Florida Keys On The Comeback Trail

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Mostly open for business now, the Florida Key will need plenty of visitors in 2018 to fully cover from the effects of Hurricane Irma. Photo by Pete Boden/Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

Living half-time in Napa Valley—California’s premier wine region—I can relate to what the folks who live and work in the Florida Keys are going through as they recover from Hurricane Irma. During and long after the wildfires we experienced in October, the mainstream media continually ran graphic footage of a decimated neighborhood in Santa Rosa in nearby Sonoma Valley. It was tragic at the time and it remains tragic now, but it is not representative of the overall fire damage in Sonoma Valley, much less its Napa Valley neighbor.

The result? People are still avoiding Napa Valley—California’s No. 1 tourist destination—like the ashtray they’ve been led to believe it is.

So I have to imagine that the people of the Florida Keys cringe at the endless barrage of boat-stacked-on-boat-stacked-on-house-stacked-on-car images I still see in any media report about the region. Yes, there’s still a lot of obvious damage in the Keys. I saw it firsthand during our drive to Key West to cover the Super Boat International Offshore World Championships. But those tourist-scaring images are far from an accurate representation of the current overall state of the Florida Keys, an area where tourism is the economic lifeblood.

Conversely, painting an overly optimistic, glossed-over picture of the Keys would do a disservice to visitors.

Last Friday, the Florida Keys and Key West tourism organization released an accurate report on the current state of the area. What follows are key segments of the report. (It’s still a bit long, but worth a read if a trip to the Keys is in your near future.)

General Assessment

Key Largo and Key West were least impacted by Hurricane Irma, as were hotels and businesses on the bay and Gulf sides of Islamorada and Marathon. On the Atlantic side of Islamorada and Marathon, a number of hotels had significant storm surge impacts. Some properties’ recovery periods will likely continue through summer 2018.

The most severely impacted area of the Keys was the region from west of the Seven Mile Bridge to about Big Coppitt Key, which is about 10 miles east-northeast of Key West. Visitors are requested to avoid traveling through residential neighborhoods along the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, especially between Marathon and Key West, as this region will take the longest to recover.

Transportation

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway—including its 42 bridges—were deemed safe for vehicular traffic within five days after Hurricane Irma struck the Keys on Sept. 10. Debris that lined the shoulders of the highway is being picked up. The highway through Islamorada and Key West is cleared of storm debris. Florida Keys Marathon and Key West International Airports reopened for commercial and general aviation on Sept. 20. The first cruise ship returned to the Port of Key West on Sept. 24.

Lodging—General

The Florida Keys tourism council reports nearly 75 percent of lodging units are back online in the destination, with about 76 percent in Key Largo, 32 percent in Islamorada, 56 percent in Marathon, 45 percent between the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge and Stock Island and more than 90 percent in Key West and neighboring Stock Island.

Key Largo Lodging

In Key Largo, the famed Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the United States’ only submerged recreational hotel, with two bedrooms and a bathroom, reopened to overnight divers Dec. 1. Two all-new properties in Key Largo are opening. Dolphin Point Villas, with six stand-alone villa homes accommodating up to 62 guests and events of up to 100, held a grand opening Dec. 9.

The new Bungalows Key Largo, the Keys’ first all-inclusive resort, is expected in spring 2018 with 135 units, two pools and several restaurants and bars. Neither project’s construction was significantly impacted by Irma. Ocean Pointe Suites is scheduled to reopen in March. The Hilton Key Largo, undergoing renovation to become the 200-room Baker’s Cay Resort, a Curio Collection by Hilton property, is to reopen in the fall.

Islamorada Lodging

Islamorada Resort Company’s Amara Cay Resort reopened Dec. 15. Sister property Pelican Cove Resort is to reopen in mid-January. Of the two other Islamorada Resort Co. properties, La Siesta Resort & Marina is to open in winter 2018 and Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina is targeting a phased reopening beginning in spring 2018. The Moorings is set to reopen Jan. 15. Cheeca Lodge Resort & Spa is to reopen in the spring. Islander Resort is closed until fall, although Islander’s Bayside Townhomes are open.

Marathon Lodging

On Duck Key, Hawks Cay Resort & Marina is scheduled to reopen in stages beginning the second quarter of 2018. Other major hotels in Marathon are open and a new Hampton Inn Marathon is planned.

Lower Keys Lodging

Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge is open. Deer Run Bed & Breakfast is closed. Off Little Torch Key, Little Palm Island is to remain closed until January 2019.

Key West Lodging

In Key West, as noted, most available lodging rooms are open. The new 14-room Marquesa 4-1-4 opened Oct. 20 as part of an expansion at the 27-room Marquesa Hotel. The 262-room Southernmost Beach Resort had 85 rooms under renovation after Irma and is due to fully reopen all its rooms on Dec. 18. Parrot Key Resort is closed until June 1, 2018. The Inn at Key West and Key West Bayside Inn & Suites are closed until summer 2018.

Restaurants and Bars

All major Keys restaurants and bars have reopened, although a few may have limited menus. The No Name Pub on Big Pine Key reopened in late October.

Florida State Parks

All 10 Keys state parks are open for day use as restoration efforts continue. In Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the United States, is open to beachgoers, overnight campers, hikers and snorkelers taking a glass-bottom boat. Trips on a larger glass-bottom boat and dive excursions are expected to resume by Christmas.

Food concessions are scheduled to reopen by late January. In the Lower Keys, Bahia Honda State Park’s Calusa Beach area, on the park’s northwest side, is open for day use. Loggerhead and Sandspur beaches are closed for restoration. Overnight camping in the park and stays in its six cabins are scheduled to resume in January.

National Parks, Refuges

Dry Tortugas National Park is open, with the Yankee Freedom III ferry service resuming operations as well as Key West Seaplane Adventures air service. Portions of Everglades National Park are open.

Four national wildlife refuges also are open, including the National Key Deer Refuge, Great White Heron and Key West national wildlife refuges. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo is accessible, as usual, only through organized volunteer activities and guided walks

Of course, more up-to-date information is available through the Florida Keys and Key West tourism website. But the overall message is that—while not completely restored—the Keys are open for business.

By the way, so is Napa Valley. And we’d love to see you here.

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Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the former editor of Sportboat magazine.

 

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