As you enter Isla Bella’s long, winding driveway via a canopy of native plants and palm trees, you instantly feel like you’ve been transported to a world where you only need your sandals and swimwear. It’s already my kind of place.
Situated in Marathon, about half way between Key Largo (the first and northernmost of the Keys) and lively Key West (at the southernmost tip), Isla Bella’s opening this year was a significant one for Florida Keys. Yes, it’s beyond beachy and elegant, but it’s also the first new resort to be built since Hurricane Irma impacted the destination in 2017.
The scene now? Think whitewashed buildings, sandy beaches and fire pit sunsets that feels more like you’ve jetted to St Lucia for the weekend. If you want pure escapism in Florida Keys rather than a Key West party vibe, Isla Bella is the place to be (most likely barefoot and playing Cornhole).
Blend in with the beachy surroundings in vacation blues and whites. Here’s what to pack for a Florida Keys escape…
THE PACKING EDIT
In contrast to the bright lights of nearby Miami, Isla Bella is like a tropical sanctuary where you can chill around the fire pit by night, and take pictures of wild manatees by day (more on that later). It’s Marathon mid-Keys location makes it ideal for exploring more of Florida Keys – if you can bear to leave Isla Bella’s one mile stretch of private sandy beach behind.
Admittedly we didn’t count them, but there are more than 1000 palm trees weaved throughout the resort – including those holding up dreamy hammocks that are made for Instagramming. To keep the vibe (even) more relaxed, there’s one main resort swimming pool but also four semi-private pools dotted between beachfront rooms so you can step from room to pool in 60 seconds flat and do your morning lengths in peace.
Still super-fresh from its April opening, Isla Bella’s blue and white tone island-inspired bedrooms and marble bathrooms are immaculately presented. Every room feels a bit like a luxury beach house – with more space than you’d expect.
Our beachfront luxury veranda room had not one but two double queen beds and a bathroom big enough to cartwheel in (optional) with a soaker tub and walk-in rainfall shower stocked up with Molton Brown. But the major draw is the al fresco living, because every single room at Isla Bella has a view of the beach when you fling open the chic print curtains. Sigh.
Go ground floor and you get a wooden decked veranda with stairs so you can step right out onto the sand which all feels rather dreamlike when you’re waking up with your morning coffee. With outdoor couches and a table set-up, it’s like having your own private shaded living room on the beach.
Italian and fresh pasta might not seem like the most obvious cuisine for Florida, but factor in the traditional wood-fired ovens at Il Postino (named after the area’s former circa-1906 post office) and the handmade Neapolitan pizzas are a no-brainer here. Though you can go more formal inside the monochromatic restaurant, you can also dine by candlelight on the sand barefoot (another no-brainer).
If you want something more low-key, there’s the Burger Palace for live music and casual grill dining overlooking the beach, and the Beach Bar is the perfect spot for freshly-caught fish and tropical cocktails as you warm your face at the hypnotic fire pits. If you’re on-the-go/heading for the famous All-American Road, there’s a waterfront Marketplace Café where you can pick up fresh pastries, coffees, salads, desserts and (most importantly), gelato served in delicious waffle cones.
THE TO-DO LIST
Spotting wild manatees was top of my to-do list in Florida Keys. We caught a quick flash of a tail in the ocean from the sunset deck on our first night; by the next morning we were taking up-close pictures from our kayaks. A family of friendly giant sea cows came up to greet us at the aptly named Manatee Bay where they often lazily lounge in the still water. There’s also a small mangrove area where you can spot more wildlife from afar on a deck. Next to Manatee Bay is the resort’s ‘town square’ where you’ll find Isla Bella’s five-room spa for facials and massages (we liked the sound of the ‘Another Day in Paradise’ 90-minute treatment, $270). If you’re done with relaxing, the marina has water sports that include fishing charters, jet ski tours, harbour cruises, kayaking, snorkelling and scuba diving, as well as free bikes to explore the 24-acre grounds if you prefer dry land. Those with a competitive side should head for the grown-up games at the Beach Bar – bocce, croquet, Cornhole and oversized chess – which, fyi, are made even more entertaining with the addition of margarita breaks.
You’ll find pure seaside enchantment with the backdrop of blue-jewelled water. Get vacation-ready. Isla Bella, here we all come.