Even to new visitors, the damage done to the lush vegetation in the Florida Keys from this past fall’s hurricane season is recognizable. The thick, grown-in landscaping that added to the area’s tropical feel is gone — at least for now. What isn’t gone, however, are the glittering aquamarine waters, sunshine and laid-back vibes.
On Sept. 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma ravaged the 125-mile-long chain of islands, which is divided into five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and the Lower Keys, and Key West. However, the Keys reopened to visitors just three weeks later, with Key Largo and Key West enduring the least amount of damage. At the six-month mark post-Irma (March 2018), nearly 80 percent of all lodging units were back up and running. (But it varies within the island chain: In Key West and Stock Island, 92 percent of all properties are open, but the figure is 53 percent in Islamorada.)
The silver lining in it all is that many properties and facilities that were hammered by hurricane damage have taken this as an opportunity to upgrade, renovate and expand their offerings. The best way to see the area, we think, is via mini-road trip, starting down at the epicenter of activity in Key West and making your way up through the lazier keys for full decompression mode.
From Atlanta, fly into Key West International Airport and rent a car. While staying close to action-packed Duval Street might be appealing to some travelers, don’t let location deter you from trying one of the area’s newer properties, the Perry Hotel (7001 Shrimp Road, Key West. 305-296-1717, perrykeywest.com). Located on Stock Island (about a 20-minute drive from the bars and restaurants of Duval Street), the 100-room boutique hotel offers an industrial chic design that blends smooth wood finishes with rustic metal details and ocean-inspired touches. Go for one of the rooms overlooking the private marina.
Start a day of sightseeing in Key West off with a cafe con leche or a cortadito at Cuban Coffee Queen (284 Margaret St., Key West. 305-292-4747, cubancoffeequeen.com), where you order at a pickup window and take your food to go. Explore the sidewalk cafes, open-air bars and museums on foot or catch a ride on the Conch Tour Train that highlights the island’s history and various attractions. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St., Key West. 305-294-1136, hemingwayhome.com) makes for an interesting stop for literary buffs; plus, 50-some six-toed infamous Hemingway cats call the property home.
At sunset, meander over to Mallory Square to experience the nightly “sunset celebration” — expect musicians, jugglers, acrobats and other performers. If you’re feeling extra-touristy, head to the giant Southernmost Point marker and pose for a pic at the southernmost point in the continental United States — just 90 miles from Cuba.
In Key West, water activities are plentiful. Fury Water Adventures (furycat.com) offers a popular Ultimate Adventure option — an action-packed day that includes parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking and snorkeling. They also offer more low-key options, like sunset cruises and a Dolphin Watch & Snorkel tour.
Next, enjoy a leisurely drive up through the Lower Keys, heading into Marathon for the day. While you’re there, a great family-friendly activity is a visit to the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters (11710 Overseas Highway, Marathon. 305-407-3262, floridakeysaquariumencounters.com). If you’re staying the night in Marathon, treat yourself to a decadent meal at the Butterfly Café (2600 Overseas Highway, Marathon. 305-289-7177, tranquilitybay.com/dining/butterflycafe); otherwise, keep on driving toward Grassy Key for a stop at the Dolphin Research Center (58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key. 305-289-1121, dolphins.org), which is home to a family of dolphins and California sea lions.
Then you might want to consider a stop at Duck Key, home to the 60-acre Hawks Cay Resort (61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Duck Key. 1-888-395-5539, hawkscay.com), which partially reopened in March with 100 villas and its Calm Waters Spa, Sunset Pool, Coral Cay kids’ activities center, and Angler and Ale restaurant. The main hotel, with 177 guestrooms, is set to reopen this summer.
Moving north, you can settle into Islamorada for a few days. While you’re in the “sport-fishing capital of the world,” grab lunch and dine with your toes in the sand and the brilliant aqua waters in the background at Lazy Days Restaurant (79867 Overseas Highway, MM 80, Islamorada. 305-664-5256, lazydaysrestaurant.com) or the Morada Bay Beach Café (81600 Overseas Highway, Islamorada. 305-664-3225, moradabay.com). In the late afternoon, belly up to the taproom bar at the Florida Keys Brewing Co. (81611 Old Highway, Islamorada. 305-916-5206, floridakeysbrewingco.com) for a tasting. Cap off the day with sunset drinks at Marker 88 (88000 Overseas Highway, Islamorada. 305-852-9315, marker88.info) or revel in some fine dining at Pierre’s (81600 Overseas Highway, Islamorada. 305-664-3225, moradabay.com/pierres).
For the ultimate indulgence, check in to one of the freestanding, picturesque cottages at the Moorings (123 Beach Road, Islamorada. 305-664-4708, themooringsvillage.com) — a striking beachfront resort where the Netflix series “Bloodline” filmed. The cottages (ranging from one to three bedrooms) offer full kitchens and furnished porches. While the Moorings’ structures suffered little damage from Hurricane Irma, its lush landscaping is a different story — but replanting efforts are already underway. The iconic dock was rebuilt, and the swimming pool was completely replaced, restoring the resort’s beauty.
After leaving the peaceful community of Islamorada, consider a stop in Key Largo, where the Ocean Pointe Suites (500 Burton Drive, MM 92.5, Key Largo. 305-853-3000, providentresorts.com) reopened at the end of March with a restored private beach.
When you’re done vacationing, drive up to Miami to fly out — and ponder when you can return to the Keys.
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