The Cheeca Lodge & Spa, a storied Florida Keys hotel where United States presidents and celebrity athletes have fished and basked for decades, reopened on March 30, six months after Hurricane Irma decimated the sprawling property with its powerful winds and eight-foot surge. The storm wrecked the lobby, dock, pools, restaurants and landscaping. But $25 million later, the lodge, which is no stranger to hurricanes, is back, with a redesigned look.
The new breezy lobby boasts a modern vibe (some repeat guests we spoke with called it a downgrade), the 525-foot dock stretches into the horizon once again and the Tiki Bar beckons with sugar-laced mojitos and rum-soaked mangoladas. As of May, post-hurricane kinks remained, though, a sign that the reopening may have come too quickly. Phones and televisions weren’t working properly in all rooms, according to some visitors. The nine-hole golf course looked downtrodden. Construction noise intruded on paradise. And while the food was wonderful, service sometimes stumbled.
Gorgeous. The Cheeca Lodge & Spa sits on the Atlantic Ocean on Upper Matecumbe Key, about two hours from Miami. The site is nirvana for fishing enthusiasts and boaters. The beach is small and pleasant but not idyllic (few are in the Keys).
Our 415-square-foot bungalow on concrete stilts, one of the cheaper options available, was cool, quiet and comfortable. It stood right by the swimming pool and offered a partial view of the beach. The vaulted ceiling made the room feel spacious. The lovely, polished wood floor was a treat, considering most rooms are carpeted. A simple, wooden, king-size bed frame held a plush, inviting (and sleep-rewarding) mattress. A flat-screen television hung on the wall (unfortunately, none of the channels were in high definition) with a DVD player underneath. The walls were starkly bare. My favorite spot was the screened-in porch with two unfussy brown wicker chairs and a small table, where I indulged my favorite pastime: gazing at the ocean.
The roomy bathroom featured a large shower with both a rain showerhead and a spray hose. (There was no tub. Sigh.) The glass door didn’t shut tightly so water dribbled out. Two stand-alone sinks ensconced in chocolate-colored vanities sat across from each other, looking a bit scuffed. The Jonathan Adler toiletries smelled of grapefruit, a fitting Florida scent. Cotton waffle robes hung in the closet.
With the Atlantic Ocean as a backyard, fishing, swimming, snorkeling and sailing are the crowd favorites. Kayaks are free to use (although not the translucent one, which costs money to rent). Parasailing, jet skiing, snorkel tours, sunset sails and fishing expeditions are available for a price. Guests can also play tennis, and golf on a par-3, Jack Nicklaus-designed course (Mr. Nicklaus has been a frequent guest over the years). For those wishing to brave the heat, beach cruisers are free. A small but lovely spa offers extra relaxation; my facial was superb. There are two pools: one for adults and one for families (a third pool is being built this year). For adult downtime, children can peel off to Camp Cheeca’s environmental program.
The hotel’s signature restaurant, Atlantic’s Edge, lets guests dine by the beach or inside by the lobby. The chef, Phillip Lowd, serves seafood, much of it local, with a tropical twist, as well as steaks. I had breakfast there and savored my tropical fruit cup and acai bowl. The eggs, bacon and coffee also were delicious. The Tiki Bar offers food, too, and I devoured my yummy lobster quesadilla but maybe that’s because it took 45 minutes to arrive. Next door, Mia Cucina, a new pizzeria with a Disney-style vibe, caters to families. Another upscale eatery, Nikai Sushi Bar and Restaurant, reopened in late April on the second floor. It features a tableside robata grill and Asian-inspired cocktails.
Kudos to the Cheeca Lodge for its swift comeback from adversity and for keeping its employees on the payroll as it renovated. But the hotel — which still charms with its stunning views and tropical vibe — may have rushed its reopening, and at the moment falls short, for now, of the luxury standards that many longtime guests had come to expect.
Cheeca Lodge & Spa, 81801 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Fla., cheeca.com.
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