Spencer is not happy to see me when I arrive at the dock at Little Palm Island, just before noon on a Sunday in January. He glares, paces back and forth along the beach, and turns his back as I step from the boat and onto the pier.
"Don't mind him. He thinks he owns the place," advises my host, Chris, who's appeared out of nowhere to take me on a tour of the island. "That grumpy blue heron has been here longer than any of us. He never leaves."
Spencer, as it turns out, is one smart bird.
And he's the only unpleasant thing about my home for the next few days.
Technically, Spencer is the lone true "resident" of Little Palm Resort & Spa — five acres of beautifully developed private island 28 miles east of Key West (If You Go: Key West). The resort is accessible only by boat or seaplane, and has seen its share of celebrities, politicians, and billionaires (my friend and I miss John McCain by a mere three hours), and subsequently, knows how to treat its guests. It's run by staff plucked from all across the globe, and guests quickly learn that such international recruiting results in world-class service. The posh but unpretentious island doesn't advertise, depending solely on word-of-mouth (or visits from travel writers) to attract guests. >>>
While visitors are welcome to catch a boat over for lunch or dinner, the island itself is reserved strictly for guests, though for a fee, those who wish to dock their yacht at the island and stay for a few nights are welcome to do so. A trip to Little Palm will set you back a pretty penny, but once there, you'll understand why people happily pay the bill once the trip is over.
The "mystique" of the island is in fact what draws so many to its shores. The place oozes a vibe of exclusivity, as if you and the other lucky folks who've managed to make their way to this sandy piece of paradise share a secret. But perhaps the resort's most intriguing backstory is that it was built by Memphians.
If You Build It. . .
It was 1984, and Ben Woodson had sold Overton Square, the intersection at Madison and Cooper that he, along with his business partners, turned into the entertainment destination for anyone who was anyone in the '70s and '80s.
At the same time, Woodson's longtime buddy Worthington Brown Jr. found himself worn out by a decade on the relentless floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.
Why not, the friends thought, swap their lives of real estate deals and bond trading for a brave new world — one preferably made of sand? That dream became reality with one trip to the Florida Keys, when the friends found the perfect spot to do, well, nothing.
Woodson, Brown, and three other managing partners bought the island in 1986. At the time, it was known as Little Munson Island, and was home to a modest fishing lodge that in years past, despite the lack of amenities such as electricity, was a favorite destination of President Harry Truman.
Several million dollars and two years later, the resort was ready for its first guests.
Woodson described the island as a place to "veg out," recalls Chris, who's been working here since its days as a fishing camp and lodge. "He was one of those people that everyone just adored. Ben was very much the man behind the vision of Little Palm. He knew firsthand how desperately people need an escape – a real escape – from the stress of the business world," says Chris. "He called it a 'passive destination.' A place where you should do absolutely nothing."
Woodson sold majority ownership of the island to the well-respected Noble House Hotel & Resorts group in 1996. He told a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time that Little Palm was left in good hands. "I've spent over 10 years creating the soul of Little Palm Island and our intention is only to enhance what we have developed."
Woodson died in 1999 at the age of 55, but his original vision for the island is very much alive, says Chris. "He and [his then-wife] Lucy are very much a part of this island's culture and identity, and always will be. They are much loved here."
As woodson envisioned, the island is indeed a "passive" palace.
All business — including registration and meal plan choices, available at various prices — is handled at a reception cottage at Little Torch Key, a 10-minute boat ride away from the resort. Here, guests can sip a cocktail or feed the fish swimming under the pier while waiting to board one of two boats that shuttle them to and from the island. Once you set foot on Little Palm's shore, you don't need a wallet, as all meals and other activity costs are handled after your vacation is over, and tipping is included in all prices, from the dining room to the spa.
Captain Tom greets us and welcomes us aboard the Miss Margaret, a sleek wooden reproduction of the original Grand-Craft boats popular in the 1930s and '40s known as commuters. The Miss Margaret and The Truman, named for the former president and his songbird daughter, alternate shuttling passengers from the island on the half hour from 8 a.m. till 11 p.m.
At full capacity, the resort hosts 60 guests (no one under 16 allowed), with a guest-staff ratio of two-to-one. There are no crowds, lines, or hassles you might find at even the most upscale getaways.
No phones, TVs, or even radios can be found in any of the island's 30 thatched bungalows. Instead, guests will find books, glossy wooden chessboards, and one heck of a view off their private decks. The bungalows have two suites, each one with cozy seating areas and 360-degree views from slat-shaded windows. Each is equipped with a stocked mini-fridge, deep Jacuzzi tubs surrounded by Mexican tile, outdoor showers, a carefully selected mix of antique and island-inspired furnishings, a mosquito-net-draped four-poster bed, and a pre-packed bag with beach essentials, including towels, snacks, bottled water, and a wicker picnic basket with chilled champagne and glasses.
This place thinks of everything.
When you set out to explore, you'll follow a path that follows the island's perimeter, snaking off in various directions toward the center of the island with hand-painted signs directing guests to the pool, dining room, the Zen Garden, the Great Room (home of a lending library, board games, and the island's lone TV, hidden discreetly behind a curtain), the Quarterdeck (an office manned 24 hours a day to help guests with everything from dinner reservations to chartering boats for daytrips), the gift shop, fitness center, and of course, the legendary Spa Terre.
If you listen carefully, you'll hear . . . nothing. Nothing save for Mother Nature's soundtrack of crashing waves, wind rustling though the palms, mangroves, and hibiscus, the buzz of insects, and the squawking calls of seagulls.
Posted on various palm trees around the island are ominous signs warning "Use it, Lose It," aimed at guests who dare bring a cell phone to the peaceful island escape. "Just because someone else brings their office with them doesn't mean you should have to hear it," explains Chris, pointing to yet another sign with three confiscated phones literally nailed to a sign asking, "Can you hear me NOW?"
They're serious about the phone policy — if you must bring a phone, use it in your bungalow or risk it becoming part of the cellular graveyard dotting trees around the island.
Guests can order cocktails and lunch from the poolside bar, enjoy meals at any of the umbrella-covered tables surrounding the amoeba-shaped pool (heated to a perfect 80 degrees on this visit), or head over to the island's row of beach chairs overlooking the water. The island and its surrounding waters are part of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Preserve, so you'll be treated to a parade of egrets, terns, white ibis, and roseate spoonbills cruising the shallow waters searching for their own meal as you enjoy yours. Of course, when Spencer, the possessive blue heron that greeted us shows up, the other birds know it's time to make tracks.
Spend the day lounging on the beach, or if you're up for a little activity, grab a kayak or canoe and circle the island, as we did. You'll battle the current on one side, then gently float back around on the other. The waters surrounding the island are quite shallow, so you can put some distance between yourself and the shore to really take in the view of the island. Snorkeling equipment is also available, as are sailboats and paddleboats.
For more serious waterplay, sign up for a back-country safari into the wildlife refuge for a tour of the area's deserted islands, beaches, and sandbars, departing daily at 2 p.m.
If fishing is your sport, you're in luck. The water here is loaded with fish, especially tarpon, and deep-sea fishing as well as fly-fishing trips are popular choices for anglers.
As the sun dips into the waterline, the island grows dark, lit only by a handful of carefully placed spotlights along the perimeter path, tiki torches, and, if you're as lucky as we were, a full moon.
When the sun goes down, the Key deer come out. These tiny, endangered deer swim over to Little Palm from a nearby key just after sunset to feast on the island's flowers and other vegetation. The deer are so accustomed to humans that they'll walk right up to your bungalow or even to the outdoor tables at the dining room, place their little heads on the edge of the table, and wait to be fed. This, while discouraged, is a charming part of the island culture, and guests can't help but feed the cute creatures when no one's looking. We keep our eyes peeled, but there are no deer wandering anywhere nearby on this night.
We sit out on our bungalow's deck, sipping champagne and pointing out constellations as they move across the night sky until it's time for dinner.
Dinner Is Served
Because the island was designed with privacy in mind, the only place you'll see more than a handful of guests at once is in the dining room.
Dinner is served in the casually elegant restaurant divided into four areas — the indoor dining room, two outdoor sections overlooking the water, and the lounge, where many guests have dessert and after-dinner drinks.
The menu changes nightly, and under the direction of executive chef Luis Pous, artistically blends French and pan-Latin cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh seafood.
Our waiter Mario expertly guides us through the menu and the evening's specials, and is quick with a wine recommendation for each dish. We start with a mahi mahi ceviche, tender and tart thanks to the fresh Key lime juice and a citrus relish. The dining room's signature starter, the seafood tower, is a popular choice among our fellow diners. It arrives on a three-tiered silver platter with generous servings of ceviche, lump crabmeat, king crab legs, tiger shrimp, and Maine lobster, served with both a zesty house-made cocktail sauce and mignonette sauce, a red wine vinegar sauce with shallots.
Mario suggests the Berkshire Pork for dinner, and we are not disappointed. The menu describes the entree as "chicha-marinated pork loin, slow cooked for 24 hours." When we ask what exactly "chicha" is, Mario explains that it's a marinade of fermented corn. We explain to our Polish server that back home, we call chicha by its proper name — moonshine. He laughs, and dubs our appetizer and dinner combo "the Tennessee Surf-and-Turf special."
I love him instantly.
After a leisurely meal — the resort suggests allowing yourself three hours for dinner — we take our dessert and cocktails to the lounge, where a small but lively crowd is gathered around singer-songwriter Brian Roberts, who's taking requests.
Two more cocktails, a last set by Roberts, and it's time to call it a night. We walk through the lounge, stopping briefly to chat with a couple at the fire-pit on the beach before heading back to the bungalow, climbing into the pillowy beds, and sleeping soundly until morning,
The next day, we make our way back to the dining room and feast on a breakfast of fresh fruit, applewood smoked bacon, and crab benedict — jumbo lump crab cakes with cilantro Hollandaise — served with the smoothest, richest coffee I've had anywhere. Sated, I make my way to the Great Room, grab a book from the library, and head to my hammock for a post-breakfast nap.
This is exactly the kind of behavior encouraged here at Little Palm. The island's motto is "Life IS Too Short. Do Nothing." For the next three hours, I happily oblige.
After a nap in the midmorning sun (the island has never seen frost, and even in January, the temperature is in the mid-70s) and a long, solitary walk around the island, it's time for lunch, which we decide to eat beachside. A green salad topped with the catch-of-the-day hits the spot after such a hearty breakfast, and chef Pous has informed us that he's taking us "off menu" that evening, and advises us to be "ready." Not sure what that means exactly, we're nevertheless excited. We finish up, and while my buddy goes to the fitness center, I make my way to the island's Spa Terre for an afternoon of pampering, Little Palm-style.
A Decadent Afternoon
Plenty of hotels and resorts feature spas, or at least similar spa services, but no one does it quite like Little Palm's Spa Terre.
Like everything on the island, the prices are steep, but an after-noon of treatments at this Thai-inspired spa is worth every dime.
Before you go, you can check out the spa menu online (littlepalmisland.com) and decide which treatments sound most tempting. You may schedule appointments in advance by calling the resort, or wait until you arrive and let Guest Services take care of it. I chose to wait, unsure what the weather would be like, and booked my spa afternoon on a rare, cloudy day. (The island gets more days of sunshine than any other in the U.S., with the exceptions of desert cities like Phoenix, so don't worry about rain or cold ruining your trip.)
Some treatments, such as facials, rejuvenating eye treatments, and massages, are done in a quiet, dimly lit space just above the fitness center, but if you really want the full-island experience, you should opt for a treatment in the Rainforest Pavilion, a separate hut in the same style as the bungalows, with a few extras. Since I chose the seaside salt glow treatment, I get to experience the deliciousness of an "outdoor" spa treatment, but in air-conditioned, chandeliered privacy.
The salt glow treatment begins with an intense rubdown with a combination of Dead Sea salts and essential oils, followed by a rinse off under a Vichy-shower. Once the spa therapist is through buffing away that top layer of skin (it's painless, I promise), a pole with six shower heads is pulled over you as you lie on the plush-topped table, and gentle, warm streams of water rinse off the chunky salts. Next, you move to a dry table, and are slathered with body butter. The result? The smoothest, softest skin I've had since I was in Pampers.
Other treatments include Caribbean seaweed body masks, milk and honey body wraps (which Sonia, my spa therapist, assures me is not nearly as sticky as it sounds), even specialty sunburn "rescue wraps," for anyone who lingers too long in the sun. All of these treatments are performed in the Pavilion, last 50 minutes, and will set you back $175.
The spa offers facials, several types of massage, even jet-lag treatments (the island is filled with guests from faraway places), and all the manicure/pedicure/waxing packages you'd expect. The Spa Terre also includes a full-service hair salon, including a makeup stylist and even a self-tanning application pro (no more streaks), which makes heading home with a new outlook — and a new look— a real possibility.
For a truly decadent afternoon, book a spa package, which can last anywhere from three-and-a-half hours (starting at $575) to five hours (starting at $695).
But before you leave the island, you simply must indulge yourself in the spa's Japanese soaking tub, a round, wooden tub tucked away in an outdoor garden. Once full, the water is infused with fragrance and topped with rose petals. It's beyond relaxing.
When my session is over, I wrap my new, shiny-skinned self into one of the spa's cushy robes, slide on a pair of slippers, and make my way back to the bungalow to prepare for dinner. So far, this has been one of the most relaxing days I'd ever had. Little did I know it was just about to get better.
After a quick game of checkers and a shower (outdoors, under the moonlight!), we head off to the dining room for our off-menu extravaganza with chef Pous.
We carefully traverse the island's perimeter path, making only one or two wrong turns along the way (a dramatic decrease from earlier in the week), when we hear a rustling in the darkness ahead. We stop dead in our tracks, and shine the flashlight in the general direction of the sound.
At last, we are no more than four feet from a Key deer, happy to ignore us while devouring hibiscus. Thrilled, we pull out our cameras and begin clicking away, only to be rewarded with shots of a tiny Key deer's bottom. Our little guy, apparently, is camera shy.
Once we make it to the dining room, we're seated at the south end in an open-air space, and the culinary adventure begins.
We're happy to see that our pal Mario is once again our server, along with host Nick, a native Londoner who has opened upscale restaurants across the country, and Maria, a native of Brazil, who helps pace our dish arrivals. Nick informs us that the chef will prepare a whopping 11 courses, each paired with a wine or champagne.
For the next three-and-a-half hours, we're treated to an endless parade of exquisitely prepared, innovative small plates. Gosset champagne paired with octopus, swordfish, and mahi mahi ceviche arrives on a square glass plate, surrounded by ice and with a tiny light buried somewhere under the crushed ice, making the dish glow. (Our illuminated plates get the attention of several other diners, who are clearly jealous at the service we're receiving.)
Next comes stone crab flan with fresh crème and caviar, followed by hamachi sushi with a soy sauce foam, toasted bread and Foie gras, beluga lentils and Kobe short ribs, seared ahi tuna with onion salsa, and finally, venison with a dried fruit compote of apricots, cranberries, and raisins with green pepper foam and potato gratin. With these dishes come glasses of Rusack Chardonnay, Nicholas Potel Pinot Noir Burgundies, Louis Latour Chablis, and Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand. We are the last of the dining crowd this night, and when we're done, Chef Pous comes out to greet us. We not only compliment the chef, we get up and hug him (see the previous list of wines we'd consumed. Yeah, we were friendly). Later, once all official business was behind them, Maria, Mario, and Nick are able to kick back and talk for a bit, telling us about the paths that led them from across the world to this little island. All are thrilled to be here, and none has any intention of leaving anytime soon. Who could blame them?
It was the perfect way to end a perfectly blissful day.
The next morning, we rise with the sun and run down to the beach to squeeze in as many rays as we can before our boat departs for Little Torch at 11. With a quick call to the Quarterdeck, arrangements are made for a driver to meet us at the launch site and take us to the Key West airport.
We climb aboard The Truman, and Captain Tom whisks us back to Little Torch, where we settle up, and pile into the resort's Escalade shuttle for the drive away from paradise, back into reality. M
for more information go to littlepalmisland.com or call 800-3-getlost.