Henry Flagler lived large and dreamed even larger, carving a civilization out of mosquito and alligator infested swamps, stretching railroad tracks across open ocean, and building opulent resort hotels for the famous and fabulous.
But the capstone to his dream was to be the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West, Florida. The final stop at the end of his nearly 500 mile railroad, a resort so luxurious and well-sited that wealthy travelers would come from all over the world to stay there.
Now 99 years later and TripAdvisor rates the venerable Casa Marina as the 4th WORST reviewed hotel in all of Key West.
I just spent a week at the Casa Marina hoping to find out what happened.
Save Up Your Hilton Points
One thing that hasn’t changed is you still need to be pretty wealthy to stay at the Casa Marina — or, as in my case, happen to possess an ungodly number of Hilton Honors Points.
The Casa Marina isn’t cheap.
In peak season, expect to pay $650 per night for the cheapest, smallest room with no balcony and no view. Tack on a couple hundred more per night for an ocean view.
The Casa Marina is branded as a Waldorf Astoria, which is the most luxurious chain in the Hilton family.
If you are using points, you will easily cash-in a hefty 80,000 Hilton Honors points per free night.
Fortunately “free” really does mean free—covering the room, taxes, and the resort fee. When I got my final bill, the only things on it were my various trips to the tiki bar.
Don’t judge, I was on vacation…
This was my second stay at the Casa Marina. My first stay was two years ago before Hurricane Irma left its path of destruction throughout the Florida Keys in September, 2017.
I was a bit hesitant about returning to Key West for the first time post-Irma.
I am happy to report that most of my beloved Key West survived the storm relatively unscathed. On the surface, not much has changed. But scratch a little deeper, and there are less obvious consequences that are hard to overcome for a 100 year-old resort.
No Upgrade For You
My first disappointment upon checking in was I was denied a room upgrade.
I know, I know. I don’t expect much sympathy here, but as a Hilton Honors Gold member, I have kind of come to expect an upgrade. It’s pretty standard every time I’ve ever checked into a Hilton property, including two years ago when the Casa Marina set me up in a nice oceanfront balcony room — and that was before I had become a world-famous travel writer (so much for trying to play that card…not that I’m bitter or anything).
Instead, we received a room in the old original building on the third floor.
The best I can say about the room is that it was clean. The maids did a good job servicing it every day and keeping it spotless. But with no view and no balcony, there wasn’t much incentive to hang out in our room, no matter how clean it was.
But then there were some minor issues. The first problem I noticed was the maid forgot to leave us soap.
No soap? That’s weird.
The maid down the hall said, “They didn’t give us soap today.”
Huh? That’s really weird.
My wife called the front desk. No problem, they said. Soap will be delivered momentarily.
An hour later… and another call to the front desk. “No problem. We’ll be right there.”
Still…no knock on the door.
Finally, my wife waved down a random guy in the hallway wearing a Casa Marina shirt who came back five minutes later with…one bar of precious soap.
We made it last for three more days. That is how long it took to get another bar of soap.
Really? $650 per night and you can’t get a 5-cent bar of soap? Even the Motel 6 will leave you a few…every time.
Failing to Meet High Expectations
But this is exactly what you read about in the online reviews about Casa Marina — a historic luxury resort that drops the ball…or soap…or any other random amenities that would be standard at the cheapest roadside motel.
Worse yet, these online reviews reveal a staff whom either do not, or somehow cannot, meet the expectations of its $650 per night paying guests.
Only one of the three elevators in the building was operating. The other two had a sign saying “temporarily out of order”. In this case, “temporarily” must mean months because that’s how long that particular complaint has been popping up in the reviews.
The two docks on the beach, from which we watched those beautiful Key West sunsets two years earlier, have been obliterated by the hurricane. A piece of plywood, a “Do Not Enter” sign, and some twisted pilings is all that remains — a year and a half after the hurricane and not a hint of any progress.
Seaweed piles up on the beach day after day…but no one bothers to rake it off.
It didn’t take long for me to see why the Casa Marina ranks #47 out of 51 Key West hotels on TripAdvisor. Fourth worst.
If you are going to charge people $650 per night, you are going to raise peoples’ level of expectations. When you don’t meet them, you will surely be crushed on TripAdvisor.
The question is — does anyone at Hilton recognize this?
And more importantly, can they do anything about it?
Maybe not. Maintaining a century old building is hard enough on the mainland. But out here in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the road (literally) and a three and a half hour drive away from civilization is even more difficult.
You see, Hurricane Irma didn’t just wipe out the docks on the Casa Marina beach. It wiped out many of the homes of the people who repair the docks…and clean the rooms…and rake the beach.
Even before Irma, it was hard to hire good help in Key West.
Key West is where people go when they DON’T want to work. The pool of workers is small to begin with.
The pool of workers who can tell time, show up for work and pass a drug test? That’s a shallow pool indeed.
And that pool got even shallower after Irma took out what little affordable housing was left in the Lower Keys.
So I get it. Good staff is hard to come by. And running a large ancient crumbling resort requires a lot of staff.
But don’t charge guests $650 per night with the promise of 5-star Waldorf Astoria luxury when you know you can’t deliver. You’ll just get yourself a hoard of angry disappointed customers venting their collective frustrations on TripAdvisor.
Keep Your Expectations in Check – and Relax
Despite the maintenance and staffing issues, if you can lower your expectations, the Casa Marina is actually still a nice place to spend a few days.
The resort has by far the largest beach in Key West with plenty of complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas, and towels.
It is located on the quiet end of Key West, away from the drunken revelers on Duval St — which is still close enough to walk to if you wanted to join the festivities.
Best of all, as you walk through the lobby, you can still envision Henry Flagler’s dream of a majestic Spanish style hotel, his railroad’s final destination, just 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba.
Presidents and movie stars. Business titans and drug lords. The famous and the infamous.
The 100 year old walls of the Casa Marina have seen it all.
This was all part of Mr. Flagler’s dream. You can still play your part in his dream too. Just pack your credit card and your patience.
And keep your expectations in check.