I’ll admit it: the boat in the middle of the road threw me. It was beached at a rakish angle on the median of US 1, somewhere between Largo and Marathon — a hard-topped little fishing boat with SS IRMA spray-painted in red across the bow. “Key West is fine!” everyone had told me about visiting the island post-Hurricane Irma. “You’re going to have a great time! They’ve totally bounced back!” But as we drove down the Overseas Highway, past building-sized mounds of neatly piled debris, I couldn’t help but wonder: how could an island so far from the mainland, so vulnerable, possibly have made it through Irma’s wrath?
“It was a really fragile, fragile moment,” Michael Mosi, chef and co-owner of Azur Restaurant, told me later. “There was no water, there was no power.”
In the wake of the hurricane, Mosi turned Azur into what chef and business partner Drew Wenzel called “one of the world’s highest cuisine relief stations.” Mosi estimates that Azur fed 500 displaced neighbors and first responders before their food finally spoiled. They weren’t the only ones to take matters into their own hands.
“This island is just so resilient and proactive,” says Mosi. “People set up a network of search and rescue, next thing you know someone has a landline and everybody got 30 seconds to call the mainland. Eye-to-eye, genuine humanity–it was beautiful.”
So how is Key West now? Friends, I shouldn’t have worried. The only sign of Irma in Key West is the occasional drowned fishing boat, visible through the clear water. The island is vibrant, open-for-business, and as down to party as ever. The week I was there, locals were hosting late night spelling bees at bars, Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg were filming The Beach Bum, and the Carter family yacht “Jamaica Bay” was moored in the harbor.
And seriously, if Beyonce’s in Key West, shouldn’t you be too? Here’s our guide for which spots you should see, where to stay, and what to eat.
IF YOU START IN SOUTH BEACH:
My motto (well, other than “Awkward conversations are only half my fault.”) is “Never say no to a road trip,” so I opted to fly into Miami and catch up with friends before heading to Key West. I ended up crossing the bridge into South Beach during one of the most lovely late afternoons I can remember. There is nothing quite like golden hour in Miami, with the light warming up the tinted stucco and the ocean and glass high-rises both reflecting back the luscious conch-colored sky.
I found an ideal road trip launch pad in The Julia — a newly-renovated adults-only Art-Deco boutique hotel just one block from the beach in Miami’s suddenly buzzing SoFi neighborhood. The hotel offers flexible room set-ups, which is good for those of us booking with friends. I also booked one of the five Ibis Rooms, which have 20-foot ceilings with chandelier-style art installations. There is something about a high ceiling that changes the whole feel of a hotel room. You have this sensation of space.
After dropping my bags and enjoying a glass of rosé and the truly overboard cheese bar at the hotel’s complimentary happy hour, I headed to Sazon Cuban Cuisine for empanadas and paella Valenciana. This should go without saying, but Cuban food in Miami is a must. Also a must: a night walk on the beach and a windows-down cruise along Ocean Drive.
If you’re driving down to Key West, choose your departure time well—mid-day and afternoon traffic can get a little slow on picturesque Route 1.
IF YOU’RE BRINGING THE PARTY:
“We’re fortunate,” Michael Mosi says, “Ten miles down the Keys, [mileposts] 16 to 98…” he pauses. “We were lucky.” According to Mosi, some 12,000 residences in the Keys were damaged, including the mid-Keys hotels and huts that visiting fishermen depend on. But in Key West itself, the hotels went almost entirely unscathed and were able to reopen quickly to accommodate relief workers. Now, they’re wide open and ready for high season.
Looking for accommodations I could split with friends — I found the adults-only NYAH. The property — whose name is an acronym for Not Your Average Hotel — offers a Build Your Own Room option. Six bunks for your bachelorette party? They’re all about it. A king, two bunks, and a futon for a family with college-aged kids? Sure. Hostel beds for singles? Yep.
The crew proved to me that they will put its thing down, flip it, and reverse it. Thing meaning furniture. They convert the furniture.
Anyway. With its three pools, two hot tubs, and sprawling porch space, NYAH feels less like a hotel and more like a sprawling beach house. Since guests must be at least 21 to book and 18 to stay, the atmosphere is relaxed and there are no screaming babies. Which puts everyone kind of in the same boat. You find yourself joining up with other guests to wander up to Mallory Square for sunset and sword-swallowers, or waving at them when you cross paths on your rented bikes near the Southernmost Point, or partying with them at night.