September 12, 2018

File
Capt. Jeff Pursley surveys his swamped offshore fishing boat at Postcard Inn Marina two days after Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys.

File Capt. Jeff Pursley surveys his swamped offshore fishing boat at Postcard Inn Marina two days after Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys.

ISLAMORADA — A year after Hurricane Irma, Islamorada is getting closer to recovering from the body blow to its tourism economy.

It’s not quite there yet.

An estimated 455 resort rooms — more than a third of the normal complement of the 1,300 rooms in Islamorada — are still not available to receive visitors as of this week.

“Our big resorts are mostly on the ocean. Hurricane Irma was an ocean event,” said Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. “The ocean bashed us.

“Everyone’s hurricane situation was different. In the Lower Keys, they lost thousands of residences. Here, Irma took out all almost all of our major resorts and most of the lodging.”

When Florida Keys tourism leaders planned a post-Irma campaign to invite visitors back a month after the September 10 storm, said Hull, “It was eye-opening. I had to say that, then, we just weren’t ready yet.”

At the time, fewer than 100 Islamorada rooms were available. Vacation rentals were not counted in the chamber’s survey.

In the first four months after Irma, Islamorada’s dedicated share of tourism-tax proceeds was down 62 percent from the same October-through-January period the year before.

When visitors cannot find a place to stay, they do not book fishing charters or dive trips, do not make reservations for restaurant dining or shop at local boutiques, Hull said.

One local watersport business suffered extensive loss. “Their kayaks and [personal watercraft] were tied down to the dock,” Hull said. “Then the dock blew away.”

“Our restaurants were able to get open pretty quickly,” she said.

Fishing guides were forced to leave Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina when the dock complex was destroyed by the hurricane.

The docks and marina at Postcard Inn (the former Holiday Isle) have recently been rebuilt and are expected to open in the near future.

Some charter skippers found refuge at Islamorada’s Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina or at docks behind private residences. Those sites, however, lack the highly visible presence that entice customers to the Whale Harbor area docks.

In Islamorada, which proudly bills itself as “The Sportfishing Capital of the World,” no one knows how many offshore captains or guides packed up and left in the storm’s wake.

“Fishing is what we do and we do it well,” Hull said. “People come here to fish. They also go out to eat and go shopping. We’ll see what happens when all the marinas are back.”

In recent years, Islamorada has become known as an excellent venue for fall destination weddings.

“That’s our fall season. Weddings are huge,” Hull said. “A summer destination wedding can be expensive, but if brides will move the wedding to fall, Islamorada can be affordable.

“Last year, we lost so many weddings. That affects businesses like wedding planners, caterers and entertainers,” she said.

Several Islamorada resorts have resumed operation.

Cheeca Lodge opened its 214 rooms March 30, guest experience manager Lisa Thornhill said. The main lobby and golf course have been refurbished as part of Cheeca’s $25 million makeover. The 525-foot-long wooden fishing pier has been rebuilt.

The Islander’s 25 two-bedroom bayside townhomes are open. Work continues on the main oceanside complex with its 114 rooms expected to be open before winter.

The Hadley House (formerly the Islamorada Days Inn) opened 21 rooms in mid-August, with 16 more scheduled to be available in October.

Chesapeake Resort now has 20 garden-view units available, with a pool and beach access. Later this year, the remaining 45 units and more resort amenities will be open.

Postcard Inn, owned by the Islamorada Resort Co., is scheduled to reopen in November. The doors at the Ciao Hound restaurant, Starbucks and Tiki Bar are open.

The company’s three other local resorts — Pelican Cove (63 rooms) La Siesta (54 rooms) and Amara Cay (110 rooms) — are operating normally.

The Fisher Inn (the former Harbor Lights) plans to begin accepting reservations Sept. 20.

kwadlow@keysnews.com