Somehow, without much fanfare, it has reached a tipping point where, because of a batch of new eateries and resorts, it feels like the “cool” key.
That wasn’t always the case. In the past, the Florida town’s venues had tired nautical themes and shells galore. Now you’ll find local beer brewers, a global eatery with a whiskey bar, an olive-oil shop and serious sea-to-table cuisine.
The property that arguably started the uptick in Islamorada’s hipness is Casa Morada (305-664-0044; casamorada.com). Midcentury modern simplicity meets oversized palm fronds at the 16-room micro-resort, renovated in 2003. Outdoor showers lead out to a Raymond Jungles-designed garden, which in turn leads to a bayside bar where sunsets will crush your cynicism. It’s pet-friendly, yoga-friendly, cellphone-discouraging, and there are no kids under 16. Don’t leave without borrowing the free snorkeling gear to hang with the lobsters and snappers along the sea wall.
The renovation race picked up this year as both Amara Cay (305-664-0073; amaracayresort.com) and Pelican Cove (1-877-793-4142;pelicancovehotel.com) opened after complete remodelings.
Amara was once a Hampton Inn with a big Outback Steakhouse. Now it’s an airy, boho-beachy 110-room hotel with interiors by Edge of Architecture of Coral Gables. The place strikes a nice balance between elevating its environs and keeping things accessible — families loaf at the pool while hip travelers veg out with views of the grass flats.
And the property is large enough to support a sophisticated restaurant, Oltremare Ristorante, which plates contemporary Italian fare.
Pelican Cove, once an uninspired white-tile kind of place, offers 66 rooms in a modernist rustic mood via sandy wood, pops of color and surprisingly cool walk-in showers done in subway tile. It would be pretty easy just to chillax here.
It’s hard to keep culinary talent in a small town, and Islamorada is certainly a small town, but chef Michael Ledwith chose to buck the trend. He opened Chef Michael’s (305-664-0640;foodtotalkabout.com) three years ago, borrowing farm-to-table methods and applying them to the sea. His relationships with local captains bring left-of-center species such as tilefish, tripletail, snowy grouper, mystic grouper, hogfish and even lionfish to the table.
Though not new, the plantation-style Pierre’s (305-664-3225 moradabay.com/pierres/), recently procured a new chef, Ishmael Toro, formerly of Miami’s Novecento, who’s bringing stuff such as mofongo lobster to the menu.
Just down US-1, Oo-Tray (305-922-2027 oo-tray.com) aspires to “global cuisine with a local farm-to-table flavor.” Chef David Matlock, an alum of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, Calif., whips up outside-the-box items such as duck wings with bourbon and caramel and a bone-in pork entree with bacon jam and pineapple chimichurri.
Hailing from Key West, Bad Boy Burrito (305-440-3951) is hidden in the Village Square, a shady alcove behind the Trading Post. It offers delicious Cal-Mex-style grub with a Floribbean twist. Try the Key West pink shrimp taco with charred pineapple habanero sauce, or the Baja fish tacos.
Just up the street, find Olive Morada (305-735-4375 olivemorada.com), an olive-oil and gourmet emporium that opened in December. It has 42 oils and balsamic vinegars, including the Jimmy Buffett special — Persian lime olive oil mixed with coconut white balsamic vinegar.
Next door, the Islamorada Beer Co. (305-440-2162 islamoradabeerco.com), which brews upstate and opened its doors in October, offers flights of brews such as Sandbar Sunday American Wheat Ale.
For a microbrewery that brews on-site, hit Florida Keys Brewing Co. (305-916-5206 floridakeysbrewingco.com), situated off the strip in a row of funky warehouses. Though it opened five months ago, the tasting room already feels homey, and the brews are gaining local love. Try the Honey Bottomed Blonde.
Of course, if you just have to get your fix of “old” Islamorada, then belly up to the bar during sunset at Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar (305-664-2692 loreleicabanabar.com), watch the fishing charters pull in, and see why this hamlet is known as a “quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem.”