Heads Up: Refining the Florida Keys

2017-06-08 07:51:02

 

Heads Up: Refining the Florida Keys

To reach the new Oceans Edge Key West resort on Stock Island, one of the southernmost of the Florida Keys, I passed towers of lobster traps marking commercial fishing yards, tidy trailer park compounds and a pair of free-ranging roosters ruling the sidewalk. The resort’s plantation-style reception house, with rocking chairs lining the shady front porch, gave the neighborhood a sudden upgrade.

The islands that hook southwesterly from mainland Florida are circumscribed in terms of growth not just by water and available land, but also by density regulations related to hurricane evacuations. That’s why resorts and hotels rarely expand, despite an average annual occupancy rate of 75 percent in 2016 that beat the national average by 10 points, according to figures from the travel research firm STR. Given those restrictions, several new resorts and a string of refurbished ones are proving that the Keys have nowhere to go but upscale.

Two of those new hotels, including Oceans Edge, opened in January next door to Key West on Stock Island, best known for its commercial marinas and working class communities. Technically, Stock Island, named for the livestock once corralled here, is one of seven islands that make up the city of Key West, though the scruffy yet vibrant island is unlike the boutique-and-bar-packed Old Town, as downtown Key West is known.

“Some people say it’s what Key West used to be,” said Billy Kearins, the founder of Coast, an artist co-op on Stock Island with work spaces in shipping containers.

Developers attracted to Stock Island’s marinas were able to build the new resorts by buying and closing campgrounds elsewhere in the Keys, thus adhering to regulations that require the number of transient rooms available across the islands not to grow.

“Stock Island has an asset that is the ultimate attraction and the reason everyone is here, the harbor-front, waterfront and boat dockage; that’s the magic,” said Pritam Singh, a prominent local developer who opened Oceans Edge.

Many of its 175 rooms — spread over three-story white clapboard buildings — overlook a 111-slip marina and six swimming pools. By day, guests can paddleboard and kayak at a nearby sandbar. At sunset, cocktail crowds fill the open-air Yellowfin Bar & Grill, decorated with an entertaining mural of Keys icons, from six-toed cats to barracuda. The resort encourages guests to explore funky Stock Island with a smartphone app guide to local restaurants, including the Cuban dive El Mocho.

At another Stock Island marina, the Perry Hotel Key West opened in May, replacing a junkyard with 100 rooms spread over a modernist, two-story building.

“It was an abused piece of land; we’ve recycled it,” said Mike Hartman, managing director of the hotel. “At the same time, we’re trying to hang onto the local character.”

Forgoing the clichéd Key West pastel décor for a more industrial look, the Perry salutes Stock Island’s shrimping industry with a sculpture in the lobby that mimics the arms of shrimp boats docked across from the resort’s 220-slip marina. From the marina, guests can take kayaking, sailing and scuba-diving excursions, then return to the dockside oyster bar or the full-service restaurant, Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar.

At the top end of the 120-mile chain of islands, Key Largo is now home to the 144-room Playa Largo Resort & Spa. The first newly built resort in the upper Keys in 21 years, Playa Largo, with 144 hotel rooms and four restaurants and bars, replaces a 14-acre trailer park. Charter boats leave from the resort’s pier for snorkeling trips and sunset cruises.

Playa Largo’s general manager, Mark Frances, describes it as the opposite of the bar and party scene in Key West. “You’re here to be in nature,” he said.

In addition to Playa Largo and the newcomers on Stock Island, more than 30 properties have been opened or refurbished since 2014, according to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. Six free-standing bungalows make up Dolphin Point Villas on Key Largo, set to open in midmonth. On Key West, the adults-only H2O Suites opened in March with 22 suites and a rooftop pool.

Much of the development in the Florida Keys is redevelopment. For example, Amara Cay replaced the former Islamorada Resort in Islamorada with updated rooms, a stylish rum bar and an Italian restaurant. Mr. Singh of Oceans Edge has another property in redevelopment in Marathon in the Middle Keys, but predicts an end to coastal growth in the islands.

“There’s no more developable waterfront land,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about: water, water, water.”

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