Key West: Luxury Among the Chickens
Key West has been a funky laid-back place since the 19th century, when it was the largest town in Florida and much of its population made a living by scavenging shipwrecks that occurred on its shores. It’s an off-the-beaten-track place that has attracted artists such as Winslow Homer and John Audubon and writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.
People who live here like to say that you can’t tell a millionaire from a beachcomber because both might be wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts. They’re comfortable in a place where roosters and chickens wander the streets and where the cat population is very healthy indeed (Hemingway House alone accounts for some 60 felines).
So it’s no surprise that some longtime residents are less than thrilled that their beloved Key West seems to be going upscale, with new condos, spas and hotel renovations – and with much of this change geared to affluent visitors and part-time residents. Blame it on Hurricane Wilma, which left Key West under 3 to 6 feet of water in 2005. With the rebuilding came change.
"…some longtime residents are less than thrilled that their beloved Key West seems to be going upscale, with new condos, spas and hotel renovations – and with much of this change geared to affluent visitors and part-time residents."
The new Beachside Resort and Conference Center has 220 luxury rooms and suites (also available for purchase as condominiums) and a 6,000-square-foot conference center on seven prime acres on the Gulf of Mexico. The cuisine is by renowned chef Norman van Aken, and for guests who like to travel by helicopter, there’s a private landing pad. Santa Maria Suites Resorts, which consists of 30 two-bedroom, two-bath suites in the art deco style, also offers the units for rent or for purchase. The suites, which have balconies or terraces overlooking a tropical courtyard, feature state-of-the-art kitchens, flat-screen televisions, leather furniture and luxurious master baths.
The iconic Casa Marina, which has the largest private beach in Key West, recently completed a $43 million face-lift featuring stylish new guest rooms; a renovated lobby, pool and terrace; and completely redesigned meeting space. To complement the historic Mediterranean architecture of the original property, a new "Water Walk" pathway, flanked by cascading pools and royal palms, has been created; it leads guests directly to the Atlantic Ocean and pool courtyard. Six private poolside cabanas, reminiscent of Hollywood bungalows but with a modern flair, have also been added.
The Hyatt Key West Resort and Marina recently wrapped up a $10 million renovation that included all 118 guest rooms, the lobby, pool deck and Blue Mojito Pool Bar and Grill. The "tropical modern" design uses cooling marble, porcelain, bamboo and glass to create a spa-like quality that’s spiced up with Caribbean accents. Redesigned guest rooms now feature the trademark Hyatt Grand Bed and spa-like bathrooms in marble and glass. The new Jala Spa has two private treatment rooms with steam showers and private outdoor patios and three poolside white canvas spa cabanas.
In Old Town, The Reach Resort has had a $32 million renovation that included new guest rooms, luxurious bathrooms, enhanced event rooms, a refurbished lobby and pool and a new dining venue, the Strip House.
Coconut Grove Guest House, an all-male property on Fleming Street has upgraded the property’s guest rooms and bathrooms at a cost $1.5 million.
Even the midrange Holiday Inn has been stylishly renovated, right down to the grounds, which are landscaped with vegetation indigenous to the Florida Keys. The new look features rattan lobby furniture, cherry wood furniture in the guest rooms and granite countertops in the bathrooms.
Although Key West has always had plenty of galleries, recent years have brought even more, including the 007 Gallery, Art@830, the Beal Studio and the SoDu Gallery.
The green movement has gained momentum as well. The Banyan Resort, the Gardens Hotel, the Andrews Inn and Garden Cottages and Old Town Manor are the Keys’ first certified members of the Green Lodging Program.
Joining Key West’s many family-oriented attractions is the new Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Admission is free at this facility, which displays plants and animals found nowhere else in the United States and an interactive map of the Keys showing current ecological patterns.
Grown-ups and kids alike get a kick out of a mock-up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. Here they get a taste of what it’s like to live and conduct research underwater. An underwater video allows visitors to see how a marine biologist might observe coral spawning, assess damage from a boat or monitor the health of a coral reef.
With high-tech equipment, anyone can make a virtual 1,600-foot dive to a deep ocean shelf or take a virtual tour of Dry Tortugas. A 74-seat theater shows a dazzling HD 17-minute video on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by renowned filmmaker, Bob Talbot, who shot the wildlife scenes for "Free Willy."
Another new family attraction is the Pirate Soul museum, a remarkable collection of pirate artifacts in an interactive setting that shows how pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Morgan lived, how they ate and drank, the weapons they used, the treasure they plundered and how, when they were caught, they faced the hangman.
The museum is owned by Pat Croce, former part-owner and president of the NBA’s 76ers. Croce developed a passion for pirate lore that started in childhood, when he first watched Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way through the movie "Captain Blood." Soon he started drawing skulls and crossbones all over his school supplies, and 40 years later he started his own pirate museum.
Much of the collection, the most comprehensive in the nation, is Croce’s own. Standout items are the world’s only treasure chest with provenance to a pirate (Capt. Thomas Tew, 1694) and one of only two extant Jolly Roger Flags (circa 1850). For pirate enthusiasts who yearn for more legend and lore, Croce has written "Pirate Soul: A Swashbuckling Journey through the Gold Age of Pirates." For kids, Croce – who is a grandfather – has penned "My Pop-Pop is a Pirate."
Moving from the earthly to the spiritual, even tombs and grave sites are being refurbished at the Key West Cemetery, where memorials and monuments honor early residents and milestones in history. One memorial shelters the remains of U.S. sailors killed in the 1898 explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor; another is dedicated to those who died in the 1868-1878 war between Cuba and Spain.
Changes have indeed come to Key West, but the roosters and chickens are still here, too. And so is the laid-back atmosphere that makes visitors wish they could stay just a little bit longer.
IF YOU GO….
For information on lodging, dining and local attractions, visit www.fla-keys.com.