MONROE COUNTY -- Merchants and tourism officials are reporting a strong holiday season in the Upper and Middle Keys this year.
"It has been amazing," Islamorada Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Judy Hull said last week. "I thought we were going to have to put bunk beds in here and have people sleep in our lobby."
Official occupancy numbers, which the Monroe County Tourist Development Council tracks with the help of Smith Travel Research, weren't available late last week. But the TDC's Harold Wheeler said his routine calls to local lodging industry representatives had left a strong impression that business was good for the last two weeks of December.
That's not unusual for the period between Dec. 26 and the New Year's Day, which is traditionally the busiest of the year in the Keys. But Wheeler said the week prior to Christmas often brings a different story.
"In the past, it's always been very slow leading up to Christmas," he said.
Various hoteliers, restaurateurs and other tourist-related merchants and workers agreed that the week after Christmas was as strong, or stronger than usual, this year. But their reports were mixed on the days leading up to Dec. 25.
"December was an especially slow month for us before Christmas. I don't know if it was [Superstorm] Sandy or what," said Robert DiGiorgio, owner of Café Largo and Bayside Grille in Key Largo. He added that Dec. 26 was also slow, but then business exploded.
"Dec. 29 was our best day ever," DiGiorgio said. "It turned out to be the busiest Christmas week in the 20 years we've been here."
Mike Klimpl, owner of the Sandal Factory in Marathon, said the week leading up to Christmas was ordinary for his store. Not so, the following week.
"It was better than last year," he said.
Likewise, Whale Harbor Dockmaster Bernardo Careaga said the week ahead of Christmas was slow for backcountry and charter fishing guides at the popular Upper Matecumbe Key marina, but the week leading into New Year's Day was probably the busiest of three years he has worked there.
But Terry Ford, manager of the 16-unit Casa Morada Resort on Upper Matecumbe, said business did pick up early this holiday season.
"This year, maybe it started a few days earlier, like on the 20th," she said. "Usually, it starts on the 26th."
Victoria McCullough, who helps manage her parents' Caribbean Watersports concession at the Hilton Key Largo Resort, also said business picked up a couple of days before Christmas. Heavy winds for part of the holiday period was the only significant impediment to profits.
"This time of year is always really busy if the water is nice," McCullough said. "The days where it was good were great."
Meanwhile, the Islamorada chamber's Hull said local lodges didn't just draw big crowds this holiday season. They also fetched sky-high rates. For example, the price for a room at Cheeca Lodge & Spa was upwards of $900 per night during the week between Christmas and New Year's.
Still, the chamber had trouble finding rooms for the many visitors who walked through its doors.
"Everybody didn't get exactly what they were hoping to get, but everybody got a bed," Hull said.