Last year when Hurricane Irma rumbled toward Florida's Keys, the entire world held its breath and said a prayer that the delicate strand of islands would weather the storm. Torrential rain and 130 mph Category 4 winds caused extensive damage to homes, businesses, marinas, infrastructure and natural structures. The initial prognosis looked bleak.
Those who wondered if the ocean paradise could rebound underestimated the determination and grit of Florida's Key residents. Not long after the clouds passed, nuggets of hope tricked out amidst a barrage of devastating news. All 54 cats at the Ernest Hemingway house were unharmed, and within five days, all 42 bridges were deemed safe for travel. By the end of September 2017, Key West cleared its port of debris to welcome cruise ships, and island airports reopened.
The road to recovery hasn't been easy, but after a year of hard restoration work, the Keys are back in business and ready for visitors to see that life has almost returned to normal. Anglers are catching trophy fish, snorkelers are puttering through colorful coral reefs, restaurants are serving exquisite seafood and bars are mixing up rum punch cocktails to toast spectacular sunsets again. Take look at all the progress in the Keys.
While it didn't completely dodge Irma's bullet, Key Largo sustained less destruction than some of the other islands. After clearing out the wreckage, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is welcoming divers to America's first underwater sea park to swim with sea creatures amid its colorful reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps.
Restoration of most of the resorts is complete with Kona Kai, Playa Largo and Jules' Undersea Lodge (the world's only underwater hotel) taking reservations at their luxurious locations. At the glamorous private Ocean Reef Club, guests are once again golfing, playing tennis and lounging poolside after a soothing spa experience. Alabama Jacks, a beloved local watering hole, has resumed 50 years of service and is dishing out its famous conch fritters, burgers and fish sandwiches. New, upscale resorts -- such as Dolphin Point Villas and The Bungalows -- are open and providing heavenly escapes on pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters.
Even though it's known as the sport fishing capital of the Keys, Islamorada has risen from the storm with treasures on both land and sea. High-end marinas such as Plantation Yacht Harbor have shored up their docks and are ready to accommo-date vessels of all sizes. To reopen its doors after Irma, the historic Cheeca Lodge shelled out $25 million for renovations to its lodge, rooms and landscaping for 27 acres of plush tropical foliage. They went a step further by introducing a new dining area while putting the final touches on a new oceanfront swimming pool and tiki bar on the beach.
The entire Islamorada community joined in the spirit of island rebirth. Today's visitors can stroll through Morada Way Arts & Cultural District and find boutiques, music venues and galleries filled with local artists' paintings, sculpture, jewelry and ceramics. The celebrated Florida Keys Brewing Co. is pouring craft beer for thirsty shoppers, and the food scene is blossoming with top-flight restaurants such as Morada Bay Café, Kaiyo Grill, Chef Michaels, Ma's Fish Camp, Green Turtle Inn, Islamorada Fish Company and Pierre's. Theater of the Sea is introducing humans to new marine friends, including dolphins, sea lions, turtles, sharks, stingrays and aquatic birds. History of Diving Museum chronicles the evolution of exploration beneath the waves.
Coming soon! Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina is closed for extensive renovations and plans to re-open all its facilities and marina in October 2018. The posh resort includes a hotel, bars, restaurants and the marina with 19 transient slips for vessels up to 100 feet.
After taking the brunt of Irma's wrath, the Lower Keys has shown exceptional resilience in post-hurricane clean-up. Hawks Cay Resort & Marina planned its restoration in phases, starting with the villas and spa and then enhancing its pools, children's activity center and restaurants, especially the local favorite Angler & Ale. Hawks Cay is optimistic that its main marina will open later this fall.
Marlin Bay Yacht Club, an exclusive boutique resort that was built above hurricane standards, received minimal damage compared to other resorts. Today it welcomes boaters to a newly launched marina and captivates getaway seekers with idyllic luxury rental residences and amenities such as a landscaped pool deck, in-ground jacuzzi, club house with a game room. Marathon Marina & Boatyard, which took a direct hit and sustained serious damage during Irma, started greeting visitors with open arms a few months after the storm thanks to incredibly hard work and fortitude of staff members. Faro Blanco Resort and its famous lighthouse fared a bit better than others on Marathon Key and has resumed fun-filled water sports, charter fishing and lawn games under swaying palm trees.
With many of the resorts and marinas back in the game, restaurants and island activities are following their lead. Keys Fisheries is again crafting casual meals with fresh local seafood and delighting diners with its famous lobster reuben and stone crabs followed by a big slice of Key Lime pie. The award-winning Butterfly Café at Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort is back to wowing guests with gourmet dishes made with tasty fish caught in regional waters. Unforgettable outdoor experiences are also making a comeback. The ocean-fed saltwater lagoon at Hawks Bay Resort's Dolphin Center is entertaining audiences with bottlenose dolphins' aerial feats and helping children of all ages learn about those mammals' lifestyle through interactive play. Turtle Hospital is rescuing and releasing endangered sea turtles while educating the public about this magnificent creature.
Key West, often considered the jewel in this strand of islands, has played a critical role in region's recovery and resurrection. With its marinas, resorts and businesses humming along, boaters look forward to witnessing its famous sunsets again. Conch Harbor, which is fully open since soon after the storm, is completely renovating the marina and expects the work to be complete by November. They're replacing all the pilings, adding new Ipe docks and featuring a new ship's store and signage.
Key West Bight Marina and its 33 deep-water transient slips are buzzing with activity again and courting vessels up to 140 feet. Stock Island Marina Village recently opened a new boutique hotel and swimming pool. Oceans Edge (formerly Oceanside), the newest waterfront resort and marina in Key West, boasts a deluxe property with lush tropical foliage and a scent of orchids in the air.
With lodgings and dockage for landlubbers and mariners now intact, guests can now revisit old Key West favorites and add new activities to their must-see list. The Hemingway House remains as charming as ever, and Duval Street still offers an endless evening of people watching and entertainment. Green Parrot and Sloppy Joe's continues to attract top live music, and local restaurants grill up the freshest fish around. Key West Literary Tours offering walking trips and stories about writers who have called this island home. The new Tennessee Williams Museum is home to a comprehensive collection of the play-wright's relics and memorabilia.
All this and more is waiting for you to rediscover the enchantment -- and resilience -- of the Florida Keys.
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