Florida Keys Keynoter, MarathonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
December 12, 2009 --Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada is set to reopen on schedule Tuesday, just shy of a year after a New Year's Eve fire damaged most of the landmark resort's main oceanfront building beyond repair.
Early this week, the oceanfront portion of the lush 27-acre property was abuzz with activity as crews were putting the finishing touches on the 65,000-square-foot building and its immediate surroundings.
"Seven days," Cheeca co-owner Jeremy Johnson said as he strode across the building's familiar courtyard. Johnson was referring to the countdown until check-in of the guests booked for the resort's first night.
It would be a round-the-clock push to finish, but Johnson was confident all would be ready.
"It's a soft opening," explained Jeffrey Baldasarre, the resort's new sales and marketing director, as he showed off the building, finished with warm woods and cool stones. The decor has a West Indian vibe, with rich colors and textures throughout.
Cheeca's return is undoubtedly good news for Islamorada, which has taken a huge hit in bed tax revenue -- the money used to promote the area, make improvements and help stage events -- since its closure.
Cheeca's bookings slowly build through the rest of the month until the holidays, when, Baldasarre predicted, it'll be sold out. New Year's Eve is when the resort will stage a reopening of sorts, with a big party in the works.
It was New Year's Eve 2009 when an errant cigarette sparked a fire that started on a thatch roof and quickly spread to more thatching and into the 60-year-old lodge building. No guests were injured, but the fully booked resort had to shut down immediately.
The damaged building was the heart of the resort, containing not only rooms, restaurants, meeting space, registration and offices, but also the computer, phone and fire systems for the 212-room resort.
The resort's management team moved into its on-site offices last week after months in a leased building on the Overseas Highway, and some of the resort's 150 or so employees were being trained across the front courtyard, in the new meeting rooms.
The new lodge is configured in an elongated, elevated building that extends beyond the previous building's footprint parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. It has 13 more rooms in four stories.
Reconstruction of such a large building so quickly is a remarkable feat, made more remarkable by the fact that construction work didn't start in earnest until the summer.
The building's guest rooms -- two queens or a king -- are made up of concrete modules and precast walls and floors pieces manufactured in Okeechobee, placed on trailers and hauled down to the mile marker 82 resort.
Jerry Johnson purchased Cheeca in 2003 with several other partners. Now it's just him and his nephew, Jeremy, and a silent partner. The Johnsons have been in the hotel business for quite a while, and they're old hands at building and renovating, but this method was a new approach for them.
"This is the fastest way to build and the greenest way to build," Jeremy Johnson said in September, as the modules were being placed.
The building process was so fast that it cut as much as a year off the timeline of a traditional build, said John Albert, vice president of Royal Concrete Concepts, the company handling both the off-site construction and much of the on-site building.
The new building is actually five feet lower than the previous building, for a total height of 57 feet. (The original lodge was built before Islamorada's height limit.)
Each new 850-square-foot room features a 24-foot-wide balcony and large soaking tubs that fill from spouts in the ceiling. Half have oceanviews and half have resort views.
The resort's Web site is up and running, listing rates and packages available for the upcoming season, at www.cheeca.com. A room for two adults the week before Christmas, for example, lists online for $395 to $689 a night depending on size, view and discount such as for AAA and AARP members. In June, premiere oceanfront king rooms list for $699 a night or less with discounts.
Cheeca's main restaurant, Atlantic's Edge, returns with a new look, a fabulously large kitchen and a new concept -- modern American seafood -- under the direction of Dean James Max, who's known as a "concept chef." Cheeca is also bringing back Nikai Sushi, which was open for less than two weeks before the fire.