The Quiet Slice of Paradise Luring Visitors Back to the Florida Keys
When Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm, the damage from 130 mph winds and subsequent storm surge was staggering. Baker’s Cay Resort, formerly the Hilton Key Largo, took a devastating hit.
“The resort was working through a full renovation at the time Irma swept through the Keys,” said Audrey Gonzalez, director of sales and marketing at Baker’s Cay. “Damages incurred caused a full closure of the property.”
In the year since Hurricane Irma, the region has rebounded with its customary charm and verve. The Florida Keys easily clinched a spot on our annual list of the 50 best places to travel, due in large part to a spate of new hotel openings. Baker’s Cay, named one of the best new hotels to book this year by Travel + Leisure, is in many ways a culmination of the Keys’ enormous rebuilding effort.
“The people of the Keys experienced many heartbreaks and struggles due to Irma. The journey has meant loss for so many but also transformation,” Gonzalez said.
On a recent three-night stay at the property, I was treated to an in-depth look at the revitalized Baker’s Cay. Located on the site of a former pineapple plantation in Key Largo, the 200-room luxury resort is designed with its verdant setting in mind. Airy suites open up to expansive bay views, walking trails weave through mangrove trees, and the property’s restaurants overlook the water.
“That’s one thing you get from working in movies,” said Baker’s Cay designer Dayna Lee, who has previously worked in film production design. “Sight lines are incredibly important.”
The rooms highlight Baker’s Cay’s prime waterfront access, and for good reason: The resort caters to the aquaphile set. With offerings such as snorkeling, parasailing, diving, and more, guests can practically be immersed sun up to sun down. Baker’s Cay also partners with the Coral Restoration Foundation, sending guests to help restore sections of the Florida Reef, the biggest coral reef in the continental United States.
In addition to numerous water sports, the resort’s Cay-1 team recently unveiled its newest undertaking: A partnership with the Naples-based Salt Island Seaplanes to charter day trips down to Key West. The Cessna 206 amphibious seaplane, which can seat four passengers, lands in the bay and coasts right up to the resort’s private beach for pick-up and drop-off. The scenic 35-minute flight lands at Key West International Airport, just a 15-minute drive from downtown.
In Key West, visitors experience an entirely different kind of beachy bliss. The island is awash in charming little idiosyncrasies, as free-roaming roosters dart underfoot and music bumps down Duval Street. Literary buffs will find inspiration in the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, while liquor connoisseurs can enjoy libations at Papa’s Pilar Rum Distillery or the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. But culture vultures and fun lovers alike can enjoy a lobster BLT Eggs Benedict at Blue Heaven, or a slice of chocolate-covered key lime pie at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.
After a half-day sojourn, the Salt Island Seaplanes team deposits patrons back on the beach just in time for sundown. A sunset cruise departs from the Baker’s Cay dock each evening, stocked with beer and wine for an impossibly scenic happy hour.
Between the beachfront tiki bar, the tequila bar at Dry Rocks, the pool bar, or the more formal restaurant Calusa, the resort has no shortage of options for food and drink. But once guests have sampled the onsite fare, it’s worth a trip into town. On a drive down the Overseas Highway, Key Largo ordinarily might find itself overlooked in favor of Islamorada or Key West. But it is home to a laid-back, utterly unpretentious downtown stretch of bars and restaurants. No one bats an eye if you happen to order a platter of fried mahi-mahi, fried shrimp, and fried scallops — after an appetizer of fried calamari. (Not that I know from experience).
The Keys are dreamy as ever, but Baker’s Cay unveils the islands’ more mature side. And after a piña colada with a dark rum floater, you’ll never want to leave.