Alex Benasuli drives for ninety minutes south of Miami and finds himself in the exotic tropical island paradise of ISLAMORADA
There is Florida: home of Disney World, Miami and hundreds of miles of sandy beaches fringed by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. And then there are the Florida Keys. This string of islands, that stretches like a necklace strand from the southern tip of Florida for 120 miles in a westerly direction, are a tropical playground for boating, fishing, beach bumming and professional chill-axing.
Of the 1,700 islands that make up the Keys, some no bigger than a sandbar, only 43 are connected by bridges. The rest are uninhabited. Originally built as a railway line 100 years ago, since the 1950s, the Overseas Highway has connected Miami to Key Largo (closest to the mainland) and all the way to Key West, the most western and populous key.
By the very fact that it is literally the end of the States, at the nation’s most south easterly extremity, the Overseas Highway has near iconic status for road trippers. The longest of its bridges, the Seven Mile Bridge, was an engineering marvel when it was completed. To this day, with blues seas under and to both sides of the road, traversing the bridge is somewhat other-worldly. In essence, driving to the Keys is to leave the real world behind and enter an exotic, technicolour dimension where life slows down and enjoying oneself is paramount.
Islamorada is around 90 minutes by car from Miami airport. Known as the “Village of Islands” as well as the “Sport-Fishing Capital of the World”, Islamorada spans fifteen miles and encompasses five different islands. The various boat marinas, independently-owned shops, restaurants and quirky art galleries give Islamorada a unique small-town charm. Yet whilst Islamorada is a popular tourist destination, it also has a strong local community.
While all the keys abound in beautiful nature and an abundance of water vistas, a lot of the dining options either side of the Overseas Highway appear kitschy or outdated. This is not the case on Islamorada, which has evolved as a more upscale and bohemian enclave whilst also being firmly entrenched in the inherent laid-back nature of the Keys. Combined with its proximity to Miami, this makes Islamorada a highly desirable and convenient getaway.
When boutique hotel Casa Morada opened in 2008 – off a quiet lane on a waterfront spot overlooking the Gulf of Mexico – it was the closest thing to a designer hotel that the Florida Keys had ever seen. More than a decade later, it still stands out as one of the Keys’ coolest properties.
Underpinned with tropical minimalism, understated and unfussy-chic best describe the décor and ambience at Casa Morada. Its founders were a group of NYC ladies who used to work for hotelier Ian Schrager, who is best known for his pared-back aesthetic, virtually all-white palette and clean spaces that flow smoothly. Casa Morada is all of these things married with lush tropical gardens, a bay-front salt water pool and an open-air bar fashioned in the style of a white clapboard clubhouse, complete with some of the best waterside views in Florida.
The property is divided into two main areas: a garden with jungle-like plants, strategically positioned hammocks and a Zen garden, plus a man-made island hovering over the bay, replete with sand, a swimming pool and sun loungers. A small foot bridge connects the two. Its quiet location, tropical garden and seafront position combine to make Casa Morada something of a complete escape. And the intimacy of the property and friendliness of its staff create a warm aura and sense of ease throughout.
Setting the tone for every stay, the unpretentious vibe begins at reception with a welcome cocktail. Once settled, guests rarely want to leave, spending the whole time barefoot in bathing suits or shorts. Shoes are essentially surplus to guests’ requirements at Casa Morada. Whether beside the sea, around the pool or in the gardens, Casa Morada boasts countless nooks and crannies to discover and lose oneself with a good book or a long drink.
Casa Morada’s sixteen, uniquely-named suites are contained within the Garden House and Seaview House and have a minimalist, mid-century modern feel to them. Throughout, the emphasis is on authentic, down-to-earth facilities, laden with enough style and refinements to please almost everyone.
Surrounded by lush tropical foliage, garden-facing rooms are perhaps the most private. Some have outdoor showers and whirlpool tubs. The property’s largest and most stylish suite, Iguana on the ground floor, has a secluded outdoor garden for lounging in private.
Part of what make the Keys so special are its unique and well preserved eco system. Often known as “sea cows”, the number of large, lumbering manatees in our seas has dwindled significantly during recent years. Yet, families of manatees regularly visit the shallow waters around Casa Morada. A sure sign of how healthy the environment is around Islamorada, this also affirms the privileged spot Casa Morada occupies in terms of appreciating the natural world.
It would be a shame to visit the Keys and not take to the water. Casa Morada offers a number of different excursions led by local marine environmentalist Captain Bill. A veritable font of local knowledge, his two-hour island tour takes in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which extends from south of Miami westward to encompass the Dry Tortugas. Awash with coral reefs, shipwrecks, seagrass beds, wet lands and mangrove forests, the sanctuary is well worth visiting. (https://floridakeys.noaa.gov)
For the more hedonistic, a water borne bar-hopping trip can be a lot of fun, especially for a group of friends. Taking-in a variety of watering holes, once anchor is dropped at Islamorada Sandbar, what begins as a few drinks often turns into an impromptu party, particularly on the weekends. It doesn’t get more Keys than being on the water with friends, socialising with other boaters and bathing in sunshine surrounded by clear blue seas.
For the active but less intrepid, Casa Morada offers complimentary kayaks and paddle boards which are an excellent way to explore the coastline whilst getting a bit of exercise.
Yoga is a way of life for millions of people around the world. At Casa Morada, residents can unwind three mornings per week to a backdrop of calming ocean sounds, without charge. Private sessions are also arranged.
If it all sounds like paradise, it pretty much is. However, Casa Morada does not have a restaurant, so whilst breakfast is served onsite every morning, guests need to leave the property for all other meals, providing visitors with an excuse to explore.
Just a few miles from the hotel is cutesy Village Square. This quaint, shopping enclave, spread between a collection of candy-coloured plantation-style buildings, features an eclectic mix of unique and individually-owned boutiques, including an art gallery and some good, simple food options (www.villagesquareislamorada.com). Bad Boy Burrito serves authentic Mexican fare made using local, organic produce (www.badboyburritoislamorada.com), while charming Café Moka is perfect for lunch.
For a contemporary interpretation of a classic Floridian seafood restaurant, head to the Square Grouper at Islamorada Marina. Try to grab a table on the deck out back, overlooking the boats, and feast on the freshest catches of the day plus perennial favourites including conch chowder. (www.squaregrouperislamorada.com)
Just off the Overseas Highway, Chef Michael’s is a more upscale restaurant serving seafood, “dock to dish fish” and New American entrées in a slick, island-styled environment. Its Sunday Brunch (served ‘til 2pm) is also very good, with Mimosas just USD 8 a pop! (www.foodtotalkabout.com)
Of course, one cannot talk about eating in the Florida Keys without mentioning one of its most famous exports: Key Lime Pie. Locals are protective and particular about their Key lime pie. The original Conch version is essentially made using yellow Key limes, egg yolks, condensed milk, cream, butter and sugar, plus egg whites for the meringue topping. In Islamorada, Bayside Gourmet is undoubtedly one of the best places to sample this delicious local delicacy. (www.baysidegourmet.com)
Whilst sunsets in the Keys are legendary, when observed from Casa Morada’s bar they are nothing short of spectacular, complete with chess, checkers and backgammon tables set-up on the deck just in case you fancy indulging in a little board play as day turns to night. A pair of swing seats offer the perfect vantage point to watch the world go by – or at least the birds, boats and gently lapping waves – as blue skies erupt into shades of orange, gold and even purple.
It seems only fitting that since Jimmy Buffet’s famous 1977 song “Margaritaville” was originally written in the Florida Keys, one should sip a margarita as the sun goes down. Quite honestly, one doesn’t really grasp what it is to be in a truly footloose and fancy-free state of mind until experiencing a gorgeous Florida Keys sunset with a sundowner in one’s hand, and few places are better than Casa Morada on Islamorada to get with the program. (www.casamorada.com)