If you enjoy balmy weather, water sports, fishing, and great seafood, with some history thrown in for good measure and want to stay domestic, a trip to the Florida Keys may be just the ticket.
At the Keys’ most southern tip, Key West, with its colorful architecture and historical significance, is only 90-miles from Havana. However, there is far more to the area than just Key West.
As I hadn’t been to the region before, I decided to drive to the Keys after flying into Miami so I could take a few detours along the picturesque 113-mile Overseas Highway with its 42 bridges and its many shades of marine blue.
While Islamorada is known as the world’s sports fishing capital, the only fishing I enjoy is perusing a menu containing it. Fortunately, at The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant, also called Robbie’s, they will not only cook anglers’ catch, but also have plenty of great seafood dishes on the menu. The sesame tuna sliders and blackened mahi salad were both hits, and were served in a funky, comfortable, open-air space overlooking the pier. Here kids feed threadfin herring to massive tarpons while photo-op pelicans amble about hoping for scraps.
A stone’s throw from Robbie’s is Sundance Watersports, so we hopped onto a boat with Captain Will and first mate Christy. Following a safety briefing, we went parasailing in clear blue skies over pristine blue waters which, in addition to being fun, is an excellent way to fully appreciate the geography.
If you are still in the area at happy hour, Marker 88 is well situated for stellar sunsets and has a great vocalist.
Make Time for Marine Turtles in Marathon
Continuing along the Overseas Highway about 45-minutes, brought us to Marathon and The Turtle Hospital, the largest in North America and most toured attraction in the Keys. Started in 1982 by Richie Moretti and Randy Rode, it now has non-profit status. The impressive facilities under the direction of Veterinarian Terry Norton include surgical theaters and rehabilitation pool areas, with the ultimate mission of releasing as many charges as medically possible.
Our guide Melissa Birmingham had encyclopedic knowledge of all things turtle, and amazed us as she was able to recite the names and personalities of the dozens of turtles in the facility’s care.
The Panache of Little Palm Island
After another half hour along Overseas Highway we turned into Little Torch Key and Little Palm Island’s Shore Station. For those seeking some real rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation, amid beautiful surroundings on an island strongly resembling Gilligan’s, only more perfect, the adults-only Little Palm is paradise found.
On arrival to the station, our luggage was removed from the car, and both were immediately whisked away. We were then handed a Gumby’s Slumber rum concoction setting the perfect tone. The gleaming wood boat, appropriately named Truman, brought us to the lush nearly five-acre island in 15-minutes. Boasting 28 varieties of palm trees, now numbering in the hundreds, and situated in an idyllic setting, Little Palm has a plethora of island birds, adorable key deer strongly resembling Bambi, and plenty of underwater life to keep snorkelers happy.
A storied past, here in 1962 Warner Brothers selected Little Palm as the location for the film PT-109 due to the similarity in size and vista of Kasolo in the Solomon Islands, where in 1943, then 26-year-old Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat PT-109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy’s bravery in the Solomons was legendary and Kasolo was later renamed Kennedy Island. Having reported from the Solomons, the geography was similar indeed.
Opened in 1998 as a resort, Little Palm has 30 incredibly private bungalows, decorated in Colonial Tropical chic with orchids and verdant ferns at every turn. A Great Room contains books and the island’s only television. Little Palm has a large state-of-the-art fitness center with Technogym equipment and a Balinese-style spa.
There are complimentary kayaks, paddle boards, Hobie cats, and Whalers for guest use and hammocks seemingly everywhere. Also, a lovely pool where even the cabanas have mini chandeliers.
Our bungalow, called Tricolor Heron, had my last name on wooden blocks at the entrance. The oceanfront outdoor area possessed a massive, hand-hammered copper tub, large day bed, and sitting area that could be completely cordoned off by sailcloth curtains. Just beyond, a fire pit lit nightly by an island leprechaun, two loungers, hammock, and another separate oceanfront seating area.
Inside, the separate living area had a bamboo pitched roof, exotic wood ceiling fans, and crystal chandeliers. Lovely shadow boxes contained island gems and an antique looking telephone and gilded mirror completed the look. The bar had a stocked fridge, Nespresso machine, and dry snacks.
The separate dual-sinked bathroom had gleaming travertine floors, a soaking tub and both indoor and outdoor showers. The bedroom’s tall four-poster bed with high-count sheets had enclosing chiffon curtains making sleep dreamy. It was romantic indeed and frankly the perfect place to create or enlarge a family. This of course was aided by a sign guests can hang outside bearing the message, “Get Lost,” which is the island motto.
Happily, while the internet is strong on little Palm Island, cell phone use in public spaces are verboten. When here midweek for three nights, occupancy was at about 50-percent, but even if 100-percent, it would still feel like a marvelously private oasis.
Breakfasts at Little Palm were love at first bite. The acai bowls and green juices were divine, but it was the crab cake and salmon Eggs Benedict that nearly put me in a blissful food coma. Dinners were likewise delectable with fresh sashimi and oysters, top notch Caesar salads, and a variety of fresh seafood, Kobe steaks, and pork chops.
While it’s difficult to leave Little Palm, I’d heard that South of the Seven Restaurant in nearby Sugarloaf was the only place in the Keys that had soft shell lobster. Chef/owner Paul Kapsalis has an eclectic menu – think Greek islands meets the Keys via Asia – and he prepares outstanding Saganaki, Korean BBQ beef, and mouthwatering softshell lobster in Thai sauce. There’s also a creative cocktail menu, including a Tiramisu martini, that became a delightful desert.
The Little White House in Key West was originally built in 1890 as Navy officers’ quarters, but it was thereafter used by several presidents and other dignitaries and much of the original furnishings and even a limousine remain. Harry Truman used it between 1946 and 1952 as both a vacation home and winter white house where landmark civil rights legislation was drafted and where both the U.S. Dept. of Defense and Air Force resulted from the 1948 Key West Accords. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower recovered from a heart attack here and in 1961 John F. Kennedy had a summit during the Bay of Pigs and returned in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 2001, Colin Powell held negotations here between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Powell then told our guide Bob Wolz, “Had Truman not been president, I would have been a cook.” In 2005 Bill Clinton was the last president that slept here. While Hillary was upstairs getting dressed, Clinton spoke to Wolz for an hour about Truman as he was instrumental in Israel’s creation and Clinton was then trying to get Yassar Arafat to the negotiating table. It’s hard to fathom more history in an 8,700 square foot duplex.
No trip to the Keys would be complete without visiting Ernest Hemingway’s House near the lighthouse and seeing the expansive gardens, and polydactyl cats which still roam the estate, including one that snoozed comfortably in Hemingway’s writing studio.
Heading back to Little Palm, we stopped at Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar in the trendy, dockside Perry Hotel. Amid pleasant marina views we enjoyed Massachusetts oysters and key lime pie.
The Lessons Learned
Everything from start to finish at Little Palm Island was the picture of perfection. From the ease of check-in, the discreet, pleasant, and professional staff, magnificent ultra-private accommodations, excellent food, and delightful leisure activities all resulted in what the French call bien-etre – complete well-being. Adding to that a day in the Upper Keys and another in Key West to stroll down history lane made for a delightfully memorable interlude.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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