Although it’s an easy drive from the glitz of Miami and the international tourist magnet of Disney World, the strip of beaches and islands that dot the Punta Gorda and Englewood Beach region of Florida’s Gulf Coast feel worlds away. Particularly, Palm Island is a beachy destination that exemplifies the notion of “off the beaten path,” emboldened by a resort that seamlessly fuses luxury with all-natural wonders. Palm Island Resort is the crown jewel of the greater Charlotte Harbor region, accessible only by car ferry and well worth the effort for a memorable experience like no other.
First things first: forget everything you know about Floridian beach resorts. In a state populated with palatial beachfront hotels and chic inns, Palm Island Resort sets itself apart. You won’t find anything stereotypical here; instead, you’ll find everything from cozy villas and ancient shark’s teeth to a mangrove trails and barbecue ribs slathered in “swamp sauce,” all served up with a palpable sense of community and consummate hospitality.
Venture Off the Beaten Path
Accessible only by car ferry, the intimate island proves its singularity from the moment you float with your car over the estuary. From the landing, the resort is about a mile down a tiny road that runs parallel to the Gulf. Once here, you’ll park your car and leave it in the lot for the duration, as no vehicles are permitted in the resort itself. Rather, you can walk, bike or drive a golf cart, pretty much literally checking your expectations at the door.
In every sense, Palm Island Resort is a change of pace from the standard beachfront destination, rewarding visitors with a sense of tranquility, discovery and solitude. Not to mention, you’d be hard-pressed to find any other place in the entire state with continuous miles of private beach like you will here. On any given day, there’s a good chance you can haul out a beach chair and seemingly have the Gulf to yourself.
Live Like a Local
The most striking departure from the resort standards here is in Palm Island’s sense of community. It’s something that’s clearly evident in the inherently relaxed nature of a car-less island environment, but most especially, it’s experienced through the resort’s hospitality and its cozy confines.
Everywhere you turn, friendly staffers are here to wave, smile and treat you like a local. That’s largely because the property consists of island beach villas, bay villas, cottages and private homes, all of which have rentable options in lieu of commonplace hotel rooms. Visitors are left with a sense of home while on vacation; a rare and blissful combination. The fact that properties are individually owned and rented out lends character and distinction, ensuring no two villas, cottages or homes are alike. The beachfront villas are a particularly nice option both for small families and couples, with one-, two- and three-bedroom properties containing homey decor, full kitchens, laundry rooms, screened lanai and abundant space for lounging both indoors and out. Beach access right outside your door is just the cherry on the sundae.
Immerse Yourself in Nature
A far cry from many cities and destinations lining Florida’s East coast and center, Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast is steeped in nature both past and present, and Palm Island Resort gives you a front-row seat to all the action.
All you need to do is set foot outside your villa and you’re sure to encounter anything and everything from various crab species and ospreys to manatees, dolphins and pelicans nose-diving into the ocean for fish. During sea turtle nesting season, you may even be fortunate enough to see these majestic creatures shimmying up the beach at night to lay their eggs. At the very least, you’re likely to see sea turtle nests sectioned off with tape and wire, so as to protect the precious cluster from egg-hungry predators that inhabit the island, like raccoons and foxes.
One unique highlight is the simple fact that Palm Island Resort employs a designated master naturalist, which is certainly not something you see at most hotels, beachfront or otherwise. Kris Vetter is a longtime resident of the island; in fact, she was one of the first to make the move, well before it developed into the thriving mini-community it is today. Over the years, she fostered an affinity for the natural riches of the region and its wildlife, going on to do her part to help protect and preserve via guided nature walks and kayak tours. From sea turtles and manatees to shore birds and mangrove crabs, her tours take you through the colorful ins and outs of the island’s thriving eco-system, and how vital it is to continue its legacy.
Whatever you do, a kayak tour here is essential. Departing along the estuary behind Rum Bay Restaurant, along one of the island’s many docks, excursions provides an up-close-and-personal foray into osprey, dolphin and manatee territory, with stops in shallow inlets to learn about (and touch) shellfish. The highlight of the tour is a trek through a mangrove trail, a narrow and winding path through the shallow waters of these amazing aquatic forests. An important part of the local eco-system, the durable trees provide shelter and nourishment for numerous species.
On the opposite side of the island, there’s a whole world to discover along the grassy beaches of the Gulf. From Don Pedro Island State Park to Stump Pass at the resort’s Northern terminus, a stroll along the beach reveals some of the best seashells in the state. Keep your eyes peeled, because mixed among the shells are fossilized shark’s teeth, some up to billions of years old. Present day sharks like mako, bull and lemon can be found, along with extinct mega-sharks like auriculatus and megalodon, an especially rare breed that pre-dates most dinosaurs.
Modern Amenities and Flavors
Considering the fact that you’re surrounded by mangrove forest, prehistoric shark’s teeth and nesting shore birds, you could be forgiven for envisioning Palm Island as a kind of primitive wilderness. The perks of this place, though, are that you can enjoy the riches of the wild while luxuriating and dining in style.
Not only are the villas and cottages chic and comfy, but the property boasts several swimming pools and hot tubs, playgrounds for kids, basketball courts, fitness center and gas grills near each pool area. There are also bikes, umbrellas and golf carts available to rent. Tennis is especially big here. Not only are there several pristine courts to play on, but the resort employs tennis pro/instructor Art Santos, an alum of the prestigious Peter Burwash International. Indeed, this is the one-of-a-kind type of place that counts a naturalist and a tennis pro among its staff.
Then there are the restaurants. On the island itself, Rum Bay Restaurant is the star. The second-story eatery, decked out with tasteful nautical decor that gives the place the look of a beachside cabin, features an abundant menu of both surf and turf, plus tropical drinks in a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors — get the cranberry-kissed “Shark’s Tooth,” the perfect sipper after a day spent collecting actual shark’s teeth. Whatever you do, don’t miss the barbecue ribs with signature “swamp sauce,” a habit-forming glaze that lends sweetness and smokiness to every succulent bite. The restaurant is accessible for boaters, with a dock winding through mangroves to the estuary, or resort guests can simply walk or ride their cart.
Located on the mainland, a short water taxi ride off the dock behind Rum Bay Restaurant, Leverock’s is the resort’s sister eatery. Nestled in the marina, the waterside restaurant keeps the focus on fish and seafood. In addition to a slew of ever-changing fresh specials, the oceanic spot features the likes of tuna sashimi, crab fondue, mussels diablo, oysters Rockefeller, coconut shrimp and even panko-crusted grouper fingers with tartar sauce, which gives chicken a run for its money.
Speaking of waterside restaurants, an apt way to begin or end your stay at Palm Island Resort is with a meal at Farlow’s on the Water (pictured above). The sprawling, tropically inspired destination is a local favorite for good reason, thanks to its ample seafood selection, unparalleled quality, top-tier service and serene views overlooking the river from the boardwalk dining area. Farlow’s has a penchant for sourcing, updating its menu with a dynamic lineup of fresh catches every day. There’s even a roving cart loaded with whole fresh fish on ice, which can be wheeled to your table for someone to discuss with you, sort of like a fish sommelier. Mangrove snapper, black grouper, golden tile fish, wahoo and triggerfish are just a few examples of what you can expect to find, along with comforting accents like piña coladas, corn pudding and hush puppies with papaya-mango sauce that can rival anything else in the South.
It’s all par for the course in that precious part of Florida, where hospitality, tranquility, nature and luxury co-exist in perfect harmony.
Written by Matt Kirouac
Read more posts by Matt Kirouac