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.