An independent luxury hotel in Islamorada is thriving despite increased pressure to sell to big brands. For others, it’s a different story.
Locals call him “the most expensive game in town.” He doesn’t actively advertise, because he doesn’t have to. Word of mouth, a string of famous swimsuit model photo shoots, and a lifetime of labor has kept his Moorings Village in Islamorada going since 1987. It has survived devastating hurricanes, financial crises and takeover bids.
But owner Hubert Baudoin is a rare breed. Born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, you’d sooner find him windsurfing in the Bahamas or blazing trails through the desert on a motorcycle before you’d find him hunched over a balance sheet. Like his safari-chasing father before him, he is something of an extremist. One who took root in the Keys, itself a land of extremes: tranquility and raging storms, poverty and wealth, alcoholism and detox retreats.
Though he seems so laissez-faire sitting on his porch sipping a glass of iced tea, buddha bracelets hugging deeply tanned wrists — his lifestyle is anything but. If he weren’t so camera shy, you’d have heard his story by now.
“I was sailing and nearly shipwrecked. I needed help and there was a payphone on that coconut tree, which was hilarious [he gestures to a tree 20 yards away]. I went to ask the owner for help, and we talked. He had inherited this property, which was really small. A bunch of termites holding hands. He looked at me like I was a messiah who emerged from the water,” says Baudoin. The original Moorings was built in 1936 as a private estate. By the time Baudoin washed up in the 80s, it was in dire shape.
“Do you want to get involved in running a little hotel? I had never thought about it. I didn’t know where to start. But he was looking to sell. I opened a little windsurfing bed and breakfast for $60 a night. That’s how the adventure started. And then, we got very lucky because the fashion world started coming. That’s what saved us, and helped us get the land next door,” he recalls, in thick French accent. “It was going to be a 240-unit condo monstrosity. But we were able to fight against it.”
He’s been fighting against forces natural and man-made ever since. After Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, it took years to rebuild and renovate. With the help of family and friends who did everything from grab a paintbrush to send him truckloads of grass sod and palm trees, the property now looks new.
Today, the Moorings offers real luxury in a destination known for RV campsites, discount dive stores, and oily bait and tackle shops. Islamorada is a come-as-you-are town, where fish guts and blown-out flip flops are acceptable attire. Down here, distance is measured in mile markers and time is measured in tequila tots. And the die-hards can’t get enough. But Baudoin’s place is something else.
Located on an 18-acre stretch of waterfront land, the hotel has eight villas, beautifully appointed in French West Indies style, all tucked beneath a canopy over more than 800 coconut palms. It’s subtropical seclusion with toys, including a 25 meter saltwater swimming pool, fitness center, bicycles, kayaks, hammocks, and easy access to watersport excursions of every stripe. It’s so private, you feel like you own the place. And when the sun shines, it’s a mini paradise.
You can see why, in their 90s heyday, Vogue, Elle, and Sports Illustrated shot swimsuit covers here. The black and white portraits of Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford still adorn the walls, signed to Hubert by photo legends like Antoine Verglas and Marco Glaviano. Campaigns for Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch were shot here too. More recently, the popular Netflix series Bloodline used the largest cottage, a two-story home called Blue Charlotte, as the main backdrop for its family drama.
The magnifying effect of the camera lens created an air of glamor here that still very much exists today. It’s why the Moorings maintains a production studio and a professional makeup room on-site, to keep the crews coming. It’s also why the Moorings can charge rates that range from $1,680 to more than $6,000 per night.
“Hubert can charge guests as much as he wants, and his repeat business is off the charts,” said Sarah Ewald, a local realtor at Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and we went from a sleepy little fishing village to a luxury second home destination. It’s astonishing what has happened here.”
The pandemic was a boon for property owners in the Keys, sparking bidding wars among hopeful buyers. Closed sales of single-family homes in the Keys nearly doubled in volume during the first half of 2021, according to Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty. Though the market has since cooled, prices remain inflated.
As an independent hotel owner, Baudoin is a dying breed. Not even he could stave off a partial sale. The Moorings used to be 18 cottages. Now it’s eight, which is too small to be classified as a resort.
The Conglomerates Are Coming
In 2020, in an overheated market, Baudoin sold almost half of his 18 acres, including the beloved Morada Bay and Pierre’s restaurant, to Northwood Hospitality, which owns the neighboring Cheeca Lodge & Spa. When I think of Cheeca Lodge, the words commercial real estate portfolio come to mind. The word luxury does not. The same can be said of the nearby Hawks Cay Resort, which was purchased by New York City-based Carey Watermark Investors in 2013 for a reported $134 million. My own family’s beloved outpost in Islamorada, the Islander Resort, was sold in 2021 to a joint venture of Philadelphia-based Lubert-Adler Real Estate Funds and Hersha Hospitality Management for a reported $73 million.
These sales reflect a larger trend that now dominates the modern hotel market: independent owners that offer authentic, personal-touch quality are shrinking while conglomerates come in to buy them out. They just don’t have the reach or resources to compete with big chains.
We’d call this the great brandification of American hotels — but sometimes it ain’t so great. Generally speaking, hospitality portfolio companies “optimize” revenue streams, which means you can expect to be upsold in every possible way. Want beach toys for your kids today? There’s a store on property. Did you use communal sunblock? Hello, resort fee.
Only about one-third of the roughly 160,000 hotels in the U.S. have remained independent, in an increasingly consolidated market. This is happening, at least partly, because independents don’t typically offer loyalty points programs, which are attracting an ever-larger customer base according to the travel companies that sell them (including Marriott, Delta, American Express, and many others).
During the pandemic, independents also had a higher closure rate than branded properties, according to STR market research. Many held out hope that a buyer would swoop in and save the day, by making them part of a luxury hotel “collection.” But losing ownership costs more than money.
Selling the Dream
It’s a Thursday morning at the Moorings. I awake realizing I’ve almost missed the sunrise. I grab a swimsuit, a cup of coffee, and bolt barefoot out of pristine white French doors to find there’s still time. Sunrise over the inky blue Atlantic has risen just for me. The swaying hammock on the pier is my front row seat.
But I’m not truly alone. An egret skulks patiently through the seaweed, scanning for shiny fish. He is patient and still. His morning meditation starts now, too. A cool breeze skims off the water, common to this time of year. To the left and right, all you can see is horizon, and a pool of golden sun reflecting on the water. Sure, paradise is ephemeral… but I can’t help but hope Hubert holds on a while longer.