Palm trees line the Island Bay Resort’s brick paver drive from U.S.1 to the Florida Bay — providing a welcomed respite from the blazing Florida sun as Mike Shipley relaxes (but for a moment) in the shade of his tiki hut. Nearly two decades ago he liquidated his corporate assets and ditched his suit, so he and his wife, Carol, could pursue their dream of owning and operating their own “mom and pop” resort. They purchased the run-down, 10-room hotel in 2000 and immediately set about renovating the cottages, planting trees and creating a waterfront oasis designed for romance and relaxation.
Island Bay is consistently ranked as one of the Top 25 Best Small Hotels and Most Romantic Hotels by Trip Advisor and has received national press reviews. What is your secret? Cleanliness, uniqueness and the level of detail. Each room is themed and each room is different. You just don’t get that at the Hilton or many other small “mom & pop” motels. And … our location, on the water, facing west.
How do the iguanas factor into the experience? God, I hate those things. I am doing my best to control them, but they are really out of control. I do spend a lot of time educating our guests on the fact that they are not good for the location. They are very aggressive. They kill all the vegetation and compromise seawalls and docks. They are like a python in the Everglades.
Your voice sounds like you have been gargling pea rock. What’s going on?
I got a really bad cold in the fall. My ENT doctor said it is not uncommon for someone who had a really bad cold or flu to have vocal chords slightly paralyzed. In my case, one side is totally paralyzed. The other side, which was trying to compensate, grew a cyst and it was recently cut out. Now my speech therapist is trying to teach me how to speak differently.
Does that mean your singing career is over? I am tone deaf as hell and I can’t sing worth a shit. I can hum.
Running this resort is a 24/7 labor of love. When you close for vacation, what do you guys do? We are in the process of hiking and photographing all the national parks. We started about 30 years ago. There are 58 of them and we are almost halfway. We leave in a few weeks for Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks.
Your photography can be viewed from the Island Bay Resort website. Would you consider pursuing another career if this resort thing doesn’t work out? Eventually I do want to do more with my photography. I mostly sell my work through the hotel. I would like to do some shows in the future, but right now my full time focus is the hotel.
You serve as a board member for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. What is a pressing issue facing your district? The Keys were down 20 percent in April. You look at how the different DACs are struggling to find money, to advertise, to get those sales back. When they moved the advertising money to bricks and mortar, we got our guts cut out. You hope the Keys are going to rebound, but there are other states and cities that are trying to get our market and they are doing more advertising.
You survived two waterskiing accidents, one where you bounced through some rocks, nearly breaking your back. Other than that, has your life ever been in danger? We once hiked the Arches National Park in eastern Utah. We will do 8 to 12 miles a day on different trails. There was a danger factor there. Hiking across finbacks, slick rock or sandstone and although it maybe as wide as this deck (10 feet) on one side, it drops 500 feet and 1,000 feet on the other side. So you will either die or break a leg. But it’s fun!
Do you also camp? No. We come back, have a glass of wine and nice dinner, take our Aleve, rub some Ben Gay on and do it again the next day.
What was the last book that you read? “Black Hawk Down” — very well written. Those guys went through much worse than what was depicted in the movie. I like history and non-fiction.
You and Carol are hosting a dinner party. What famous or historical figure would you invite? Abraham Lincoln. His courage and strength in office and his ability to see the future and stick to his vision is inspiring.
You are the resort’s maintenance man and also serve as the concierge. What are some of the best-kept secrets of the Upper Keys that you encourage your guests to experience? It’s funny, but people just don’t understand the Everglades. We recommend a backcountry charter that goes into the saltwater environment. It’s amazing what you can see out there.