The Florida Keys: where it’s always a holiday

Can I out myself as a Floridaphile? I think I can. I’ve been up and down and diagonally across, from Spanish St. Augustine to neat St. Pete’s, feasted in Sarasota crab shacks and stooped for Sanibel shells. I’ve been dazzled at Canaveral and fleeced in Palm Beach, done the theme parks, peddling their rictus smiles and happy-ever-afters, sweltered in Naples and survived South Beach. From the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle to the Alligator farms of the Everglades, I’ve covered the state. And I love it.

And yet I could happily leave all of continental Florida behind if you’d just let me keep the Keys. Connected by the Overseas Highway, these heavenly microdots begin 15 miles south of Miami and stretch out in a gentle southwesterly arc, ending at Key West, which was once the most heavily populated town in the state.

The Keys are the land that time forgot, laid-back and slow-paced — American, obviously, and yet not entirely. For one thing they are tiny, some barely larger than a dinner plate, and while ‘big’ is always an American trait, sympathy of scale is not, which is another reason to love them.

Where do I stay? At Cheeca Lodge & Spa on Islamorada — the “purple isle” of the Upper Keys, which was originally opened in 1946, when the first guest was none other than President Harry S Truman and where in recent years the Bush clan has come to fish and to chill, if Bushes ever really do chill. Not for nothing is Islamorada known as the sportfishing capital of the world. Cheeca may be the grande dame of the Keys, but that’s not to say it’s remotely stuffy. On the contrary. Developed over the years, the place has more than held its own with the giant Florida resorts to the north. You can snorkel here and parasail, take out a Hobie catamaran, tee off on the Jack Nicklaus-designed nine-hole course or play tennis in one of six floodlit courts. And as for the food, it’s terrific — Italian at Limoncello, Japanese at Nikai Sushi, you name it, and all of this against a backdrop of electric blue sea and sky, which could melt even a heart of stone.

Then there’s Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort on Marathon in the Middle Keys. Developed by Pritam Singh, who is currently not only the most upscale but also the most prolific builder operating in the Keys, Tranquility Bay is also as far from a typical Florida resort as you can get. On a beach of blinding white sand, Tranquility Bay’s essence is in its name. Yes, there are Jet Skis and kayaks, if you really must, but basically this is a place to unwind in beautiful surroundings.

Iguanas roam the property as if they own it, which in a sense, of course, they do; coconut palms abound; and the turquoise sea sparkles. Accommodation is in one-, two- or three-bedroom cottages — some of them right on the beach, with the crispest white linens on the beds and each with its own top-of-the-line kitchen, which makes you pretty much self-sufficient. The only real activity is rolling out of bed, climbing on to a chaise lounge and soaking up the sun.

Bring the kiddies by all means, but don’t expect waterslides or Disney-type diversions or armies of patient child-minders to keep them entertained. Tranquility is about having the time to do nothing except read a good book. TJ’s Tiki Bar at the water’s edge serves oversized rum punches and is where the “action” is, but action is not really the right word, because any more than six people at the bar constitutes a crowd, and that’s the joy of the place.

Beware though, because Marathon, like many of the Keys, is changing and not always for the better. A new Hyatt Place, near Tranquility, is to my mind cookie-cutter and unimaginative, and Marriott, ho hum, is also on the way in. Let’s hope it does better. On the plus side, Pritam Singh is developing Marathon’s old trailer park, which looks out across the breathtaking Seven Mile Bridge, and he almost certainly will — do better, that is.

Less than an hour from Marathon, where the USA almost literally ends, the Casa Marina  in Key West was built by the railroad magnate Henry Flagler as an oceanfront property in which to accommodate his Overseas Railroad guests. Now a Waldorf Astoria resort, with an open-all-day restaurant serving fresh and wholesome food and a very pretty if compact little beach, this is my choice for a family hotel if you want to stay in the heart of KW, which though lively year-round and not short of bars, restaurants and tourists, is not always the most family-friendly of towns.

A couple of blocks from Duval Street, meanwhile, on the site of another old RV park, is The Marker Waterfront Resort, which opened just over a year ago, the first new-build hotel in Key West in more than 20 years. With its (local artist) John Martin sculptures, Key West aloe products in the bathrooms, two small but gorgeous swimming pools and its jaw-droppingly lovely harbor view rooms, The Marker is altogether a very sophisticated proposition. It’s also what Key West really needs, a step up from the down-at-heel and sometimes actually quite seedy inns and guesthouses which for so long have been part of what you might call the Hemingway factor.

Look, I’ve nothing against Papa — indeed, I strive for “grace under pressure” as much as the next coward (or frustrated writer). But just because you like the great outdoors, big- game hunting and possibly a bit of rough and tumble, doesn’t mean you should settle for bad hotels. Luckily, in the Keys, you now have plenty of choices.

Happy Holidays, as they say in these parts, no matter the time of year — and barman, make mine a double.

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