This Florida Keys landmark has finally reopened after Hurricane Irma

Koral, the mermaid, takes a swim in the pool during the reopening of Hawks Cay Resort, an important milestone in the recovery of the Florida Keys. Pedro Portal

Nearly a year after Hurricane Irma tore through the Middle Keys as a Category 4 storm, a landmark oceanside resort fully reopened Thursday after a $50 million renovation.

“It feels like a decade, not just a year ago,” said Sheldon Suga, vice president managing director of Hawks Cay Resort, at mile marker 61 on Duck Key.

Thursday’s reopening event, which drew politicians and state tourism leaders, marked the resort’s return as a symbol that the Florida Keys’ tourism industry is returning to pre-storm force.

“The Florida Keys is alive. It never went away,” Suga said. “We’ve got to get the word out to the world that we are here and are back in business.”

Guests were checking into Hawks Cay’s main hotel Thursday for the first time since it closed for Irma. The 60-acre resort, which has a marina and a lagoon in addition to pools and a confined area for dolphins, reinvented itself with new interiors and redesigned rooms.

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And of course, repairs from the storm damage.

With 177 rooms and 250 two and three-bedroom villas for rent, Hawks Cay prices on Thursday started at $238 a night for a king-sized bed. The price rises to $340 a night for Jan. 1, according to the resort’s online booking schedule.

The resort is hiring and plans to have a 300-member staff by the height of the tourism season.

Monroe County Mayor David Rice thanked Hawks Cay’s operators for their commitment to the Keys.

“If there was ever an example of turning adversity into an opportunity, the owners and Sheldon have done that after this storm,” Rice said. “It was terrible after the storm.”

“It’s a glorious day,” said state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo. “You truly are a beacon for not only the Middle Keys, the entire Keys, Southeast Florida and Florida. … Tourism is the backbone of the Keys and the backbone of Florida.”

Hawks Cay management was concerned with the needs of its workers as well as other local people in the immediate days after Irma, said U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City.

“The No. 1 thing on Sheldon’s mind and everyone at Hawks Cay was how can they keep everybody working,” Mast said. “That was the No. 1 thing Sheldon was worried about. The second thing on his mind was how to take any food, any snacks here and get it out into the community.”