Key Largo, Key West Are Fine; Recovery Slower in Mid Keys

By Bob Lindsey

ROBBIE’S is a popular multi-attraction spot in Islamorada that offers a restaurant, feeding the tarpons, shops and more. It’s also a good hang-out spot for the pelicans who frequent the area.

ROBBIE’S is a popular multi-attraction spot in Islamorada that offers a restaurant, feeding the tarpons, shops and more. It’s also a good hang-out spot for the pelicans who frequent the area.

When most St. Louisans think of winter/spring getaways, the gulf coast, Orlando, and Jupiter come to mind. Destin is a one day drive and many other Florida cities are a two-hour flight. With the winter we’re having, consider the Florida Keys, which is always below the Florida frost line.

While Hurricane Irma did substantial damage last September, most of the Keys are back to near normalcy.   We had the opportunity to fly down for a four-day New Year’s break and experienced the come-back in the middle Keys from Key Largo to Marathon. Key West had suffered little damage, as the middle Keys got a direct hit in many places. Most attractions, restaurants, retail, boating and Florida fun things are up and running again in Islamorada, but the biggest obstacle in its recovery is the lack of lodging.

We were lucky to have been invited to stay with family members in Islamorada, whose town home was fortunately spared by Hurricane Irma. On the first day of our four-day visit, we wanted to assess the storm damage for ourselves and learn about the recovery (as highlighted in Pat’s story in another post).

Debris from Hurricane Irma dots the landscape on some areas while other area escaped her fury.

Debris from Hurricane Irma dots the landscape in some areas while other areas escaped her fury.

Driving southwestwardly on U.S. 1, you’ll see areas that were not harmed at all, and other stretches of highway in various stages of restoration, with a few places lined with piles of debris awaiting pickup. That was particularly true in Marathon, just south of Islamorada.

Visitors were told to avoid traveling along the Florida Keys Overseas Highway between Marathon and Key West. Marathon was as far southwestardly as we drove, having viewed debris and a slower recovery in sections of Marathon. Some debris remains along the highway in the Lower Keys, but is expected to be cleared by the end of January. Most of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, including 42 bridges over scenic water, was declared safe to drive just five days after the Hurricane struck. Cruise ships had docked at Key West as early as Sept. 24.

mama and baby

A Manatee Mama and Her Baby visit with tourists.

The Florida Keys tourism council reports that almost 77 percent of all lodging units are now operating—76 percent in Key Largo, 48 percent in Islamorada, and 63 percent in Marathon. These statistics should continue to improve after the temporary workers employed in the recovery efforts vacate some of the hotels.

Some new properties have opened or will be opening later in the year. The Dolphin Point Villas held a grand opening Dec 9 in Key Largo and the new Bungalows in Key Largo, the Key’s first all-inclusive resort, is targeting an April opening. The Hilton Key Largo is undergoing renovation and will open as the 200-room Baker’s Cay Resort in the fall.

In Islamorada, the Pelican Cove Resort is set to reopen in February after its sister property, Amra Cay Resort, opened Dec. 15. Siesta Resort & Marina is scheduled to open in March, and Cheeca Lodge and Resort & Spa is planning a March 30th reopening. Marathon hotels are opening, some slower than others. Hawks Cay Resort & Marina is reopening in stages.

There are more smaller, locally owned hotels and motels in the mid-Keys, which were damaged and account for the larger percentage of lodging still in recovery.

Isle Sunset and the end of our short respite from Missouri's cold snap.

Isle Sunset and the end of our short respite from Missouri’s cold snap.

The Keys are noted for a laid-back atmosphere, with quality boating and seafood restaurants, yet there are many other attractions. The Islamorada Theater of the Sea, first launched in 1946, is open. Its beach area will open in February and its Stingray program in the spring. In Marathon, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters reopened Dec. 15 with new feedings for Mobla Rays.

We flew an Allegiant Airline Airbus 320 from Belleville, IL– a 40-minute drive from our Florissant home– to Ft. Lauderdale and then rented a car for the two-hour drive to Islamorada. When we returned to 10-degree weather after our few days of Florida sun and low 70s, we definitely felt the sting of the cold, but the ease of getting our bags and driving off the parking lot was a breeze. This was our second good experience on Allegiant, which has flights to six Florida cities, including Orlando North (our first early last summer), from Belleville’s MidAmerica airport, where you can park free for the length of your trip. That’s a big benefit.


Bob Lindsey photos





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