Traditionally, Key West was one of those end-of-the-world places that attracted those who were keen to get away from it all. (I always get a kick out of seeing the signs for mile 0 that mark the beginning and end of Route 1.) For many years, it was a refuge for artists and writers — most famously, Ernest Hemingway, but also Tennessee Williams, John Hersey and Elizabeth Bishop. More recently, Key West acquired an off-putting reputation as a venue for vacationing college students, and the main thoroughfare, Duval Street, still has a stretch of a few blocks that can be politely described as raffish. Lately, however, there has been an influx of well-heeled retirees, who have restored cottages and raised the prevailing tone.
We had decided to try two places. First, we checked into the Marquesa Hotel in Old Town’s historic district, which brings together four 1880s cottages done in the local “conch” style that collectively form a charming property of 27 rooms. These are set around a central area with two pools — one heated, one not — amid lush planting.
Our suite stood at one end of the pool area, up steps flanked by a small waterfall. A large veranda overlooking the pool area led to the high-ceilinged accommodations. These were divided into a living area and a sleeping area by a column supporting a crossbeam with a scrim curtain. Bright and airy, with light wood floors and comfortable furniture, the suite struck us as pleasant if not luxurious. The bath offered a single vanity with a combined tub-shower.
The restaurant, Café Marquesa, evokes the style of a French bistro, with mahogany-framed mirrors and an open kitchen. Chef Susan Ferry serves contemporary American cuisine, with the highlights of our meal being a starter of bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with crab and topped by a zingy Cajun remoulade, and an entrée of porcini-dusted scallops with herb risotto, Swiss chard and a mushroom-truffle butter.
Dinner was a great success, and overall, we enjoyed our stay. On balance, however, the Marquesa falls short of the levels of sophistication and comfort that Harper readers customarily require.
Although in a well-trafficked area, it is an oasis of calm.
The staff are often hidden away in the closed-door office adjacent to the reception desk.
Some of the rooms are right next to a pool and are best avoided.
A four-minute walk away down Simonton Street, The Gardens Hotel began life as an 1800s mansion. Much of the character that distinguishes the hotel today can be attributed to the efforts of Peggy Mills, who bought the property in 1930. It was she who planted so many of the trees, shrubs and flowers that make it such an oasis and who imported the beautiful bricks that delineate the paths through the gardens. The hotel stands around a large heated pool within a walled compound. The 20 rooms are housed by cottages and other freestanding buildings and are individually decorated in a modified tropical colonial style. The lounge in the main house provides a welcome area for reading and also offers a wine bar with several selections by the glass, all self-served via a wine-preservation device that uses an electronic card to keep tabs on consumption.
We had opted to stay in Eyebrow Cottage, which came with a towering peaked ceiling and a magnificent four-poster bed. Other striking pieces of furniture included an armoire with ample storage and a sofa in an alcove. The marble-clad bath provided a soaking tub. Despite being close to a road, there was no intrusive noise. The only drawback was patchy Wi-Fi.
The poolside patio made for a charming setting for a custom-cooked breakfast, accompanied by a chorus of birds. And in the evening, the poolside bar in a sheltered cabana drew a friendly crowd. The hotel has no restaurant of its own, but there are many dining options within walking distance. The staff were pleasant and helpful throughout our stay. I am very happy to have found a place in Key West’s Old Town that I can endorse without hesitation.
The lush landscaping gives the property the feeling of a self-contained world.
Some of the accommodations are pet friendly.