“Hello,” says a rather lovely lady, dressed head to sneakered foot in shocking pink. She jumps right out of her sentry hut to welcome us at the entrance to Isla Bella Beach Resort, the newest and far and away the swishest resort to have opened in the Florida Keys since — well, since ever, actually. I Bring down the window and the lady in pink issues us the all-important parking pass that will identify us as hotel guests. Then she points us in the direction of the lobby, along a newly-laid driveway flanked by tropical gardens and a thousand Alexander palms.
Ah, that lobby: A dazzling white pavilion, with marble-inlay parquet floors, blinding white walls and double-height, wood-beamed ceilings, which would not look out of place in a Maharaja’s palace. Carla, behind the (naturally) all-white front desk, which runs across an entire wall of the vast hall, has us checked-in in a trice, handing over wristbands for keys so we’re never going to get locked out of our room because we forgot to take the pesky plastic keycard.
Others in my party, however, don’t seem keen to leave the lobby and I can’t say I blame them. You see, they’re taking in the view, a 200-foot private beach — with what, it will turn out, are the most comfortable sun loungers this side of paradise — and the sparkling, limpid turquoise sea beyond. The Florida Keys, those heavenly microdots fanning out southwest like a flick of splattered ink from Key Largo, just south of Miami, are not known for their beaches but suddenly, with the coming of Isla Bella, the bar has been raised. Yanked right up, in fact. In 20 years of coming down to this neck of the woods, I have truly never seen a lovelier beach than this.
Finally ensconced in our two-bedroom suite, with its cane furniture, crisp linens, spiffy pillows, bedside lamps of hammered silver and fabulous blue and white drapes (a tropical riff on Toile de Jouy), Isla Bella is working its spell. The freshness of the room and the shimmering view out across the water would vivify the most Covid-battered spirit.
The resort is the brainchild of visionary developer Pritam Singh, who grew up partly in foster care in New England. He first came to Key West as a 17-year-old, sleeping rough on the porch of a local inn for months. Fifteen years later, he returned, already an established real estate developer, bringing real class to the naturally beautiful but somewhat down-at-heel Keys in terms of luxury homes, resorts and commercial development. Isla Bella is as gorgeous to look at as it is comfortable to stay in. Its location on Marathon Key, just yards from the Miami side of the Key’s famed Seven Mile Bridge, is thrilling and the resort manages the clever trick of making its guests feel right in the heart of the action, while simultaneously offering splendidly isolation should you want it.
The 199 guest rooms are built in gingerbread style over just three stories. Each and every one boasts a generous terrace and all face Isla Bella’s mile of sandy beach, with a cluster of rooms sharing one of four pools on this side of the property. These are, in addition to the resort’s main pool, gracious, scalloped affairs that almost seem to mimic the inlets of the Keys themselves, punctuated with zingy blue and white sun umbrellas and overlooking the Sand Cove beach and breathtaking Sunset Pier.
As for the food, it’s fresh and wholesome, and what it occasionally lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for with charming service. At the resort’s central, nominally Italian restaurant, Il Postino, where you can eat inside, on the covered deck, or on the sand virtually at the water’s edge, they do big conch fritters at lunchtime as well as Caribbean fish gyros, tasty shrimp and a bunch of appetizing salads. Dinner offers more choice, adding bruschetta, a zesty tuna tartare and some well-devised pasta dishes, along with grilled fish and meat entrées. Antoinetta, our server, looks after us like royalty, greeting us every day with a smile and quickly remembering our favorite drinks and dishes.
For even less formal dining, the curiously named and vaguely oxymoronic Burger Palace, alongside the main pool, serves up a quick burger or hot dogs, poolside or on the beach. And the beach bar, which comes into its own at sunset, when guests jockey for the best position (tip: there are actually no bad tables), serves a hybrid menu of the two, along with exceptionally good, strong cocktails,
Over in the Town Square, adjacent to the marina on the other side of the lobby, another option for lighter snacks is the Marketplace at Isla Bella. Situated in what looks like a giant barn, this is a brilliantly conceived café and general store, all under one large roof. Come here too for all your sports equipment, snazzy beachwear, chic jewelry, beautiful glass and tableware, luscious coffee-table books you will ache to buy and original gifts of every description.
The Marketplace also houses the activities center, where you can sign up for many of the resort’s myriad “experiences,” such as biking, kayaking, fishing or jet-skiing, along with a host of other water sports.
At one point during our weeklong stay, I feared my wife had been kidnapped. Seriously, I couldn’t find her on the beach or in the Marketplace, the two locales between which, up to this point, she had been blithely dividing her time. I found her eventually — in the spa, of course — wwglowing after her Serenity Bamboo massage with Gina and — happy as a kid in a candy store — playing with all the product testers from the highly regarded Shira Esthetics brand.
An easy and for the most part beautiful two-hour drive from Miami, or a mere 45-minute spin up from Key West, which is served by its own international airport, Isla Bella offers all the charm and exoticism of the Caribbean without having to leave the USA. (Yet another option is flying into Florida Keys/Marathon International Airport, which is just six minutes drive from the resort, by private jet or charter.) A sybarite’s bolthole just a few hours distant from the New York metropolitan area, Isla Bella’s a name that should go straight into your contacts as soon as Covid allows for safe and quarantine-free travel. Stay once, and I guarantee you’ll return time and again.
For reservations, visit islabellabeachresort.com. To book a private charter with Tradewind Aviation, visit flytradewind.com.