The Florida Keys are a raffish place, a scruffy archipelago that draws the indolent, the adventurous, and the just plain weird. Key West (founded 1823) is one of the oldest towns in Florida, but the rest of the islands were largely uninhabited until the railroad—later replaced by the 126-mile Overseas Highway—strung them together in 1912. Today the Upper Keys, the town of Islamorada in particular, are known for sportfishing, while the Lower Keys, culminating in the improbable outpost of Key West, are simply a world apart.
Once a private resort run by Cynthia "Che" Twitchell and her husband, Carl, Cheeca Lodge is best known as the place where the Bush family comes to fish. New owners sacrificed its old-fashioned charm years ago to a multimillion-dollar expansion, but it retains a certain old-shoe appeal: comfortable, lived-in, the Chevrolet Suburban of Florida vacation spots. Midway between Miami and Key West, it's a family resort that draws oldsters, middle-aged couples, and young marrieds alike. The kids splash in the pool while the grown-ups try to maintain order ("Eric, take your hands off the rope! Eric! Did you hear me?"), a task whose obvious hopelessness is mitigated by the sun, the view, and the willingness of the waiters to dispense stiff drinks. No one here seems to care about the state of their abdominals.
Not that there isn't plenty to do besides loaf. Cheeca's 27 acres are packed with sports facilities—six tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, two pools—and fringed with a white-sand beach that stretches for 1,100 feet along the Atlantic. You can charter a Hobie Cat, go scuba diving or snorkeling over coral reefs, or join an enviro-tour to the shallow waters of Florida Bay, where egrets, herons, and pelicans nest on otherwise unpopulated islands and enormous frigate birds soar effortlessly overhead. Charter boats will take you to the bay for tarpon and bonefish or out to sea for marlin, sailfish, and blackfin tuna. Or you can fish off the end of the 525-foot pier, competing with the pelicans for mullet and grunts.
The 203 rooms and suites in Cheeca's three-story main lodge and 25 villas are big and simply furnished with wall-to-wall carpeting; there are full kitchens in the suites. (One caveat: Rooms in the newer villas, out by the golf course and the tennis courts, come with showers instead of tubs and often overlook cement-lined "lagoons.") You can eat in two restaurants or the clubby Light Tackle Lounge. If I'd taken a fishing charter instead of the enviro-tour, I could have brought my own catch to the main dining room and had it grilled or fried or blackened or sautéed. That might have been preferable to the menu choices, which were ambitious but heavy-handed: shrimp bisque thick with coconut milk, onion-crusted snapper drenched in balsamic vinegar. The simpler preparations at the Ocean Terrace Grill are your best bet—and with its big wicker chairs and casual seaside mood, it's hard to think of a reason to go elsewhere anyway.
Mile Marker 82, Islamorada, Upper Matecumbe Key; 800/327-2888 or 305/664-4651, fax 305/664-2893; doubles from $295 in high season (Jan. 5 through May 10).
Related: Best of the Florida Keys
Little Palm Island
Sometimes you just want your own private island. In the meantime, you could do worse than head off to this one. Hidden among the mangroves off Highway 1 is the departure lounge: a shingled reception cottage with a gleaming 1930's-style motor launch that leaves hourly. Unfortunately, I arrived just in time to face a 55-minute wait for the next trip. Should I have sprung for Little Palm Air's Cessna seaplane from the Miami airport ($1,100 round-trip)?Too late now. Then the porter asked if I'd like a drink as he took my bags. The next thing I knew I was slurping the last of this rum-and-juice concoction—a zombie slumber?A goombay special?—as the launch sped out to sea. I didn't realize it yet, but I'd be playing Robinson Crusoe in a South Seas fantasy in which the important parts of civilization, like room service, have washed up to shore as well.
Little Palm Island is a five-acre speck of sand facing out to sea , with swaying palms in place of the customary mosquito-ridden mangrove swamps. The accommodations are rustic yet grand: thatched-roof huts with soaring bamboo ceilings, Jacuzzis in the bathrooms, and private showers just outside. Tied up at the dock are visiting yachts so enormous they must have come out of a James Bond movie. There are no cars, no phones, no TV's, no children under 16, and, with only 30 suites, not all that many adults. But there is a seemingly limitless quantity of staff, which means you barely have to lift your head before some friendly college type trots over to ask what you'd like.
What would I like?Well, golf is out, as is anything else that requires real estate; the problem with Little Palm Island is that there's not enough of it. On the other hand, there's water everywhere. I could snorkel or scuba dive at nearby Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, home to the third largest barrier reef system in the world. I could sail to Key West, 28 miles away, or go deep-sea fishing, as Harry Truman did when this was a fishing camp. Or I could get a spa treatment—maybe the 90-minute massage they call the serenity. Yes, I'll have that, and then another zombie slumber. Please.
Eventually, of course, I'll want to eat. Little Palm Island has thought of that, too. For years its kitchen was the preserve of Michel Reymond, a Swiss-born chef who specialized in the kind of island cuisine that owes a lot to France; the new chef, Adam Votaw, seems headed in the same direction. Someone is tinkling away at the baby grand in the dining room while, outside, the tide is licking the toes of people dining at tables on the beach. They don't seem to mind, or even to notice.
I was the same way: the next morning, when I woke up to find a soft rain falling, I slipped outside and showered happily in the drizzle. It was February. You know, I really didn't need that seaplane after all.M
28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key; 800/343-8567 or 305/872-2524, fax 305/872-4843; doubles $850 in high season (Jan. 1-Apr. 30).
When David Wolkowsky opened the Pier House in 1968, Key West barely existed as a tourist destination. Its early settlers had grown rich from "wrecking"—scavenging the remains of sailing ships that foundered on offshore reefs—but gradually it had devolved into a tumbledown slum on life support from the Navy. Wolkowsky, a third-generation native, had started businesses like Fast Buck Freddie's, a supremely quirky clothing-and-souvenir emporium, and needed tourists to sustain them. So he bought some waterfront at the foot of Duval Street, across from an oil storage depot, and built a motel. All his writer friends came by to eat—Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, James Kirkwood. Jimmy Buffett played for drinks in a dank little bar called the Chart Room. The rest is history.
Key West is as much a writer's haven as ever, but Wolkowsky's nonstop party is long over: When I met a local writer at the Pier House for dinner, it was the first time she'd been there in years. Like Duval Street—once a ramshackle thoroughfare, now an overtouristed mall—the Pier House, under new management, has evolved. Rooms—there are now 128 of them, plus 14 suites—are pleasant and varied. The best are in the Beach Building, which overlooks a little strip of sand on the Gulf of Mexico, or the Caribbean Spa, which makes up for its parking-lot location with oversize bedrooms and hot tubs big enough for two. My spa room had louvered doors opening onto a balcony screened by a dense growth of palms; I'd have been less happy in one of the even-numbered rooms across the hall, with a view of the asphalt roof of the spa itself. But I had a great time on the Sunset Deck, sipping a margarita out of a plastic cup as a flabby white guy sang Bob Marley songs and the sun dipped below the shimmering blue waters of the gulf. At moments like that, with sailboats crisscrossing the harbor, and pier after pier alive with happy vacationers, you can appreciate Key West for what it has become.
1 Duval St., Key West; 800/327-8340 or 305/296-4600, fax 305/296-9085; doubles from $290 in high season (Christmas through Easter).
Just off Duval Street is the other side of Key West, the dusty, 19th-century Old Town that still belongs to writers and Conchs (i.e., locals). It's where Hemingway came for the drink and the fishing, where Tennessee Williams came for the drink and the sailors. It's a lot spiffier now than it used to be, thanks to preservationists and the like, but it's still a little twisted, a scavenger outpost at the dead end of the highway.
Here you'll find the Marquesa—27 rooms in four classic Conch-style houses, set amid a profusion of palmettos and bougainvillea. The main house, built in 1884 and painted robin's-egg blue, was a run-down boardinghouse before it was renovated as a hotel in 1988; you'd never guess it today. Each guest room is different, but they all have high ceilings, lazy ceiling fans, old-fashioned furniture, potted orchids, marble baths, and, lest you lapse into a time warp, cable TV and phones with data ports.
Downstairs is the Café Marquesa, a yellow storefront dining room that combines white damask, burnished mahogany, flickering candlelight, and oversize shopwindows to very good effect. The food has an Asian spin—there's a Thai basil sauce on the salmon, a mango-miso sauce on the yellowtail—and is as impeccably fresh as it is inventively prepared. What I liked best about the Marquesa, however, was its location. A bookshop half a block away features local authors such as Annie Dillard and John Hersey; around the corner is the Secret Garden, a backyard parrot habitat so secret I almost missed it; a couple of blocks farther is the Hemingway house, now a museum, whose spiffy appearance today gives little hint of its dismal condition when Hemingway moved there in 1931. And then you come back to a place that feels gracious and sunny and carefree. Hemingway should have had it so good.
600 Fleming St., Key West; 800/869-4631 or 305/292-1919, fax 305/294-2121; doubles from $245 in high season (Dec. 21 through April 24).
Watch Where You Swim
What do you get when 86,000 people—and that's not even counting the tourists—crowd onto a narrow string of islands with inadequate sewer systems and no natural drainage?Water contaminated with E. coli, the potentially deadly microbe found in human waste. For years, authorities tested the waters of Florida Bay but largely ignored the beaches and canals of the Keys themselves. When they finally started testing there last summer, they found unacceptable levels of contamination at Key West and the islands of Marathon and Tavernier. The result: beach closings and a sudden, dramatic rise in ecological consciousness. The fix will take years of work and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but residents will be harder hit than visitors. Key West's beaches aren't much of a draw anyway, and the things that do lure people—the diving, the fishing, and, let's face it, the drinking—are, luckily, out of contamination range.