Laid-Back Luxury in the Florida Keys

Luxury is not a word that would seem to be synonymous with this island chain, where much of its appeal lies in the famous casualness of the “Conch” lifestyle and charm. Elegance seems to be way too much work in this laid-back, “mañana” environment that’s drawn famous artists, writers and stressed-out presidents to its mostly beachless shores.

But it’s here—shyly tucked away on lush private cays, discreetly positioned off the famed “Overseas Highway,” or surreptitiously cloaked in the obvious and sometimes bawdy environs of legendary Key West.

key largo In Key Largo, for example—the self-proclaimed “Diving Capital of the World” and a Mecca for sportfishing—there’s Dove Creek Lodge, a deceptively elegant hideaway with boutique-style accommodations that would have embarrassed beer guzzling anglers 15 years ago. But today, it’s an affordable, upper-end property with rooms and suites nicely appointed with tropical furnishings, well-appointed baths, DVD players, wide-screen TVs and private balconies. The adjoining Snapper’s Waterfront Saloon and Restaurant has more of an old-style Keys ambiance and the fresh fish on the menu comes literally right off the dock in the lagoon. Dove Creek offers packages for weddings/honeymoons, groups and fishing excursions. Rates through Oct. 31 run from $149 for a lodge room, to $450 for a luxury suite.

With 190 guestrooms and 10 spacious suites sitting on 13 acres, Key Largo Grande Resort & Beach Resort, A Hilton Resort, is a little too large to be called a hideaway. But the way it’s situated off the highway and tucked amongst a forest of towering trees right across the water from the Florida Everglades, believe it or not this sprawling resort reflects an intimacy that could only be engendered in the Keys. In the spacious rooms facing the tropical “forest,” you feel almost isolated staring down from the balcony onto the wooden nature pathway that winds through the property. It’s incredibly serene, even with the music blaring from the popular tiki bar on the beach and the fact that it’s a popular wedding resort with its expansive and airy collection of meeting rooms and group venues. The property recently completed a $12 million renovation and it shows in the tropical-inspired rooms with all the modern amenities, including high-speed Internet and video games. There are two heated outdoor pools with poolside massages available, the Tree Tops Bar & Grille for breakfast and dinner, a fully equipped, state-of-the-art gym with sauna and whirlpool, two lighted tennis courts and a host of watersports and eco-tours available. Rates vary, so call for special packages and resort credit programs.

marathon In Marathon or more accurately off of Marathon, sits perhaps the most well-known “hideaway” in the Florida Keys—the ultra-lux and super-exclusive Little Palm Island Resort & Spa—a kind of Gilligan’s Island for the uber set that promises confidential, discreet intimacy and a guaranteed getaway from all the ugliness in the world. There are no phones and only one TV in the Great Room or library, but that promise is ruined somewhat by the presence of the ubiquitous cell phones carted around by guests here and there. The rule is you can only use them in your room, but there were a number of guests around the pool clutching them like life preservers. Still, this elegant retreat delivers. They regularly top Zagat’s list for their dining acumen—urge clients to go for the shrimp avocado quesadilla at lunch, it’s to die for—and the SpaTerre offers more exotic rituals than an Inca holy day and you won’t get thrown off a pyramid at the end. Uptight clients—and who isn’t these days—can chill out in the Zen Garden and other laid-back exercises range from reiki to yoga. The 28 bungalow suites and two grand suites allow guests to nestle even deeper into seclusion should they like, with all private sanctuaries tucked into secluded coves and garden nooks. This is truly a lush private paradise for your most discerning clients. Rates vary.

Marathon is also home to Hawk’s Cay, a truly sprawling and elegant resort complex spread across 60 acres on Duck Key that offers just about every kind of water-based application short of submarine warfare training. Re-opened just last month fresh from a $35 million renovation, the entire main building from the lobby to all of its existing 177 rooms including 15 suites, plus 100 of its 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom villas located throughout the resort, got a major face-lift, upgrading its already established reputation as a “barefoot luxury” resort. All told, there are 225 villas on property. The resort also opened its new restaurant, Alma, specializing in Nuevo Latin fare and its Alma Bar, which doubles as a Coffee House during the day serving juices, specialty coffee (espresso, cappuccino, etc.), fresh breads and pastries. Guestrooms run just under 400 sq. ft., while the suites are 500 sq. ft. Guestroom highlights include oversized, tumbled marble showers for two or a bathtub with a luxurious bath area; 300-thread count Egyptian linens and island-style mahogany four-poster beds set off by unique lighting and light stone flooring. In addition to standard high-end amenities, there’s an MP3 docking station; a 37-inch, flat-screen TV (42-inch in suites) and Playstation video games. There’s an onsite dolphin program; boat and fishing charters; kayaks; wakeboard and waterskiing school; a deepwater sailing school; jet ski tours; eco tours; parasailing; snuba, scuba and snorkeling; sunset cruises—in short, if it floats, boats, sinks or flies, it’s here. There’s much more with no space to list here, but other standouts include the award-winning Indies Club for kids including a Pirates Pool, plus the 7,000-sq.-ft. Calm Waters Spa. Room rates run from $145; villas from $225.