Two full-service, upscale hotels are on the brink of opening on Stock Island, a small island just east of Key West. They are the first hotels on the island, which is separated from its more celebrated neighbor by Cow Key Channel and the Route 1 bridge that crosses it.

The news came as a surprise to me, based on what I knew about Stock Island. A couple of years ago while visiting Key West, I biked across the bridge to check out the island. While my exploration included paddleboarding through mangrove islands and strolling through the Key West Botanic Garden, I found the place to have a very industrial feel to it. Stock Island, with its active marinas, warehouses and tidy streets where the locals live, bears little resemblance to its heavily developed neighbor.

But clearly that is about to change, at least somewhat.

The Oceans Edge Key West Hotel & Marina opens on Jan. 12, and the Hotel Key West at Stock Island Marina expects to open by early March. Together, they expand the tourism footprint of Key West by adding 275 rooms to a market that averages 84% year-round occupancy. Located just five miles from the nonstop party on Duval Street in Key West’s Old Town, these waterfront hotels located on marinas couldn’t feel farther away.

A rendering of Hotel Key West at Stock Island Marina Village, expected to open by early March.
A rendering of Hotel Key West at Stock Island Marina Village, expected to open by early March.

Whereas Oceans Edge enjoys a more isolated position on a south-facing marina and draws upon classic Key West style, Hotel Key West in Safe Harbour is in tune with the industrial history of Stock Island and its long tradition of working boatyards, fishing fleets and marinas. Both hotels will include a full-service restaurant with outdoor seating that welcome boaters and both tout all rooms with water views and balconies.

So why Stock Island? And why now? The answer to those questions turns out to be straightforward: Developable waterfront land.

“Water is the key to everything in the Florida Keys and Key West,” said Pritam Singh, whose Singh Co. is the owner and developer of the Oceans Edge. His company has a history in the Keys, developing four large-scale residential, resort and hotel communities there since 1986. “Stock Island has more accessible waterfront for boating than all the seven islands that make up [Greater] Key West put together.”

And beyond that waterfront are acres and acres of available land. The three-story, 175-room Oceans Edge Hotel is built on a 20-acre parcel that includes a full acre of swimming pools with decks. Hotel guests have direct access to the completely redeveloped Oceanside Marina with 111 slips plus 52 drydock slips, making it by far the largest hotel and marina complex in Key West, at a cost of $70 million.

Singh’s investment is a large part of the $400 million-plus of private funds that have been poured into development on Stock Island in the past four years. After speaking to a few pioneer business owners as well as the developers of the hotels and marinas, I realized that the properties’ debuts mark the culmination of a process that had its roots more than a decade ago.

“The change on Stock Island goes back to Hogfish (Bar & Grill),” said Matt Strunk, one of the developers of Hotel Key West, who has been involved with Stock Island Marina Village at Safe Harbour since 2006. “Bobby Mongelli built that restaurant on Front Street (in 2002) when nobody else would have. His mantra is that Stock Island is the old Key West. We picked up on that and carried it forward.”

Mongelli, who also owns  Roostica Wood-Fire Pizzeria on the island, spearheaded the first “I Love Stock Island” festival this past Thanksgiving. The event formally introduced the island’s 200 small businesses to visitors, primarily Key West residents.

Strunk also cited a 2005 Monroe County development plan to revitalize Safe Harbour, which he described as “one of the few places in the U.S. that is a real working harbor.” He took many of the ideas from the county’s plan and ran with them, including building Stock Island Marina Village and changing the zoning so that a hotel could be built there.

“These were [Strunk’s] crazy ideas that we jumped on,” said Brad Weiser, principal of Miami-based Hostmark Hospitality Group and CEO and president of the Continental Cos., which came on board to build the $38 million, 100-room Hotel Key West within the Stock Island Marina Village complex. The project includes shops, restaurants and the largest deep-water marina in the Florida Keys, capable of accommodating vessels measuring up to 300 feet long.

When Hotel Key West opens, it will be in the center of a working harbor, with shrimp boats and megayachts (more than a $1 billion worth of them sought cover here during Hurricane Matthew, said Mongelli) navigating the same channel.

“When our hotel guests venture into the Florida Keys sunshine, they’ll choose between hitting the open ocean and exploring the Safe Harbour area, which is home to galleries, local restaurants and bars, a community garden and more amenities still to come,” says Strunk.

“It is just fantastic that there are two properties coming in to Key West,” said Weiser, whose firm oversaw the acquisition of the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, is developer and owner of the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne in Miami and has managed several Key West properties, including the Pier House Resort & Spa.

“It’s phenomenal for the marketplace. There are differences,” he said, referring to the two hotels, “but both are going to be special and spectacular for Key West and Stock Island.”