Never a sought-after destination on my Florida Keys radar, I always buzzed past the Middle Key of Marathon, writing it off as the last stop before the Seven Mile Bridge on the march to Key West. Now, tucked away to the left of the iconic bridge — on what used to be an RV park before Hurricane Irma — is a new luxury oasis that laidback Marathon hasn’t seen before.
BEAUTY BY THE SEA
A winding road flanked by towering palm trees leads to Isla Bella Beach Resort, where the lobby makes a breathtaking first impression. Upon entry, all you can see is open ocean, challenging you to count the many shades of blue during check-in, while the fresh scent of cedar from the untreated wood floors (made of 200-year-old trees from Vermont) entices the nose. Spanish and Mediterranean-style buildings, enveloped in white and light-colored wood, ooze European chic. No, this is not your typical Keys’ resort — and we’re here for it.
PLENTY OF ROOM TO ROAM
With 199 rooms spread out over four complexes, each with its own designated pool, Isla Bella has a swanky neighborhood vibe. The property spans a cushy 24 acres with a main pool, full-service spa and marina, so even at high capacity, it never feels crowded. Covered daybeds and Adirondack chairs are sprinkled along the shoreline, inviting sunbathing or a relaxing read, while oversized games in the sand encourage family fun.
All rooms present those coveted ocean views and plush outdoor living areas meant for soaking in the ocean breezes; first-floor suites offer the chance to step out the door and instantly have your toes in the sand. Roomy suites are decked out in crisp shades of blue, and bathrooms are spa-like with Molton Brown products, rain showers and soaking tubs.
Choose from on-property dining at Burger Palace, a poolside grill churning out burgers, hot dogs and salads; or Italian-inspired Il Postino, where everyone gets an ocean view thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows or alfresco patio dining. Many items, from the tomatoes to olive oil and pastas, are imported from Italy and Neapolitan pizzas arrive piping hot from the wood-fire oven.
One of the prettiest spots on the property is the Beach Bar, where you should order the Hot Passion, a tequila concoction made with passion fruit and rimmed with salt and cayenne, or frosé crowned with a bright orchid that goes down easily when watching the boats sail by. At sunset, head to the dock on the resort’s point to settle in a chair and watch the sun majestically dip behind the Seven Mile Bridge.
A MARATHON OF ACTIVITIES
Bright-white sand beaches effortlessly slope into the water that wraps around the resort, creating a shallow cove for swimming, while a rocky peninsula that juts into the ocean serves as a haven for marine life. Guests can grab snorkel gear to hunt for prized starfish and vibrant parrot fish that feed on the rocks, or explore the water on kayaks, parasails and jet skis from the marina.
Don’t miss an eco-tour with Miranda Murphy of AquaVentures (flkeyskayak.com); the expert guide will lead you to a hidden mangrove tunnel boasting some of the clearest water in Marathon and estuaries that juvenile blacktip and bonnethead sharks call home. Choose a clear kayak tour — it’s like paddling in an aquarium — and Murphy will even pull out her touch tank to show off starfish or upside-down jellyfish which look like snowflakes on the ocean floor.
For a moving experience — a lady in our group cried — book an interactive Dolphin Encounter at Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org), a non-profit education and research facility that houses 26 dolphins and sea lions who were either born there or adopted.
With the guidance of a trainer, you’ll enter the sea to dance, laugh, shake hands and catch a dorsal ride with friendly dolphins. No matter what you choose to do, it’ll be hard to say goodbye to beautiful Isla Bella.
Isla Bella Beach Resort, 1 Knights Key Boulevard, MM 47, Marathon; 305-481-9451; islabellabeachresort.com.