Private Ayes

Written by Bridget Williams

Getting to know the Florida Keys is like stepping on quicksand. Buzzing down the 113-miles of the Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West presents a blur of vegetation, stretches of open sea views, dive shops, and dive bars. However, you never really sink into the tiny links that comprise the sprawling Keys chain unless you slow down while traveling from A to B. Only then will you find yourself being slowly pulled into its colorful communities.

A case in point is my recent visit to Playa Largo Resort & Spa in Key Largo to check out their newly opened Ocean Residences. This private, gated enclave features three- and four-bedroom vacation homes located across from the resort on the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway. Boasting gorgeous ocean views, the 3,500-square-foot open-concept and pet-friendly dwellings are designed in a coastal-chic style and incorporate indigenous materials such as capiz shells, sponges, and coral rock. The luxury of arriving before my travel mates meant that I got first dibs on the four available bedrooms in our "Sunrise" home. While all were amply comfortable, it was the expansive ocean-view terrace off the third-floor primary suite that sealed the deal for me.

The street linking the residences culminates at an oceanfront clubhouse, complete with a plunge pool overlooking Rock Harbor. A large covered terrace perched above the pool and the ocean is one of the clubhouse's best amenities. Guests can call on the Playa Largo events team to utilize the club for various experiences, from a post-wedding brunch to an intimate bespoke alfresco dinner as we did during our stay.

Playa Largo Ocean Residences have a dedicated concierge stationed minutes away at the resort. Engaging with guests before arrival and then checking in throughout the stay, they are keen on creating a home-away-from-home experience. Each morning a basket of breakfast goodies is left on the doorstep of each residence. Those with heartier appetites can partake of a complete fresh breakfast at the resort's La Marea restaurant or arrange to have their refrigerator pre-stocked to their liking. Private chef services are also available, a particular boon for guests who fish and want their catch of the day expertly prepared.

In addition to a dedicated guest services manager, what sets Playa Largo Ocean Residences apart from renting an independent, standalone home is having access to all of the ample amenities at the award-winning resort, which is perfectly situated on 14.5 beachfront acres on the tranquil Florida Bay. During the day, we enjoyed soaking up the sun by transitioning from the zero-entry pool to a comfortable beachfront chaise perfectly positioned under a palm tree to offer a shady respite. If you plan to be at the resort all day, residence guests can freshen up at a private members club that includes a comfortable lounge with snacks and refreshments and a locker room with shower facilities.

There are four dining options at the resort. Elevated for a bird's eye view of Florida Bay, Sol by the Sea boasts a Caribbean-inspired menu. Las Olas Ceviche Bar is the only true ceviche restaurant in Florida's Upper Keys. Las Marea serves up breakfast inside or poolside. Serving familiar favorites, the lively Sand Bar sits between the pool and the beach.

"Welcome to adult daycare," said the manager of the Ocean Spa as we arrived for our massage. The 6,000-square-foot spa includes six treatment rooms and a diverse menu of services, from a make-your-own scrub bar to locally-inspired face and body treatments. With a wall of windows overlooking the pool, workouts fly by in the adjacent state-of-the-art fitness studio.

Undoubtedly my favorite on-property activity was a sunset catamaran sail in the Florida Bay aboard the Carolina Moon, which left from the dock near the resort, operated by Caribbean Watersports (caribbeanwatersports.com). Like all proper seafarers, Lolly, our colorful boat captain, kept us entertained with her tales and, influencers take note, knows all the most flattering angles for photos. Lolly chided her first mate, a handsome young man who left all the single ladies googly-eyed, by saying he quickly developed "Keys disease" following his first visit to the area. It was a "classic case," she added, with symptoms that include leaving behind the suit-and-tie corporate world for a more laidback lifestyle.

The Florida Bay's shallow waters are among the most significant coastal estuaries in the Sunshine State. The resort offers an engaging ecotour on RIB boats to explore these unique basins, which provide habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including the Florida manatee.

The Carolina Moon arrived back at the dock in time for the resort's Eventide Celebration, a nightly cocktail party on the beach where guests write their worries/stresses on a piece of paper that's then placed on a floating buoy and set off to sea.

While we certainly took advantage of resort amenities, having our accommodation only slightly separate from the hustle and bustle of the resort opened the door to more off-property exploration. A mecca for divers, Key Largo is home to the world's second-largest artificial reef and the famous Christ of the Abyss underwater statue. There's plenty of eye candy for those preferring their views above water at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Chef Michael's (foodtotalkabout.com) offers a menu featuring creatively inspired Florida Keys cuisine in nearby Islamorada, including hogfish and lionfish. Located at mile marker 82.2 and looking like many a t-shirt shop in this part of the world, the Islamorada Brewery & Distillery (islamoradabreweryanddistillery.com) is a gem. Head through the yellow-and-teal-colored tasting room to the shady backyard beer garden. I am a huge fan of crazy cocktail concoctions, so I was excited to see they offered cocktail flights (beer flights too), which allowed me to sample four from their extensive offerings. Organic ingredients and house-made cream of coconut and lavender syrup add an artisanal quality to the drinks. Don't leave without picking up a bag (or four) of their highly addictive truffle, parmesan, and black garlic popcorn.

The Florida Keys only brewery and distillery, the quantity of beer, vodka, rum, and gin that's able to be produced in this tiny facility is mind-boggling. A testament to both ingenuity and stubbornness, most of the spirit's output originates from a shoehorned pot distillery next to the tasting room. "It's what the Keys are about," remarked the tasting room manager. "You make the most of what you have."

Rates at the Playa Largo Ocean Residences start at $1200/night.

For more information, visit www.oceanresidencesvacations.com.

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