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Motel Chic

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Photo: Catherine Ledner

The Key to Bliss

In the small, airy reception area at Casa Morada, in the Florida Keys, guests are greeted by Charles and Ray Eames’s 1948 biomorphic white molded fiberglass chaise longue, which is precisely the same chaise longue that greets guests in the Philippe Starck-designed lobby of Ian Schrager’s Delano Hotel in South Beach. The presence of the iconic chaise at Casa Morada is no coincidence. After all, Lauren Abrams, Terry Ford, and Heide Praver Werthamer, the three owners of Casa Morada, put in a collective 24 years working for Schrager, learning the tricks of the hospitality trade at such hip, high-profile hotels as Morgans, Royalton, Paramount, Delano, and Mondrian.

In 2002, the trio—all blond, all blue-eyed—decided to strike out on their own, buying a 1.7-acre property on the Gulf shore of Islamorada, on a sleepy side street next door to the late Ted Williams’s waterfront house. You know you have arrived when you see the towering pylons, three massive concrete slabs painted brilliant shades of magenta, peach, and rust that face Madeira Street and instantly recall, at least to architectural cognoscenti, the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.

Though just 90 minutes south of Miami, Casa Morada is a world away from the hustle of Ocean Drive. It is also a world away from the take-a-number anonymity of large resort hotels, and from the dubious charms of the faded motels dotting U.S. 1 throughout the Keys. The place is tranquil, as opposed to trendy—think serene, not scene. (Children under the age of 16 are not allowed.)

Casa Morada’s 16 suites are located in a couple of not particularly distinguished white two-story masonry buildings constructed in the early 1950’s and originally named the Sunset Inn. Eleven suites are located in the Garden House, which has been refurbished and renovated, and five are in the redesigned waterfront Sea View House. Some of the bathrooms in the Garden House are small and decidedly vintage, but they, too, are slowly being reworked. Besides, Praver Werthamer notes, "We cater to people who don’t expect marble all over the bathrooms."

In the spirit of the highly personalized endeavor, the suites have names, not numbers: Iguana, Starfish, Shangri-La. Clean and spare, with shimmering terrazzo floors in the Garden House, new bamboo-wood floors in Sea View House, the rooms are large and luminous, bright and white and breezy, punctuated with area rugs and quivering white orchids in clay pots.

In lieu of generic brown wood or Formica "motel furniture," the suites feature an eclectic mix of Mexican antiques and custom-designed iron and mahogany pieces that are juxtaposed with modern tables and beds. One small but telling amenity is the stack of books in the living room of each suite, which might well include something by best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen, who lives on Islamorada.

Each suite has its own private garden area or outdoor terrace, which comes complete with chaises or Adirondack-style chairs and helps blur the distinction between inside and out.

Like the polychromatic pylons towering out front, the dense vegetation covering the property comes courtesy of Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, who first made his name in Key West. "Basically, we brought in a backhoe and completely excavated the property," Abrams says, noting that a paved parking lot—it was a motel after all—was occupying prime real estate at the center of the property, between the two buildings. This has been replaced by a carved native limestone grotto with a small waterfall and a pond. Jutting out from the small island into Florida Bay is a generously sized gazebo on stilts, the perfect perch from which to watch for manatees on the horizon or enjoy a late afternoon glass of wine or champagne.

Architect Robert Werthamer, Praver Werthamer’s husband, is not only Casa Morada’s design director but also the captain of Sol Sister, a 32-foot Chesapeake Bay Skipjack that guests are invited to book either for a half-day snorkeling trip or a highly recommended two-hour sunset sail.

136 Madeira Rd., Islamorada, Fla.; 888/881-3030; www.casamorada.com; doubles from $229.

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