By Janet K. Keeler
There is no more romantic place on Key West than Casa Marina resort at sunset.
Casa Marina resort guests perch on chairs and beach blankets to watch the nightly show. Others gaze at the scene while listening to music and sipping mojitos from the porch of the Sun Sun Beach Bar & Grill. And still others get married in the yellow-orange-pink sunset glow that produces beautiful photographs.
Casa Marina is one of the most popular wedding venues in Key West and the Florida Keys. It is so well regarded that Brides magazine named it one of the top 10 Florida destination-wedding spots. The Knot, the online wedding planner, has published many stories of “I do” at Casa Marina, including one that features a photo of a sand sculpture with the couple’s names alongside two kissing sea turtles. So Florida.
Keys wedding photographer Rachel E. Ligon has photographed hundreds of unions at Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, since starting her business in 2004. Casa Marina hotel, she says, is one of her favorite places to capture bride, groom, that first kiss as a married couple and that sunset.
“Sunset views with the palm trees and pier in background and reflection from the coral rock make this location very unique for outdoor photographs,” she says. And what makes a good backdrop for wedding photography is also true for Casa Marina hotel guests capturing images on their phones to post ASAP on social media.
When a couple has a beach wedding at Casa Marina resort, it’s not just the wedding party and guests that bask in the natural beauty of Key West. Guests of the iconic and historic Casa Marina can watch ceremonies on either the hotel’s private Flagler Beach or East Beach from their balconies, or from the porch of the Sun Sun, Ligon says.
The nightly sky show never disappoints and at Casa Marina it belongs to everyone — lovers old and new, families and besties on bachelorette getaways.
Casa Marina’s Perfect Spot
Casa Marina is on the Atlantic Ocean side of Key West, which is the last island in the tropical archipelago known as the Florida Keys. The Keys islands seem almost artfully placed in a bending arc floating away from the southern Florida mainland (think Miami). And the farther you drive from the mainland on the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1), with azure water on both sides of the narrow road, the further you get into vacation mode.
You’ll miss the impressive drive if you fly but that will get you to America’s tropics faster. Key West International Airport has direct flights arriving from several cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Newark, N.J., plus major Florida cities. There are more direct flights to Miami International, which is about 170 miles away. The drive from there is 3.5 hours.
Key West is just 2 miles wide and 4 miles long but its storied history makes it seem so much larger. Besides attracting tourists from all over the world, the wee island has charmed the likes of writer Ernest Hemingway who wrote To Have and Have Not and his famed short story Hills Like White Elephants in his French Colonial home on Whitehead Street.
The home is now a museum open for tours. Hemingway was a regular at Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street and you can belly up to the bar even today. The highlights of the annual Hemingway Days festival held in July are a look-alike contest and marlin fishing tournament.
President Harry S. Truman’s Little White House is the only presidential museum in Florida. Truman came to Key West 11 times during his presidency and a walk through of the house sets you squarely in that time. If you visit at Christmas, the decorations are pure 1940s. Key West had a strong military presence for years (a smaller one now) because of Truman and then as a strategic location during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s.
But that was then, and this is now. The Little White House doesn’t entertain chiefs of staff for poker games and war talks anymore, but it does book weddings.
Happy 100th Birthday Casa Marina
Casa Marina marked its 100th anniversary in 2020, a reminder that the roots of Casa Marina are intertwined with the 20th century history of Florida itself.
Today, the 311-room Casa Marina hotel is a product of many owners and makeovers, including a $43 million facelift in 2007. There have been other nips and tucks over the years to update the facilities for modern travelers.
If these walls could talk there would be more to tell than tales of nervous couples or wedding night bliss. How about the chatter of New Year’s Eve revelers on opening night 1920? Or the military secrets shared when U.S. Navy officers were stationed at the hotel in the waning years of World War II? Imagine, too, what the 300 Peace Corps volunteers thought about this island paradise resort during training at Casa Marina in 1966.
What followed were some rough years of neglect for this historic jewel until hoteliers realized what they had and what needed to be done to preserve Casa Marina. It had good pedigree: The primary architects also built New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and the New York Public Library. There was a Florida legacy worth preserving, too. Casa Marina was the brainchild of railway baron and oil tycoon Henry M. Flagler, who died seven years before the resort on the sea opened.
Flagler’s Standard Oil fortune can take lots of credit for kick-starting Florida’s reputation as the nation’s vacationland. Well, that money and air conditioning. He got The Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach off the ground in the early 1900s but fire destroyed two versions of the hotel, built both times of wood. Just like with Casa Marina, he died before seeing The Breakers rebuilt in 1926, this time in the image of a Roman villa.
Flagler was instrumental in extending the Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West, knowing that Northerners craved the tropical sun to chase the winter blues away. Now, he thought, how to get them there.
There’s a statue of Flagler at the Key West Bight Ferry Terminal where the now-defunct Overseas Railroad terminated. If you’ve arrived on the high-speed Key West Express from Fort Myers or Marco Island, you may miss the statue as you rush toward Duval Street. In his knee-length overcoat and vest, Flagler hardly looks ready for the beach.
The Casa Marina is now in the fold of the iconic Waldorf Astoria brand, a name that evokes luxury and history, too. A full-service spa, two pools (one for adults only), conference rooms and restaurants are part of the amenities of the hotel built in the Spanish Renaissance style. Hundreds of stately palm trees line the walkways that lead to the beach.
The historic ballrooms and graceful lobby arches are also prime locations for wedding photographs, says Ligon. She likes the idea of a beach ceremony followed by a reception — and cool down — in a ballroom.
The Keys first residents were the Calusa Indians who used wells for water. In later years, cisterns were common in the Keys to collect the plentiful rainwater.
The Casa Marina’s 750,000-gallon cistern was built in 1920 and is still in use. The water collected is used today to keep the grounds lush.
The Action in Old Town Key West
Key West’s reputation as a party place is deserved with Duval Street rivaling Bourbon Street in New Orleans as the multi-block spot to let it all hang out. Halloween and New Year’s Eve are the biggest, wildest celebrations of the year. TV networks love to cut to Key West on New Year’s Eve to show the revelers on Duval. You may have seen celebrity drag queen Sushi lowered to the ground in a red high-heeled shoe at the stroke of midnight.
Mega cruise ships drop passengers regularly at the port in Key West, which further fuels the bar crawl. No question, Key West is a popping place. Friendly, too, to all visitors and a favorite destination of LGBTQ travelers. Key West has long celebrated individuality and in fact, the Conch Republic as it’s called, has tried to secede from the union a few times.
And then there’s Casa Marina resort, out of the fray but within a quick Uber ride or walk to the hullabaloo that is Key West’s Old Town. One of the most popular Key West photo ops is a few blocks to the west at the outsized, land-locked buoy that marks the southernmost point of the United States. Cuba is just 90 miles away. It’s too far across the Florida Straits, the watery divide that separates the landmasses, to see anything. A photo, however, is required.
If you want to trade the peaceful sunset at Casa Marina for a more lively scene, head to Mallory Square on the other side of the island. Street performers and food vendors are among the attractions as is people watching. This is where everyone who is not staying at Casa Marina goes to watch the sun go down.
Exploring Key West and Beyond
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the water and the Casa Marina hotel concierge can point you to Jet Ski adventures, fishing excursions and even a day-trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas are a string of island some 70 miles from Key West and accessible only by boat or seaplane.
You can amble about Fort Jefferson, use the bathrooms and drink from water fountains. You’ll need to bring anything else you need. Snorkeling is a popular activity in the marine sanctuary where queen conchs, starfish and corals are plentiful. Dolphins, too. The Dry Tortugas is also popular with birdwatchers.
The Conch Train is another fun way to see Key West. An open-air tram takes riders on a 90-minute narrated tour of the town. There are also bike and scooter rentals, but the main shops, restaurants and watering holes on Duval are easily explored on foot.
The Iconic Tastes of the Keys
So much activity is bound to work up and appetite and you can’t go home without sampling some of the iconic foods of the Florida Keys. Conch fritters plus Key West Pinks and Royal Red shrimp are on many menus. July is spiny lobster season so you can try those then, otherwise you’ll be eating Maine lobster, which is good too. Key lime pie is required.
El Siboney has two locations for its Cuban fare. The original is in an old house (the other closer to the Duval action) and is worth every second of the wait. El Siboney is as authentic as it gets for picadillo, tostones, stuffed crabs, empanadas and more.
Weekend brunch is a big deal in Key West, possibly because so many people are sleeping in after a night on the Old Town. Casa Marina has an impressive brunch that hits all the bases and then knocks in a couple homers with chicken and waffles, and crab cake benedicts.
If you want to venture off campus, check out Blue Heaven, which is memorable for its food and the chickens that roam in the courtyard and under your table. Lobster and grits, and all manner of benedicts (more Keys shrimp) are the highlight. You’ll have to be patient because they don’t take reservations for brunch.
Another popular spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner is Pepe’s Café and Steakhouse, which has been serving local seafood since 1909. That means it’s old enough to have served Henry Flagler smoked fish spread and a dozen baked Gulf of Mexico oysters.
Get yourself some and then head back to the other side of the island and the Casa Marina. There a piece of sand with your name on it, plus a sunset coming.
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