September 2023: As temperatures begin to cool, autumn in the Florida Keys & Key West is ideally suited for outdoor festivities and immersive activities, both on and in the water, and on land. New and newly renovated hotels and resort programmes, and enhanced attractions are unveiled.
The island chain continues marking its bicentennial milestone throughout 2023, with museum exhibits and festivities commemorating the vibrant two-century heritage.
Among what’s new:
At Everglades National Park, the all-new 24-unit Flamingo Lodge, including studios and one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and balconies overlooking Florida Bay, is slated to open in November. Rates start from $259 per night. An adjacent restaurant is also due to open. The park’s fully renovated pink Guy Bradley Visitor Centre — with interactive nature and art exhibits and expansive views overlooking Florida Bay — is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The 2,400-square-mile park is the continental United States’ third-largest national park.
In Islamorada, Casa Morada Resort, a member of Enthusiast Hotel Collection, has partnered with the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology to enable bird enthusiasts to become familiar with indigenous bird species in the Upper Keys. Guests can study migration patterns and nesting rituals, observe birds on educational walks, and learn about efforts to protect vulnerable species. The Enthusiast Hotel Collection features “experiential hospitality for enthusiastic travellers who are seeking adventures in off-the-beaten-path destinations and prefer to stay at hotels that have a story to tell.”
Marathon’s 125-unit Faro Blanco Resort, with a historic 1950s lighthouse, is undergoing renovations and a conversion to become Faro Blanco Resort, a Curio Collection by Hilton, in late 2023. The enhanced property is to include 1,200 square feet of meeting space with expansive windows and outdoor event space, cabanas, and a new multi-level deck with bar.
In the Lower Keys, the seven-acre waterfront Sun Outdoors Sugarloaf Key is slated to open in October on Summerland Key. As the Keys’ fourth Sun Outdoors RV resort, it features 73 full hookup 20-, 30-, and 50-amp RV sites with patio, complimentary Wi-Fi and outdoor picnic table; a heated pool, boardwalk and peninsula Tiki bar with firepit. An additional 19 on-site “glamping” bungalows are available. Sister property Sun Outdoors Islamorada recently opened its 12-acre Upper Keys resort.
The legendary 311-room Casa Marina Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton, is to unveil its grand renovation this autumn. Guests can expect vibrant décor, enhanced food and beverage venues, and a new 5,000-square-foot oceanfront event lawn added to its existing 11,000 square feet of indoor event space. Fully renovated piers can be utilised for watersports, and activities including scavenger hunts, jet-ski tours and snorkelling trips on a luxury catamaran.
In Islamorada, The Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder (DPMMR) rescue group is developing The Protect Centre Whale & Dolphin Hospital, as South Florida’s only working and teaching veterinary hospital to treat injured whales, bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals. The new facility is to include a 40-foot-diameter pool for long-term marine mammal rehabilitation, an educational classroom, and a 3,000-square-foot marine wildlife conservation-themed museum, targeted to open in early 2024.
At Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, the new Transparensea glass-bottom boat is available for day and night tours of reefs such as Alligator Reef, Caloosa Rocks and Cheeca Rocks. The 46-foot Newton, built in 2023, can carry 49-passengers and has 16 glass-viewing windows and Lumitec underwater lights for night tours. Shaded and open-air, Transparensea is promoted as Florida’s only stabilised glass-bottom boat with Seakeeper, which aids boat stabilisation. Daily tours are scheduled at noon, 3 p.m. and 20 minutes after sunset.
In Marathon, the Pigeon Key Visitor Centre and an all-new, custom-designed Pigeon Key Express train, launched in August, offering daily tours departing from the Pigeon Key Gift Shop at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. The colourful train, with a locomotive front and two 30-passenger coaches, travels along a 2.2-mile restored span of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. Lying beneath “Old Seven,” the tiny island of Pigeon Key was a camp for workers building the bridge in the early 1900s and features restored buildings and a museum. Visitors can swim, snorkel, fish, and shop at an on-island gift shop. Train tours can be booked online 14 days in advance.
At Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, the new “1622: Wealthy World” exhibit showcases never-before-displayed artifacts from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita shipwrecks, two galleons from Spain’s 1622 fleet that sank off Key West. The museum is believed to contain the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere. Telling the shipwrecks’ story in the context of their time, the exhibit features objects including huge cannons and rare hand weapons, a priceless emerald cross, gold and silver coins and 24 silver bars that weigh about 70 pounds apiece. The Atocha and Margarita, carrying riches from Spain’s New World colonies, were among 28 vessels shipwrecked during a 1622 hurricane. Both galleons’ wrecksites were discovered off Key West in the 1980s by salvager Mel Fisher and crew. Guided behind-the-scenes tours of the artifact conservation lab can be booked at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays.
The Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum has reopened after restoration work to the lighthouse tower, originally opened in 1848. Visitors can walk up the lighthouse’s 88 steps for sweeping panoramic views of the island city. Ninety-minute sunset experiences — offering private use of the lighthouse for groups ranging from two to eight — and a marriage proposal package are offered, priced from $375 for groups of two to four.
In Key Largo, Bike the Florida Keys, a new Upper Keys e-bike company, rents Lectric XP Step-Thru 2.0 bikes with a top speed of 28 mph and range of up to 45 miles. The company has free deliveries in Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada. Half-day rentals, from 8 a.m. to noon and 1-5 p.m., are priced from $40 per person per bike. Full-day rentals, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., are priced from $65. Guided half-day tours can be booked. (Riders must be 16 or over.)
In Key West, Key Lime Bike Tours features a new two-hour, four-mile guided Sunset Bicycle Tour past historic sights including Mallory Square, the Custom House, Mile Marker 0, Truman Waterfront Park, Hemingway Home, Southernmost Point, The Mansion by the Sea and popular bars for a mix of education, sightseeing and entertainment. Brightly lit beach cruisers have coaster brakes, baskets and comfort seats, and the tours include bottled water and drink coupons.