There’s no need to lift a finger in this community resort – unless, of course, you want to.
Now I ask you: How often is a waiter protective about your clothing? My sister and I were spending a weekend at the Ocean Reef Club in the Florida Keys where the signs proclaim “Welcome to our private paradise!” They might as well add “no detail overlooked.” For us the quintessential gesture occurred as we sat down to dinner. “Would you prefer a black napkin,” the waiter offered, “to avoid getting white lint on your dark skirt?”
Founded as a small fishing camp in the mid-1940s, “almost perfect weather and stunning natural surroundings” attracted visitors until the outpost evolved into a full-fledged resort. Bought out by the members in 1993, Ocean Reef has expanded into 1,700 homes and waterfront estates on 2,500 tropical acres now described as “one of America’s most exclusive club communities.” Nonmember guests can be sponsored by members or may visit independently twice within a five-year period, and we’d signed on for what turned out to be a pleasant, activity-packed weekend.
Unlike members who fly into the Club’s private airstrip or arrive by boat to dock at one of the 170 marine slips, my sister and I drove down on Friday afternoon, an hour south on the freeway from Miami airport. The guard at the gate directed us to the inn where the pleasant staff checked us in to a comfortable condo room with a full kitchen, dark wood moldings, marble bathrooms and high-definition TV sets in the living room and both bedrooms.
Studying literature in the room, we saw a full room-service selection from Asian takeout pot stickers to signature coconut rum loaf. According to “This Week at the Reef,” we had missed the al-fresco Oyster Fest and a field trip to the Everglades Alligator Farm but never mind – a full page of upcoming daily events included kayak tours, a lobster bake, golf-cart tailgate party and ten-percent discounts on clothing at the Fitness Center. With so much to choose from, we set out exploring.
Bicycles can be rented, but we chose the preferred mode of transportation – a glorified golf cart – and started out driving past the 900-acre nature preserve and the handsome Art League where members practice woodworking, photography, pottery and painting. In the colorful interactive museum, an animated fisherman mannequin welcomed us with an explanation of Ocean Reef history. We looked in on the comfortable, wood-paneled library and saw the cooking school where renowned chefs come each year to give lessons.
We passed the full-service medical center, which has three resident physicians plus specialists who come in annually for convenient consultations – podiatry, retinal, orthopedics. Pets are tended in the Grayvik Animal Care Center, which runs a model capture/neuter/release ORCAT program to accommodate a native stray cat population. Two dog runs accommodate bigger and smaller pets.
The marina is the center of a fisherman’s paradise – one of the world’s only locations where anglers have the choice of three types of fishing: deep-sea sport, reef and back-country. Besides boat rentals and chartering, there is an Orvis outlet and the club hosts a four-day sailfish catch and release, one of the world’s major fishing tournaments.
Golfers can practice on a 24-hitting-station practice range or choose between two 18-hole courses: the generous fairways of the Dolphin or the challenging Hammock set in the mangrove forest with water hazards on all but four of the 18 holes.
For children, there are several outdoor playgrounds and a Reef Rec Room set up with pool table, Ping Pong, Playstation 3 and X boxes and Ninentendo Wii. Supervised programs in the Reef Kids Club include weekend overnight camps. A 75-pound tortoise, iguanas and a sea-life touch tank with hermit crabs and other critters offer lessons in wildlife at the Tree House Nature Center.
Just before sundown, we pulled up to the Islander Restaurant for a casual meal overlooking the saltwater lagoon. We were introduced to the incredible “Reef Cup” cocktails, a signature blend of vodka, rum, triple sec, gin, grenadine, orange and pineapple juices. Chef John Davis presented his own triple threat: a platter of crab cake, scallops and crunchy tempura lobster bites.
Early the next morning at the high-tech Members Fitness Center, we eschewed the treadmills and free weights to join a class in Zumba aerobics, exercises based on Latin American dance, strenuous but pleasant work in a gym with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking lush green plantings.
Back on the golf cart (recharged from a convenient parking-lot plug), we buzzed past attractive estate homes to the quaint shops of the Fishing Village where I bought a pair of plastic “coral” ballet flats and resisted key-lime pie on a stick and red-yellow-blue “Superman” ice cream at charming Reef Treats. Full-service Gardeners grocery store is stocked with other tempting fare and on Saturday mornings local vendors sell food and flowers at the farmer’s market.
By midday it was time to sample the waterside activities on Buccaneer Island. After swimming laps, we lazed beside one of the two pools watching windsurfers and kids in pedal boats before taking a dip in the poolside whirlpool. At three o’clock it was back to the Fitness Center for manicures and pedicures. Besides standard facials, massages and wraps, the full-service spa offers gentlemen’s hot-towel facials and there are haircuts and manicures for children under age 10.
On any given day, the ultra-comfortable, 300-upholstered-seat theater in the Cultural Center offers first-run films, live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera or acts ranging from the Peking Acrobats to comedian Dennis Miller. We caught an annual treat: Ocean Reef runs an academy offering instruction to children up to eighth grade who may be in residence for as short a time as a week. Once a year these students put on a show, and we were treated to excerpts from “Oliver,” “Annie” and “Wicked” – all performed by adorably costumed boys and girls in a colorful trash-yard stage set from “Cats.”
We left the congratulatory cast-party reception and drove down the street to the Clubhouse Restaurant overlooking the ninth and eighteenth holes of the Dolphin course. That’s where they offered the lint-free napkins before serving my sister a lobster pasta that was so delicious that we ordered an extra half-portion along with my yellowtail snapper with sherry caper butter, pesto rock shrimp and oven dried Teena’s farm tomatoes.
Back at the inn we happened on a group gathered around Hal Roland’s grand piano, singing along to old standards. Sensing a good excuse for an extra Reef Cup cocktail, we joined them, harmonizing to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett favorites.
Sunday morning, after a quick run on one of the three jogging trails and a half hour pedaling on exercise machines in the Marina Fitness Center, we were back in the inn for the waterside Ocean Room’s elegant breakfast, with the fruit arrayed in a miniature dory and every conceivable brunch dish from omelets and eggs Benedict.
The nature trail starts right outside the door and we followed its 39 steps learning to recognize the distinctions among bottom-heavy Bottle Palm, fiber-trunk Chinese fan palm, thick-leaved Thatch palm and Christmas palm with its bright red fruits
Vacationers should know there is a dress code requiring beach cover-ups, no thongs and some restrictions on blue jeans, and cell phones are banned from the restaurants. One custom we favored was non-tipping – all gratuities for bellhops, waiters and spa services are included on the bill.
Although busy every minute, there were several activities we didn’t have time to try: tennis, sailing, kayaking, croquet, volleyball, snorkeling and scuba diving to see the continent’s only living coral in the nearby reefs of the National Marine Sanctuary. But sometime in the allotted next five years we hope to go back – and this time we’ll wear white skirts.
Ocean Reef Club
35 Ocean Reef Drive
Key Largo, FL 33037
Rates vary depending on season and view starting around $175 for a summer tropical view, up to $600 for a winter water view. Nonmembers and their families can also sign up for special summer camps with programs in golf, tennis, fishing, reef discovery, performing arts.
For nonmember reservations call (305) 367-5921; (305) 367-2611 or 800-741-7333.
Editor’s Note: Sharon King Hoge specializes in consumer and travel journalism both in print and on radio and television. The former Consumer Reporter at WBZ-TV and producer/host of “The Sharon King Show” in Boston, she reported on ABC network news, hosted “The Cookbook Kitchen” on the Food Channel and participated in the launch of CNBC. A Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Global Traveler magazines, her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal, National Review. A former columnist for both AOL and the New York Daily News, she was Calendar Editor for the Martha Stewart Living website and is Editor at Large of the three regional Cottages and Gardens shelter magazines.