Often we tend to build up the excitement in our own minds of a popular vacation destination such as the Florida Keys to the point where our trip seems to somehow fall short of those high expectations. Words such as “paradise” or “heaven-like” get added to the equation and suddenly what you’re visualizing can’t possibly live up to the hype once you actually arrive. Sound familiar? What if I told you such a place really does exist?
Nestled in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean is the nautical paradise, Angler House Marina. The hidden gem is located in Islamorada midway between Miami and Key West, in the heart of the Florida Keys. The recently-revamped Angler House Marina is a perfect example of not only living up to your high expectations, but actually exceeding those daydreams of what paradise should look and feel like.
The Florida Keys itself are a destination unlike any other as this tropical oasis lures visitors from all over. While Islamorada is best known for backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing, it’s probably not the first place you think of for a houseboat vacation. However, Angler House Marina owner Victor Ballestas along with his business partner and manager Ray Kooser are changing what you should expect a houseboat vacation to be.
“Victor had the idea to add houseboats to the marina,” recalls Ray. “He wanted guests to be able to fish here and stay here while enjoying the bar and the lounge, kind of a one-stop shop. It’s been great so far because guides can pick up their clients off the houseboat and then come back and grill up their catch on our patio.”
Finding Destination Yachts
Victor did a lot of research on different types of houseboats and the manufacturers who build them and ended up following up with Sheldon Graber, the owner of Destination Yachts. There was a certain style the marina owner was looking for and he knew this Indiana-based manufacturer could build him what he specifically needed.
Two years passed after purchasing the first houseboat and after immediate success, in August 2017 Victor was ready to invest in two more houseboats from Destination Yachts. Then Hurricane Irma hit and changed his priority list and pushed his plans for his marina behind a little bit. After taking care of other projects created from the wake the hurricane left, he was finally ready to order the houseboats and in September of last year the marina took delivery. Since then all three houseboats have been a popular option for visitors.
“People renting the houseboats come from all walks of life, not just anglers. You don’t have to be a fisherman to enjoy this marina,” says Ray. “We also get couples who want a unique experience that is different from staying at a hotel.”
Unlike most marinas where houseboats are docked side-by-side, each of the three houseboats at Angler House Marina is spread out on each side of the swimming pool with the big sliding doors on the sides opening out to the water for a spectacular view.
“Victor had a lot of input on what he wanted each houseboat to look like and having a clear view of the water was part of it,” says Ray. “Not only is the view great, but again guides can pull up to the side of the houseboat, the customer then boards right into the boat and then they get dropped back off when they’re done. It’s perfect.”
Each houseboat has a total of two bedrooms and two baths, with a pullout sofa bed. [Villa Fina] has two queen beds, ideal for two couples, while [Villa Sabrina] and [Villa Sophia] each has two twin beds, plus a queen bed, which is better for families or for four guys on a fishing trip. A nice added touch for all three houseboats is the local art inside was created by artists from Islamorada.
The marina includes a large outdoor bar and lounge, a grilling station, full grass section off the patio and a charming bridge that leads to the swimming pool. The turn to enter the marina is off the main US-1 highway, but because the area is surrounded by tall trees and it’s a little ways down the private drive it truly feels secluded, which is a unique quality when you consider that most sections of the Keys are not like this. It’s a beautiful paradise today, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I’ve been managing this property for ten years and when I first got here it was just dirt and mud,” recalls Ray. “The seawalls were here but that’s about it. We created a marina for the local fishing guides, but there wasn’t much to it. The hotel group that owned it was looking to sell and that’s when I met Victor for the first time. He passed through one day and said he had been considering buying this property for a long time and he shared with me his plan and I told him we should do it.”
Where Locals Go
Victor’s vision was to convert the area into a fishing village and a members-only local destination. There are currently 200 members plus the guides, but to be a member you have to be a Monroe County resident. However, when you rent one of the houseboats you’re accepted like family and are considered a member while you’re there. This gives out-of-towners a hot spot to visit with the locals while enjoying the resort-like feel. All the amenities are part of your stay at no additional charge and include the bar/lounge access, paddleboards, kayaks, outdoor grill, pool and even member parties at the club.
A Gathering Attraction
Ray estimates the marina hosts around two major events each month, but admits some months are busier than others. Typical gatherings include weddings and rehearsal dinners, but it’s also a great place for business owners to take employees.
“It’s great for work retreats because you can rent the houseboats for two days, we’ll set you up with as many fishing guides as you need for your employees and then you eat fish tacos with meetings or seminars after,” explains Ray. “It really is a great way for employers to connect with their employees.”
Specializing in backcountry experiences, it’s the sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing that helped put this area on the map. In fact, Islamorada, known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” has more International Game Fish Association (IGFA) records set (and broken) in its surrounding waters than any place in the world.
Whether you’re wanting a fun family fishing trip, a scenic tour of the area or a technical fly fishing experience, one of the local guides can help. With a variety of backgrounds including tournament-winning captains, Angler House Marina can pair you up with the right captain.
“We have 36 guides that are not only experienced with fishing but provide eco tours and fun trips to the sand bar, etc.,” says Ray. “There’s no better way to experience the water than with one of our guides who is experienced in what you want to get accomplished.”
On this trip we spent time with Captain Matt Bellinger of Bamboo Charters. Ray recommended him because of his knowledge of the area.
“I’ve lived here since ’89 and like a lot of the locals I came down here for a week and never left,” says Captain Matt. “I was working in the dive industry and ended up buying a dive shop, but I’ve always been a fisherman.”
After earning a degree in marine biology Matt says he could either be a teacher or save the world, but found guiding as well as hosting several local radio shows turned out to be the best fit.
“I truly love this because as your guide I’m going on your vacation,” says Matt. “I get to take you to the backcountry to fish or explore the area and hopefully help make your time in the Keys a little bit more enjoyable.”
With the marine biology background Matt really knows the area well and was able to provide a unique perspective and insight. His fun personality along with his knowledge help make him the ideal fit for anyone looking for an entertaining and enjoyable day on the water.
With the addition of the third houseboat, the popularity of Angler House Marina continues to grow and at this rate it may not remain Islamorada’s best-kept secret much longer. Now is the time to book your next houseboat vacation that will truly exceed your expectations of what a tropical paradise should be.
Angler House Marina
80500 Overseas Hwy
Captain Matt Bellinger