December 6, 2017

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press
The reopening of Amara Cay Resort on Dec. 15 will add 110 rooms to the village's total capacity, though Islamorada will still be at about a third of its usual availability as other resorts continue recovery work.

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press The reopening of Amara Cay Resort on Dec. 15 will add 110 rooms to the village's total capacity, though Islamorada will still be at about a third of its usual availability as other resorts continue recovery work.

ISLAMORADA — November has passed, hurricane season is officially over, and the 110-room Amara Cay resort at mile marker 80 is among other village resorts that are opening their doors to guests after September’s Hurricane Irma.

The comeback of the resorts adds well over 100 beds to the total available for tourists and others, though that number still adds up to only about a third of the village’s full capacity of 1,275.

Amara Cay will open Friday, Dec. 15, while the 16-room Casa Morada reopened Nov. 3. Stephanie Ferrer, general manager of Casa Morada, says that while bookings are steady right now, the projected numbers for the remainder of the tourist season are trailing last year’s.

“The numbers still aren’t where they need to be,” Ferrer said, adding that she thinks tourists will come around as winter descends in the north. “We expect the phones to start ringing and the reservations to start coming in.”

The bayside resort primarily sustained roof damage, which led to leaking that affected a couple of suites during post-Irma heavy rains. Ferrer says she faced obstacles when searching for contractors, scarce in the aftermath of Irma, though the resort has been fully operational for a month.

She wonders if potential visitors are willing to risk heading to the Keys this year as news stories about successful recovery efforts like those at Casa Morada are lost in the whirlwind national news cycle.

“The last information everyone got was (that) there was devastation. That’s what’s going to sit in people’s heads,” she said. “I think a lot of people aren’t going to come and spend the money, chance their vacation.”

Ferrer does have confidence that the situation will improve significantly as more resorts open.

“I think the whole community outlook on it is (that) there’s going to be a big boost when everybody starts to open back up,” she said.

The recently reopened Caribbean Resort, with 14 rooms, has kept most of its bookings, according to property manager Natalie Jester. She says the holiday season is a time for weddings, and those parties had little interest in the logistical issues involved with backing out of their various travel and hotel reservations.

The rest of the season after Christmas is not as clear for the Caribbean and other village resorts, although things are near normal now, according to Jester.

“We haven’t really lost too many bookings, so we’re doing all right,” she said.

In addition to those smaller resorts, the opening of Amara Cay on Dec. 15 will help alleviate the pressure to house guests in Islamorada as the season gains momentum. That should come as a relief for fishing guides, restaurants and the overall economy and gives hope that Islamorada can compete for tourist dollars with other Keys destinations this year.

Eddie Sipple, area general manager of Islamorada Resort Company, which manages Amara Cay, Postcard Inn and other local resorts, said in a press release that management is “thrilled” to reopen the oceanfront resort as the hurricane season comes to a close.

“I am incredibly grateful to the dedicated team of construction workers and associates who worked diligently” to restore the resort, Sipple said in the press release, adding that the management group is “re-opening this resort with pride and a true sense of community.”

Some in the village have questioned the management group’s dedication to the community, reflected in a perceived slow-footed approach to reopening Postcard Inn following Irma as local charter captains were displaced from the resort’s marina. Whale Harbor Marina, Postcard Inn’s southern oceanside neighbor, reopened its marina to captains by the end of September after the hurricane landed on the 10th.

Others supported the management group’s decision to close, including Capt. Steve Leopold, who has chartered from Postcard’s marina for about 30 years. Katie Kole, public relations representative for Postcard Inn, said in early October that no decision on a date for the possible re-opening of the 143-room resort would be announced until a safety assessment was done. Resort management has since set a tentative date of June 1 for Postcard Inn to be fully restored.

Other Islamorada Resort Company properties should open sooner. Pelican Cove, with 63 rooms, is planned to be back online Jan. 12, while the 54-room La Siesta Resort is scheduled to open March 1.

Those and other resort re-openings should be a boon for tourism as word gets out that Islamorada is open for business. In the meantime, other major resorts like Cheeca Lodge & Spa, expected to reopen “in the early part of 2018,” according to a recorded message at the resort’s listed number, will get the village that much closer to full capacity by the time tourist season is in full swing.

Ferrer says that Casa Morada is staying afloat as word gets out and tourists hopefully head south.

“We’re doing fairly well,” she said. “With all the major hotels that are out, we’re just meeting our numbers from last year.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com