by Terry Ward
After a fire devastated the main lodge of this historic Florida property that dates to 1946, Cheeca Lodge & Spa re-opened in Dec. 2009 as a more contemporary version of its original self. Located in Islamorada, the self-dubbed “sport fishing capital of the world” (and most definitely of the Florida Keys), resort sits on 27 acres of palms, bougainvillea and golf course-style, perfectly-green grass that imparts a very tropical feeling. And while the Florida Keys aren’t known for beaches, there’s a smallish sandy stretch where the water stays shallow (and in the summer months, extremely warm) a long way out. Don’t expect Caribbean-style waters, however. While the water is clear, there’s lots of sea grass and floating seaweed — an ideal habitat for the many fish and crustaceans that live here, but perhaps not the vision of paradise that some vacationers have.
The resort’s 214 rooms are spread between the fully-renovated main lodge, where you’ll find some of the swankier options (including rooms with deep outdoor tubs facing the ocean on private balconies), older two-story buildings scattered throughout the property and nine beachfront bungalows (housed in three buildings) which are for adults-only and sit directly on the sandy beach.
The resort’s overall decor is very Tommy Bahama, with paddle fans and upholstery with large floral prints, palm tree motifs o’plenty, and a maroon and green color scheme. Dark wood furnishings prevail in the common areas and guestrooms, and bathrooms are decadent with glassed-in showers and over-sized tubs.
There are a few onsite restaurants, including a sushi restaurant, an Italian bistro and the main oceanfront restaurant, where buffet breakfasts segue into lazy oceanfront lunches alfresco and sophisticated dinners surrounded by flickering tiki torches.
Families tend to hang out at the oceanfront family pool, and there’s a separate pool for adults-only located near the spa. A snorkeling lagoon fronting the beach is backed by a fake waterfall. And while the water is often murky, it’s circulated in and out from the ocean, and home to fish, hermit crabs and lobsters that kids delight in seeing when they slip on a mask and snorkel.
Your daily resort fee covers bicycle, fishing rod and kayak use in addition to Internet and golf on the small three-hole course. For an additional fee, you can rent stand-up paddle boards and kite boards, go parasailing right out front, or organize a fishing trip or scuba-diving trip through the hotel’s concierge.
Cheeca’s favorite family-photo backdrop is the resort’s 525-foot-long, wooden fish pier. You can sign out fishing rods from the watersports’ desk and toss a line off the end of the pier to see what you pull up (perhaps a yellow tail snapper). And even though the sun sets on the opposite side of Islamorada, many folks would argue there’s no better place to be hanging out at the end of a Florida Keys’ day than this hotel’s scenic waterfront.
Our Editor Loves
- Camp Cheeca
- Snorkleing lagoon
- Luxurious one- and two-bedroom suites
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The resort has 17 different room types spread among 30 different buildings. In all rooms, the Tommy Bahama look of floral and palm tree patterns paired with dark wood furnishings prevails. Light colored carpets are standard throughout, with tiled bathrooms. And all rooms have patios or balconies and mini-fridges (some of the resort-view and lagoon-view rooms have kitchenettes with microwaves, full refrigerators and stovetops).
Families will have easiest beach and pool access from rooms in the main lodge, where 39 rooms include one- and two-bedroom suites that have huge soaking tubs on balconies where you can enjoy ocean- or golf-course views while you bathe (pull the long white curtains if privacy is in order). The tubs fill from a tap in the ceiling of the patio, and for kids it makes bath-time that much more fun and easy to induce.
Other rooms at the property are spread between two-story buildings, with the ground floor devoted to carport-style parking spots (many homes and hotels in the Keys are elevated to prevent flooding during storms). There are nine beach bungalows set within three different buildings right on the sand, and each has a private garden and sun terrace. But the beach bungalows are for adults-only (no families allowed).
Connecting rooms are available, so you can easily accommodate a larger family with a room with a king bed and an adjoining room with two queens (or opt for one of the two-bedroom suites).
Certainly a 5 star experience. A wonderful escape for even a short time. The entire staff in particular were all so friendly, accommodating, and welcoming. The property is very hidden off the beaten path. that is the only negative, but well worth the adventure to find it.
Although the property has beautiful landscaping and sits in a great location I feel it’s overpriced. Room are luxurious with good size TV, bathroom and balcony it lacks housekeeping. I found small particles of mold buildup in the bathroom. The coffee station had no cream although it has great coffee quality.
For many visitors, it's surprising to find that an actual sandy beach is a rare commodity in the Florida Keys. And while the beach at Cheeca is far from a Caribbean idyll, it still qualifies as a bonafide (if small) sandy stretch where you can lay out a towel or relax in a lounge chair and wade out into the ocean. The resort makes it easy to get out on the water, too, with kayak use and lifejackets included with your daily resort fee. Put a kid or two in with you in the ocean-going kayaks and paddle around the pier and over the grassy flats -- the water is so clear that you can often spot baby-horseshoe crabs and colorful tropical fish. If you're lucky, you might even sea a stingray or sea turtle.
Camp Cheeca is the resort's children's program, and it's open to kids ages 5 to 12. While the dedicated camp room is little more than a table for snacks and lunch, a few board games, and a TV area for watching movies when the weather is poor (rarely), the resort puts the camp's emphasis on outdoor activities, with typical outings along the lines of nature walks, fishing excursions on the resort's pier and snorkeling in the lagoon. Full-day sessions are offered from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and half-day sessions are from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. or 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., and lunch and snacks are included. Kid's Nights Out is offered on Friday and Saturday nights and are catered to the age groups present, which means your kids might end up having a pizza party by the pool or watching a movie on the blow-up screen outside.
Another nice perk is Cheeca's complimentary resort shuttle, which runs from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and can deliver you anywhere within two miles to the north or south of the property (including to various restaurants and bars).
The resort's swimming areas includes the free-form main family pool that fronts the ocean at the main lodge and is surrounded by abundant lounge chairs. It sports a separate hot tub, too. And there's also an adults-only pool located near the spa, where the decibel level is considerably lower thanks to the fact that you have to be 21 or older to pass your time there. A snorkel lagoon in front of the main pool doesn't have the clearest water, but it's a favorite with children since they can don a mask and snorkel to look for hermit crabs and lobsters or splash around the waterfall. The pool is open 24 hours but it's expected that guests will respect quiet times when enjoying the pool after 10 p.m. There are no lifeguards on duty at either pool.
Bicycles are also included in the resort fee, so you can tool around the property on two wheels as a family. And if you're interested in jetski rentals, fishing trips and snorkeling excursions to nearby reefs, the concierge can make arrangements with an outside company. There's also a nine-hole golf course onsite, and equipment and access are also included in the resort fee.
It's worth renting a car if you're staying here to access some of the family-friendly nearby attractions such as the marina at Robbie's, where you can feed the tarpon that school around the docks, rent boats and arrange fishing trips. And also look for Theater of the Sea, a low-key attraction where you can see dolphin and parrot shows, swim with stingrays in a lagoon, and take snorkeling trips to the reef.
Key West is a good-hour-and-forty-minutes away by car, but it's doable as a day-trip. Some of the highlights for families there include the nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square and a visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
Of the resort's three restaurants, Atlantic's Edge -- the main seafood restaurant fronting the ocean, just off the lobby in the main lodge -- is the best for family dining. The kids' menu includes breakfast items such as pancakes and waffles, organic oatmeal, and scrambled eggs with toast and bacon or sausage. If you're dining from the restaurant's excellent breakfast buffet, the servers will also invite you to serve your children from there too, for no extra charge.
Lunch items for kids include grilled chicken with fries and veggies, kids pizzas, black-Angus burgers, chicken tenders or fish and chips. And for dinner the selection includes fish, chicken or beef dishes with mashed potatoes and veggies; pastas with marinara, butter and cheese sauces; and salads.
Other restaurants onsite include Limoncello, a Tuscan-themed eatery where you can order kiddie portions of pasta and pizza in addition to homemade gnocchi, lasagna and veal meatballs that can easily be plated for a few kids. And there's a sushi bar, too, Nikai, where you sit at the bar for a good selection of rolls, sashimi and poke dishes.
Just a short bike ride from the resort, Midway is a really cute local spot for good, inexpensive breakfasts and lunches such as egg and cheese sandwiches, gourmet wraps, and salads. And Lorelei, across the street from the hotel, is a great, casual place for sunset dinners, with plastic tables set on a dock and in the sand, live music, and kid-friendly foods on the menu like grouper fingers and chicken fingers.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
The area surrounding the resort is quite nice for a stroll or jog, so consider bringing a stroller with you. While the resort offers a complimentary shuttle service within two miles to the north and south, renting a car is the way to go if you plan to explore farther afield, including attractions in Key Largo such as John Pennekamp National Coral Reef State Park and Key West's historic old town.
Wireless Internet is included in your resort fee, along with a daily newspaper and unlimited Starbucks coffee and TAZO teas.
Babysitting services with licensed sitters can be arranged through the concierge for an hourly fee. There is a three-hour minimum and sitters must be reserved 24 hours in advance.
Pack 'n Plays and cribs can be delivered to your room at no extra cost, and the Cheeca Spa has offerings for teens, including manicures and pedicures.
The Art of Smart Timing
All of the resort's facilities are open year-round, but the busiest time to visit is during winter's high season, from December to March, when the family pool can get very crowded. Summertime in the Keys is very hot, but there's usually a breeze. That said, the water temperatures in the ocean in front of the hotel (which is less than two-feet deep for several yards out) can be positively scorching during the summer months, making a refreshing dip in the ocean nearly impossible.
The shoulder season in October is usually a nice time to visit, but it's still hurricane season in these parts then, so be sure to watch the weather (there's only one way in and out of the Keys in the event of hurricane evacuation, along US 1). Islamorada hosts several sport-fishing tournaments throughout the year, so you might want to inquire about local events when you book. During tournaments, the hotel is not only crowded, but it also takes on less of a family-friendly vibe, especially around the bar at night. The most pleasant months of the year tend to be November through March, but April and May are often relatively mild, too. Hurricane season in these parts stretches from June 1 to November 30.
Miami International Airport is roughly an hour-and-forty-five-minutes from the resort, by car. And it's about the same distance to the Key West International Airport. But you're likely to find the most reasonable airfare from major US and international cities flying into Miami. Shuttle service between the airports and the hotel is not offered, and taxi fare would cost you hundreds of dollars. So you're best off renting a car (all of the major car rental companies are onsite at both airports).
For Mom and Dad
From a snorkeling trip arranged by the concierge to exploring a nearby reef while the kids are off enjoying Club Cheeca to a romantic dinner a deux after you've hired a babysitter for the evening, the lodge's child-care services make it easy enough for parents to plan some alone time.
Start with a couple's treatment in the resort's spa, with its oceanside tiki hut for outdoor treatments, and then treat yourselves to a butler-serviced cabana by the adults-only pool for a lazy afternoon. Then head out for dinner, just the two of you. Pierre's is a wonderful pick for a romantic dinner with sunset-views. And Hungry Tarpon, the fine dining restaurant at Robbie's Marina, serves up gourmet seafood dishes at tables set right in the sand and surrounded by breeze-blown palms.