Battle of the Key Largo beachfront hotels: Baker’s Cay and Playa Largo

Jun 19, 2022

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Blame it on the multitude of Key Largo, Florida, references in 1980s classics like “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys and “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins, but Key Largo has long been a destination on my radar. The relaxed, low-key setting featuring swaying palm trees and dreamy blue waters regularly filled my head throughout my childhood. Plus, the island is one of the easiest in the Florida Keys to reach, as its northern location in the chain means it boasts proximity to action-packed Miami.

You could easily fly into Miami International Airport (MIA), take a short 90-minute road trip south and enjoy a long weekend visit on Key Largo. The same can’t be said for Key West, which is roughly 100 miles farther from Miami, making it a much longer haul unless you fly to Key West itself. Those routes often require a connection and cost considerably more, though, making Key Largo the better bet overall.

Like many tropical islands, Key Largo offers its fair share of hotels and resorts. You’ll have plenty of full- and limited-service options to choose from, though two properties are especially popular with points-savvy beachgoers and relaxation-seekers: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, Curio Collection by Hilton and Playa Largo Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection. This duo of beachfront resorts from Hilton and Marriott offers an array of perks ideal for lounging by the water while taking advantage of elite status benefits.

So, when I decided to finally book that bucket list trip to Key Largo, I naturally considered Baker’s Cay and Playa Largo when picking accommodations. However, choosing between the two proved difficult. I couldn’t bring myself to go with one over the other, so I opted to split our stay and sample both properties. Although I enjoyed each resort, there were noticeable differences between them, making each quite distinct.

Here’s a head-to-head look at Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo and Playa Largo Resort & Spa on sunny Key Largo.

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In This Post

 

First impressions and booking basics

Given their locations on idyllic Key Largo, Baker’s Cay and Playa Largo cater to travelers seeking an island escape. While Hilton-affiliated Baker’s Cay has been around decades longer, both properties offer a fresh, modern take on a Florida beach resort.

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Featuring 200 rooms and suites, 13-acre Baker’s Cay originally debuted as the Hilton Key Largo in 1985.

However, it reinvented itself when it reopened in 2018 after a multiyear closure. Now part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, the property pays homage to its history as a pineapple plantation owned by captain Ben Baker through its name and use of pineapples throughout.

As you may expect, the reimagined resort offers a mix of old and new. Numerous areas appear chic and contemporary, while other spaces feature decor and architectural details common in the 1980s. You don’t have to be a renovation expert to quickly gauge how much time, effort and money went into the refurbishment.

During our Memorial Day weekend visit, cash rates were around $1,000 per night, so we used 90,000 Hilton Honors points per night to pay for our junior suite, which cost the same as a standard room. It was a fantastic use of Hilton points, as we netted more than 1 cent in value per point spent, double what I bought them at. Another bonus: Because we paid with points, the $45 nightly resort fee was waived.

Related: How I saved thousands of dollars on hotels by buying points

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Following some development in the 1980s and early 1990s, Key Largo fell into a bit of a new-construction drought until Playa Largo opened its doors in 2016.

Situated on 14 1/2 acres, this sprawling Autograph Collection outpost is home to 177 rooms, suites and bungalows, plus a three-bedroom beach house with a private pool.

While the entire resort overlooks the beach, its centerpiece is the large zero-entry pool, which sits front and center and is a clear hub of activity.

Like Baker’s Cay, cash rates at Playa Largo were high for our travel dates because of the holiday weekend. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see them creep close to $1,000 per night. So, instead of paying around $600 for our one-night stay, we used 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points to cover the cost of our two-queen balcony room. However, we still had to pay the $55 nightly resort fee even though we redeemed points for our room, an annoying downside to award stays at Marriott hotels.

Winner: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo 

The lobby

While it isn’t the end-all-be-all of a vacation, who doesn’t love a nice space to start your stay or relax with a newspaper and a cup of coffee in the morning? A lobby does not make or break a hotel, but it does set the tone for what you can expect during your visit. If done right, it can really wow you with its design and atmosphere.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Odds are high that you will feel like you are in for quite a treat when you walk into the massive lobby at Baker’s Cay. Offering floor-to-high-ceiling windows everywhere you turn, the sleek space features a cool coastal vibe, with modern light fixtures, fresh furniture and even a fun library with a pool table. It’s the perfect place to curl up in when you have some time to kill, especially on days when rain showers make an appearance outside.

Related: Our favorite places to redeem points in the Florida Keys

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Playa Largo Resort’s lobby had a number of highlights, too. The swinging chairs were a hit with the kids, and the pool and ocean views from the balcony couldn’t be beaten. I also loved the complimentary welcome drink I received when we checked in.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad spot to start and end the trip. However, there was a strong, seemingly intentional scent that I wasn’t fond of, and the space felt surprisingly dated despite the hotel being less than 10 years old. In the end, even with the included drink, the lobby here couldn’t live up to the modern, welcoming space found down the road at Baker’s Cay.

Winner: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Rooms

A lobby is a passing fancy, but rooms are key to a memorable stay. This is where new construction often sets itself apart from older properties.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

While being able to book a junior suite at the same award rate as a standard room was undoubtedly a major plus, the property’s accommodations felt older despite being renovated to look nice.

The room wasn’t a bad space by any stretch, but it was very narrow and a bit dark. Not to mention, the pullout couch the kids used left something to be desired. The bathroom was cute but relatively cramped, especially when compared to other options in the area. Perhaps the standard rooms feel a bit brighter and fresher, but the junior suite certainly lacked the fresh feel I look for in a hotel room thanks, in part, to the layout.

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

A much-appreciated contrast to the dated rooms at Baker’s Cay, the rooms at Playa Largo didn’t just look fresh, bright and airy — they felt that way when inside them.

There was plenty of counter space and outlets, as well as a bathroom thoughtfully designed to be just as functional as it was beautiful. I loved the modern decor in white, tan and blue hues, which felt like an updated version of your stereotypical beach hotel. The comfortable beds were a welcome bonus, too.

Winner: Playa Largo Resort & Spa

The beach

Now we’re getting to the good stuff.

Although the Florida Keys are not known for their beaches, as they’re generally small and human-made, they feature beautiful blue water that’s ideal for snorkeling and diving.

While both of these resorts technically have beaches, they’re not quite the same as what you’ll find in the 30A area near Destin and other parts of Florida.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Baker’s Cay has a private beach that was very lively and popular from sunrise to sunset … and beyond.

At first glance, the beach looked fairly traditional, with a gently sloping white-sand shore and mostly calm water. However, there were some welcome surprises, too, including a few nooks with hammocks accessible via a trail that led guests away from the main beach area.

There were ample chaises, though the lack of shade was a bit of a drawback. Unless you get there early and claim one of the few loungers under a tree, you’ll find yourself directly in the sun. Additionally, there was an outdoor tiki bar serving a variety of cool drinks.

Away from the sand, you can take advantage of the resort’s nonmotorized water toys, which the resort fee mostly covers. You can also cast a line off the property’s dock with the loaner fishing equipment.

No matter what your ideal beach day looks like, you’ll want to make sure you come back at sunset, as the view was truly breathtaking.

Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

A useable beach area is also available at Playa Largo, but it may be a bit different than you are used to.

You can’t walk from the sand directly out into the water, as it is supported by a concrete wall. There are some handy stairs that you can use to easily get from dry land to water and back again, but it’s not a zero-entry beach where you and your toddler can sit with your legs at the edge of the water and build sandcastles.

Still, the beach had a standout feature I wasn’t expecting: a fire pit. I really enjoyed that area, especially at sunset when it came alive as a hangout space.

Winner: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Pools

In an oceanfront destination where beaches are not the main draw, such as the Florida Keys, you best believe there are noteworthy pools to offset that potential con.

Fortunately, both Baker’s Cay and Playa Largo offer pools. Unsurprisingly, they’re very different from each other.

Playa Largo pool. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

At Baker’s Cay, there are two waterfall grotto pools, which sit back to back in a far corner of the resort. One is designed with families in mind, while the other is an adults-only sanctuary.

We didn’t spend any time in the pools, but we did pop over to take a peek. There was some discoloring at the bottom of the main pool, giving me the sense that this space was excluded from the more recent round of renovations. Considering rooms cost $1,000 per night here, the pools felt like a major letdown.

Related: 15 of our favorite hotel pools on the planet

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Playa Largo, by contrast, only offered one pool, but it was more in line with what I look for at a pricey beach resort.

While empty early in the morning, it got quite crowded later in the day. There were lots of cabanas you could rent for a fee, as well as a DJ and poolside food and beverage options. It may not be what you’re looking for if you’re seeking peace and quiet, but its size, location and beach views made it our clear favorite.

Winner: Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Restaurants and bars

On vacation, eating out should be part of the fun. Both of these properties offered some standout moments when it came to food and beverages, though one excelled over the other.

Restaurant and bar at Baker’s Cay. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

You have your pick of a few different spots for snacks and meals at Baker’s Cay.

There’s Calusa, the slightly more upscale option where modern American fare with a Creole-Caribbean twist is on the menu. Dishes here highlight locally sourced seafood and produce, making the eatery feel right at home in the Keys.

We pretty much annihilated Calusa’s Skiff seafood platter ($40) with shrimp, oysters, tuna tartare and smoked fish dip, which felt like a decent deal overall. The Tuna Tower ($22) and complimentary bread were good enough, too, but we were more impressed with the Cucumber Cooler cocktail made with gin, lemon juice and ginger ale ($14) and the Key lime pie ($10), which had a crumbly graham cracker crust, white chocolate coconut meringue and guava glaze.

During our stay, we also visited the more casual Dry Rocks establishment. The part-restaurant, part-bar venue had live music and a laid-back vibe that fit perfectly with the open-air setting.

Standouts here were the breakfast pizza served on naan with fried eggs, arugula and salsa ($14), the huevos rancheros ($16) and the fresco tacos ($18).

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Dining options at Playa Largo are also plentiful. In addition to the casual outdoor bar, there’s Las Olas — a ceviche bar we didn’t get a chance to try — plus Mediterranean-inspired La Marea and seafood-focused Sol by the Sea.

We tried La Marea for breakfast and found the standard morning fare to be solid. It was perfectly fine for a buffet breakfast, though it didn’t offer anything particularly noteworthy.

At night, we dined at the open-air Sol by the Sea restaurant for dinner, but our visit started off on the wrong foot. Despite making a reservation for a patio table for four, we were seated on the sand at a table for two, which was not going to work given how many of us were there and my extreme susceptibility to bugs. It took a fair amount of pushback on our part to get moved, but we were ultimately accommodated.

Once we got past the seating debacle, we ordered a few seafood dishes, though they were OK at best. The average taste of the food wasn’t worth the cost, hassle or slow service.

Winner: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Elite status perks

Given the properties’ ties to major hotel chains, they are both decent options for those with elite status. However, despite the close race between the two when comparing the perks they give loyal guests, one ultimately came out on top by offering a more favorable approach to hotel elite status benefits.

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Hilton offers two tangible perks to those with mid-tier Hilton Gold status (which is blessedly very easy to earn).

The first isn’t actually status-related but is connected to the loyalty program, so I’ll include it. By not charging resort fees on award stays, members can save a considerable amount of money simply by using points. In the case of Baker’s Cay, that meant saving $45 per night, which quickly added up for our multinight stay.

Additionally, guests get a food and beverage credit of $36 per day (or $18 per person per day for up to two people) to apply toward any meals and drinks charged to their room. It’s not the free breakfast Hilton Gold and Diamond members used to get in the U.S., so I ended up spending more on food than I used to since breakfast for four cost about $100 per day, but it did help cover a couple of evening cocktails.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Like Baker’s Cay, Playa Largo offers a food and beverage benefit to guests with at least Marriott Platinum Elite status. At this property, that meant complimentary breakfast and two evening cocktails during the resort’s nightly sunset celebration.

Although the breakfast certificates we received technically said we could enjoy the Light Mercata breakfast for two people for free, we were actually given the full breakfast for all four of us without any extra charges, though we may have gotten lucky during our visit. That combined with our free pina coladas at night — which my 12-year-old and I loved (one was a mocktail, of course) — probably saved us about $100 during our one-night stay.

Since the waived resort fees at Hilton properties is not a listed elite benefit, I’ll give the edge to Playa Largo.

Winner: Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Activities and amenities

If you get bored at either resort, you’re probably doing it wrong … unless, of course, that’s your goal. In that case, relax away.

Should you crave a bit more action during your stay, there’s one resort that seemed to have more going on than the other.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Despite spending a lot of our time away from the property boating and snorkeling, we still kept running into all kinds of fun things to do on site, including nighttime outdoor movies (with free full-size candy!), morning fishing with bait, late-night s’mores by the fire pit and daytime races with remote control cars.

It was really adorable seeing how many guests took part in the property’s activities. The availability and participation in these events gave the resort a feeling of cohesiveness and togetherness that was not only charming but timeless.

Related: Best hotels for family summer vacations 

Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Amenities were abundant at Playa Largo, with everything from water activities to multiple indoor play spaces to a spa.

However, even with our limited time at the property, every member of my family that walked through the kids areas immediately wanted to walk out. During our visit, they were unstaffed, a bit dirty and felt a little abandoned and far from welcoming despite their bright colors.

There was a calendar of events available to guests, but given the limited options, we weren’t that disappointed to be missing out on them during our one-night stay. Baker’s Cay had many more things going on than Playa Largo.

Winner: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo

Bottom line

There’s no denying that my family and I had a great time at both resorts, so don’t let any nitpicking dissuade you from booking a stay at either property. If you are going for at least a long weekend, you may even want to try both out like we did so you get two vacations in one.

Baker’s Cay offers a fantastic selection of restaurants, activities and common areas, though its pools and rooms leave a lot to be desired. Conversely, Playa Largo had a phenomenal pool, modern accommodations and a terrific breakfast benefit, but its dining options and beach were a bit underwhelming.

Regardless of which property you choose — if you limit yourself to one — be prepared for sticker shock, especially if you’re expecting a high-end feel when spending close to $1,000 per night. To lessen the blow, consider cashing in points to cover at least some of your stay. That way, all that’s left to worry about is which swimsuits and pairs of flip-flops to pack.

Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.

Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card

Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program.

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  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at a participating hotel. Certain hotels have resort fees.
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