Should you stay in a chain or independent hotel: Key West

When booking a trip to a city you’ve never been to before, it’s easy to first look at the hotel chain you’re the most comfortable with. That may be because you have some sort of status with them or maybe you have a bunch of points in a loyalty program that you want to use. If this is your one and only search criteria, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Now, I’m not saying chain properties can’t be nice; they can be very much so. In fact, sometimes a chain hotel can be the best hotel in town. It’s just that if you NEVER search beyond that, you’ll potentially miss out on some wonderful places to stay.

Key West, Florida has more independent hotels than chain properties. Because the independent hotels are almost always smaller, they can be tucked into the blocks just off Duval St., but still close to all of the action. True, there are a few major hotels in the tourist corridor that have the million dollar sunsets, but many of them are on the other sides of the island, far away from where you’ll probably want to be spending much of your time.

While not a comprehensive list, here are our opinions on which type of hotel we prefer to stay at when we’re in Key West.

Chain Hotels

Hyatt Centric Key West Resort and Spa

I wrote about our stay shortly after we returned home and I focused mainly on the room and the value for what we received. There were several things to like about the hotel. The location was wonderful and you could watch wonderful sunsets from lounge chairs on the sand of the “beach” or from a hammock on the end of the boat dock.

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Sunset from the Hyatt Centric Key West Resort & Spa

While all the staff were pleasant, the experience was a bit sterile. They had a concierge booth that looked the same as one you’d see on Duval St., trying to sell you a boat cruise or trolley ride. While the hotel was pretty full, the vibe was pretty dead and we didn’t see more than a handful of people there for our whole stay.

The self parking cost $20 a night (valet is $25 but the lot is right outside the hotel and very small) and they also charge a $30 daily resort fee on top of the usual room rate.

We did enjoy our stay here and being able to redeem Hyatt points for the stay allowed us to visit the Keys when it would have been too expensive to go otherwise.

Crowne Plaza Key West – La Concha 

The La Concha hotel on Duval St. was opened back in 1926.  Now branded as a Crowne Plaza, it is part of the IHG hotel family.

We stayed here in 2014 while the hotel was undergoing a major renovation, and I somehow managed to not take any pictures of the hotel. I generally have no problem with a hotel doing renovations but it was off-putting that there was no mention of the pool being closed, the front entrance being blocked and the roof deck being turned into a spa anywhere on the website or booking confirmation page. To make matters worse, they were bringing all of the supplies to the roof by way of an elevator constructed on the outside of the hotel, and it was right outside our room. It was one of only times I’ve complained to the manager of the hotel while we were still trying there and, to their credit, I was immediately refunded half of the points I used for the stay.  Here’s what I said on Facebook:

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Here’s a video of view out of our hotel window we had for our stay.

Now that the renovations are finished, I’d consider staying here again. The hotel has a good location on Duval St. but the best feature of the hotel, the roof deck, was turned into a spa. I’ll miss watching the sunset from that deck.

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Key West sunset from the roof deck of the La Concha hotel

Independent Hotels

Marquesa Hotel

This was the first hotel Sharon and I stayed at together in Key West. I found a really good rate and it was totally dumb luck, as I didn’t know anything about the place before staying there. Our room was very nice but lacked a desk, a feature that someone who uses his/her computer even while on vacation finds to be an important feature.

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This was the view as we walked out of our room at the Marquesa Hotel.

We returned again a few years later and I called to ask the front desk if we could have a room with a desk. They went over all of the room types (i.e. one had a large desk but only a tub and another one had a small desk and chair but only a walk-in shower). We ended up with a room in the main building on the second floor that was very quaint and pleasant (and had a desk). We even got a nice welcome basket and note as a returning guest.

Marquesa Welcome

The hotel isn’t cheap (it cost $270 a night in 2010) but it mixes the Key West vibe with a laid back elegance perfectly. The buildings are all refurbished 1884 conch houses surrounding two pools. Also, no children under 14 years old are allowed to stay at the hotel. It is a quiet oasis just a few blocks off the hubbub of Duval St. I’d stay there all the time if it wasn’t so darn expensive. Unlike the chain hotels, this hotel has free parking for guests.

If you stay here, they can also get a reservation for you at Cafe Marquesa. I wrote about our meal there in my article about our favorite places to eat in Key West.

Eden House

By the time of our second trip to Key West, we had talked to several friends who had stayed there before and were told to check this place out. I can say that of any hotel that we have stayed at, Eden House captures the Key West atmosphere more than any of them.

Eden House
Pool area of Eden House (I still have this as my home screen picture on my phone)

This is not a luxury hotel. There are hammocks around the property and a nice pool surrounded by palm trees. Rooms have no clocks and no radio (on purpose) and they offer fresh ground coffee and tea in the lobby 24/7.  They have board games and a guitar for guest use, as well as bike rentals.  They also have limited off-street parking (from their website: “We have about twenty spaces of off-street parking and about forty rooms. So, it’s first come first serve, folks. There is quite a bit of parking in the neighborhood and [worst case scenario] a garage a couple of blocks away”).

I think the write up on the complimentary happy hour will show the kind of hotel this is:

“Happy Hour is not to get you drunk or make you fall in love with us. It is there for a toddy or two at the end of the day, meeting some of our great guests, and getting ready for another fantastic night in Key West.

Our bar includes rum, gin, vodka, orange juice, cranberry juice, tonic, soda water, pepsi & diet pepsi, red & white wine. Of course, we offer only the finest inexpensive liquor.”

The Waldorf=Astoria it ain’t. However, we’ve stayed here twice and would do so again. The major drawback for us is that it is several blocks off of Duval so it can feel like quite a walk to get back to the hotel.

Final Takeaway

If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’d prefer to stay at a independent hotel in Key West if we have the opportunity. As hard as the chain properties try, they just can’t capture the spirit of Key West, which is distinctly non-corporate. If we’re going to the Keys, we want the full experience and the independent hotels provide that with features like free parking, bike rentals and happy hour.

We don’t make plans for Key West very far in advance because it’s usually just a long weekend road trip for us and that means the smaller hotels can sell out. If that happens,  then we’ll look to the chain properties to see if there are rooms available for cash or with points. After all, any trip to Key West is better than no trip to Key West.

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Chain hotel or Independent, it doesn’t matter with sunsets like this
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