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By now, it's no secret that Florida has failed the coronavirus test. After locking down when the Northeast did, we re-emerged only to find ourselves as the new epicenter of the US pandemic. Most of us shut right back up like clamshells, and the state remains a struggling hot spot.
However, six months later, Miamians – me among them – are desperate for respite. As it turns out, staying cooped up all the time isn't good for you. "Having a sedentary lifestyle and not doing something for your own mental well-being – all these things can affect your immunity," Summit Health Group primary care physician Dr. Jessica Natale told me.
In other words, it's not a bad idea to safely get out of your house now and then. But that's when taking precautions, not jetting off to Europe, where we're banned anyway. Or even states like New York, where we're on the quarantine list.
Besides, as someone with an autoimmune disease and a dysfunctional immune system, flying doesn't seem like a good idea.
So, day trips and weekend road trips it is. And after interviewing many public health experts and physicians about how to take a safe, socially distanced road trip, as well as how to do so in the Florida Keys specifically, I felt confident I could responsibly leave my house for a staycation within my state, so long as I adhered to certain guidelines. After all, my car is where I can control the situation, keep sanitized, and have as little contact with others as possible.
I decided on Islander Resort for my first trip, located on Islamorada in the upper part of the Florida Keys. It generally appeals to travelers who head to the Keys for that Jimmy Buffett vibe, family groups who want to fish and relax, and South Floridians who like to bring down their own boats (there are 14 boat slips on the property).
In the past, I've seen it get a little boisterous, but it's also been updated since my last visit, and management is aiming for a bit more elegance. I also checked the COVID-19 policies and was reassured that the room would be sanitized, housekeeping would not interrupt our stay, and no one was allowed on property except guests.
Plus, there are no interior elevators or hallways. Each room or suite, equipped with a balcony or screened porch, opens out onto the 1,100-foot coral beach, a pool path, or worst case, a parking lot (my luck). Most are single-story, row-style or fashioned like villas and rooms start at just $189.
Value-wise, Islander Resort was well worth it, and offered the respite I needed, so long as the hotel and my fellow guests were following pandemic procedures. As it turned out, not everyone approached things as conservatively as I did, and the hotel did not fully deliver on all their cleaning promises. But my stay did impart some key wisdom on COVID safety to consider when traveling during the pandemic.
Of course, without a vaccine, there is no firm guarantee with regard to safety. It's crucial to follow guidelines and advice from organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing. Additionally, consider your own level of risk, and whether you're traveling from or to a hotspot, so as not to increase the rate of infection.
In other words, if you're not currently living in Florida, it's probably best to consider this hotel for a visit down the line.
Keep reading to see why I was so impressed by Islander Resort.
We were immediately relieved at how clearly the hotel had marked the beach, pool, and pier areas for coronavirus policies. There were very few staff and guests walking around, and the ones that were used masks.
Later, after dinner, the beach had more of a throng, with some folks playing with their children and/or dogs, and many had mask-less faces. Technically, because this was open air, it was legal. But because people were gathering in groups on the beach and pier, we decided to leave.
We booked a standard, single-story Tropical View King room that opened onto the parking lot.
The rooms are a generous 370 square feet, and the access and views get better from there, opening onto the beach, with or without an ocean view. Our friends who traveled to the hotel for the same weekend booked earlier and stayed in a villa-style beachside suite with two separate rooms. It was also about the same size. Suite views are variable, ranging from courtyard to ocean, but the size can blossom up to 1,070 square feet for a two-bedroom.
Although our single-story, motel-style Tropical View King room was standard, it felt large with a kitchen with a full-size refrigerator, coffee fixings, and a microwave. It struck me as especially handy for families and longer-term stays.
There was also a closet — more like a wardrobe — and the bureau aligned with that, which was where the 50" smart TV sat.
The King-sized bed, covered in blue-and-white linens, took up about half the room. I loved how wide the bed was, and my husband appreciated the firm mattress. With plantation shutters keeping out the sun and good, strong air-conditioning, the room was a comfortable place to hang out, day or night. We knew we had left our anxieties at home when we gave in to the urge for a late afternoon nap.
The rest of the space was comprised of a small table that could serve as a desk or a spot to dine, plus a love seat. A door at the end of the room opened to a screened porch with patio furniture and a ceiling fan to cut the humidity. When we weren't sleeping or in the water, we hung out on the terrace, sipping wine we brought and chilled in the fridge, or reading under the fan's lazy breeze.
While I found the heavy, dark furniture dated and out of its tropical element, the tile floor, sea-themed artwork, and blue-and-green color scheme lightened up the room.
With modern minimalist design, it was hard to tell if anything extraneous had been removed for the sake of COVID. Robes hung in the wardrobe (slippers aren't supplied regardless), and two decorative pillows rested on the love seat. While no paper flyers for activities, magazines, or menus were in the room, the sugar and creamer were filled for a few days' stay.
In fact, staying at the resort didn't feel much different than it did before the pandemic, aside from the obvious design updates. While I was nervous prior to arrival, once I entered the room I felt fine. The obvious cleanliness helped, and the privacy was reassuring. We couldn't hear anything from neighbors, and doors, which you approach from outside, were far enough apart that even if people weren't wearing masks, we didn't come within six feet of each other.
As a bonus, while I usually find it difficult to sleep in a hotel the first night, the pandemic has had the opposite effect on me. Staying at the Islander was the only time I've felt rested since February.
Still, while I enjoyed my stay — and clearly needed a change of scenery — I would have been uneasy had it been at full capacity. Another friend who went for a long weekend after I returned reported staff wearing inefficient neck gaiters, no visible cleaning, and too-crowded pools. I'd return, but if the pandemic is still raging, only during weekdays in the low season.
I'd also upgrade to a suite with a beachside view, which can cost about $120 more for a room that is roughly the same size as mine, with a much better vantage point. The view determines the price, with rooms and beachside suites on the ocean side (where we were staying) starting at $189 and townhouses on the bayside at $260.
Prices rise in peak season and mandatory minimum stays are often required. But if you book early enough, you might be able to score a standard room with a beach view for a nominal extra charge.
Compare room types and prices for Islander Resort
Islander Resort always reminds me of the lyrics of the old Madonna song, "La Isla Bonita." Whenever I'm there, lounging at one of the saltwater pools, I think of how the sun really does seem to perch higher in the sky, with pink-and-gold sunsets lasting as long as it takes to savor a frozen piña colada, which the bar makes with actual coconut.
Despite my desire to rhapsodize it, however, Islander Resort is just as much a good-time Jimmy Buffet tune as it is a soothing Spanish lullaby. The pools can be quiet and peaceful or occupied by interconnected family groups and occasionally rowdy tourists who don't control their children.
Several times, we had to remind children about maintaining their distance from us, at which point they'd swim closer on purpose and mock us.
I also saw a young boy do a front somersault into the pool, which has a depth of four feet. Neither the pool staff, who wear neck gaiter and bandanas as opposed to masks, nor beer-in-hand parents do a good job of watching for danger.
It's worth noting that masks aren't required for guests at the pool, but wristbands are. You'll be stopped at the gate and asked for your room number, then handed a towel.
As a mom of two and a former teacher of 15 years, I found it irritating to take matters into my own hands. But given the number of adults who won't follow guidelines, it was not entirely surprising. At the end of the day, I also had to consider where I was: The Conch Republic, where everyone is in a Sovereign State of Mind (this is the Keys' actual motto) and everything is laissez-faire. Even during a pandemic, you're apparently expected to roll with it.
And, it should be noted, the beach lounges and cabanas were completely deserted, and lounge chairs at both pool and the beach were grouped and rearranged to provide maximum separation.
Hanging out on the sand was a wiser decision, albeit a hotter one. Plus, taking a socially distanced stroll on the beach, pier, and grounds, day or night, was a nice change of pace from walking around the same neighborhood block at home.
Still, make sure you inspect the beach towels, which were handed out at the pool. Despite the claims of a costly renovation, we found several stained beyond repair, visible even when rolled up in the bin. And though I handed one back to an attendant and mentioned that it looked so bad that it should be taken out of circulation, I saw her throw it in the dirty towel bin.
In regular times, activities include full moon yoga, Bingo, kids' craft sessions, movie night, and more. However, resort activities have been suspended until further notice. You can still fish off the pier, however.
In addition, you can use kayaks, paddleboards, and water bicycles. The guidelines for use are one hour per person per day, which is covered by a $30 daily resort fee. We thought we would take advantage of this, but the days were too hot to engage in exercise. Given that swimming and water sports are the only activities available, management might also want to rethink charging such a steep resort fee, especially since some of the resort's facilities are closed.
For instance, Elements Lounge & Fine Dining was not in operation. Instead, Tides Beachside Bar & Grill was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Much of the fare was refreshing, well-prepared, and evocative of the region. We felt fine lunching on a less-crowded mid-afternoon, but a strict noon rush kept us in a suddenly abandoned pool instead.
While things seemed clean, we didn't see any increased sanitization going on aside from the staff wiping down tables at the restaurant.
You can also place orders to go and get ice cream at a pick-up window framed by plexiglass. But because this also seemed to be where waiters picked up drinks and orders to serve at the pool, we chose not to compete for the same air space.
Islamorada is filled with well-known restaurants, bars, and attractions, including the famous, multi-level Holiday Isle Tiki Bar. We dined at two favorites: Ziggie & Mad Dog's for some absolutely terrific steaks, and Lazy Days Restaurant for seafood. At Lazy Days, you can request for them to cook your catch, and you can also watch the sunset from the beach. We caught the tail end of a pink sky as we dined, having stopped first at Pierre's Restaurant and Beach Café at Morada Bay.
Islamorada is called the "Sportfishing Capital of the World," and you can charter a fishing expedition through the hotel or with any number of reputable outfits. If you'd rather learn about dolphins, stingrays, sea turtles, and alligators, stop into Theater of the Sea, which also has some gorgeous gardens. For a different kind of beauty, go birding and hiking at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, park hours and facilities have changed, so be sure to visit the website before you go. Masks are required inside any covered areas at Theater of the Sea and other similar attractions, even if most of it is outside.
And Islamorada's many food-and-drink establishments seem as busy as they are during high season, in part because Monroe County's government (as opposed to its citizens) has been very strict about hotel and restaurant occupancies. It looks like they're overflowing, with waits for dinner, when they really just have less, socially distanced room to host visitors. I recommend making reservations even if you think you don't need them, even if you've been to places in the past where you haven't required them.
Also keep in mind that while masks are mandatory, the folks who live in the Keys are used to doing what they please. Big government is not their kind of thing. Thus masking is not something a lot of them willingly follow.
Islander Resort has a 4.5 rating on Trip Advisor and a 9.4 out of 10 on Hotels.com, where guests often comment about the unusual beauty of the wide, shady beach, the exceptional landscaping, and the comfort of the rooms with porches or screened lanais.
Guests also praise the amenities, which range from ping pong to fishing to kayaking. Families love that there's plenty to do, including visiting the on-site Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, a museum-aquarium-movie theater about nature.
Some register complaints about the tight bathrooms, which are small but updated with steam showers. A few others feel that the mattresses are hard and that the beach sand is not as white as they might prefer. And recently, a couple of guests noted that the staff hasn't been responsive to their needs, but the current situation is certainly straining resources.
Who stays here: Families, couples, and people who like to spend time on the water boating, fishing, and paddling (one hour per person, per day, included with resort fee).
Yes, even during COVID: As mentioned, many tourists and families are still visiting, and not keen to follow all the policies. We also noticed a lot of mask gaiters and bandanas in lieu of real masks, especially on waitstaff and pool attendants. The material was flimsy and fell off when they spoke; noses weren't covered; and had we not been dining outside, we would have left a couple of establishments.
We like: The long, wide beach and fishing pier, both of which offer pleasant ways to spend time in solitude.
We love (don't miss this feature!): The on-site Florida Keys History & Discovery Center is a museum, lecture hall, movie theater, research library, and more. Run by the non-profit Florida Keys History and Discovery Foundation, it recently added aquariums and interactive exhibits from the Mote Marine Laboratory's Coral Reef Exploration.
We think you should know: While Monroe County has a mandatory mask policy, the community here is highly independent and doesn't like being told what to do. You'll find a lot of waitstaff wearing their fishing neck gaiters, which continuously fall down when they talk and are not a good substitute for masks.
We'd do this differently next time: Instead of competing for a table in reduced-occupancy dining rooms or eating outside in the heat and humidity, I'd do more take out and eat on the screened-in porch and take advantage of my room's kitchen.
With children returning to (mostly virtual) school, stress and anxiety levels — along with virus levels — are ramping up again. For South Florida locals, Islander Resort in Islamorada is a good option to decompress for a socially distanced weekend. But if you're not from the area, please strongly consider waiting to visit until it's safer to do so.
For out-of-state travelers, please follow state, CDC, and WHO guidelines about where and when to safely visit Florida. As a state, we depend on tourism. The Islander Resort is a good value with the perfect Keys vibe that is ideal for groups of travelers, and its recent upgrades have made the grounds enchanting. The in-room kitchen also allows you to tend to picky family members, long-term stays, and for those that want to take out food rather than eat at restaurants.
But you do need to watch the pool and beach public areas, which can become dense at times with people, especially children, not keeping enough distance. The staff doesn't pay attention to that, although you can see why. They're stretched thin, and it didn't look like some of them were happy to be working in the hospitality industry.
Still, the bandanas and neck gaiters they're wearing are simply not good enough, although since they're outside, we felt it was safer than it would have been. I also recommend a few more sanitizing stations placed around the property, or stockpiling your own, and would like to see more actual cleaning of high-touch surfaces, not just paying lip service to cleaning.
Crowded public spaces, lack of attention to guests breaking social distancing rules, staff members themselves not practicing the best mask policies, and not enough visible cleaning might give you pause, though, if you're high-risk or ultra-cautious.
But the positives outweighed the negatives, and for the sake of my mental health, I'd personally return to the Islander and places like it during the pandemic at low-volume times, such as early autumn weekdays while kids are in school. Unless they lock it down again, Monroe County hasn't seen the last of me.