By Alysha Brown
Miami might be Florida’s bustling cultural capital but the Keys, with their idyllic white sand beaches, turquoise waters and first-class resorts are a reminder of Florida’s Caribbean influence. So think twice about jetting off to St. Barts or the Turks and Caicos for a quick getaway, as you might be pleasantly surprised staying stateside.
Several flights from major airlines arrive at Key West International Airport every day of the week.
WHERE TO STAY
Key West’s Casa Marina Resort and Beach Club (casamarinaresort.com) is wrapping up a multi-million dollar renovation that will modernize all 311 guest rooms and public spaces, and see the addition of two pools, cabanas and a sublime water walkway along the Atlantic. A night in the newly revamped resort costs between $280-$800. In Key Largo, the exclusive Ocean Reef Club (oceanreef.com) offers high-end vacation rental units to non-members, but prices can reach close to $3,000 per night. Guests can access the two Bob Von Hagge and Bruce Delvin designed golf courses, Dolphin and Hammock, 10 tennis courts and spa. Those who miss domesticity should sign up for one of the many classes at the club’s cooking school where top chefs workshop everything from Mediterranean to Mexican cuisine. If you can get over the name, Cheeca Lodge and Spa (cheeca.com) in Islamorada has beachfront bungalows that are worth a visit for a night or two, with each one setting you back about $900. The 27-acre property has a private beach, executive golf course, sport fishing and even a kid’s camp for the little ones. For the rest, relaxation and luxury in a secluded setting, head to Little Torch Key’s Little Palm Island (littlepalmisland.com), a private resort accessible only by boat or seaplane, where the over-sized hammocks, out-door showers and thatched-roof villas in lush tropical gardens feel more like Fiji than Florida. Villas cost $1,000-$1,500 a night.
WHAT TO DO
Spend some time diving or snorkeling in the turquoise waters of Key Largo’s Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, home of the country’s only living coral reef. Reputable outfitters include Tavernier Dive Center and Quiescence Diving Services. Those who prefer to stay above water will want to take advantage of the world-class fishing scene; in Islamorada, a half-day trip with Bud n’ Mary’s Fishing Marina will run around $600. Or try kayaking in the glassy waters of Key West’s backcountry with Reelax Charters. Get a bird’s eye view of the islands on a day trip with Seaplanes of Key West. The eight-hour journey makes a stop at Dry Tortugas, the most western of the Key’s islands and Fort Jefferson, the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere. For more on the cultural front, visit Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. And be sure to pick up a copy of “To Have and Have Not,” for beach reading or skimming at one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts.
WHERE TO EAT
If you’re staying at Little Palm Island, you’ll quickly realize that half of the hotel’s draw is the fresh seafood like yellowtail snapper ceviche at Chef Luis Pous’ top-rated restaurant The Dining Room or at a private candle-lit table on the beach; the chef will also pack a picnic for you to enjoy beachside. Back in Key West try Louie’s Backyard for brunch, but make sure to snag a table on the sprawling patio that overlooks the sparkling Atlantic. Watch the sun slip away while you graze on dishes like Macadamia crusted Grouper and Gulf oysters at Hot Tin Roof at the Ocean Key Resort & Spa (Little Palm Island’s sister hotel). In Islamorada, the elegant Pierre’s, housed in an old plantation, is known for its lavish preparation of local seafood. Try the lump crab Napoleon served over avocado mousse followed by the herb crusted halibut with a truffle emulsion.