Exploring Isla Bella Beach Resort in Marathon Florida – our first visit to the Florida Keys
I had delayed this trip for 39 years almost for a reason: there really wasn’t ‘a place to stay’ that ticked all the boxes (or I hadn’t come across it). A recent hotel opening kind of changed all that.
So after a few days in Miami, we drove the 2 and a bit hours down to the Florida Keys.
How to get to the Florida Keys
From the mainland (Miami, to be precise), you get on US-1 and make your way towards the Florida Keys. The islands are all connected by the same road – so there is no need to use ferries or anything.
From my understanding, there are 4 “main Key areas“: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West. I had been to Key Largo 10 years before but never anywhere further afield.
As we left the US mainland, the impression we got was that we went back 30 something years – which absolutely has it charm. We saw beautiful scenery, but we couldn’t help but notice how ran down some of these towns were. But we definitely made the most of our stay.
We did not go all the way down to Key West on this trip, but we managed to stop at Lazy Days in Islamorada for a first ‘island lunch’, which was a bit on the casual side, but came with proper “peel and eat shrimp”, so that has my vote. But again, it could have been so much nicer (it had cutlery, but plastic glasses).
Where to stay in Marathon Key
We decided to visit the Florida Keys as Isla Bella Beach Resort had recently opened (a week before our visit) and it did offer something completely different than what was previously available in the area.
This is a 4-star hotel (so no turndown, luggage service and other service bits you would expect at a normal 5 star hotel), but I believe Isla Bella deserves a visit (and may make other people finally visit this part of the world).
Located on the waterfront (but without a beach), Isla Bella Beach Resort offers beautiful 1 and 2 bedroom rooms, as well as suites, all with views.
We had booked a 2 bedroom suite (we ended up being guests of the hotel, but it was not intended, so I booked normally) which was gorgeous.
We thought the bathrooms were of a very high standard (excuse the photo below) and surprised by the choice of Molton Brown toiletries (in Florida!) but we couldn’t quite believe the size of the closet (see below) bearing in mind it was the only one… in a room with 2 bedrooms that would sleep 4.
Every room has a balcony (and the ground floor rooms have direct ‘sand access’ – to the pool areas, not to the beach as there really isn’t one) but I believe a bit more could have been done for privacy. We felt awkward when our next door neighbours rightly came to enjoy their balcony. A wall would have been lovely (and wouldn’t have ruined the view).
The pools at Isla Bella Beach Resort
There is a beach area – but I don’t think you can swim there and there are no sun loungers as such. Bearing in mind the hotel is called Isla Bella Beach Resort, I expected a proper beach.
From my research (since I got back), it seems that there really aren’t many sandy beaches in the Florida Keys (except for Key West). At Isla Bella, there is one large pool (perfect for families) and four other smaller pools, one of which had a bar.
We thought the sun loungers and umbrellas were gorgeous and had an enjoyable 2 days with lovely quiet neighbours, but had another day completely ruined by a group of adults who didn’t quite know how to behave in a public place.
I suggested to the hotel that one of the pools (at least) could be a quiet pool as many had flown 10 hours + to be there an wanted some peace – whereas others rightly so wanted to catch up with friends and have some drinks etc. Places like The Phoenician in Scottsdale have implemented this concept very successfully (as it isn’t always the children that are noisy).
Someone came round every hour asking if we wanted drinks – I think one of those call buttons per umbrella would work really well here.
The service and other facilities at Isla Bella Beach Resort
The service wasn’t stellar – but to be fair, we visited on the first two weeks of opening. I have had readers who visited since and said it wasn’t bad at all, but I have read some reviews and service does come up.
We had an issue with housekeeping (which forgot our room one day) and at the restaurant (mixed up orders and slow service).
It isn’t the Four Seasons – so do bear that in mind. I spoke to the GM and it has not been easy to attract experienced staff to this part of the world.
When we visited, the restaurant was open as well as the bar (on the sand), but the marketplace and spa were closed.
Food and drink at Isla Beach Beach Resort
Having visited other places nearby, this is one of the areas where I believe Isla Bella is a game changer for the area.
The decor of this place is stunning and the restaurant is too – and if you are not staying, do visit as an outside guest as it is gorgeous.
The menu was simple – good salads, lovely pizzas and some decent seafood, but they said they would be featuring the island classics such as crab claws and “peel and eat” shrimp (let me know if they do). You will be able to enjoy a nice glass of wine here and have both proper glasses and cutlery (a comment which will make sense later on!).
The downside was the incredibly beautiful waterside bar… which serves you every drink in plastic glasses. I know it is a rule in America (because sand) – but the bar isn’t near a pool or anything. I personally have a problem with this – and we managed to be served a pre dinner drink by the restaurant in the only 2 outdoor seats which are not on the sand. 20 cms to the right, you’d get plastic. The cocktails were actually fabulous and ‘we made the space’ work for us. And it wrong to get a dirty martini in a plastic glass. Needless to say, wear flat shoes, ladies.
Breakfast was pricey at $60 (+tax and service) for both of us – it was too much for what was being offered in reality (2 eggs + fruit plate + cappuccino each). Dinner for two was around $100 with 2 glasses of wine, in comparison.
Exploring Marathon Florida
There are quite a few things to explore in this part of the Florida Keys – but apart from venturing outside the hotel for some meals, we did very little.
There is a Dolphin Research Centre, a Turtle hospital and we meant to go SUPing, but never did. So forgive me for failing on this part. I did not spot any shops except the ice cream parlour which we liked so much, we drove there every day.
We considered going to Key West but we really only had 2 days and did not want to drive that far – and in all honesty, we wanted to get some sunshine and work on our tans and just relax.
Where to eat in Marathon Florida
As mentioned above, we had a lunch at Lazy Days in Islamorada, and spotted another outpost not far from the hotel, in Marathon itself but did not visit.
For our second lunch, we went to Keys Fisheries, which was 5 mins away from the hotel (by car). It was ‘an experience’ – very casual (which is absolutely fine), and we had probably the best seafood of the whole trip. Yes to shrimp, yes to crab claws, a side of Caesar salad and fries. You queue to order, you queue to get a table and everything is served in plastic. Lunch for 2 was $75 (without alcohol) – makes you appreciate how spoiled you are in places like Spain or Portugal or Greece and proper seafood meals (with cutlery and wine in glasses).
We then did some more research and found Angler & Ale at Hawks Cay which was located 15 minutes away on a different key (Duck Key), and the photos looked good. We had a lovely lunch actually (with “peel and eat” shrimp, a Cobb salad and a lobster roll), yay, and cutlery and proper wine glasses. But they didn’t have crab! Lunch for 2 was $90 with 2 glasses of wine.
Our first dinner was at the hotel’s Il Postino and we really enjoyed it.
Our second dinner took place at Lighthouse Grill, at the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club (and let’s put it this way, we were expecting something a bit more ‘yacht clubby’). We had a decent meal, but not sure if we would go again. It did cater for an older crowd, we felt, but we had a nice grilled fillet of fish. The ceviche was ‘ok’ and the fried calamari, not really (dinner for 2 was $100 with a glass of wine each).
On our final meal, we stayed at the hotel – and again enjoyed it very much (slow service, but you cannot always have everything, but we weren’t in a rush). Dinner at the hotel was also around $100 for 2 with a glass of wine each.
What we wanted to find was a place where we could eat the freshest seafood (the shrimp, the crab legs and other bits), have normal cutlery and a nice glass of wine. Where is this place? Tell me please as I would love to go back.
For ice cream, we went to Sweet Savannah’s every day – it was lovely and the ladies serving there were too. The pie is meant to be one of the best in town, but we only tried the ice cream (and yes, they have key lime pie flavour!!).
Our final thoughts on Marathon Florida
We returned with mixed feelings about this leg of the trip – we enjoyed our stay at Isla Bella, and could imagine us staying there for longer… but I am not sure I would want to go this far and not be able to swim in the sea. That was a real sore subject for us. Namely when you can swim in absolutely stunning beaches in Florida’s Gulf Keys.
We could probably do a bit more research and find something on the water – maybe a villa? We are definitely glad we went (don’t get me wrong), and if you are heading to Miami or elsewhere in Florida for a lovely holiday and always wondered about the Florida Keys, then this would definitely be a contender for 3 nights or so.
I will let you know what else I find next time.
PS. I understand that some changes are taking place with regards to balcony privacy and the quiet pools, so please let me know if you visit.
Disclaimer and fact box: I booked a room at Isla Bella Beach Resort (2 bedroom for $400+ tax) and it ended being comped by the hotel. Rooms start at $200 and the resort charges $50/day resort fee (do not get me started on this). Parking is complimentary. Click here to book.
We rented a car with Avis – our SUV cost around $50/day.