Resort Spotlight: Cheeca Lodge and Spa

By Chris VandenHeuvel

Talk about a silver lining.

When an errant cigarette butt torched the Tiki bar at Cheeca Lodge and Spa on Islamorada island in the Florida Keys during a 2009 New Year’s celebration -- followed quickly by an inferno in the main lodge -- many saw the destruction as the death knell for the oceanfront resort that for decades has been an integral part of the Keys culture.

But Cheeca didn’t simply rise from the ashes one short year later -- its near death made way for a rebirth that has ushered in a whole new era for the iconic resort, ideal for active (or inactive) family vacations, reunions, weddings and other rendezvous.

Cheeca lies an hour and half plus from Miami’s airport over what appear to be permanently-under-construction roads. When the water turns the color of mouthwash and the scruffy shacks of the Keys give way to more upscale surroundings, you’ve arrived on Islamorada. According to some locals, the island doesn't have a clearly settled pronunciation.

You will quickly forget about the roads and anything outside Cheeca’s gates because everything for a perfect family vacation is here: great food, impeccable rooms 50 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, kid activities, legendary fishing, great views ... and the ability to do nothing but bask in Cheeca’s unique combination of luxury and barefoot family fun.

What’s Special

  • Sweet Rooms -- Cheeca’s brand-spanking new, 850 square-foot Premier rooms in the main lodge, stuffed with mahogany and marble, rival other top notch resorts. Step into the circular tub on your private balcony, turn on the overhead water stream and dare your kids not to be impressed. (However, the equally luxurious Lagoon View one- and two-bedroom suites may be the best family-oriented rooms.)
  • Private Coast -- The resort owns 1,200 feet of fenced-in Atlantic coast, home to double breasted cormorants, brown pelicans, bobbing boats and launches for water play. One hundred-and-eighty degree views of the ocean are perfect for catching the sunrise and Florida rays (the sun sets on the other side of the island).
  • Cool Pools -- The resort’s free-form main pool, only steps from the sand, meanders under a forest of palm trees. An adult pool next to the spa is a quieter place to dive and swim laps and then loll under cabanas. There’s even a small pond/lagoon to practice snorkeling or to introduce your little ones to crabs and fishies.
  • Satisfying Spa -- Novel spa treatments in the 5,700 square foot spa or oceanfront tiki hut start with a sea salt foot rub and can end in the butler-serviced poolside cabanas (ages 16 and up).
  • Water Play -- Bone-fishing trips, eco-tours, coral reef snorkeling, kayaks, hobie cats ... all available right off the resort’s beach or pier.
  • Camp Cheeca -- Based in an adorable cottage secluded under dense foliage, Camp Cheeca pampers your younger ones (5-12) with age appropriate activities that take advantage of the entire resort: fishing, hermit crab hunting, coconut painting, hunting for buried treasure, and more.
  • Innovative Innovative Cuisine -- Rather than dumbed-down Continental cuisine or soggy fried seafood, the resort’s two main restaurants cater to more refined tastes while still offering simple family fare. Both directly overlook the ocean.
  • On-site Tennis and Golf -- A Jack Nicklaus designed, nine hole, par three course and six lighted tennis courts can break up the time spent luxuriating at the beach or spa.

You’re on the Water -- Play in It!

Cheeca’s history is inextricably linked to its location near the middle of the Florida Keys, essentially where the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean collide (plus the Florida Bay on the opposite side of the island). Hundreds of species of fish -- sailfish, marlin, dolphin, tarpon -- inhabit the surrounding waters, making Islamorada island the self proclaimed “sport-fishing capital of the world.” The Presidential Sailfish Tournament, which has attracted both Bush presidents, is sponsored by Cheeca Lodge. The resort arranges all sorts of fishing options, from deep sea to trolling the mangroves of the Bay.

Islamorada sits north of Alligator Reef, North America’s only coral barrier reef, running 175 miles along the Keys and breaking the Atlantic Oceans waves, making swimming off the pier a breeze. Cheeca outfitters run SCUBA, snorkeling and eco-tours of the reef and surrounding shallow waters in a 39 person snorkel boat or smaller crafts, dodging the thousands of buoys for lobster and stone crab - both of which are on the restaurant menus.

For the less intrepid, Cheeca provides fishing poles (free) for dropping a line off the edge of the pier. Guests catch grouper, Jewfish and grunts using frozen shrimp for bait ($8 at the pier) or buy squid and other bait just outside Cheeca’s gates.

The staff also can teach wind surfing and sailing lessons for $50 per hour using the resort’s equipment.

Eat the Food

Having been subjected to many “least common denominator” cuisines at resort restaurants, it’s nice to see an adventuresome spirit at Cheeca. Up-and-coming Chef Dean James Max inspired the “modern American seafood” cuisine, a melting pot of American styles focused on unfussy, locally available seafood.

The main restaurant, Atlantic’s Edge, is aptly named -- not only does it overlook the Atlantic, it’s patio tables sit smack dab on the beach, surrounded by gas torches at night. The menu focuses on seafood -- spicy Ahi tuna in coconut milk (served in half a coconut), fried whole grouper served with cole slaw and tartar sauce laced with capers or caviar, inventive fresh catch dishes -- but also captures local salad greens (grilled romaine, beets) and plenty of meat lover choices. And the restaurant’s Island Grand Buffet breakfast is a big cut above the usual all-you-can-eat spreads, with fresh fruit and berries, smoked salmon, homemade cereals, pastries and more, plus prepared omelets and Belgian waffles and a la carte choices. Yum.

Calling Nikai a sushi restaurant is vaguely accurate -- while the sushi is fresh and first class, the nearly endless choices of southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Australian) dishes can easily overwhelm your sushi cravings. Best bet (especially with kids): try a little of this, a bit of that, two of those and few of these, washed down with exotic sake infused drinks and other cocktails (OK, these are not for the kids).

The quintessential Tiki bar (no leftover charred timbers) overlooking the pool, pier and Atlantic makes it all too enticing to desert the kids and enjoy the steel drums in the afternoon or jazz combo later in the evening (both of which easily trump the otherwise pedestrian piped-in muzak).

If your kids are less adventuresome (like mine), simply ask your server for more typical kiddie offering, and you -- and your kids -- won’t be disappointed.

Close to all the Keys, Everglades, Coral Reefs .…

Islamorada is close to mid-point between Miami (79 miles) and Key West (82 miles), so all of the storied Florida Keys are at your disposal. Outfitters up and down the Keys offer charters, wreck diving, SCUBA trips, stand up paddle board eco-tours, dolphin experiences, sport fishing and more. In addition, there are nicer beaches in the Keys than Cheeca’s to visit, as well. Islamorada itself has a few decent restaurants if you want to get off property for a change -- ask the friendly concierges for suggestions and a van ride.

If You Go:

  • Note that the beach here bears little resemblance to the gently sloping sand beaches of the Atlantic or Gulf coast. While there are two small sand entrance beaches, the remaining shore is packed coral/sand that drops into shallow water or onto the sea bed at low tide that kids can explore with the egrets and small sea creatures. Swimming off the seemingly endless, beautiful pier is more common.
  • The resort rents electric scooters for $18 per hour or $35 for three hours. Bicycle rentals are included in the room rates -- there are helmets but no infant seats.
  • Cheeca Lodge is popular for weddings and other large events that can get noisy in the evening -- you may want to inquire about rooms that ensure peace and quiet. If that’s your thing.
  • Make sure you register your kids in advance for Club Cheeca.
  • From June through September, the average high in this region hovers near 90F and low around 80F. In Winter, the average high is 75F and low is 65F. Shoulder months are lovely.
  • For an additional $49 a day per person, adults can access the members-only Club Lounge and deck that overlooks the water, adding some additional élan to an already swanky resort.
  • The resort offers numerous packages and specials (such as buy two, get one free during certain months). Check the resort’s website for more information: http://www.cheeca.com.

Husband and wife team Chris & Pat VandenHeuvel have been writing about cities, resorts, destinations and the occasional restaurant for more than sixteen years. They call Charleston, South Carolina home and their favorite travel companions are their two globetrotting teens, both of whom profess to love the smell of a nice hotel.

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