Meeting Sites: Florida Keys

DEEPEST SOUTH: The southernmost islands of the U.S. have long been a haven for individualists. Now, a new kind of sophisticated development is complementing that style. With resorts like Beachside and the revamped Hawk's Cay, returning groups will experience a practically new destination.

This May, a $6 million ship-to-reef project in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is expected to transform the former S.S. Vandenberg into a 524-foot-long reef. The decommissioned Air Force ship will be sunk in 140 feet of water, six miles off Key West. According to Joe Weatherby of Reefmakers (the company coordinating the project), "There are going to be 10 or 11 places along the entire length of the ship that will come up to within about 40 feet of the surface—that's a lot [of] area for a rookie [diver] to explore." The Vandenberg is expected to generate $8 million annually in tourism sales.

* The renovation on LXR's 200-room Key Largo Grande is expected to be completed this month, and the $32 million refurbishment of the 150-room Reach Resort (which includes new guest rooms and enhanced event space) in Key West is imminent. The renovation of Key West's 311-room Casa Marina & Beach, which features a new lobby design, private cabanas, and 11,000 sf of meeting space, is expected to be completed in Dec.

* Last year, the 120-room Hyatt Key West received Florida's Green Certification, following an $11 million redesign.

* The 140-room Ocean Reef Club, in Key Largo, recently upgraded 70 of its Inn's oceanfront rooms as part of a $16.5 million renovation.

The New, and the Renewal
On Key West—the last stop on the picturesque Overseas Highway—the new 222-room Beachside Resort & Conference Center will have its grand debut next month. The resort features a 20-slip marina, a 6,000-sf events facility, a ballroom that can hold up to 400 guests for a seated dinner, and multiple dining options inspired by celebrity chef Norman van Aken. Van Aken, who has a restaurant in Orlando, will oversee the F&B program at the resort: "I live and cook in Florida, and I purposely choose food products that are of this region."

Over on the private 60-acre Duck Key, the 177-room, 255-villa Hawk's Cay Resort reopens this month. "Barefoot chic" rules, following a $35 million renovation that redesigned all guest rooms, added a lobby area, a striking veranda, and a sun terrace as well as celebrity chef Johnny Alamilla's Alma, featuring Nuevo Latino cuisine.

"Both our banquet and regular restaurant menus have been totally revamped, and new culinary talent has been hired, such as our executive chef Tony Glitz, whose background is the Four Seasons [in Palm Beach and Miami]," says Signe Bjorndal, sales and marketing director. Water-based activities are also a premium attraction, including an 85-slip marina, deep-sea fishing in the Keys' deepest harbor, and a Dolphin Discovery Program.

Next up: 100 villas will undergo a transformation this summer.

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Originally published March 01, 2008

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