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Palm Paradise


"We need to pick a fight," I whispered to my boyfriend, Ben, needling him in the side. "Let's make it a big one with lots of shouting. And tears. I can't handle all this dreaminess."

It was night one of our three-day trip to the Little Palm Island Resort and Spa in the lower Florida Keys. After polishing off a gourmet beachside dinner, Ben and I, in addition to our companions, Cruisers Yachts' captain Doug Sanders and rep Yanick Dalhouse, were lounging around a seemingly magical fire pit—some voodoo combination of water, kerosene, and pyro-wizardry that made it look like the flames sprang from the liquid. Feeling myself being lulled into a warm, hypnotic state, I began to panic. I refused to succumb as easily as the sated, canoodling couples around us. I was a serious New York journalist on a serious assignment. No matter how confident the resort's staff was about Little Palm's irresistible, relaxing allure, I would not give in to the romance of the island.

Well, that was then. At some point in the two days that followed (was it while being nuzzled by a sweet-faced key deer? Or perhaps halfway through one of the island's signature, rum-based Gumby Slumbers?), I succumbed. By the time we cruised back to mainland Florida some 72 hours later, I was noodle-limp. Blissed-out. A changed woman.

It certainly didn't hurt that our trip was aboard a new Cruisers Yachts 420 Sports Coupe with Volvo Penta IPS drives. A more-than-capable performer, she served as an extremely comfortable and spacious home for our foursome and handled our simple itinerary with aplomb. Starting out in Deerfield Beach, we ran for several hours to Key Largo, where we stopped to tour the exclusive Ocean Reef Club. Then it was only a few hours more to our final destination, Little Palm, just four nautical miles north of Looe Key Light. The ride was smooth and easy, and even before we tied up at the resort's chaise-lined Sunset Dock, my defenses were beginning to erode.

Little Palm is a private, five-acre island 28 miles east of Key West that sits at the entrance to Newfound Harbor. It was first inhabited by a fellow named Newton Munson in the 1920's who planted some 250 Jamaican coconut palms. Munson later sold the island to Florida State Senator John Spottswood, and thereafter Sherrif's Island, as it was known until 1986, regularly played host to President Harry S. Truman and his wife. In 1962 Little Palm served as the location for the film PT-109, which chronicled the events of President John F. Kennedy's command in WWII and starred Cliff Robertson. More than 20 years later, Little Palm opened as a resort. In 1995 it was sold to Patrick Colee and was made a part of the Noble House collection of hotels, the company that runs it today.

Current-day Little Palm is open to guests age 16 and over and, perhaps because of this age limit, seems to primarily attract couples looking for a romantic escape. The island houses a ten-slip marina, 28 one-bedroom bungalows, and two grand suites. Each of these luxurious, thatched-roof huts is named for a local bird, and each is nestled discreetly among Little Palm's, well, palms. Most bungalows have indoor and outdoor showers, private verandahs, chandeliers, and ocean views. Indeed, if I have one regret from my visit, it is that I opted to spend both nights sleeping aboard the 420. I'll admit that mine is a decidedly high-class lament: Our slip at Sunset Dock was private and lovely. And the marina, which can accommodate yachts up to 120 feet LOA, certainly came with some fine features: access to a pristine shower/steam room, complimentary towels and toiletries, and market rates with no surcharges for power or water. But I wouldn't have minded slipping into a king-size canopy bed in the Reddish Egret suite or sipping champagne on the porch of the Tricolor Heron.

One Little Palm standout that I took full advantage of was its restaurant, the Dining Room, which has been honored by Zagat as the best hotel restaurant in Florida and the third-best in the United States. Cuban-born executive chef Luis Pous (who considers culinary giant Daniel Boloud a mentor) oversees a kitchen that is certainly worthy of such accolades. The items on the Dining Room's eclectic French and Pan Latin menu change daily, but it nevertheless always features fresh, local seafood. Pous' dishes are "diverse but not obscure," as he puts it. Our foursome partook of two candlelit dinners on the beach, and I felt downright giddy after polishing off stone crabs, sous vide steak, sophisticated pastries, and expertly matched wines. The preparations were simple but surprising, lending credence to Pous' assertion that a perfect dish can only begin with the perfect ingredients.

I hope you'll forgive me for interrupting my own poetic waxing for a moment to confess that this trip wasn't all about paradisiacal fun in the sun. I had a job to do—a story to nail down—and that meant making sure our photographer, Tom Salyer, got a few shots of the 420 in front of Little Palm. And so in the wee hours of day two, our foursome set off on a mission. Salyer and the wonderfully accommodating concierge, Chris, trailed the 420 in a Boston Whaler, barking orders and snapping shots while I used the IPS drives to hold her in good light. Now, I took ballet classes when I was a young girl, and I tell you that that morning, the 420 was dancing. I was able to maneuver her with total ease and precision, obliging the photographer's every direction. I may have been working, but it sure didn't feel like it.

The remainder of our time on Little Palm was spent seeing what else the island had to offer. The resort staff helped us organize a flats-fishing expedition, and our jovial guide, a chatty French ex-pat, patiently helped me in my pursuit of barracuda. (I came up short but had a blast anyway.) Ben and I took advantage of the free kayaks, signing one out at the beach hut and tooling around in the green waters surrounding the island. The kayaks are part of an arsenal of watertoys, which also includes Boston Whaler center consoles and daysailers. If you're looking for more adventure during your stay, you can also dive or snorkel at nearby Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary or even arrange a tour of the Keys via seaplane, a real treat.

However, if you're more the sort for traditional R & R, you might take solace by the pool and palapa bar, sneak away to the Zen garden, or head off to the Noble House's signature spa, SpaTerre. It offers treatments from the traditional (50-minute manicures) to the more exotic (milk and honey body wraps, volcanic earth clay rituals). When you've finished up your spa time, you can partake of the island's most "famous" activity—nothing. You see, "do nothing" is a sort of motto on Little Palm, emblazoned on T-shirts sold in the island store. The guests I spotted dozing off in palm-shaded hammocks or on the beach seemed all too happy to oblige.

There's a certain bravado shared by the Little Palm staff and much of the island's literature: "It only takes us about half a day to get overworked guests to really unwind," Chris told me. And a Noble House brochure commands, "Be changed." I went into my Little Palm trip a skeptic: No romantic resort is going to get to me, I thought. But as we cruised the 420 Sports Coupe up the Intracoastal Waterway to Deerfield Beach and eventually, to the plane that would take us to New York, I realized that the peace and tranquility of Little Palm had done just that. I felt relaxed, pampered, and even a bit mushy. Though I suspected the sensation might be fleeting, it still felt undeniably good.

The Reef

The Ocean Reef Club sits on 2,000 tropical acres in northern Key Largo, Florida. Members fall into two groups: property owners and those who are social members only. Either way, membership is by invitation only. The Club has 1,700 private homes, condominiums, and estates in addition to two championship golf courses, a nature preserve, fully staffed medical center, and 12 restaurants. If you're cruising down to Little Palm and are interested in stopping by, you must contact the club's membership office first. Non-members may visit Ocean Reef only twice in a five-year period.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.