EXPLORER Reinventing an Island
In the shadow of Key West, Stock Island emerges as a premier destination
The last key before you cross the bridge onto Key West is Stock Island. Not many visitors know that. And not many visitors even care. Well, at least it was that way until a few years ago. That was when developers discovered the island’s potential as a waterfront hideaway with beautiful hotels that could coexist with a revamped neighborhood designed for families and locals. Fast forward and a new Stock Island is emerging—giving travelers to the Florida Keys yet another destination to explore. Before the ambitious plans were even on the drawing board, however, Stock Island was home to one of the bigger fisheries in the Florida Keys. At Safe Harbour Marina, shrimpers and fishermen made a living on the water bringing in their haul of Key West pink shrimp, spiny lobster, yellowtail snapper and grouper. At the bustling working dock, weatherworn shrimpers could be spotted mending their nets, and wooden lobster traps were stacked all around. But Stock Island also had a darker side, as Captain Ashley O’Neil recalls as she navigates the Free Spirit sailboat filled with vacationers out of Stock Island Marina for a sunset cruise. “Stock Island used to be total ghetto—drug dealing, shrimp-boat trash. The shrimp-boat guys wanted hookers and drugs. You didn’t really come to Stock Island,” explains O’Neil, who has lived in Key West for 22 years. Continuing, she explains that when Hogfish Bar & Grill opened in 2008 at Safe Harbour, Stock Island started to change. It caught the attention of developers and entrepreneurs. Hurricane Wilma in October 2005 also contributed to the slow transformation by destroying a lot of the trailers that occupied the island. Those residents just up and left when their trailers were destroyed. Then in 2017, $7.9 million was pumped into creating a state-of-the-art recreational facility at Bernstein Park, with baseball and soccer fields for the neighborhood kids. Sailing alongside the island, you can see rusty remnants of a working boatyard that contrast with the sparkling leisure craft and high-tech fishing vessels that dock at Stock Island Marina today. Disembarking at the marina, you are just steps from the Perry Hotel Key West. The newest boutique property on Stock Island, the Perry is playing a major role in setting the course for Stock Island’s tourism future. Embracing the area’s fishing and maritime history, the hotel (named for Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy) has an edgy industrial design that brings an element of “cool” to the destination. Wood, brick and metal blend into a modern decor, and a boat-propeller motif shows up in ceiling fans and hidden in abstract paintings in guestrooms. Interior designer Blaire Weiser with Denver’s Johnson Nathan Strohe firm focused on every detail. Case in point: she searched through vintage photos of Ernest Hemingway to find rarely seen images of the writer pointing a rifle at the camera. Hanging them in the lounge and poolside bathroom, the photos display Papa’s adventurous spirit that has always defined life in the Keys.
When it comes to dining on Stock Island, it’s a seafood bonanza. The Perry’s chef, Kalen Fortuna, is a regular at Fishbusterz, a market/fishery located just blocks from the hotel and a quarter-mile from the dock, which means your fish is going to be super fresh. In the market’s walk-in refrigerator Fortuna inspects black grouper, mutton snapper, hogfish, mahi-mahi, gray tilefish, red grouper from the Gulf of Mexico and black grouper from the Atlantic. “From all the local-water fish, black grouper is the most sought-after fish and one of my favorites,” says Fortuna. “Gray tilefish is my least favorite [because it doesn’t stay together when grilled], but it is the tastiest and it’s great to fry.” Fresh seafood is a big deal at Fishbusterz, which services restaurants throughout the Keys. Manager Bryant Gantter explains, “We have 16 boats going out to the Gulf where they can actually fish. So we always get yellowtail, which is our best seller. The fisheries know that we need 1,000 pounds of yellowtail a day.” At Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar, one of the Perry’s two waterfront restaurants, Fortuna’s top culinary creations include a hogfish ceviche. “Hogfish is one of the whitest fishes—inshore, warm water. It has almost no bloodline,” he says, which makes it perfect for ceviche. His gulf chowder, made with a creamy corn base and plenty of scallops, fish, clams, mussels and tasso ham, scores with diners, as does his cornbread mash, a must-order side with big flavor and a hint of sweetness. Catching your own fish is also possible. From the Perry’s adjacent marina, fishing charters depart daily. Other water adventures are available for divers and snorkelers, who can book with Lost Reef Adventures and head to the reef to seek out fan corals, schools of blue tang and colorful parrotfish. Another option is a Jet Ski tour with Key West Water Tours. Guide Devin Keno takes riders caravan style around Stock Island, Key West and Bahia Key before letting them loose to ride freely—and fast—in open waters. Besides water-sports options, boat-to-table dining and brand-new accommodations, Stock Island has a percolating artisan scene. Jewelry designer Nick Soto set up shop inside Washed Up, a funky home décor boutique with reclaimed and repurposed furniture accessorized with whimsical mermaid art. In his adjacent studio, Soto crafts precious metals and gems into rings and bracelets. His Cuban hoop earrings, with wave, zebra and chevron designs, are his biggest sellers. He claims that just about every woman on Key West is wearing them. “They’re a Key West signature look,” he says with a smile.
When it comes to dining on Stock Island, it’s a seafood bonanza.
Clockwise from top: The pool at the Perry Hotel, the newest property on Stock Island, overlooks the waterfront; fishing and dive boats offer excursions from the Stock Island Marina, adjacent to the hotel; the modern, industrial design of the hotel’s lobby; Key West pinks are on the menu at Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar.