servers — and two custom Moke beach cruisers to incorporate into events.
Ask for a Luxe Beachside Residence, Nos. 15 – 69 in Buildings 2, 3 or 4, for the best water views. There also are 22 accessible rooms, wheelchair lifts to the marina and the spa, and a walkway to the beach and pool.
In the spa, make a reservation for the Seaside Swedish Massage with spa director Malva Borba ([email protected]).
For dinner, go with the locals and try the hogfish with the parmesan crust and red wine reduction at Il Postino. But don’t be too proud to try the real specialty of the house, the lightest pizza in the Keys, made in-house from dough that’s fermented for 36 hours.
For special requests, contact general manager Justin Nels ([email protected]).
The Coastal Suite is one of the two penthouse suites at Hawks Cay Resort. Shown below is the living room of the 1,400-square-foot suite.
Hawks Cay Resort
In a $50 million renovation, the owners of this traditional Florida family favorite (whose guests include a U.S. president who shall remain nameless) shifted their attention a bit from the family to the adult market.
The new director of resort experiences is charged with entertaining guests of all ages. There are mermaids and pirates for the kids; a cigar menu and fine dining menu at Sixty-One Prime; a watersports program with charter boats and pontoon-like paddleboards you can take out for fishing; a pod of onsite dolphins with which you can interact; and the largest meeting space in the Keys.
The best rooms are the penthouses, with 3,200-square-foot decks overlooking the Atlantic or Hawks Cay Harbor. The best sunset view is from the Presidential Waterview Room, overlooking the Saltwater Lagoon, the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay.
For dinner, executive chef William Ryan, named Chef of the Year by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association in 2019, suggests the Smoked Wagyu Beef Carpaccio, the Chili Encrusted Yellowfin Tuna and the warm white chocolate macadamia nut bread pudding with caramel sauce and toffee ice cream.
The Hawks Cay Resort’s Sixty One Prime serves prime steaks and signature seafood dishes.
Contact spa director Meghan Hesher ([email protected]) or general manager Yunior Rodriguez ([email protected]) to book a private dining experience around the Saltwater Lagoon or a fishing tournament for your group.
Little Palm Island
The ultra-luxury, adults-only Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, part of the Noble House Hotels & Resorts Collection, opened March 1, with 15 redesigned thatched-roof bungalows, some with outdoor soaking tubs; new private poolside cabanas and a two-story spa.
Kimpton Key West
On the drawing board for this spring, Kimpton promises a collection of five separate boutique properties in the historic district — each with a distinct personality, from “estate-like guesthouses to charming bungalows and original conch houses” — and every room unique. Stay tuned.
A Keys classic and Bush vacation destination, Cheeca Lodge reopened March 2018, post-Hurricane Irma, with a hot new tiki bar, plus new pools and cabanas. For the best room, choose the King Lodge Suite Ocean View, 308; the Queen Resort View, 301; or the Islamorada Suite.
The Hawks Cay Resort has five pools, including the adults-only tranquility pool (here).
If your definition of luxury is more about unique experiences and stories to tell, wakeboard master Matthew Sexton’s brand-new property might be for you. Operating under the mantra “Kiteboarding is the new golf,” Sexton brings a quirky young athleticism, a Conch Republic pirate feel and a focus on ecotourism.
Open since May, the four-bedroom Rum House is an inviting alternative to golf-and-scotch weekends for travelers looking for more adventure. You can go kitesurfing with the master and come home to barrel-aged rum in a private bar.
Private jets and helicopters can land in Marathon Airport, 10 minutes away.
The Islander Resort
An icon for two decades of family vacations in the Keys (and featured in the movies “Red Dragon” and “Bloodline”), the Islander’s 17-month renovation was designed to take it more upscale. The in-room kitchens are gone (though refrigerators remain); the landscaping has been brought to “a Disney level,” designed to manage the sight lines and noise levels. The Outrigger Suite, 513, has a full kitchen and hot tub overlooking the largest private beach in the Keys — large enough to land a private helicopter, if you have the right permits.
The Islander Resort’s Outrigger Suite has a full kitchen and hot tub overlooking the largest private beach in the Keys.
From floors to walls, everything is new post-hurricane in the 34 water-view townhouses that make up Parrot Key. The upstairs B units have better views, but the As, on the ground floor open onto the beach, where hammocks sway. Families or groups can take both levels. Champagne and smoothies flow and are included.
Ask for Unit 35, the first in the row along the beach, which has an extra window on the side.
Out and About
The Keys are all about fresh fish, the environment and the local personalities, who all seem eager to share tall tales of pirates and Mafiosi and of the one that got away.
For an unforgettable experience, swim with the scientists at the Coral Restoration Foundation. In its one-and-a-half-acre nursery for baby coral, coral restorers grow and replant the badly endangered Florida Coral Reef, the third largest in the world and the only one in the continental United States.
Parrot Key Hotel & Villas comprises 34 water-view townhouses. // Photo by James Baigrie
For dolphin watching, try Honest Eco in Key West, home to the first electric-powered charter boat, where owner Billy Litmer’s sustainable nature tours “use amazing wildlife experiences to help foster conservation.”
For dinner, have lionfish sushi at Castaway Restaurant in Marathon, where owner John Mirabella will pull up a chair and tell tales of how he controls the invasive species by spearfishing them every morning before cooking them up for you.
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