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Queen of the Keys

Once a shabby chic secret of celebrities, socialites and presidents, Cheeca Lodge & Spa gets a facelift and a makeover.

October 4, 2007

Extending like a jewel necklace 126 miles from the tip of Florida to Key West, the Florida Keys adorn some of the finest and most diverse sportfishing grounds in the world. Located in the upper Keys, Islamorada has long been the choice of serious anglers and for many years a very special place, Cheeca Lodge, has been its premier destination. In true Keys style, Cheeca was laid-back, sometimes to the point of indolence, and unchanging, almost to the point of desuetude.

As such, Cheeca was a true queen of the Florida Keys. While much of Florida’s coastline has been paved over with trendy developments, the Keys have stubbornly resisted this theme park approach. The cleansing forces of nature and the limited space the thread of islands offers has presented a challenging foothold. Cheeca Lodge has earned its crown-its history is woven tightly in the eclectic patchwork fabric of the Keys.

A white picket fence on a palm-shaded section of the lodge’s beach surrounds a pioneer cemetery that is a reminder of the determination and vision of the first Anglo-Bahamian settlers (Conchs) that arrived in the area in the 1800s. Descendants of three of Islamorada’s first families are buried here. Deeded to Richard Pinder in 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur, the cemetery land is now the property of the Matecumbe United Methodist Church. The first church on the Key, which was located adjacent to the cemetery, was destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935.

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The lodge is on Islamorada’s oceanside where the storm deposited acres of sand. The Richardson family of the Vicks Chemical Company owned the property and the home they built changed hands a number of times before it was improved with a hotel and cottages and became the Olney Inn. After the inn was leveled by hurricane Donna in 1960, the property was purchased by Carl and Cynthia (Che-Che) Twitchell of the A&P grocery chain. They rebuilt the resort and named it Cheeca Lodge-a blend of their first names. In the 1970s Coca-Cola bottler Carl Navarre bought the property and today it is owned by Cheeca Holdings LLC, led by developer Jerry Johnson and managed by RockResorts as Cheeca Lodge & Spa.

Over the years the lodge has catered to well-heeled anglers including celebrities, socialites and a president or two. Harry Truman is said to have visited and George Bush (No. 41) is still on the guest register and lends his name to a charity fishing tournament held at the lodge annually: The George Bush-Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament.

Those of you who have visited the lodge in the past, as I have, will be as surprised as I was by the many improvements that have been made since RockResorts took the helm. The relatively unsophisticated, laid-back approach the resort offered-at premium prices-in years past had a certain shabby-chic appeal, but frankly had fallen a bit behind the times. Cheeca Holdings LLC is addressing this with a multimillion-dollar facelift that has included a major relandscaping project and the renovation of the lodge’s accommodations.

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When I visited this fall the effort was about 50 percent complete and the results are already spectacular. A stagnant fishpond in the center of the property has been refashioned into a two-acre water feature with lush planting, crystal-clear water and semiprivate lounge areas that are ideal for reading or relaxing in the shade. The beach area was flawlessly groomed and well stocked with a fleet of water toys that included windsurfers, kayaks and sailboats. (PWC are not featured; if you are looking for a thrill, try the parasailing.) A free-form freshwater pool and a saltwater “lagoon” are the centerpieces of the lodge’s beachside and are flanked by pleasant stretches of sand dotted with lounge chairs and thatch-roofed caba-as. The lagoon is stocked with indigenous fish and is a great place for kids to snorkel. You can also take the lodge’s dive boat to nearby Cheeca Rocks, an easy exercise for novices. A 525-foot dock that stretches towards the ocean is a perfect spot for watching the sunrise or for kids to wet a line. Those family leaders wishing to escape responsibility will find Camp Cheeca’s schedule of activities for kids ages 5-12 an added bonus.

Hot Spot: Poolside action can be augmented with spa treatments in private cabañas equipped with TVs, fans, refrigerators, and service by a spa butler. As you enter the 27-acre property from the Overseas Highway, the lush landscaping pleases the eye and the nine-hole, par-3 links is something of a surprise. For golfers, it is an oasis, as courses are dear in the Keys. A golf pro is on duty; there is also a tennis pro and six lighted tennis courts. A $39 per-day resort fee covers everything from golf clubs to snorkel gear.

For dining, the lodge’s Atlantic’s Edge restaurant is open nightly and offers panoramic views of the ocean with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seafood and steaks are featured, as is a fairly complete wine list. The Sunday brunch, offered during the winter season, should not be missed. The Ocean Terrace Grill takes a more relaxed approach and offers a kid-friendly menu and casual indoor or poolside dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Private dining can also be arranged on the beach or in your bungalow. The Curt Gowdy Lounge, named after the famed sportscaster, offers both indoor and outdoor seating, a full bar and a light menu. The décor is tastefully conservative and is accented with trophy game fish and photos of celebrities that have tried their luck with rod and reel while visiting the lodge.

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Completed in 2001, the lodge’s 6,600 square-foot Avanyu Spa follows the successful theme RockResorts developed for a number of its premium properties. A wide variety of spa treatments designed for both men and women are offered, including Swedish massage, hot rock massage and aromatherapy. Poolside, caba-a and in-room massage are also available. The private poolside caba-as are equipped with lounge chairs, ceiling fans, flat-screen TVs, fully stocked refrigerators and personalized service provided by a spa butler.

Lodge accommodations include rooms (approximately $200Ð$400 per night) and one- and two-bedroom villas (approximately $300Ð$700 per night). Price is dependent on the season. Most accommodations offer either a golf course, garden or ocean view. For those interested in something sui generis, the George Bush Presidential Retreat is available-when not in use! Finished in wood and marble, the suite features a private-screened balcony, oceanfront views and a priceless collection of mementos donated by No. 41 that chronicles his personal and political life.

As the lodge is still a work in progress, I highly recommend opting for a recently renovated room or suite. Given this, expect mahogany furnishings, high-end fixtures and fabrics and a separate bath and shower. The West Indies theme is appealing and the plasma screen-equipped entertainment system a pleasant distraction.

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About half of the resort’s 203 rooms and suites are being offered as “resort residences”-an investment opportunity for those interested in managed properties. “Cheeca Lodge & Club” membership is also offered which includes a 20 percent discount on all resort services and activities. And a new private clubhouse will be completed in early 2005.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa is the perfect launching point for fishing and fun in Islamorada. With RockResort’s management and committed owners, the lodge is certain to raise the bar in the area. n

Contact: Cheeca Lodge & Spa, 1 (888) FOR-ROCK; (305) 664-4651; www.rockresorts.com.

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