When a beach isn’t really a beach, and other travel disappointments

Alan Kraft/Shutterstock
Alan Kraft/Shutterstock
To call Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla., a beach might be a little stretch.

The sand is imported from the Bahamas. On a recent windy day when I visited, there were no waves. Mostly, this island’s signature beach doesn’t have the scene you’d expect from a tropical resort, such as a boardwalk with concession stands.

So when a reader on Washington Post Travel section’s online chat recently asked if I could recommend a beach in Key West, I said not really. The natural shoreline in the Keys is dotted with coral rocks and mangroves that are beautiful in their own right. Tourists don’t come to this island for its beaches, and if they did, they’d be disappointed.

The complaints came in almost as soon as my response was published in the paper. Coincidentally, the answer appeared on Labor Day weekend, just as Diana Nyad finished her record swim from Cuba to Key West. And right there, on live television, readers saw Nyad coming ashore at Smathers Beach, which looked real enough on camera.

How could I say that Key West didn’t have beaches?

Well, I’ll say it again: There are no real beaches in Key West, at least not in the traditional sense.

As it happens, the travel industry routinely overstates its product in ways large and small. It’s these little disappointments — the hotel pool that doesn’t exist, the outdoor amenities that were Photoshopped into the promotional images, and yes, the beach that turns out to be less than the wide-angle lens suggested it to be — that diminish your vacation. But they don’t have to.

Ken Barth remembers one chain hotel in Statesville, N.C., that prominently advertised a pool. It was a hot summer day, so the idea of relaxing in the water appealed to him. The hotel did indeed have a pool, but it had been drained and was being repaired — a fact that Barth, an analyst from Monroeville, Pa., didn’t learn until he’d checked into his room.

Barth improvised, using another hotel’s pool while he stayed in town, and he also let the general manager of his hotel know about his disappointment. “The next time I saw the property, it was an independent hotel,” he says.

Christina Conte, a food blogger from Los Angeles, recalls one hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif., which she’d booked because it supposedly had an “awesome” pool. That pool, too, was closed, and the hotel dispatched her to a different property to use its pool — which was anything but awesome. “We were horrified to find that the hotel was like an apartment building with a pool in the outdoor area, and that was it,” she says. “No seating, landscaping, trees, flowers — nothing.”

But that pales in comparison with Bruce Kane’s experience when he checked into a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., several years ago and found that the pool was a “ huge pile of dirt.” A resort employee insisted that a notice of the construction had been posted on the hotel Web site. “But I never saw it,” says Kane, a consultant from Charlotte.

Both Kane and Conte complained and received a voucher for a one-night stay.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) receives occasional guest gripes about amenities promised but not delivered. But spokeswoman Kathryn Potter says that since the group is a trade association, there’s not much it can do except forward the complaints to the hotels and encourage customers to get in touch with organizations such as their local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce. Although AH&LA doesn’t track the number of missing-amenities cases, Potter estimates that the number is relatively small.

“I would be surprised that amenities promised weren’t there, since guest service and customer loyalty are such huge priorities for the industry,” she says.

But it turns out that beaches and pools are a special area of concern when it comes to resort amenities, at least if the infamous “photo fakeouts” on the online travel site Oyster.com are to be believed. These before and after images, which show an allegedly doctored photo next to the real one, document hotel pools and beaches that are definitely not as advertised.

Among the gems: a closely cropped photo of a man holding a surfboard in what appears to be a pool, but is actually a hot tub, at the Aqua Hotel in Miami’s South Beach, and an allegedly empty beach at Gran Bahia Principe Punta Cana, which, when the site’s photographers found it, was crammed with beachgoers and chairs. The Sofitel L.A. even allegedly Photoshopped an entire mall out of the picture of its pool.

The remedy is obvious. Learning about the missing amenity before you make a reservation can save you from a disappointing vacation. Find a source you trust, such as a competent travel agent, a site like Oyster.com or, ahem, a travel journalist who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and take their advice into account when you’re planning your next trip.

Once you’ve checked in, your options are limited. A polite complaint should get you an apology and maybe a voucher for a one-night stay. If the hotel charges a mandatory “resort” fee to cover the use of a pool or an exercise facility — a fundamentally dishonest practice that the Federal Trade Commission frowns upon — you should reasonably expect the charge to be refunded immediately. But don’t expect a full refund on your room.

Or you could just improvise. When I visited Smathers Beach with my family, we enjoyed the half-mile strip of sand for what it was. But just a mile or so down the road, we stumbled upon an observation deck that looked out over a saltwater pond. The tropical hammock teemed with exotic birds and flowers. Beyond it, the vastness of the Straits of Florida unfolded in what seemed like a hundred shades of blue and green.

As good as the beach? No, better.

Is Smathers Beach a real beach?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Alex

    I’ve spent time in the keys, and adore it! I live in Erie, Pa, with 12 miles of beaches on beautiful Lake Erie. There are no real beaches in the keys, but there are many, many other fantastic things to see, and places to visit. But, the beaches are small, crowded and not really for hanging out.

  • shannonfla

    I’m from Fort Lauderdale and spent much time in the Keys, including New Year’s Eve 1999 in Key West. Smathers Beach is definitely not a beach in the true sense. If you can manage to find a good spot to lay a towel, it will probably be windy and the water is iffy in that spot. There are plenty of better water spots along the coasts of the Keys, but none will be big beaches. That’s just the way the Keys are. Plenty of other things to do though!

  • Michael

    It’s more a matter of opinion than what is geologically a beach. I’ve enjoyed a few mornings on Smothers beach knowing full well it isn’t a “real” beach. When it’s February and at home it’s -12 you suddenly find it to be more than real enough. To use your description of Smothers Beach then technically Waikiki Beach isn’t real either, but other than Oahu no longer feeling like Hawaii I still enjoy the time I spend on it and it’s real enough for me in February.

  • Gern Blanston

    Not a super big fan of Key West anyway – many of the hotels are $$$ and skimp on amenities (I’m looking at you, Waldorf “Reach”), because they know you don’t have many other options. Would much rather visit the Bahamas.

  • Charles Haffey
  • Justin

    I try to google hotels before staying. Have I always lucked out? No. The Hotel in Rome was anything but the rave reviews on Tripadvisor. Somehow, the hotel has successfully flagged negative comments to skew the platform. My reviews were removed about 10 times even when done with professionalism and generalities.

    So I guess the word of advice is search several places and never trust one. If staying in large corporate chains there’s hope for recourse. I got credited back ALL my loyalty points + an extra day for the headache. Corporate couldn’t believe the rude response from the hotel.
    Life can work out in the end… Sometimes.

  • Justin

    Hidden Gems of Florida – Ft. Walton Beach / Panama City. White Sandy beaches were impressive.

  • Travel Girl

    Having lived in Key West for 12 years, I can tell you why there are no “real” beaches here. Traditional beach sand is ground up sea shells. Because Key West is protected by the Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, there are no crashing waves or surf that hits the Key West seashore. If you don’t have crashing waves, there is no way for the sea shells to get ground up and without surf, there is no wave action to force the sand onto the shore. (It’s the same reason Key West doesn’t have any sea shells.) The reef is about 4 miles wide and is 170 miles long. Hence the Key West govt and the Monroe County govt spend thousands of dollars to barge in sand from other places so that tourists expecting a beach can have one. Smathers may not be a “real” beach, but it’s ours and we love it.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Just a note, the best beaches don’t always have boardwalks and concession stands. For example, the Delaware beaches, particularly Fenwick Island & Bethany Beach, are far superior to Ocean City, which has those amenities. Also, the beaches on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico are natural beauties, and much nicer than the beaches near San Juan. More than just a boardwalk makes a beach. Speaking as experience from a true beach bum here ;)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. Beaches in the Caribbean tend not to have boardwalks and few if any concession stands.

  • Trudi

    I feel like we’re preaching to the choir. Most of the people on this board know what a beach is and where to find one. I live a mile from Indian Rocks Beach in Florida. It’s a lovely beach with white sand and blue-green water (usually) and even free parking if you know where to look. The beaches of west Florida are glorious! The beaches of east Florida are less soft white sand, and a little more aggressive waves, but they’re beaches. People from the midwest who’ve only seen beaches at local lakes, reservoirs, and maybe the Great Lakes come to Florida expecting soft warm sand, palm trees, miles of walkable beaches. Smather’s Beach is a manufactured waterfront; it’s sand is unstable and must be replenished regularly (at a financial cost as well as a devastating cost to the sea). If you come visit Florida we have beaches galore along our coastline, but Mickey Mouse lives in Orlando, and the Keys are a long, long string of coral islands ending in a small town with a rich history, some cool shops, & a party somewhere all the time. Hotels who advertise beaches in Key West should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Trudi

    Travel Girl has it right. Great response.

  • Trudi

    I really don’t know that I’d like boardwalks and concession stands on beaches. None of the local beaches have them here in the Tampa area, and when I was in Myrtle Beach I hated that part of it.

  • Trudi

    Those are hardly hidden gems. They’re so over-populated with condos that they’re not even all that welcoming. If I lived in the north, though, those would be the easiest access and they are lovely beaches.

  • bodega3

    Our one and only trip to the Jersey shore was enough. Boardwalks we didn’t mind, it was the boats going up and down the water, very close in to the beach, with neon flashing signs advertising everything from food to a bra sale that was so annoying, along with planes flying very low along the water, pulling advertising that got us packing up and leaving.

  • bodega3

    Even with wave action, some beaches are ‘supplemented’. For decades, Waikiki Beach has had sand from Australia brought in and spread out to widen the beach area.

  • Justin

    Went there in 2002…Time always means more development but versus the frigid north, any beach suffices. I liked ft walton / panama city. Hate crowds and don’t remeber overly crowded. Think we found some off the beat and path areas.

  • bodega3

    Best is open to interpretation. For walking on? For sunbathing? For shell collecting? For beauty? For waves? For rocks? For surfing? For playing? For water life spotting?
    I found the beaches in Arcadia National Park, with all the rock, to be absolutely stunning in beauty. The best beach for playing in the waves for me, hands down, is Waikiki. For beachcombing I like Oregon’s beaches. Here on the northern coast of CA, we have great beaches for walking on. Trunk Bay on St John is #1 for me for just being in the water, feeling the sand between my toes. Several beaches on the North Shore of Oahu are great for watching turtles with very few crowds if you get away from the tourist stops. Driving along the Keys in FL with the white sand (brought in or not), with the blues of the water and sky is simply beautiful to view. It all depends on what you want from and to do as what each has to offer.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Perdido Key in extreme NW FL is pretty nice. It’s got some condos, but it also has a state park and miles of national seashore. But stay on the FL side. Once you cross into AL, it’s a continuous wall of condos lining the gulf

  • Cybrsk8r

    And the beaches on the northern FL gulf coast are “replenished” about every five years on average. They dredge sand from off shore and pump it onto the beaches. Trouble is, mother nature tends to return the sand to where it originally came from.

  • Trudi

    It’s still a pretty place, but it isn’t the place it was 10 years ago. First time we went Panama City was just a small beach town, but like most of Florida town planning gives way to corporate tax dollars. Cybrsk8r recommended Perdido Key which still encompasses the more naturally beautiful beaches.

  • Trudi

    You are so right! I love those rocky beaches – for walking and viewing wildlife. The seemingly endless drive through the Florida Keys is water color magic. It does depend on what someone wants to do and their expectations of a ‘beach’. Growing up I thought the ‘beach’ at our local gravel pit swimming hole was outstanding!

  • Raven_Altosk

    Was your Rome hotel the Hotel Due Torre, by chance? I got duped by that place…

  • Justin

    Hotel Bolivar in Rome. Took 2+ hours to find which bus took me the hotel’s location due to language barriers. Once there, I got a B.S. song and dance about how the bathrooms on the third floor didn’t work, among other excuses from the staff. Obvious crap and I called their bluff.

    They didn’t want to give me the “Best Room” booked as I used Loyalty Points. So I told them I’d go walk around for the entire day and come back. More excuses and refused me a room at the hotel all together.

    Walked me over the Hotel Principessa via taxi. A closet with a bed. Second night, I was at another Hotel (Nova Domus) as Bolivar didn’t have 3 consecutive days. 2 Nights @ Hotel Bolivar + 1 at Nova Domus was original Plan. Wish I’d done 3 at Nova Domus. Place was wonderful.

    Long story short, 3rd night back at Hotel Bolivar, I’m again REFUSED 3rd floor room with balcony. No Electricity (wondered up there total B.S.). Stuck into a room with an adjoining bedroom. I heard the guy next door go to the bathroom all night. Worse yet, the keyhole on the door LOOKED INTO my room.

    Choice Hotels gave me all my points back and apologized profusely. Hotels response SHOCKED corporate.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Is Anne’s beach also a fake beach? I remember walking on sand there.

    I’ve previously stayed on Key Colony at Key Colony Club which as been renamed Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel. It has a cozy little beach and was affordable for us.

  • shannonfla

    My fiance and I have a week to use at a house in Indian Rocks on the beach that he won at an auction to support his alma mater. Looking forward to it. Any tips?

  • y_p_w

    White sand in tropical areas is mostly limestone, and there’s plenty of it in Key West – where the keys are mostly limestone left from dead coral. As was noted, there aren’t the crashing waves to pound that limestone into sand Around my area it’s mostly quartz. Black sand beaches are of course volcanic rock.

    When I was in Key West I remember there was a small beach at Fort Zachary Taylor.

  • y_p_w
  • Name

    I got just one word for people BEFORE they book: TripAdvisor. That’s where you find out about the stuff that’s important to you.

  • MarkKelling

    The last thing that comes to mind for me is a boardwalk and concession stands when thinking about what makes a beach great and definitely not what I think about when I am thinking tropical. I relate boardwalks to northeast US beaches which are definitely not tropical.

    For me, if there is sand and it is next to the water, then it is a beach Maybe not a great beach or even just a good beach but still a beach.

  • Trudi

    I hate to take up messageboard space on a private conversation. You can email me at tupi_again@yahoo.com, if you’d like some local information.

  • omgstfualready

    Unrelated – not sure where to put this but I know Chris has been trying to walk his talk and remove ‘free’ but the pop up asking me (urging me, nagging me really) to sign up for the newsletter still has it in there. Just an fyi as it may have been missed in the sweep of ‘freeing’ the site from ‘free’.

  • Joe Farrell

    I bought a 9-day vacation from American because it included first class airfare for two for only $1000 more than coach – and the disclosure on resort fees for the complex said a resort fee of $25. Not $25 a day mind you, but $25. Other hotels fine print specified $25-$50 a DAY –

    When I was there I spoke to the manager about their fee – because there were no amenities we could use. There were two pools – one was closed until Thanksgiving week, there was no pool service at the other one – and the heater was broken, meaning the ocean was 15 degrees warmer than the pool, and their internet did not work on our patio or in our bedroom. He cut the fee in half.

    Upon my return, I called American Vacations and complained- they said they would look into it- they then changed their hotel description to add ‘per day’ and called me back and told me its clearly stated per day. That was very interesting effort at bad company conduct.

    I told the person who called that I had saved the description from before we left and after, in PDF format, in which the metadata cleared revealed the date and no such description was stated. “Can you send that to me?” Sure I can.

    4 days later I got another phone call from someone claimed to be supervisor who told me it was just a ‘mistake’ and I need to ‘understand’ their mistake. I said, no way. Not a chance, you owe me $100. They quickly agreed to a voucher, and I said no. Not acceptable. I paid cash, they pay cash. They said they’d get back to me. They never did.

    I disputed $100 of the charge on my credit card. Matercard investigated the $100, used my PDF to prove their description, end of problem, $100 refunded.

    I get that there are fees, but a) I want something for them and if the service is not provided I do not expect to be charged for it [the hotel tried to tell me that ‘parking’ at a condo resort was part of the fee – until I asked about their zoning and building permit and if required them to have so many parking spaces per unit . . . ] b) if you sell me something – and stand on your contract terms – I’m gonna expect you to live with that contract of adhesion . . . . you wrote it, you screwed it up, its your problem.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “We were horrified to find that the hotel was like an apartment building with a pool in the outdoor area, and that was it,” she says. “No seating, landscaping, trees, flowers — nothing.”


    No doubt some places oversell what they have. But that statement above shows the other half of the problem, which are unrealistic expectations and over-dramatic travelers. “Horrified”? What would happen to this person if she ever encountered anything that was truly horrifying?

  • omgstfualready

    Update: Just got the pop up again and ‘free’ was gone. Nice job!