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A House Like None Other: Key West's Island House

by Matthew Wexler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 16, 2018

For a quintessential warm-weather getaway, there's no place like Key West, where troubles melt away amid sunny days at the U.S.'s southernmost point.

At the epicenter of paradise is Island House. Established in 1976, the guest house is the longest-running gay resort in the world -- and with good reason. Welcoming staff, free-flowing top-shelf cocktails, cozy accommodations, and plenty of frolicking (if that's what you're looking for) are all part of the recipe that has established Island House as a forerunner in gay hospitality for more than 40 years.

EDGE had a chance to chat with Jeffrey Smead, Director of Marketing, about how Island House continues to stay relevant in an evolving LGBTQ market. Smead, who first visited the Florida Keys as a boy scout, always knew that he wanted to relocate to Key West.

Upon college graduation, he sold his car, shipped his clothes across the country, and quickly established roots in the community. Smead was inspired upon his first visit to Island House as a guest and knew that he wanted to apply his skills in hospitality management to a product established by "a synergy of men who had a vision."

Smead offers his personal Island House insights as well as tips on how best to enjoy Key West.


For those who haven't been to Island House or a clothing-optional resort, how would you describe the environment?

Island House is an intimate environment. I'm a millennial and sometimes there's a stigma where people think it might be a "glorified bathhouse." We're a totally different experience. If you find an opportunity for frisky fun, then by all means go for it! But if that's not what you're seeking, you'll feel comfortable here too.

There doesn't always have to be a sexual connotation to nudity, and this is a judgment-free zone. People enjoy their vacation as they want to. Nobody is forced to take off their clothes, but in most cases, that naturally happens when they realize there's nothing to worry about.

But there's freedom, too, compared to a traditional resort setting. Historically, Key West has always been a place where visitors come out of their comfort zone, and we're the perfect place to discover (or rediscover) that side of yourself without anxiety.

The question I'm most often asked is, "Am I going to fit in?" I just smile and say you have to experience Island House to get it. There's no pressure or judgment - guests feel like part of the community as soon as they walk through the door. Island House is a body positive environment where you don't have to be a model to strip down. (Of course, that's welcome, too!). There's no such thing as, "I don't fit in."

Jon Allen and Martin Kay originally established Island House as a destination created by gay men for gay men. Our needs and wants as gay travelers are part of Island House's DNA.

As a queer culture in society, we've negatively trained ourselves to think that to be among one another is a competition. But when you're in Key West you're at the end of the road, and that couldn't be further from the truth. This is an LGBTQ destination where diversity is celebrated, not just tolerated, and a right of passage that every gay man should get to experience.


What are some of the perks that make Island House not only a terrific vacation but also budget-friendly compared to other Key West resorts?

One of the most significant factors is that we don't charge resort fees. Instead, we offer all of the amenities and experiences you'd expect (and more) as part of the daily rate. This includes free happy hour, free parking, Wi-Fi, Starbucks coffee, access to our health club, steam room, sauna, and video room - it's all part of the Island House experience.

We have a 24/7 poolside café and bar, so no matter what time of day or night, guests can be social and meet other men. Free happy hour is always a big party, and goes from 5 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.

Regarding lodging options, we have a range of room types to fit every budget. Each has top-of-the-line furnishings with some offering shared bathrooms, which is quintessential Key West and also very popular among our international guests.

A not-to-be-missed ongoing offer is "Buy Four, Get Three." Guests who book four nights during peak season receive three complimentary nights during our summer months. We also offer discounts for returning guests, college students, first responders, and active military servicemen ranging from 10 to 30 percent.*

*Restrictions apply, contact reservations for details.


What was the LGBTQ community's response to Hurricane Irma?

Key West has always been described as a small island with a big heart. People that call Key West home are the most united and resilient friends that you'll ever encounter. The community came out in an amazing way. We had an army of gays who returned after the evacuation, and Island House started buzzing with energy and the mantra, "We're going to get our house back." There was a refusal to be defeated by that storm.

There's a phrase in Key West, "You can't drown a conch." If you're here, you're part of a family and a community. We threw a party for locals the day before we re-opened. There was no charge or cover - it was just about saying thank-you to everyone who came out not only to support us but the other businesses throughout the area. There were tears and hugs and plenty of cocktails!

The staff was thrilled to get back to work. We were able to pay our staff during the time we were closed, which wasn't possible with other small businesses. It was an opportunity to let our team know how much we cared and valued their commitment.


For those who want to amp up their Key West experience, what are your favorite annual events?
I'd first suggest adding a couple of days before or after a trip that includes one of Key West's signature events, so you can experience two styles of vacation. If you're the life of the party (or want to hang out with the life of the party), there are three exceptional times to visit Key West:

Key West Pride, June 6-10, 2018
Pride is a complete sell-out. Stoli vodka has been a huge supporter of Pride and we host the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic kick-off party.

Fantasy Fest, October 19-28, 2018
Dating back to 1979, this is the ultimate creative and outrageous celebration, with up to 75,000 revelers descending on Key West. It's also a terrific fundraiser for AIDS Help of Monroe County.

New Year's Eve, December 31, 2018
Move over, Times Square. Duval Street is where you want to be to ring in the New Year as drag diva Sushi is dropped in a red high-heel shoe from the top of Bourbon St. Pub.


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Matthew Wexler is EDGE's National Style and Travel Editor. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.


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