17 AUG 2019: It is readily apparent to anyone who visits the Florida Keys that the southern island chain, which stretches for 200 kilometres from just below Miami to the southernmost point in the US in Key West, is not like the rest of America. In fact, with a laid-back vibe and vibrant colour palette, it is often called a slice of the Caribbean in America.

It’s not surprising then that arguably the best-known resort in the area, Hawks Cay Resort, would fit perfectly in the (Caribbean) islands – which is to say, it’s not your typical American-style resort.

That’s not to say that Hawks Cay isn’t true to its American and Keys’ roots, but set on 25 hectares on Duck Cay on the Atlantic side of the thin ribbon of islands, the resort has the feel of being alien to the USA and a destination unto itself, framed by its own full-service marina and a saltwater lagoon. The resort itself has 177 rooms, 250 two- and three-bedroom villas, five swimming pools, six restaurants, kid and teens clubs, and award-winning spa

Easily accessible by car or boat, it nevertheless is “a tropical destination is that feels worlds away from everyday life,” as the resort’s literature likes to say.

It’s also a destination with a new look, courtesy of a $50-million refurbishment completed in late 2018. Featuring a redesigned lobby, adults-only pool area and new dining venues, and inspired by its coastal surroundings, the “beach chic” theme captures the essence of the locale with a palette of white and ocean blue tones with whitewashed oak and hints of tropical yellows and greens in the guest rooms. Public spaces convey an intimate and relaxing living room setting, while local artwork featuring marine themes throughout ensures that the distinctive culture of the Keys is highlighted and that “education, protection and conservation” of the environment is encouraged.

Another highlight of the resort’s refurbishment is the opening of a new signature fine-dining restaurant, Sixty-One Prime. The 160-seat, casually elegant restaurant is located in the lobby of the main hotel and features a creative menu inspired by the flavours of South Florida and the Florida Keys, including fresh seafood and local ingredients, along with USDA prime cut steaks.

And as befits a standalone destination, there is no shortage of activities for guests, from tennis to fishing, as well as access to a full range of water sports: paddle boarding, kayaking, kiteboarding and diving. Indeed, the area is noteworthy as a premier fishing destination in the southern US, and the resort’s marina is home to a complete fleet of fishing charters catering to any style of angling, but also able to teach basic fishing techniques and offer insight on local marine life.

Resort guests can also check out Hawks Cay’s Dolphin Connection program, which provides guests with the unique opportunity to encounter a pod of bottlenose dolphins in their natural environment and even have the option to become a Trainer for a Day, combining a dockside dolphin experience, discovery and interaction with a behind the scenes look of a day in the life of a dolphin trainer.

However, being situated in the Middle Keys (at mile marker 61, half-way between Key Largo and Key West), resort guests are also close to both Marathon and Islamorada, each with a plethora of sights, activities and edibles that will enhance any Keys’ visit. Among them:

• Robbie’s Marina (77522 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada): An eclectic mix of outdoor shops and restaurant, Robbie’s is a great place for a meal overlooking the Atlantic, but most notable as home to a Keys’ classic – feeding the tarpons. Visitors can buy a bucket of small fish to feed the bigger beasts and recoil as they jump to snatch the morsels right out of their hands.

• Florida Keys Brewing Co. (200 Morada Way, Islamorada): Owned by Canadian ex-pat Clay McBride, the funky and fun brewery and tap room is ideal for the entire family (games, movies, hula hoops for the kids), and the beer is amazing, even if it has names like Belgian Iguana and Honey Bottomed Blonde.

• The Turtle Hospital (2396 Overseas Hwy., Marathon): Operating since 1986, the state-licensed hospital saves, rehabilitates and releases (if possible) injured turtles of all varieties found up and down the Keys. Visitors can see the efforts, and the turtles, first-hand and learn about turtle conservation along the way. Entrance/tour fees fund the hospital work.

• Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar (1406 Oceanview Ave, Marathon): This full-service roadhouse-style restaurant is more than it seems, serving a vast array of sushi, but also the invasive Lionfish, whose numbers are being curtailed by a movement to eat them (delicious) under the motto: “Save the reef, eat a lionfish.” Lucky visitors might get a demonstration of how to filet the monstrous-looking creatures by owner John Mirabella (who can also be found demonstrating the procedure on YouTube) and can learn how Mirabella and staff dive for the fish themselves. Less adventurous diners can enjoy the shrimp, sushi and beer.

• Morada Bay Beach Café (81600 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada): What could beat dinner on the beach at a Mediterranean-style bistro, watching the sun set? Nothing. So, check out this venue, which is part of the Moorings Village Resort and across the street from the Florida Keys Brewing Co.

• Big Pine Kayak Adventures (1791 Bogie Dr, Big Pine Key): Naturalist guide, educator and professional photographer Bill Keogh leads adventurous sorts on amazing kayak adventures through the heart of twisted mangrove swamps and secret interior island lakes, imparting a wealth of knowledge about local flora and fauna along the way.

• No Name Pub (30832 Watson Blvd., Big Pine Key): An institution since 1931 when it was founded as a general store, the famously hard-to-find pub (it’s just around the corner from Big Pine Kayak Adventures) is the perfect place for a beer after a kayak experience with Keogh. The pizza is legendary, as is the décor – thousands of dollars of signed dollar bills stapled to the walls and ceiling. It’s also considered one of the last vestiges of the “old Florida Keys.”

Visitors to the Keys this summer can take advantage of Hawks Cay Stay More, Save More package, which gives guests 15 percent off on accommodations for three nights, 20 percent on a minimum of five nights and 25 percent on seven nights or more.

Also, with a nod to America’s northerly neighbours, the resort has for the first time extended its annual Heroes Salute program to Canadian residents. The program, which runs Aug. 1-Dec. 19, honours active and retired military, fire and rescue, law enforcement and medical personnel with special room rates, weekly tributes and discounted prices on experiences and resort activities.

A special Heroes Salute Weekend Aug. 30-Sept. 1 will feature activities including a 5K Run/Walk, live music concert, barbecue, tribute ceremony featuring fireworks, and more.

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Michael Baginski

Editor, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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