It was like going to Pamplona in early July and steering clear of the bulls. Or maybe like going to Oktoberfest and drinking club soda with a lemon twist. We arrived at Cheeca Lodge in the Upper Keys on Islamorada with the 23rd annual Cheeca Lodge Presidential Sailfish Tournament in full swing.
For the weekend, Cheeca Lodge was the center of a feverish sport fishing competition in a town that bills itself as the "Sport Fishing Capital of the World." By the end of the weekend, 104 sailfish would be wrestled boatside only to be released, perplexed, back into local waters.
We did not come to harass sailfish. In fact, we aimed to remain peaceably prone for much of a long January weekend at one of the Florida Keys' most luxurious resorts. A visit to a food and wine festival, a morning at the spa and some beach time with a good book — but mostly we had driven five hours down and across the state to check out the new and improved Cheeca Lodge & Spa.
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It was New Year's Eve in 2008. Somebody stood on a fourth-floor balcony, perhaps a little tipsy, perhaps just breathing in the night sea air as they enjoyed the year's last cigarette. Flick, and the glowing eye tumbled sandward, lodging in the tiki thatch that edged the family pool. And with a puff of wind the next chapter of Cheeca Lodge's history began. The fire leveled the main hotel and closed Cheeca Lodge for about a year.
Starting life in 1946 when Clara Mae Downey built the Islamorada Olney Inn, it owed much to Henry Morrison Flagler and his zany idea of linking the Keys to Miami and beyond via railroad. But perhaps the greater debt was to the prose of Zane Gray and Ernest Hemingway, the latter's rough-and-tumble Keys stories about the only time his prose approaches purple.
And in the case of Islamorada, purple is appropriate: It was the island's purple haze at sunset that prompted the 16th century Spanish explorers to dub it "islas moradas" (purple islands). That haze, the weather and fertile waters brought winter-weary Northerners to the Olney up until the 1960s, when the Twitchell family, A&P grocery heirs, took over and renamed it Cheeca. They built a main lodge, oceanfront villas, tennis courts, a golf course and a long wooden fishing pier. It was purchased in 1976 by Coca-Cola magnate Carl Navarre and has since changed hands several times, but all the while it has hosted celebs from Jack Parr to Paul Newman, Ted Williams, Jack Nicklaus and, most conspicuously, President George Bush.
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We stepped into the lobby past a riot of false lavender and, once checked in and liberally champagned, perused an adjacent wall of fame. There's the 41st president in fishing gear. There he is again. The senior Bush seemed so smitten with Cheeca he co-founded the George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in 1994. The lodge even has a presidential suite named in his honor filled with photos and mementos donated by the former president.
We did not stay in this suite. Instead, we dropped our duffels in a superior beach view king room, one of the 214 rooms, bungalows and suites on the property, all of them done up in a West Indies, dark-wood/white-paint Tommy Bahama style that embodies the lodge's old tagline: "barefoot elegance."
An exploratory meander through some of the 27 acres of the lavishly landscaped property and it was time to hit the monthly Third Thursday Art Walk in the nearby Morada Way Arts & Cultural District. "District" may be a bit grandiose: It's a block or so of local artisans and galleries that put out their wares from 5 to 9 p.m. Driftwood coffee tables, manatee-shaped mailboxes and lots of beaded jewelry dominate, but you'll also find the delicate stone necklaces and bracelets the lovely Renzen Dekiy Rich makes from materials collected from her home in Tibet.
On the walk back to Cheeca we passed Chef Michael's, "Peace, Love, and Hogfish" across its sign. Who couldn't use a bit more of all three, we wondered as we tucked into a perfect fillet of this pig-snouted fish, freshly spear-caught somewhere close.
The next morning started with a tour of the property, the main lodge having been rebuilt after that careless New Year's Eve cigarette but the rest reflecting the efforts of an earlier $30 million renovation. A long palm-lined private beach was without a footprint marring the sand, a Florida spin on a meticulously raked Japanese garden, while a saltwater lagoon drew families squatting to watch the flitting schools of native fish. Once sated of fish stalking, families tended to migrate to the nearby big pool, whereas those without kids congregated at the adult pool adjacent to the spa (beyond an absence of progeny, its allures included cabanas with butler service).
The spa itself has just undergone a renovation, and spa director Francine Mitchell ticks off the services: beach yoga, cardio strength training, effervescent sea wrap and hot lava shell massage. All of that sounded far too active for our purposes, so we lolled under the ministrations of an aesthetician and her deep facial.
Emerging as pink and polished as the inside of a conch shell, we determined to explore the rest of the island. A Millionaire's Row ostensibly houses the island's big shots and celebs, but even determined hoi polloi can't see much beyond gates that shield fancy boats and Florida Bay or Atlantic waters.
Islamorada, said to be the oldest inhabited place in the Keys, really consists of a series of tiny islands: Upper and Lower Matecumbe, Plantation Key and Windley Key. The main drag, Overseas Highway, is a string of the beer-bait-ice stores and ticky-tacky souvenir shops that Florida practically invented. For example, the Rain Barrel: With a huge, mutant shrimp sculpture outside (forget spiders and ants, these guys are the kind of nightmare fodder that fuels low-budget films), inside it's stocked with carved coconut heads, shell-topped tissue box covers and animatronic whistling toads, the kind of impulse buys that make less sense when de-bubble-wrapped back home.
After a lunch at M.E.A.T., a recent island addition where housemade charcuterie gets a no-fuss, fast-food interpretation, we wandered the courtyard at the Artists Village, less tempted to buy than awed that so many potters' wheels must be spinning on the island. After that, it was time to feed the tarpon at Robbie's, a marina around which the silver kings go slumming. We chatted a while with Anthony Bontemps, a Haiti native who takes the bus each day from Homestead, an hour each way, to serve as tarpon wrangler at Robbie's. With half a pool noodle duct-taped to a broomstick, Bontemps wards off importunate pelicans (while he was busy luring a tarpon to break the surface, we did see a kid get pelican-nipped, his baitfish disappearing in a flash of prehistoric beak).
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The International Game Fish Association reports that more saltwater world records are made in the Keys than in any other angling destination. Cowed a little by those gator-sized tarpon, we took the less sporting route of finding our fish at Cheeca Lodge's Nikai sushi bar, a fairly recent debut, adjacent to the flagship restaurant Atlantic's Edge and more casual Italian Limoncello. The two young sushi chefs there are deadly serious about their craft, sending out startlingly fresh swaths of sashimi in spare, clean preparations elevated by all-housemade ponzu and miso sauces. We went the omakase route, leaving all decisions in their hands, and what followed was as sophisticated and well-paced a sushi experience as we've had anywhere.
Our next and final day brought more evidence of the island's culinary sophistication at the culmination of the 10-day Uncorked Key Largo and Islamorada Food & Wine Festival. The grand tasting was held at the Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, a hip new hotel that reinvented an island classic (supposedly the rum runner was invented long ago at the tiki bar at the Holiday Isle motel-marina). Although rum runners weren't the order of business, dozens of California and French wineries, liquor vendors and a couple dozen local restaurants set up tasting booths along the marina walkway. With water on both sides and live music competing for aural dominance, it was an effortless way to while away a breezy January afternoon in the Keys.
Naptime, then a promenade out to Cheeca Lodge's 525-foot wooden fishing pier and past the Jack Nicklaus-designed nine-hole golf course. While Capt. Nick Ewald and the crew of Viva la Vida cruised back to dock as victors of the Cheeca Lodge Presidential Sailfish Tournament (they caught and released nine over two days), we were content to slide toes through cooling sand and watch the sunset over one of the Keys' most casually elegant retreats.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.