If you read 1000 Places to See Before You Die back in 2003 when it first came out, you could be well on your way to the halfway mark. Maybe you’ve already checked off Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Western Somoa, La Scala in Italy and the Great Wall of China in well, China.
As for me, I haven’t made so much as a dent in the list, but I did have the pleasure of not only seeing one of the esteemed places on Patricia Schultz’s list, but in staying there for two amazing nights. I’m talking about The Gardens Hotel in Key West.
It made the famous list because it’s gorgeous and unique and because Peggy Mills, the eccentric owner who started the place back in the 1930’s, had the foresight to buy property, not so she could milk it for its commercial potential, but so she could plant more and more tropical greenery. Nearby properties would go up for sale and the avid gardener would snatch them up to plant more orchids and cannas and royal poinciana and breadfruit trees. She was successful in obtaining permits to collect plants from every continent on the planet.
Eventually, Mills sprawling garden became the largest private estate in Key West which is what it might still be today except that in 1968 the Chamber of Commerce convinced her to give tours. After all, they argued, her private home could challenge any public botanical garden in a fistfight.
Mills’ hard work is still on display today, in a peaceful, charming oasis only a block’s stumble from Duval Street. The lushly-landscaped Gardens Hotel has 17 guest suites, a pond with real turtles, a courtyard, chirping birds and winding brick paths that lead by ancient statuary, serene sitting areas and enormous one-ton earthenware jars (they’re called tinajones) that Mills manage to wrest from Cuba thanks to a family friendship with Batista. Don’t ask!
This stunning boutique hotel also serves breakfast every morning, a delicious al fresco affair in the courtyard, has a very unique, serve-yourself wine bar and features live jazz every Sunday. Plus, it wins brownie points in my book for being the first hotel in Florida to be certified green with the Two Palm designation from the Florida Green Lodging Association.
Patricia Schultz isn’t the only one to recognize The Gardens Hotel. The New York Times named it the “prettiest hotel in Key West.” Travel+Leisure included it in their top 21 favorite beachside hotels. And HGTV filmed an episode there.
But my favorite part was that staff gardeners are insuring Mills’ legacy by cheerfully giving away fallen seeds, encouraging guests to start their own botanical wonderland back at home. I squirreled away a couple sandalwood seeds that look an awful lot like red hots.
When Mills was laying the nearly 100,000 bricks she imported from Cuba, Honduras and England, she found coins and jewelry buried on her property, former pirate booty that she liked to call her “buried treasure.”
Little did she realize that the real treasure was the botanical paradise she was creating for the rest of us.