Two sharks from the Key West Aquarium returned to sea. A mile away at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, all 54 cats weathered the storm just fine. In Grassy Key, the Dolphin Research Center’s 26 dolphins and four sea lions stayed safe.
Those reports were among thousands related to Hurricane Irma’s strike on the Florida Keys on Sept. 10. Bringing ferocious 130 m.p.h. winds and torrential rain, the Category 4 storm’s effects are still evident in parts of the 125-mile coral archipelago nestled between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
The anchors — Key Largo to the north and Key West to the south — were lucky, escaping the full force of the winds. In contrast, some of the other Keys remain in cleanup mode with substantial rebuilding ahead.
Recovery operations began immediately, with crews recruited from as far away as Wisconsin. Contrary to reports that the islands were practically blown off the map, all 42 bridges of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway were deemed safe within five days. By the end of September, cruise ships were returning to the Port of Key West, and the Key West and Marathon airports reopened.
Storms have always been part of the region’s history. Shipwrecks built Key West’s fortunes in the 1800s. That history is told at the Key West Shipwreck Museum (keywestshipwreck.com) and Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (melfisher.org), among downtown Key West’s dozens of attractions unscathed by Irma. Resilience is central to life here.
KEY PARKS AND REFUGES
All 10 of the Keys’ state parks are open. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com) in Key Largo, the nation’s first undersea park, reopened its Visitor Center in January and resumed glass-bottom boat and snorkel tours. Dive excursions are not yet running. On Big Pine Key, Calusa Beach (and its cabins) in Bahia Honda State Park (bahiahondapark.com) are open, and the nearby Buttonwood and Bayside campgrounds are available for overnight camping. Loggerhead and Sandspur beaches are closed for restoration. Snorkel boat tours have resumed.
Dry Tortugas National Park (drytortugasinfo.com) on Garden Keyis open, with the Yankee Freedom III ferry and Key West Seaplane Adventures operating fully.
Some sections of Everglades National Park (nps.gov/ever), including 41 camping sites at Flamingo Campground Loop T, are open. Canoes and kayaks can be rented.
Three national wildlife refuges — Key Deer (fws.gov/refuge/national_key_deer_refuge), Great White Heron (fws.gov/refuge/great_white_heron) and Key West (fws.gov/refuge/key_west) — are open. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/crocodile_lake) in Key Largo is open for guided walks.
All major Keys attractions are back in business, including Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters (with new feedings for Mobula rays), Dolphin Connection in Duck Key and most offerings at Islamorada Key’s Theater of the Sea. At the nonprofit Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org) in Grassy Key, public programs are in full swing and the new visitor center is on track to open by spring.
Ferry tours to Pigeon Key (pigeonkey.net) — with tours of its museum and historic gang quarters — resumed with a new gateway in Marathon Key, departing from Hyatt Place’s marina at the Faro Blanco Lighthouse.
Annual events are taking place as scheduled except a handful such as Brew on the Bay and Taste Around the World in Key Largo, which were canceled for 2018.
“We survived, now we thrive” characterizes communitywide attitudes. In January at Islamorada’s Morada Way Arts and Cultural District (moradaway.org), new galleries opened, Florida Keys Brewing Co. expanded with a huge new beer garden, and locals lined up for tables at Chef Michael’s indoor and porch dining rooms.
Travelers won’t go hungry or thirsty, with most restaurants and bars in full swing. In a typical show of gusto, No Name Pub on Big Pine Key reopened late October. Crowds overflowed onto the Gulf-front deck at Sundowners; one regular answered an inquiry with a smile: “Hurricane? It’d take more than that to make us leave paradise.”
On a late January visit, Key West’s Victorian B&Bs, waterfront hotels, cafes, shops and bars appeared manicured and debris-free. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (hemingwayhome.com), a Spanish Colonial manse built in 1851, looked as elegant as ever. The recovery reflects the Keys’ brand of resilience.
In Key Largo, about 80 percent of accommodations are open, including Kona Kai (konakairesort.com) and Playa Largo (playalargoresort.com) resorts. Jules’ Undersea Lodge (jul.com), the famous submerged hotel, reopened its two guest rooms to divers Dec. 1.
It took several weeks to restore Key West’s Casa Marina (casamarinaresort.com), a storied resort opened in 1920 for travelers riding through the Keys on Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. Only three hotels in Key West are still closed. The Inn at Key West plans to reopen in April with a new name, the Havana Cabana Key West. Parrot Key Resort and Key West Bayside Inn & Suites are to open this summer.
Not yet back in paradise mode are areas of the middle and lower Keys, particularly on the Atlantic side. Most Islamorada resorts will be back in business by spring, though some, such as the Islander Resort, won’t fully reopen until later this year. Most Marathon properties are open. On Duck Key, Hawks Cay Resort & Marina will reopen some villas and Angler & Ale this spring and fully reopen this summer.
Reconstruction continues in the lower Keys. Little Palm Island Resort & Spa will be closed until 2019. Deer Run Bed & Breakfast plans to reopen by the summer. Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (bpkfl.com) is open, as are most units at Parmer’s Resort (parmersresort.com).
Most campgrounds have reopened, including Fiesta Key RV Resort & Marina (rvonthego.com/florida/fiesta-key-rv-resort) on Long Key. Sunshine Key in Big Pine Key plans to reopen this spring, and Sugarloaf KOA/Key West KOA in October.
What about Key West’s famous free-roaming chickens and roosters? The birds are descended from fowl set loose when cockfighting was outlawed and are beloved by locals. In late January, they appeared in the streets and in venues such as Blue Heaven’s tropical outdoor dining room. Before Irma hit, many were wrapped gently in newspaper and taken by residents when evacuating. Now that’s Key West for you.
NEW PLACES TO STAY AND PLAY
Undeterred by Hurricane Irma’s September strike, the Keys are debuting several new places and activities. Here’s a sampling:
Up the Keys Eco Tours’ new volun-tourism projects: The Florida Keys Hurricane Irma Recovery Tour includes clearing debris in Big Pine Key and National Key Deer Refuge, and planting trees at Grimal Grove’s urban farm. The six-hour tour, which includes cleanup tools and lunch, start at $99 per person (upthekeys.com/voluntourism).
KEY LARGO: Dolphin Point Villas (dolphinpointvillas.com) opened in December. Bungalows Key Largo, the Keys’ first all-inclusive resort, is scheduled to open this summer with 135 units. The Hilton Key Largo is being upgraded to a 200-room property called Baker’s Cay Resort set to reopen in the fall.
ISLAMORADA KEY: Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina (holidayisle.com), which is reopening in phases, will debut 14 new cottages in March.
Marathon KEY: The new Hampton Inn Marathon is aiming for completion in June.
BIG PINE KEY: A new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center is scheduled to open this fall.
GEIGER KEY: Dart Backcountry Paradise Charters (keywestecotours.com) has added 2017 Key West Dual Console luxury charters for wildlife viewing at mangrove channels, sandbars and snorkel patch reefs.
December welcomed the Tennessee Williams Museum (twkw.org), home to the largest permanent collection of the playwright’s memorabilia. A month after Irma hit, Marquesa Hotel expanded with the new 14-room Marquesa 4-1-4 (marquesa.com).